Programme: Illustration - BA (Hons)

Year: 2009

Sarah Tanat Jones was drawn to study Illustration at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) because of the city and the technical aspects of the programme. Here she honed her drawing, screenprinting and Photoshop skills, got to know Edinburgh while doing gigs with her band, and won a D&AD award shortly after graduating. Sarah now works as an illustrator full-time, has a couple of books due to be published, and still makes time to play music.

Tell us about your time at ECA

Initially, I was discouraged from applying to ECA by a tutor at my art foundation course who told me not to bother as I wouldn't get in! Fortunately, I didn't take her words to heart and I did apply. I spent a while researching the best way to create a portfolio (put your strongest piece at the very start) and all went well. I moved from Brighton to Edinburgh and began at ECA in September 2005.

I chose ECA because the city was beautiful and it was a relatively technical course which included life drawing. I loved it right from the start. I will say that practically every day at ECA was fun. Jonathon Gibbs, the Head of Illustration during my time there, was a kindly and open-minded individual who genuinely enjoyed getting to know us on a one-to-one level. I definitely needed the time at ECA to hone my drawing style and figure out technical skills - I'd never used Photoshop before I started my degree and having learned it, it is something I have continued to use since.

My time in Edinburgh was a heady mix of independence, creativity and freedom. I probably spent too much time gadding about and loving life (which is important - but possibly to the detriment of my illustrative output). I was also in a band at the time which showed me another side to life in Edinburgh and meant I really got to know the city. I had a part-time job in a cafe in town on Saturdays, and I was also gigging and doing tours with the band. In the end, towards the Degree Show, everything pulled focus. Right at the tail end of my course I discovered the printmaking studio (which had been under renovation for a year or two prior to that) and got deeply into screenprinting. I focussed on getting a body of work together that I was pleased with. I knew I wasn't messing around - I wanted to be an illustrator. Some of my course mates were already incredibly accomplished and professional by the time we graduated, but it took me a little longer to get there.

Tell us about your experiences since leaving ECA

After graduation, I unexpectedly won an award at D&AD for the screenprinted books I'd made at the end of my course. I remained in Edinburgh for a year and then moved down to London - I wanted to see more of the world.

I didn't start working as an illustrator straight away; I worked a few office jobs but, during the downtime, I worked on self-initiated projects and adding things to my early website. London was a feast for the eyes and very inspirational in terms of getting to know people, what they look like, how they move, all of which has been useful in my career ever since. It was also difficult, though; money was tight and I lived in some extremely sub-par flats. I was a bit lost and worried about when, and if, I would ever make a living from illustration. I made a few posters for friends back in Edinburgh, but that was about it in terms of paid commissions. 

After a few years of this, I was at a low ebb, and when I went home for Christmas my mum suggested I find an agent. This turned out to be the right advice at the right time. I searched for some that night, and a few days later I'd had a couple of responses including one from the agency who would end up taking me on. I went to some meetings and showed them a variety of my work including illustrations of food, portraits and crowd scenes and was taken on by Handsome Frank, who signed me in 2014, the day before my 27th birthday. This allowed me to quit the job I was doing at the time and become a full-time illustrator. At first, it was a struggle financially, and quite scary to let go of a steady income, but it was the office job, or being an illustrator - I knew which one I had to choose.

Chairs print by Sarah Tanat Jones
Sarah Tanat Jones
Chairs print by Sarah Tanat Jones

"My time in Edinburgh was a heady mix of independence, creativity and freedom."

Sarah Tanat Jones, BA (Hons) Illustration graduate

Over the years, the main impetus has been about improving, seeing what other people are achieving, what's going on in the illustration world, and trying to reach goals that matter to me. The biggest achievement was (and still is) making a living from this and having the freedom to be my own boss. It's certainly up and down at times, but when a good commission comes in and you know you'll be alright for the next few months it's a great feeling.

Over the years, I have overcome certain obstacles - I used to worry a lot about Instagram metrics, but I don't any more. Some of the most successful illustrators have few followers on Instagram. A lot of 'likes' doesn't necessarily mean the work is actually any good, or that it will earn any money. Maybe it's because I'm also in my 30s now but I just don't care about that stuff. I work on building relationships with clients and coming up with ideas for things that I want to make and occasionally adding new techniques to my work. It's a never-ending process and I always feel an undercurrent of urgency to promote, or do something new, or step up in some way. I've noticed that practically all my illustrator friends, no matter how outwardly successful they are, have insecurities or issues about something or other - I don't think there's any such thing as being self-employed and free of problems. Whilst probably never being totally in control of my bank statements, I now have systems to help me organise cash flow.

I still make music as a singer and drummer and, although it's very important to me, I know that illustration gives me income, so I prioritise it. Six weeks ago I moved into a little house that I bought with my partner, so it's been a period of great change. I recently finished a book with publisher Quarto about queer heroes, and am currently working on another book with Penguin Random House, about cocktails. At 33, I feel like maybe I was a late bloomer - but I'm happy that it worked out this way, rather than peaking early. I thank ECA for giving me my start in adult life, and a gorgeous backdrop for good times and great friendships.

Alumni wisdom

  • Follow your instincts.
  • Read the market.
  • Don't make work that looks like other people's.
  • Have a plan, but don't stick to it too rigorously.
  • If it doesn't work, make another plan.
  • Work on being the best you can be. 

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