Ellie draws - How to turn your hobby into your business
In Conversation with the London illustrator Ellie Smith
When I first saw Ellie Smiths’ drawings on Instagram, it made me want to pick up a pen to draw something myself – her work is such an art appetizer! About two years ago, Ellie set up her side hustle business as an illustrator taking commissions on house portraits and other drawings. She also sells her prints online and on markets. Her style is quite exceptional – mostly fine liner, slightly wonky lines, and angles, mainly featuring objects, nature, houses, pubs, football stadiums, …. For this Blog-Interview, I met Ellie in “The Bow Bells” pub in East London. She shows me her sketchbooks and I cannot believe they really are sketchbooks as they are so neat and beautiful and without a single crease or gone wrong drawing. She assures me though that this is how she sketches.
You started sharing and offering your work on Instagram right after the first Lockdown – was the free time the reason to start?
Actually, I had already handed in my notice at my old job as an art teacher end of February 2020 before we knew anything about the pandemic. Part of that was to do more drawing. And then the pandemic hit, and I used the time wisely and drew and drew and drew – I can`t believe it`s only 2 years since I`ve really been pushing it. Since I`ve got my new job, I just carried on and made sure I dedicate enough time.
Interesting! I sometimes hear from professional creatives that they kind of slipped into their career by chance. However, you seemed to have deliberately worked and pushed towards where you are now as an artist, and you have purposefully taken all these steps - including leaving your old job - for this to become a reality …
Yes! Hardly I look back, and I don`t regret having had a job that was as stressful as it was, but I feel like I couldn`t have gone much longer and I couldn`t have not done my artwork. I thought about what it would be like if I got to the end of my life, and I looked back and I didn`t do anything with my art. And I love my work and people tell me that they love it, too. So, it would have been such a waste and I just had to do it.
This is great - you really trusted your art then? Were you not afraid of the risk involved in quitting a safe employment?
Well, I think I was just really keen to get out of my job. And I knew that there is the opportunity to do supply teaching if needed to get by. But I really wanted to see what happens. It does feel a bit crazy now.
In hindsight what would you advice yourself?
I`m glad I did it and at the time I felt like I don`t have much choice – like when you`re just so on the edge of something that you have to just jump. You don`t do that if you feel secure because it would feel like so much to give up. I still think I`ve ended up in the safe option though after all because I took a full-time job again.
How is that going then?
I didn`t want to go full time again, but this school I`m now working for, looked for someone to come in full-time. This new job allows me much more time than my old one though, and I can juggle my time much better.
Do you hope that at some point you can give up having a day job completely and just do your art?
I don`t know. I think I did hope that, and maybe one day I will be part-time. But it`s not a plan right now.
One of the downsides of turning your hobby into your profession is that it can start to feel more like an obligation at times, and not just something you enjoy doing...
That can be a juggling act. I want to draw and sketch more new things, but then my graphic design head goes on – I`ve worked as a graphic designer doing greeting cards before – and thinks: What`s actually a commercial-looking print? What`s gonna sell? That`s why it`s really great to do house portraits. Because I love drawing houses and architecture and the commissions are often gorgeous Victorian cottages and I get to draw afresh – I get to do what I love AND do something new. Also, I love drawing moments – like this lifestyle scene of the mayonnaise and the chips on this table…or recently I`ve seen a scene of all the washing up stuck by the sink on the last page of a cookbook – such an evocative scene, just one of these moments… – and I think that`s what I want to draw more.
How did you find your drawing style?
My tutor at uni sent me off to the countryside around Leeds to draw so that I would find my signature style. I went to draw sheep and leaves and stuff, and he said: “Right, that`s it – whatever it felt like to draw that, is what you need to feel when you draw.”
In one of your very early Instagram posts right after the start of the lockdown, you write something like “I`ve done terribly at drawing ….” – only that your drawings didn`t look terrible at all. Is that a sign of the infamous imposter syndrome?
What I might have meant is that I`ve beaten myself up over not having been drawing enough because my old job just took over my life and I`ve gotten out of practice. I have always loved my own work and I always enjoyed doing it. But I think I`ve not always believed that it could go anywhere – and it is such a privilege that people want my work. That has definitely grown my confidence because there is enough evidence that people like my work.
Lovely! Do you currently have any challenges at all?
The things that get me down now and then, are how much work it is to post on Instagram or to do the artworks. I do markets and if they don`t go well, that`s my Saturday, my day off, taken up not selling stuff. There are slow months and that`s sometimes frustrating. If I was full-time, I would have more time for sharing and promoting. But then I remind myself that I chose this balance for me to have a salary that`s secure.
Your prices for your prints are very affordable – I mean you can sell art for 10 pounds, but also for 1000 pounds or more…
If you charge a really high price it`s great if you sell one piece of artwork. But I enjoy selling. I enjoy the feeling. So, I don`t want to put my prices up high. My commissioned work does cost more though because I feel this is taking me quite a bit of time and it takes quite some expertise – so I`m happy with the price of that.
How long roughly does it take you to do one house portrait?
I`m not exactly sure in hours as I do it in bits after work, but I can turn around a house portrait in a two-week period and that includes taking it to the printer and getting it back. But that`s given that it`s not too complicated and that I`ve got no other commissioned work.
What`s your work process?
Ideally, the house owners send me a photo of their house. My pens vary in thickness and I`ve got two that are my favourites. What I use has come from experimenting and also observing how other people work and then trying it myself to see if it`s my kind of thing or not. I scan or photograph the drawing and in Photoshop I separate the black line on a white background. If it`s going to have colour each one has a layer so that I can edit or delete them separately. It can become a bit complex at times.
Do you draw every day?
It`s not a daily discipline but I do draw a couple of times a week at least. And I try to get in the habit of having a sketchbook in my bag for when I`m sitting in a pub or waiting for someone.
What were your most important learning experiences as a professional artist?
If you`ve got a product that you want to launch on a certain date, then you build up to it. But don`t build up meaning “sell, sell, sell”, but instead tell stories about your life, about your work process – people love this kind of back story. And then when you come to selling, they trust you. I`m the same: I love following artists because I love to see what they`re up to and then when I want something, I think `Oh they`re good I`ll buy from them! ` Also: trying to stick to one thing at a time. Right now, I have a sale and I was going to post something else on my Instagram, but I thought: `No, stick to one theme, make people follow that link to my page, and don`t bamboozle them with too much.’
You can find Ellies work on her online shop at www.elliesmithillustration.square.site. Here you can also find her house portrait offer, and her latest bespoke map illustrations.
Prints are also available on Etsy at www.elliedraws.etsy.com
Infos about her upcoming markets are on www.pedddle.com/stalls/ellie-smith-illustration.
Her Instagram Account is @elliedraws