United Kingdom

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

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Lorna McCarthy

Lorna McCarthy is the owner and lead designer behind McCarthy & Co, a boutique design practice, focused on creating interiors that are authentic and emotive. Based in London, Lorna's speciality is applying an intuitive approach to each project. Studying History of Art has given Lorna a different approach to interior design, allowing an innate and in depth understanding of style, space, composition and colour which she applies to the creative direction of every project.

Although the past eight months haven't been the smoothest transition to being the fabulous, independent business woman that she expected, there's no doubt that her freelance experience so far has made her a better designer.

Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom

Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance interior designer.

I became a freelance interior designer, not by mistake but certainly not planned. Although I had always aspired to go out on my own, it ended up happening a lot sooner and with a lot less preparation than I ever would have anticipated.
In school I studied history of art, after which I did a very short internship at a prestigious design studio. While I didn't actually learn anything while with them, it did allow me to include the name on my CV, following which I was lucky enough to be taken in by a small company. I am so thankful for this experience and my mentors there, as it enabled me to gain an understanding of design from the inside out - including, most importantly, the nitty gritty of how to manage clients, how to invoice effectively, what you need on an install (baby wipes and floristry scissors!); the every day stuff. Here I honed my skills in all aspects of interior design over the course of four years, going from the administrative side to eventually leading and managing my own projects.
I have never had formal training [in interior design] and learned entirely in the job. In the beginning I saw this as a draw back, but now I can appreciate that this without a doubt cemented my approach and application of interior design, and has given me such a thorough and pragmatic education, without which I wouldn't have had the capabilities or confidence to freelance. It's enabled me to develop an organic approach and way of doing things. On top of this I credit studying history of art as having developed my understanding of style, space, composition and colour, something which I apply to every project and is at the very heart of me as a designer.
After a while though I became quite jaded about the industry and as a result had actually walked away from interior design. But, I only ended up having a three month hiatus! My first freelance project was for an existing client who asked me to work for her independently, and I haven't looked back since!
As I had experience of running my own projects and have always been very independent [as a designer] going freelance felt like a natural progression, and for me I know that I'm at my best working independently. The freedom of being able to work in your own way, choose who you're working with and ultimately having control over the design process is very important to me, and I wouldn't want to design any other way.
Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom

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

Well, as I have only been established since the start of this year, I would say I'm still very much in the 'beginning' stages! But for me it has absolutely been establishing genuine relationships with clients, who then wanted to work with me independently. This, and word of mouth. In the beginning I thought it was all about your website, how you approach advertising yourself and 'who you know', but really, for me, it's come down to positive experience and word of mouth. Design is so personal so it's important that you and the client are a good fit; I wouldn't take on a project if I felt I wasn't suited to the client or the job. Forming authentic, personal relationships with both clients and suppliers is something that I want to continue as I grow; both of which are a huge source of inspiration for me.  

Do you have any tips for being your most productive?

If you start to procrastinate, ask yourself why! For me procrastination is such a dangerous habit, as it can have the potential completely de-rail a project as they tend to run to very tight deadlines. When I find myself procrastinating, at the root of it is usually feeling overwhelmed, or a lack of confidence to make a call or decision. If I'm honest about why I'm feeling the urge to procrastinate then I find I can overcome the hurdle that's driving my procrastination and get my productivity back on track.
Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom

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

My greatest struggle as a freelancer so far has to have been going through an unexpected identity crisis when I first started out, and after a good few months of 'what the f- am I doing?!', learning that it's okay to do things differently. Age was definitely a sticking point [I'm 25, which is young for this industry!]. In the beginning, although I didn't realise it, I had an idea in mind of how as an interior designer with my own company I should be approaching new clients and new projects. But in reality this was how I felt I should be approaching things, not taking into account my own personality, strengths and weaknesses. I was overlooking the very reason I wanted to become freelance - to do things differently and to offer an alternative to the run of the mill experience of interior design. Because my ethos rests largely on creating authentic relationships with both clients and suppliers, it follows suit that I am not the strongest networker. So following the path of what someone else is doing, even if it might be working well for them, is not going to be authentic to me or effective. I had to get comfortable with who I am and how I want to establish myself as a designer - for instance, outlining certain values like paying suppliers a fair price and not compromising on this. It's only been since accepting that it's okay to do things a little differently and in my own way that I've been able to find my feet as a freelancer, produce my best work and be able to stand firm behind myself as a designer. 
Another thing was the financial aspect. After a few months [of establishing my company] I started working in a local cafe alongside my interior design work, which although isn't always easy [managing both] it gives me the financial stability I need while I'm still finding my feet and establishing a client base. I think pride can rear it's ugly head when you're a freelancer; wanting to say yes, I'm doing amazingly well, to put out a facade of being fantastically busy. But the reality for a lot of people is that it can be a struggle in the beginning. This is something that I felt was important to touch on, because looking back I had an unrealistic idea when I first started out about how smoothly one project would flow into the next. I've learnt that it doesn't make you any less valid as a designer, or freelancer of any kind, to have a 'side job'; but rather, in my case, was simply a way to make it work.
Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom
Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom

What is your favorite thing about freelance?

For me as a creative, it's without a doubt the freedom and control to do things your own way, and not to have to compromise on this. Something that is hugely important to me is supporting small businesses and craftspeople, and working for a company where someone else ultimately makes the decisions I wasn't able to do this. It's been so rewarding to choose each and every supplier I work with, to pay a fair price and to know that I am supporting someone's livelihood, not just imports from China. 
From a creative perspective, I need to be accountable and responsible for all design choices which again, in interior design isn't possible if you're working under someone else. Because I'm a total control freak (only in design might I add, nothing else!) I love that I'm able to have complete control over every decision. For me, it makes the whole design process from start to finish so much more enjoyable and rewarding, and ultimately better. I love to completely immerse myself in a project and find I'm able to do this working for myself in a way that I was never able to before. Being able to make the choice about who you're working for and what you're working on more than outweighs any of the negative aspects to freelancing I've experienced so far!

If you could design for anyone, who would it be?

To be honest I am incredibly lucky with the clients I have, but as I'm soon to be relocating to Falmouth [in Cornwall, UK] in spirit of that a dream project for me at the moment would be a Cornish boutique hotel or cafe! 

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

The work/life balance is something I try my best to create boundaries around. While design is a huge part of me, my entire identity isn't 'interior designer' and so I try to make sure I leave time for nurturing relationships and other interests outside of design. As I'm a bit of a magpie the sourcing side of me never switches off, but when it comes to everything else I do try to set boundaries and adhere to them. Although the odd late night is at times necessary, I try on the whole to keep my evenings after dinner work free as best I can. This keeps me sane and happy, both things I value!
Lorna McCarthy | Freelance Wisdom

What do you do to stay creatively inspired?

Always be on the look out for inspiration, whether it be a natural landscape, new supplier or rooting through a secondhand shop. I'm constantly open to being inspired, and I find living in that way enables me to draw on inspiration organically when it comes to putting together a design concept.

Freelance work can be isolating. Do you have any tips or tricks for combating these lonely feelings?

Isolation is something that I definitely struggled with, particularly in the beginning. As I had just moved to London when I first started my company, McCarthy & Co, I found it hard not being a part of a community. I think isolation can be a problem for freelancers, particularly if you're going through a challenging time. For me, it did gradually get better as I found my groove and became more confident and focused. As I am frequently liaising with suppliers and clients that usually helps to dispel any feelings of loneliness, but if isolation does start to creep in then I'll make the time to arrange to meet a friend mid week for a coffee and a catch up.

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

Passion, belief and determination. Not knowing when you're going to get in the next project isn't easy, so it's imperative that you have determination and believe in yourself and your abilities. To me as a designer, belief is something which is absolutely crucial. If I don't believe in myself, my ideas and my work, then how can I expect a client to? I’m Christian, so belief is integral to me, and this applies to my work as well. And passion speaks for itself!

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