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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).