Freelance Illustrator – Harriet Russell



Harriet is a London-based freelance illustrator. Her books, illustrations and ideas have been published in England, Italy and Germany.


We met at the ISIA Urbino during my time as an Erasmus student.

Brewing Time:

120 min


A sweet and relaxed conversation accompanied by delicious ginger cookies and some very welcoming English tea.

Number of Questions:

> 12


It was a very welcoming atmosphere, I found Harriet a very welcoming host. Also: I did make it on time!


Sitting room at home in Sussex Gardens.

Feedback on the IDea of CuriosiTea:

“The idea of having a tea-break is very nice, because you often don’t have that anymore. You just get a cup of tea and take it to your desk. It’s not a set thing and people are so busy, especially in a city like London that they often don’t have time just to have a break and exchange of ideas with colleagues. It is also good to meet people face to face, since so much of what I do is through e-mail these days – I rarely even meet clients face to face!”


I now am able to understand better, what it means to work as an illustrator, with all its responsibilities. For me personally I would feel too isolated working by myself. I think for the future, illustration will stay with me as a tool in projects with a wider range of tasks, but I wouldn’t become a happy person, solely relying on my illustration skills to support myself with. All the more I appreciate the beautiful work of Harriet and other true-born illustrators.


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Harriet, How would you describe your job?

I’m an illustrator and I usually visualize other people’s concepts. For a commercial job, for example, if it’s a book cover or an editorial illustration I have to come up with a concept, that’s related to the article to create an image to go with it. Sometimes I’m given directions and other times I’m asked to come up with my own thing.

I also do my own books, with my own ideas, e.g. one of them is called 60 impossible things before lunch, which is basically a collection of ideas and questions, like “Flying pigs”, “How long is a piece of string” and “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ (culturally bound questions) – It’s going to be published in Germany in a few months, and it’s been published in Italy and England.


Did you have to re-write the lettering?

Yes, I was given the translation and I had to change parts of it, because some of the ideas didn’t translate into German. For example, “flying pigs” as for saying something is really unlikely to happen, is a saying they don’t have in Germany. So, a few illustrations I had to actually redo, and change flying pigs into flying words…

How did you enter your career?

I studied visual communication, specialising in illustration,  first at Glasgow School of Art, and then at Central Saint Martins in London. After my studies I started to look for work by contacting people in the industry, sending out samples and showing my portfolio. It took quite a long time to build up regular work. I was taken on by my Agency, Central Illustration Agency quite quickly, which helped, but it still took a while to get my work and name out there.

How do you usually spend your day?

It depends on what projects I have at the time, so for example today I’m doing a project for the “COOP”, an Italian supermarket cooperative. I’m working with the publishing house Corraini, who I did a project with last year, so this is a follow-up. It’s a poster, that has to do with sustainability. Showing all kinds of different ways, of how to lead your life in a sustainable way, like cycling, using renewable energies, growing your own vegetables, etc. So, for this I’m trying to find ways of drawing that and waiting to hear back from the coop for feedback, if there are any changes.

How do you communicate with them, via email?

Yes, I usually email with them. Most of the communication is through Corraini though, which will pass it on to the Coop and they will give their feedback. On other jobs I also work directly with the client, which is probably easier in a way. It takes less time. Sometimes it’s easier to just make a phone call, too.

How much time do you spend working with paper vs. the computer?

Well, for this poster I’m drawing everything by hand, so it’s difficult to say. At the stage, where I’m in right now, it’s mostly computer, because most of the drawing is done and scanned in. I tend to draw lots of different bits separately, because the poster is quite big and there is a lot of detail involved. The coloring is done in Photoshop. I probably spend more time on the computer finishing things off and cleaning files up. Preparing them for print, seems to to take a lot of time. The last book I was doing, it seemed to take ages and ages, if there was a smudge or a speck, or the coloring was not properly done yet.

So is all the coloring done in Photoshop?

Not all of it. I do sometimes use painted textures, papers or draw a pattern that I then scan in. Screen printing I do as well, although not as much as I used to. Yet it’s nice, because it’s more hands-on and your finished product is a print, rather than a computer file.

Where do you get to screen print?

There is a studio called London Print Studio up in Harrow Road, not far from here. It’s an open access studio, that you have to join first. You get an introduction, that allows you to book time to use the equipment. Then you can just go in and hire screens and buy paint, paper, and all your materials from them. But I only go there so often, it’s not very regular.

— *short break for Tea-pouring-sounds and cookie-discussions* —

What is your work environment like?

I work partly from home and partly from a studio. It’s a shared studio, which is actually quite big, with all sorts of designers and creatives working there too, graphic designers, film makers, architects, fashion and textiles and so on. There are not many illustrators any more, though. The studio where I was before, there was a group of maybe six, seven illustrators, but people gradually moved on or started to do other things.

So are you part of any illustrator network or collective to collaborate on projects? // Is there a rather collaborative or competitive spirit in the illustration scene?

At the studio where I was before, we started a collective called Gumbo illustration. Originally there were 13 people, so it was quite big. We did exhibitions together and we had a website. We helped each other by sharing contacts and things like that, but it’s gradually gotten smaller, because people have moved away or have joined other groups. We just organized to come together every so and so often, one a group was in Bristol, and one in London. Now we’re down to five people, and we haven’t really done much recently. We did a book called “Blue Suede Shoes” and an exhibition  in 2011 and we do have a blog.


What do you think is the advantage of being part of a collective?

Being able to work on something together, bounce ideas off each other for a publication or an exhibition, which is probably easier to take on, because you can share the cost of the space and the printing.

How was the audience response to the exhibition or the collective?

Good. We had two exhibitions of all of those prints blown up quite big in 2011, one in North London and one in Central London.

Did you sell many pints there?

A few. We sold more books than prints.

What is your main way of earning money?

It’s probably commissions and some royalties from book sales.

How much do you get from book sales as an illustrator?

Well, it depends on the publisher, but with Corraini it is 6%, which is not huge.

So if one book is between 12€ or 18€, that’s. . .  . . . Who can earn money that way?

I don’t know. There is a bit coming from here and there, from sales of prints and books, and commissions. Depending on the fair as well, you can sell books there very well. Fairs are also nice to get some good feedback and see people’s reactions to your work.

How much do you earn on average?

It varies widely depending on how much work I get. I’ve had some years where I’ve earned a decent amount and others where I’ve really scraped by…

And the cost of living is high in London. . . Yet for an illustrator that is very good, right?

Well, but not in recent years. It’s definitely been harder these past few years.

Why do you think that is?

Because of the recession. People are not commissioning as much work. There’s not so much work around, when newspapers are cutting the amount of illustrations they use. So it’s quite hard. And maybe there is lots of other illustrators out there, people are graduating all the time.

You get your work through your agency, right?

Well, I haven’t recently, but yes, I do have an agent.

Which is common in England anyways, right?

Yes, I guess. Is it not in Germany?

I don’t think so.

Well, they have been quite good, and I have received a lot of jobs through them, but in recent times, they haven’t very much. When you get a commission they usually take 30%.

That brings me to the following question: What motivates you?

I just enjoy doing it and I always have enjoyed doing it, as from when I was a child, writing stories and drawing pictures to go along side. It’s certainly not money, because you don’t get paid very much. The ideas are a big part of it for me, too. I’ll have an idea and I get a paper to try and visualize it the best way I can. Then I hope, other people will enjoy my work, too.

I’m sure they do. I think that people are seeing the joy, you are having when looking at your illustrations – that’s contagious.

I think you have to really enjoy doing it, yes.

So, what skills and experiences are important for your work as an illustrator?

– To be able to draw, I would say, but some illustrators actually will do it all with a screen, yet for me drawing definitely is a big part of it. My style is drawing.

–  Ideas are also very important – a good idea is usually the starting point for me.

– Sense of color,

– Sense of design,

– Typography to some extend, not necessarily, but for me. I use hand-drawn type.

– Being able to promote yourself , for example, I got a blog, a website and a facebook-page.

How much time do you spend promoting your work?

It’s difficult to say. When I’m intensely working on something, I’m probably not promoting myself as I’m so busy on my job. So when I have a quieter time, I work on my promotion. You probably should be promoting yourself while you’re busy, so you can get your next job, but I don’t seem to be good at doing that.

What do you like about your work?

// LIKE //

I like, that I can do my own thing. That I don’t have set hours. I don’t have a certain place, where I have to be every day, I don’t have a boss, who’s pressuring me with clients. I don’t have anyone standing behind my shoulders, so I am quite free. I’m lucky that I have got the publisher Corraini, who gives me a lot of freedom to come up with my own ideas. I enjoy the challenge of a brief though as well, too. Working along guidelines and trying to find the best way to do it, to visualize the concepts and the design. I enjoy having the balance between commissions and realizing my own ideas.


I don’t like the unreliability of it. You never really know, when and where the next job is coming from. That’s probably the worst thing. There have also been several times recently where jobs have fallen through – which is very frustrating – you think you have the job, you might even start working on it, and then the client cancels at the last minute.

Is there a lot of stress involved in your work?

It’s usually fairly relaxed although sometimes if deadlines are tight or if I have too much work it can be stressful. On the flip side if I don’t have enough work, that can also be stressful!

How do you estimate what you charge?

With commissions often you’re told how much you get. So when you have a book cover, usually the publisher has a set fee – it’s usually between 800–900 pounds, sometimes it can be more. If it’s a well-known or best-selling author, it can be more, or it could be less, if it’s a not so well-known publisher. Then other jobs, they’ll ask for a quote. I base that around the amount of illustration, size, whether they’re black and white or color. Also the usage; if it’s a book cover or an advert, which is up on billboards or something like that, then it’s a lot higher price, than a little editorial illustration. The print run as well, on a higher print run, you can charge more.

Sometimes, I ask: What’s your budget? And then we work out from there. There’s also the pricing section on the website of the Association of Illustrators, where you can check in the different sections and they will give you some good advice. Unfortunately I think it is only open to members of the AOI.

What would you recommend to somebody starting their career as an illustrator?

Definitely get your work online. Do research to see where your work might fit in; whether it’s children’s books, editorial or book covers and try to approach some of the relevant clients. It’s hard, but just kind of keep sending your work out, like cards, which will make you stand out more, maybe not emails, they’ll get lost in the pile of others.

How do you cope with creative lows?

I usually find just getting away from your work for a bit will help. Go for a walk or go to see an exhibition. Try to get inspired again. Sometimes when you are away from your work an idea or a solution will present itself. Talking to other people can also help – have a tea-break!

What do you think is the most common misconception about illustrators?

Sometimes, when I say I’m an illustrator, people go: “So do you do cartoons?” – I think they’re not really sure, what I do, so then I explain I do book covers, books and work for design agencies and a whole range of things. Or they think it’s just doing children’s books. They probably don’t realize how wide the application of illustration could be. It’s something I should probably explore myself as well, people have said, I should get into textile design using some of my illustrations to make nice products.

What do you think how the work of illustrators will develop in the future? How would you wish it to be?

Obviously a lot of it is more online and digital now than it used to be, but I don’t think books or print will die completely. Particularly children’s books. For kids I think it’s important to have the actual physical object to touch. Probably the digital take over will carry on, but I hope that there’s still going to be some call for physical, printed objects. It’s hard to say really, but I think people can still keep making their images, it’s just the format in which they’re shown is going to change. I can also imagine that real prints will gain in value, as there are less people, who will be capable of creating them.


 — THANK YOU for sharing your tea, time and insights!

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