Gemma Koomen

Gemma Koomen is a freelance illustrator and artist based in beautiful, wild Northumberland, UK. Inspired by nature, nostalgia and simplicity, Gemma’s work begins by hand with gouache, ink and the occasional colour pencil, and is driven by the desire to capture little moments of calm and joy, recreating the familiar and domestic into elements of magical possibility. 

Gemma Koomen | Freelance Wisdom

Tell us about your path to becoming a freelance illustrator. 

I was an accidental freelancer for a lot of my career working with clients as a photographer and on web design/branding projects. I loved drawing as a child but lost confidence during my teenage years. When I decided to study fine art photography, I found it easy to support myself during my degree and afterwards with freelance photography work. I went on to do a Masters in photography but after a few months in I felt it wasn’t right for me. Luckily, I was allowed to switch to the illustration department. I made an illustrated website for my final project, which was quite unique at the time. I wasn't yet sure of my illustrator's voice but I was confident in design and branding. I started getting a lot of friends asking me to make their websites and do their graphic design. I went from job to job through word of mouth recommendations.
After having my two daughters, I rekindled my love of illustration. We did lots of drawing and we read lots of wonderful picture books together. I felt inspired as I reconnected with that forgotten child part of myself that loved to draw characters and bring worlds to life on the page. I felt a longing to build a professional career in illustration. I soon realised that I would need to actively work on finding my unique authentic voice and seriously up my skill level in drawing. I started drawing every day, experimented with painting, and took a few different creative classes which really helped. I took the plunge to share my process on Instagram. As my following grew there, I gained more confidence in what I was doing. I realised that people were willing to pay me for my work too. From that point on, I started phasing out my web design, branding and photography work. That was a bit scary at first. Yet as I said no to those opportunities I was really saying yes to my illustration work. It allowed me to be more intentional about the work I wanted to make. The opportunities really have flowed from there.
Gemma Koomen | Freelance Wisdom

In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?

I started to get more confident putting my work online. Initially, I submitted work to the Guardian website. I started using hashtags more consciously on Instagram. I also used Pinterest and Tumblr. Clients reached out by email or direct message. Instagram is my most effective portfolio and a lot of clients find me there. This is why I always want my feed to show my strongest work.

What is one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out?

Commitment is one of the most important qualities for success. I have learned that sticking with it for as long as possible, following my intuition and curiosity, always pushing myself to learn new skills and techniques to create the best work I can will eventually pay off. If I had known this when I graduated over ten years ago, I would have got a lot further sooner!
Gemma Koomen | Freelance Wisdom

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

I work most productively when I get into a really good state of mind. I have little rituals that help me feel happy. For me this can look like making a delicious coffee, clearing up yesterday’s mess on my desk, doing a meditation then writing in my journal. I find when I get into a critical state things slow down, I become indecisive and make errors. When I engage my subconscious, often through connecting to my child self and drawing the things she likes, I enjoy my work more and things flow better with less resistance. 
Fresh air, daylight and movement help me to come back to my work with more energy. Ideally, I like to make sure I get outside every hour or so. It’s tempting to work late as an illustrator with lots of deadlines and young children but I can’t vouch enough for getting enough sleep. I notice I am so much more productive when I am rested. I also like to switch my workplace or have a change of scene when things feel like they are getting stuck or slow. Sometimes one hour of focused work in a coffee shop is more fruitful than a day in my studio if I'm overwhelmed, tired, or feeling rebellious about my routine!
Gemma Koomen | Freelance Wisdom

How has being a mom changed how you work and/or the types of projects you take on?

I felt committed to working around the needs of the children. My children both love drawing time at the table and it was easy and fun to do that kind of work with them.
I have had to be more realistic with my time and carefully choose what projects I take on. My husband and I have always shared childcare and work freelance from home so it’s been a balancing act. In the early days we learned to keep our overheads low so we could be more selective with what projects we worked on. Now that the girls are at school it’s nice to have a bit more freedom and time to work.
When my oldest daughter was young, I was anxious about pleasing clients. I felt frustrated about having to stop work to meet her needs if she was upset. In hindsight I regretted that. So with my second daughter I started with the mentality that the children are welcome to come into my studio. Now they tend to come in, watch me work, then get bored and leave again! Both my girls are in full-time school now so I've been transitioning into that. Over the winter my five year old picked up many viruses and colds. That meant that I had to keep taking time off work. Luckily, I decided only to focus on one major project. I didn't take on any extra commissions and I closed my online shop so I had more time to be present at home and to care for her. I'm not sure I would have built so much flexibility into my career had I not built it around my children.
Gemma Koomen | Freelance Wisdom

Has to be a mother influenced your illustrative style?

Picture books became a big part of my life. I think this influenced my work a lot. I became fascinated with why certain books were magical and uplifting and appealed to us all. I started to look at the styles of illustration I liked the most and began experimenting with different techniques that would bring me closer to the quality I loved.

What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?

The greatest struggle for me is managing aspects of the business like accounting, pricing, and handling large wholesale orders. Recently, I’ve been helped in these areas by my husband. This has been a huge relief. It can feel really overwhelming trying to do every business task myself and I am slowly learning about how important it is to delegate.
Gemma Koomen | Freelance Wisdom
Gemma Koomen | Freelance Wisdom

You now have your own online shop, congrats. We have many illustrators in our audience who are interested in opening their own shops but are concerned about balancing the running of the shop with their freelance client work load and with the drive to create new work. Do you have any advice based on your current experience?

Thank you!  I find the shop is a great outlet for my drive to create new work. I love making new card designs and prints for the shop based on my new work. It's exciting to test out new ideas and products. I enjoy having a direct relationship with the customer too, it’s really encouraging and affirming.
It can be tricky getting a good balance between managing the shop and working on my commissions. For example, I had big spikes of interest and sales coinciding with deadline commissions. I felt the strain a lot last year. I was fortunate that my husband is freelance too and was able to make the time to help run the shop before Christmas this year. That saved me from burn out and enabled me to focus on my commissions.
I remind myself that my family and the commissions I choose to take on come first. If I need to close my shop for a while, that’s okay.
I've found it beneficial in quieter periods to be able to spend a bit of time on the shop’s infrastructure by creating and managing good systems for dealing with stock and processing orders. That really pays off at busier times of the year.

Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details? 

Numbers are not my strength. I'm lucky that my husband is happy to help me with this. We used Invoicely for free all last year and we found that good for invoicing. It gives you an overview of how much you are earning and keeps track of invoices that still need to be paid. As the business is growing so much, we are about to move our bookkeeping, inventory management and invoicing system into Xero. I’m excited to keep all of the essentials in one place and hope it will save us time.
Gemma Koomen | Freelance Wisdom

Since you are your own boss and mother of two, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?

I'm still learning. Sometimes I feel like I'm doing really well at work and not so great at family life or vice versa. On the weekends and during the holidays, things tend to slip for me as I concentrate on the family. This winter, after a very intensely busy time at work leading up to Christmas, I decided to make rest a priority. So I stopped working so much in the evenings which feels great. Within my work I do find it challenging balancing the growing admin/management side of the business with the creative work. I try and commit to drawing, writing and painting every day, which is energising for me. I benefit so much from a daily creative routine even if it’s as small as writing five things that I appreciated from the day before, a little sketch, and a tiny bit of a painting. I remind myself that my real value for my audience is in creating more art. So I try to prioritise that.

How do you whet your creative appetite?

I love finding vintage books in my local second-hand shops, collecting beautiful picture books by my favourite illustrators, and spending time on Pinterest finding images that speak to me. I also enjoy learning new techniques. I get really motivated when I have a new art supply to try out, it’s fun to try out new materials. All these things help spark a desire in me to create art work. My biggest way of building my creative appetite is by simply drawing every day. I become so much more attuned to working in my own visual language that the ideas flow more naturally.
Gemma Koomen | Freelance Wisdom
Gemma Koomen | Freelance Wisdom

The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:

Commitment (because it’s a long game, most illustrators will tell you it takes at least three years to start getting consistent paid work, which has largely been true for me),
openness to new ideas/learning/feedback etc  (this I believe is the fastest way to grow),
courage (because it can feel so scary to put yourself and your work out into the world, which is necessary to have a thriving creative career).
Gemma Koomen | Freelance Wisdom

Get Social with Gemma

W E B S I T E  |  I N S T A G R A M  |  P I N T E R E S T

 

Jillian Marsala

We are excited to introduce you to Creative Lady Directory member Jill Mars, an illustrating, graphic-designing, photo-taking, hand-lettering, doodle-making, rollerblading, board-gaming, problem-solving, 90's-nostalgia-ing kid at heart from Chicago!

We love her vibrant and playful designs and deeply appreciate the thoughtful wisdom she shares in this interview. You may want to pull out a notebook for this one, enjoy!

Jillian Marsala | Freelance Wisdom

Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance graphic designer and illustrator.

The place is Manhattan, NY. The year is 2001 and the Twin Towers are still standing strong. I snap some photos on my disposable camera of skyscrapers, McDonald’s Golden Arches, and a cobranded Absolut Vodka/IKEA, three-dimensional billboard from the top of a double decker bus. The billboard shows a life-sized studio apartment in the shape of the Absolut Bottle that is filled with furniture. I am a 9-year-old tourist who is completely captivated and infatuated with what I see. 
You could say that I took that double decker bus all the way to art school and never looked back after that. Upon graduation I started working right away at a design agency downtown and from there on worked in-house at the Museum of Science and Industry, dabbled in the startup/tech world, made quite a few mistakes along the way and learned a lot about myself! Out of a need to be independent, and a desire to do work that makes me happy and fulfilled as possible, I took a leap of faith into the wondrous and wishy-washy world of freelance! 
Jillian Marsala | Freelance Wisdom

In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?

Word of mouth, self-promotion and networking are three of the most organic and authentic ways I was able to attract my first good clients. As a freelancer, you are more than just a designer. You are your own publicist, marketing team, accountant, and face of your brand. Creating awareness around who you are and the services you offer are key. There is no shame in savvy, strategic, self-promotion. There are tasteful ways to showcase your work and your personality which may result in a new contact or project. Be open to meeting new people and learning from them. You never know where it will lead.

How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?

Everyoneʼs definition of an “ideal client” runs the gamut. My ideal client sees the value in what I do, trusts in my capabilities, and recognizes the benefits and impact thoughtful design can have on one's business. I realize that not every client will fit this exact description but at the end of the day I try to pursue the ones that do.
Being flexible, honest, and genuine also goes a long way in attracting ideal clients. Help them help you. If they are not sure what they need or what you can do for them, extend an invitation to jump on a call or meet up to go over how you can best work together and benefit one another. A little goes a long way and speaks to the type of professional you are.
I also try to showcase the work that I love or aspire to do with self-initiated passion projects and put them out into the world. Do the same and the work and (hopefully) the clients you want will follow as a result!
Jillian Marsala | Freelance Wisdom
Jillian Marsala | Freelance Wisdom

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

Make a deal with yourself. If you successfully work X amount of hours (without checking social media, treat yourself to a walk outside, a coffee, or a bath (I donʼt have a nice tub, but you might!), then get back to it! Set a timer. Create to-do lists and check off each item as you finish them! Itʼs really satisfying.
Another thing that works wonders when youʼre feeling stuck or unproductive is to switch up what youʼre working on. Jumping between different projects not only helps your mind reset but gets new ideas flowing.
Last but not least, phone a friend. Sometimes connecting to someone helps you feel inspired and ready to tackle even the least glamorous of work.
Jillian Marsala | Freelance Wisdom

What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?

Self-doubt and self-comparison. Both of these go hand in hand and I am working diligently on not letting either. happen. ever. With social media itʼs so easy to compare yourself to others even when the person you might be comparing yourself to has been in the game ten years longer than you have. The quote “Self-comparison is the thief of joy” holds true—So letʼs quit comparing and keep creating for ourselves!

What is one thing you wish you knew when you were just starting out?

Itʼs ok to ask for help. Whether it be from a fellow freelancer, a friend, or a family member. Secondly, itʼs ok to fail. It doesnʼt mean youʼre not good enough. It just means youʼre learning as you go and will be better because of it. We are all like perfectly sound musical instruments that need a bit of fine tuning before we can perform to our full creative capabilities.
Jillian Marsala | Freelance Wisdom
Jillian Marsala | Freelance Wisdom

Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details? 

*Answer still loading* Ask me again in another 6 months. IN ALL seriousness it really comes down to how organized you are and want to be. What works for one person doesnʼt always work for someone else. If numbers and spreadsheets give you anxiety and cold sweats then get that accountant girl!

How do you whet your creative appetite?

Bookstores. Running. Coffee shops paired with people watching. Laughing (a lot), non-creative activities and things that allow me to turn my brain off, AKA the occasional trash TV show. All of these things when done right lead to killer personal projects and solid freelance flow. They also help me get out of my own head! Who would have thought?!
Jillian Marsala | Freelance Wisdom

Do you have any advice for maintaining work-life balance?

HECK YES! Separate your designated “work space” from your “living space”. But Jill, I live in ( studio—Been there. Even if you can create an office of sorts with a divider wall or makeshift curtain (StuDIY) where you can “clock in and out”, creating that distinction will make all the difference in the world. There will always be more to do. The sooner you make peace with that the sooner you will get the work-life balance youʼve always desired.

Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?

Music: Alabama Shakes. Always Alabama Shakes, Chance the Rapper (Chicago represent!) Bahamas, Big Thief, Frank Ocean, Shakey Graves, Bob Dylan, Vance Joy, The Beatles, Elvis Presley... the list goes on.
Podcast: Creative Pep Talk and Women of Illustration
Book Recommendations: I LOVE books! When Iʼm not reading them, I am usually looking at their cover designs. I prefer Audible for commuting reasons and am currently listening to Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson. Childrenʼs books are near and dear to my heart—I have quite the collection going!
Jillian Marsala | Freelance Wisdom

The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:

passion, patience, persistence
supercali, fragilistic, expialidocious
thrifty, clever, flexible
Jillian Marsala | Freelance Wisdom

Get Social with Jill

W E B S I T E  |  I N S T A G R A M  |  T W I T T E R  |  F A C E B O O K

Ryn Frank

Illustrator Ryn Frank is best known for her hand drawn fine line illustration. She has worked with clients from around the world such as Anthropologie, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Waitrose, River Cottage, Lonely Planet, Penguin publishing and many others.

When she is not in her studio creating designs she can be found out walking with her dog, sketch book in hand taking inspiration from the country side and coast where she lives. 

Ryn Frank | Freelance Wisdom

Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance designer and illustrator.

It seemed to evolve quite naturally, as a child I would spend hours creating sketches and doodling in the garden. It was my way of getting lost very quickly into a different and somewhat magical world and I loved that. At school, fine art was my passion, I loved creating something beautiful from what was once a blank canvas. I decided after A-levels to take a foundation course which gave me the opportunity to try different mediums and areas of art like fashion and photography. I loved the illustration course on the foundation year and found drawing very free and un-complicated. This sparked me to do a three year course at Falmouth University in Illustration. During the course I feel in love with embracing Cornwall - the coastline, countryside and getting lost in different projects. This really inspired me and was about the time when my style clicked into place. Whilst at University John Lewis asked me to design my first collection with them and from there I knew being a freelancer and setting up my own business is what I wanted to do. I've always wanted to do something different where I could be creative and have freedom in my work. My partner and I now run a creative design studio together which focuses on branding and illustration for a wide range of companies.
Ryn Frank | Freelance Wisdom

In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?

When I left University it felt like a small fish in a big world which felt very daunting after being in a little bubble at University. I was lucky to have a couple of commissions trickle in such as Penguin and John Lewis which gave me confidence to start creating a portfolio and reaching out to other companies which inspired me. Pinterest was a big game changer for me, I worked hard and created a following of over 300K which lead to a lot of connections and also attracted good clients.

What is one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out?

Understanding contracts, licensing, and what to charge. All these things were the hardest things to tackle as I just wanted to focus on being creative. I learnt very quickly that having a good contract, being paid correctly for your time and the correct license were key to being a freelance illustrator. My advice would be to do your research, understand pricing contracts and how to license your work properly. I wish I had stumbled across AOI earlier than I did, they are fantastic and help you with contracts, fees, and when to say no.
Ryn Frank | Freelance Wisdom
Ryn Frank | Freelance Wisdom

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

It sounds simple but having a routine helps me to be the most productive. I'm an early bird and like taking time to have a coffee and to let my brain start wakening naturally. I then go out running first thing into the countryside with my dog which completely focuses me and clears my head. I can then get back to the studio feeling refreshed for 9am ready to focus. I'm a big believer in the Swedish philosophy of 'lagom' which means 'just the right amount' and find that balancing my day with focusing on one task at a time and taking breaks helps my productivity also.

What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?

Being able to switch off from work and tear myself away from my sketchbook or mac. I find it very hard to balance work and life, if I'm not careful I find myself getting lost in projects until 10pm and end up feeling exhausted and having burn out. I have to be very strict with turning off my mac and scheduling days to take a break and to spend time with family and friends. Letting myself slow down and potter around outside with a tea is something I'm building into my daily routine and not working past 6-7pm. I'm also a perfectionist and learning to let go, live in the moment and let my work be how it is has also been something I've learnt to roll with. It's often when I don't try hard that my best work emerges.
Ryn Frank | Freelance Wisdom
Ryn Frank | Freelance Wisdom

Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details? Additionally, is there anything you've learned that you'd be willing to share about working with international clients?

Organisation is key, having once a week to get on top of the paperwork is integral to having a smooth running business. I'm very old fashioned and each morning over a cup of coffee write my 'to do' list in my notebook which I tick off throughout the day along with answering emails. I hire an accountant to do all the booking keeping which allows me to focus on clients. I've loved working with international clients but making sure you have a concrete contract which outlines the license and agreement is key to working with all clients.

Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?

This is something I'm still working with along with learning to slow down and take time out. Having your own routine which works for you is key to being freelance and knowing when to stop. I now plan my week and know when I'm having days off where I don't look at my mac and days when I'm in the studio where I can give work my full attention. I also have a studio which separates work from personal life, when I'm in the studio it's the place I can just focus on work.
Ryn Frank | Freelance Wisdom
Ryn Frank | Freelance Wisdom

How do you what your creative appetite?

Taking time away from the studio and experiencing new places. I like to plan breaks away somewhere new every couple of months or so even if it's a small break to give my mind some breathing space and enjoy different surroundings. Traveling and taking time out to do the things I love is integral to being creative. It's when I'm in the natural elements that I feel most creative and can come back to the studio feeling revived and fueled. Living by the ocean always stirs up my creativity.

Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?

I would love to write and illustrate a book, I have tons of ideas and hope that I will have time sometime soon to focus on it! I'm also looking at starting a homeware range in the coming months which is something I've always wanted to do and very excited about. It feels like a new adventure!
Ryn Frank | Freelance Wisdom

The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:

Patience, Passion and Persistence. 

Get Social with Ryn

W E B S I T E  |  I N S T A G R A M  |  P I N T E R E S T