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Creating a career

Tuesday 26th November 2013

Though Kelly Thompson managed to turn art into a successful business, she remains a romantic at heart.

Though the Rotorua-born, Melbourne-based illustrator can demand top dollar for her work, she’s been known to accept less than her standard rate to “help out sweet boyfriends”, wanting private commissions to give to their girlfriends.

“But only if I’m not flat-out.”

Kelly Thompson: “I’m not entitled to success. Being an illustrator is a luxury and I need to work for it”

Jessica Sim

That Thompson, 30, is ever “flat-out” is testament to how well she’s managed to bridge the gap between struggling artist to successfully self-employed, with Penguin Books, Nike, Covergirl, Nintendo, Mimco, Westpac and Telecom New Zealand ranking among her clients.

After graduating with an honours degree in design from Massey University in Wellington, Thompson quit her job to pursue her first love, photography, full-time. Work was irregular, and she was “pretty poor” – too poor to go out on the weekends, so she started to draw in her spare time.

Her flatmate, seeing her piece Lola, told her that people would pay money for her work, but Thompson had her doubts. On the opening night of her first show, held at the clothing store Good As Gold, where she used to work as a retail assistant, she sold 30 limited edition prints.

While Thompson has never accepted commercial work for no money at all, early on in her career, the pay was often so poor that, when offset against the workload, the job would work out to be “basically free”.

“If I knew then what I know now about charging, everything would be more expensive – although back then, I didn’t have much of a reputation built up. I wouldn’t have been able to ask for what I can now.”

She first learned the real value of her work when she signed with an agent, after she relocated to Melbourne. (She is currently represented in Australasia by the Jacky Winter Group.) Now her fees take into account the time it takes to do the work, according to a standard per-day rate, as well as its intended usage: a design for a billboard, to be on display for a full year, would cost much more than if it were for a business card, for example.

On top of commercial work, Thompson has set up several streams of revenue that together enable her to be self-sufficient, including sales of prints and merchandise, private commissions, and teaching and speaking engagements. She released her first book, a collaboration with photographer Derek Henderson and model Zippora Seven, in June, and plans to launch her own small line combining illustrative elements with textiles next year.

Her blog, on which she shares behind-the-scenes looks at artistic works in progress, outfit posts and her travel plans, has also started to generate revenue through advertising. “I’m interested in how people have responded to it,” she says. “People seem so interested as soon as you have a blog – it’s strange.”

As business-like her approach to her work is, Thompson knows she’s lucky to be able to make a living from her craft. “I think a lot of artists get a little ‘woe is me’ when it doesn’t fall in the lap, and expect the government or society to support them … [but] I’ve never thought that this is something I deserve. I’m not entitled to success. Being an illustrator is a luxury and I need to work for it.”

I do sometimes step back and think about all of the projects of my own that I want to do, and how I could be doing them instead … Sometimes a day off seems so much more golden.

She gets asked to work for free on a weekly basis – “which can be a little tricky,” she says. “I usually find that the cheaper the job, the more work it can be, and for some reason people who want things for cheap seem to have the most demands and are the least grateful.

“I do sometimes step back and think about all of the projects of my own that I want to do, and how I could be doing them instead … Sometimes a day off seems so much more golden.”

As well as to help out those “sweet boyfriends”, Thompson will occasionally agree to work for less than her standard rates when the commission will add to her portfolio, build her profile, or benefit a cause she believes in. “Previously, I would do free work for any magazine that asked, but now I only do it if they’re particularly good or regularly give me press and support – it’s a two-way street. … I try to help charities out around five times a year, if the timing works, and friends always get sweet deals.”

But part of protecting her work is knowing its worth, she says. “People need to understand and value the time that is put into the work, and also the value that your work brings to their brand. It’s important you explain to them how long things take and charge appropriately.”

Thompson is critical of artists who accept commercial work at discounted rates just to secure the job, arguing that it devalues the entire craft. “It gives companies a false idea of what the value of the work and time is – you shouldn’t be quoting low in fear of missing out, you should be quoting based on your skill, profile and what you need to make a living.

“Sometimes saying no to a low budget is better for you and your industry. I have a friend, a photographer, who would always ask me how to charge – I’d tell her, and she would always make it cheaper for fear of not getting the job.

“It was funny to see a few years later, she got under cut by a younger photographer and had a rant about how people charging low is bad for the industry. All I could think was, ‘She finally gets it’.”