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Image courtesy of James Albon Image courtesy of James Albon

Illustration graduate James Albon loves the independence and variety that comes with a freelance career and travels extensively to gain inspiration through exhibitions and new surroundings.

Your time at Edinburgh College of Art

I had a fantastic time in the illustration department at Edinburgh College of Art. The atmosphere throughout the art school was one of a great and raucous community, but with a streak of competitive hard work running through it, and being in a small department of a small institution made my class extremely tight-knit. Our learning was rigorous and stimulating, focusing not only on the technique of drawing and materials, but also giving us a solid training in the conceptual basis of illustration, a comprehension of interwoven literary and editorial traditions, and the history of the visual arts as a whole. Under the guidance of Jonathan Gibbs, our head of department, I had a real feeling discovering an exciting new world, like an explorer discovering a new continent.

On top of our regular teaching, we enjoyed dozens of visits from practising illustrators and other industry professionals and worked in a dedicated studio space that allowed us to put into practice all that we had learnt. I also enjoyed the opportunity to do an Erasmus exchange and spent nine months living and studying in the École Superièure des Arts Decoratifs in Strasbourg, where I learnt to speak French, made lifelong friends, and even managed to drag myself out of the sunny pavement cafes to attend classes. This vocational and hands-on approach to studying has proved invaluable throughout my career ever since and had a fundamental effect on the person that I am now.

Your experiences since leaving Edinburgh College of Art

Ever since graduating, I’ve worked as a freelance illustrator. The job leaves me working entirely independently, which I find extremely enjoyable – although some people find the insecurity of a freelance career daunting, I simply couldn’t imagine working in any other way. I collaborate with a variety of magazines, newspapers and publishing houses around the world, as well as making my own work for exhibitions or simply for pleasure. This means that every week is different – one week I might be finishing off an extensive series of linocut prints for a classic novel, the next I might be working on an intense 24 hour deadline for a newspaper, or taking time to explore the city, visit museums and galleries, and draw directly from life.

On top of that, I write and illustrate graphic novels; self-initiated projects which combine my love of narrative, writing and drawing and can take several years to complete. My first book 'Her Bark & Her Bite', was published last year, and my next, 'A Shining Beacon', will come out in early 2019.

The freedom of freelance work has also allowed me to travel extensively with my partner (who is also a graduate from ECA’s illustration department). Because almost all our projects are handled by email, we can work with clients who are literally anywhere in the world, and over the last few years we’ve lived in London, Hong Kong, and Lyon, France. Whenever we can, we also make trips to Paris, New York and Toronto for various exhibitions and book festivals.

My most recent, large scale project is a series of illustrations for The Folio Society, a London-based publisher, for a new edition of Steinbeck’s 'Of Mice and Men'. This is the third book that I’ve done with them (the previous ones were 'Parade’s End' by Ford Madox Ford and 'The Blue Flower' by Penelope Fitzgerald),  and working with the Folio Society is always a pleasure. I read the book and make thorough notes, then discuss with their Art Director which scenes I’d like to illustrate, and how. I experiment with various compositions and ideas before beginning the final artwork, and the whole process gives me a huge amount of creative freedom and the opportunity to work with some really incredible literature.

"One week I might be finishing off an extensive series of linocut prints for a classic novel, the next I might be working on an intense 24-hour deadline for a newspaper, or taking time to explore the city, visit museums and galleries, and draw directly from life."

James Albon

Freelance illustrator

Alumni Wisdom

Work hard! The freedom of an art school education can often be a double-edged sword, giving students the independence to explore ideas but also neglecting to chase them up if they don’t put the hours in. There is no better way to learn to become an artist or illustrator than through action. The students who put the most in, who make time to practice drawing every day, take on optional extra projects or go to exhibitions or read books under their own steam, are the students who get the most out of an art school.

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