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What my creative process looks like and getting an agent as a freelance illustrator

Ben Kirchner freelance illustrator working at a computer

Ben Kirchner is a freelance illustrator who lives in Bath. He regularly works for clients like The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The Economist. He tells us about his creative process and his career journey, from jet-pack penguins to receiving vibrators in the mail. Ben Kirchner is represented by Heart Agency. See more of his work at benkirchner.co.uk and on Instagram @ben_kirchner.

My earliest memory of drawing is…

I was probably about six years old. I was in class and I had to draw a dragon. I remember it really mattered to me that I got the legs right — that I drew realistic-looking legs on this dragon rather than just a dragon with flat human knees.

I first started thinking about illustrating as a career…

When I went to a Pop Art exhibition at the Royal Academy in London as a teenager. That was a real eye-opener. I found the representation of celebrities very exciting and after that I started painting portraits of glamorous famous people like James Dean and Zsa Zsa Gabor, first in acrylic and then I moved on to oil paints. I realised I really enjoyed doing people’s faces and likenesses and started considering illustration as a career.

I studied…

Graphic Design at Bath Spa University. By the second year I was starting to specialise in illustration. Hardcore graphics left me a bit cold because I liked drawing so much. It was the late 1990s so what was interesting was that you were just starting to see digital illustration in magazines like The Face. It felt so new and fresh and my tutor suggested that I take my pen and ink drawings onto a computer. It just clicked for me. I was at ease working digitally.

A cartoon style image of footballers Messi and Ronaldo

My first paid work came…

When I was at university, I ended up generating a batch of digital portraits of all the staff members. One of the course moderators was Darrel Rees who runs Heart Agency and he really liked the portraits because they were done digitally and it was something new. He told me to come and see him when I graduated to join the agency which I did. I started getting my first commissions and things went from there and I’ve been with them ever since. It was a very lucky right place, right time incident.

The harder you try, the luckier you get, right?…

Well, yes, I do remember working really hard. In my first year of uni there was a lot of partying like everybody does but I do remember by the third year I really knuckled down. And then I was asked to do about 20 of these staff portraits by the course director. So I suddenly had so much to do and I was working through the night. I remember my friends saying, you look really grey, you’ve got no colour, we never see you! So yeah, I did work hard!

Having an agent has been great for me…

I have a really good relationship with them. They take my portfolio out and promote me. Heart Agency is well-respected so I get kudos by association but having an agent is not always the right fit for everybody.

Take us on your career journey…

I do a lot of realistic portrait work with flat colours and then the other thing I do is more stylised scenes with characters which are much less realistic. My first proper commission was creating a crazy little scene about food and drink in Helsinki for Harper’s magazine and that led on to a great job for a branding company in London who wanted me to do a fully illustrated book of busy scenes of about 20 brands like Virgin and Pret. So I was thrown in at the deep end. From that I started getting more editorial work with magazines and some advertising projects.

With the portrait work, I’ve always been asked to do a lot of celebrities and politicians. The breakthrough for me was a job for Eight by Eight, a heavily illustrated football magazine in the U.S. that went on to win an SPD Award for its design. This got my drawings quite a bit of exposure. From that, I got to do the Washington Post 2016 election coverage with illustrations of all the candidates on the front page, and I’ve just done a Joe Biden piece for The New Yorker. What I’ve found consistently is that if you do a good job on a big project it will lead to other opportunities.

The most exciting job was…

The Washington Post was huge and was also exciting from an exposure perspective because it was front page. The fun jobs are great too. A few years ago I did the Christmas window scene for Ted Baker with a penguin with a jet-pack. They then built the penguin into a six-foot model based on my drawing. It was nice to take the kids to see the display.

The weirdest job I’ve done was…

For Women’s Health magazine in the U.S. They wanted me to draw the top five vibrators and decided that I needed to draw these things from life. I think it must’ve just cracked them up, the idea of me receiving all these vibrators in the post.

My typical creative process looks like…

After the project has been agreed with me and my agent, I’ll talk directly to the client, and they’ll send me a brief. For magazine work, I’ll usually get the article and I’ll read through it and highlight the most interesting parts and anything visual. From there, I’ll create thumbnail or napkin-type sketches to swiftly communicate an idea or a composition to the client because you don’t want to get too detailed too quickly in case you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. So I’ll share those and get the go-ahead and then either produce a more refined sketch or just go straight to artwork.

I draw from a mixture of memory and reference materials. I normally work in Adobe Illustrator on desktop for nice flat vectors and colours, but I’ll take it into Photoshop if I need to add more brushstroke and paintery type effects.

The best feeling is…

When an illustration sucks you in. You become a part of the scene you’re drawing. You’re completely absorbed, and you surprise yourself by doing something unexpected. It’s quite a weird experience but lovely.

The worst thing about it is…

The quiet periods. I think it’s about learning to accept that it’s part of freelance life and using the time to do your admin or take a break.

I’ve always worked from home…

We had our loft converted a few years ago so now I have a nice big room with all my books in it. It’s full of light with a large window that looks out over the fields.

For inspiration…

The single best thing I’ve done that’s helped my work at any point is to do exercise. I’m not a crazy Sport Billy but I try to run and cycle and think it has something to do with the oxygen. It helps me to think clearly. My work is always better if I’m exercising regularly. It stops me feeling sluggish. I’ve found that if I’m tired, it comes through in the illustration, so you have to feel energised to infuse that energy into your work.

This article was originally published in Freelancer Magazine Issue 1 in April 2020. Get Freelancer Magazine delivered to your door or inbox.

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