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Illustrator Kelly Thompson On Creating A Balanced Freelance Lifestyle

by: Courtney Sanders | 1 year ago | Features

Image: Kelly Thompson (with beagle Billie!) on the Bamboo Lyocell Duvet CoverSheet SetPillowcase Set in Starlight Blue.

We’re working with our mates at Ettitude, who make the fair, sustainable lyocell bamboo bedding and sleepwear of our dreams, to chat with our favourite creatives about their work, about their lifestyles, and how they find balance in the chaos of our everyday lives (no phone time seems to be a theme).

First up is Kelly Thompson. Kelly is a freelance illustrator, who creates intricate botanical illustrations for everyone from independent fashion designers to major brands. On top of this, Kelly runs Makers Mrkt, an online store which sells homewares, jewellery, and lifestyle products which supports the work of independent designers, something she is – and we are! – very passionate about.

When Kelly was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome a couple of years ago, she has to reassess her hectic lifestyle, and work to reclaim balance, and with it, health. She did just that, with a little help from the suburbs – and a vege patch!

Image: the Bamboo Lyocell Duvet Cover, Sheet Set, Pillowcase Set in Starlight Blue.

Courtney Sanders: You’re a freelance illustrator. I think people who want to get into freelance are always wondering ‘how will I actually make it work?’ So, can you tell us how you actually make it work?

Kelly Thompson: Well, for one, I don't aspire to have a Maserati , or constantly have the latest "It" bag – I have an obtainable lifestyle that being a freelancer can support which is an important place to start!

I think the main thing that makes freelance work well, or not work well is your ability to self-motivate – if you need someone bossing you around it's not going to work out!

I also schedule my days quite a lot, now that I have been doing it for ages I know how much I can and can't take on, and I delegate time for tasks in an organised way.

You also have to be on top of your finances and learn to budget – or live on rations when clients don't pay you on time (because most never do!).

For me it's about structure, working like I'm at work and not mucking around. 

Image: Kelly Thompson’s illustration work (and her cat Butter).

Courtney: You’ve gone back to full time work then returned to freelance because of quality of life, and self care, something which you’ve really focussed on over the last couple of years. Can you tell us why it’s become so important to you recently, and why freelance helps you achieve this.

Kelly: I've always been a bit of a workaholic and never really gave it much thought until around 2016 when I started to get really sick. In 2017 I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, at which point I was too weak to walk up the stairs and could barely get out of bed. Until that point I had never given much thought to my lifestyle, I was thin and outwardly healthy and didn't consider my personal sustainability. I've spent the last couple of years really focused on bringing my health back because I never ever want to get that low again. Chronic Fatigue never really goes away, so you have to maintain your health and I'm now happy to say that I feel more energetic than ever.  

Parallel to all of this happening I was focused on building my own artist agency. I had always wanted to do more and be a ‘girl boss’, but after gaining my health back I realised it was so overrated – the bigger you get, the more stress and responsibility you have, and I just started to ask myself: ‘how much do I really need?’

I don't want to be an email factory, I want to be creative, go outside, balance certain types of client work with collaborations and give exercise equal weight in my life as work (still working on that one!). Freelance gives me flexibility. It gives me stress, yes, but overall it gives me more freedom and more control. Plus, I never have to sit in peak hour traffic!

Image: Kelly Thompson in her vege patch.

Courtney: What’s your daily routine? How do you achieve balance through this?

Kelly: I've really been working on this a lot lately because I've found myself slipping back a bit into my old workaholic ways. Yesterday I deleted the Gmail App off my phone, so that I am only available when I'm at my desk, it just made me realise how often I check my emails in the weekend and in transit and EVERYWHERE!

I wake up naturally around 6.45am or 7am and in the last couple of weeks I've been making myself leave my phone in airplane mode until I'm dressed and have had breakfast. After breakfast I go for a walk for about 40 minutes to an hour because I've started to feel bad about sitting on my ass drawing all day! During this time I turn my phone back on, but still ignore social media and everything else and listen to a podcast - lately I'm listening to Business of Fashion podcast in the morning.

I get to my desk around 9am and do a quick scan for urgent emails, usually those relating to current projects, I always prioritise my current projects over everything else because drawing takes a lot of time and if I answer all the random emails I can never stay on top of deadlines. I try to get straight into drawing in the morning because if I wait too long I lose motivation.

I break for lunch around 1pm, usually cooking something from the garden quickly or grabbing something from down the road. I don't really take a proper lunch break, I eat on the go a bit which I'm working on stopping! In the afternoons, if I can I try to break up the illustration and do some admin for Maker's Mrkt, my online store, planning social media, shooting content if the sun is out, ordering stock, and wrapping orders. Otherwise I'll be in meetings with illustration or creative consulting clients.

I usually finish work around 7pm, and a few days a week I'll do pilates during the day or early evening. At the moment I'm doing a night class that runs until 9pm on Tuesdays. I usually go to bed around 10.30, often staying up later than I want to!

Image: new ceramics on Maker’s Mrkt.

Courtney: OK: to your work! You work on botanical illustrations a lot now. What drew (pun intended) you towards botanical illustration? 

Kelly: I did beauty and fashion work for a really long time, and while I still do it occasionally, to be honest I just got a bit bored with doing the same things over and over, and found botanicals really relaxing and nice to work on.

I also feel like there's a bit of connection to my lifestyle, when I was drawing beauty and fashion I was obsessed with those things in my daily life, and now I'm obsessed with nature, so maybe there's a link?

Courtney: There’s such an interesting, rich history in botanical illustration. Anyone in particular we should check out?

Kelly: I have a beautiful book called Botanical Riches - Stories of Botanical Exploration by Richard Aitken, that I really love, it's always on my desk. I always love William Morris, because how he did that all by hand just blows my mind!

Courtney: Can you tell us about the favourite freelance project to date?

Kelly: I think the one I just worked on – but it doesn't launch for another week, so I can't really talk about it yet, but it's for an interior space which is just a dream!

I also really loved my project with designer Wynn Hamlyn, that I did a couple of years ago. He asked me to illustrate botanicals that were printed on rugs for his New Zealand Fashion Week catwalk and were then also used as prints on silks, it's just cool seeing my work on objects or in space.  

Image: Kelly’s illustrations on a Wynn Hamlyn dress.

Courtney: I always notice via your Instagram you’re listening to Podcasts while you work. Got any good ones for us?

Kelly: Omg I love a podcast! I think I listen to at least 12 episodes during a week, it's definitely a perk of being an illustrator!

My all-time favourite is Rich Roll, even though they don't directly relate to me as far as my job goes, I find the overarching themes really fascinating. I also love the Business of Fashion podcast in the morning, because they're a little bit shorter, and I enjoy listening to people like Tim Walker talk about their inspirations. For something light I like The Design Files Talks. I also like How I Built This by Guy Raz and Your Creative Start.

Courtney: On top of illustration, you also run Maker’s Mrkt, a marketplace for Australian makers. Tell us a little bit about the site and why we should check it out. 

Kelly: Maker’s Mrkt is an online store offering pieces for your interior, wardrobe, and lifestyle. I really believe that soulful design and artistry has a profound impact on us and that one well-chosen piece can transform your life.

Mrkt was really forged by my own passion for supporting freelancers, craftspeople and small businesses. I always try to put my money towards product, food, and fashion made by people who actually care about it and the world they exist in. Mrkt edit comprises of items that are never mass-produced, are made with care and much heart, often as one-off items or in limited editions.

Courtney: Why is it important to you to support independent makers? 

Kelly: Well, you need to ask yourself if you want a world of fast fashion, factory-farmed food, excess waste, or whether you want a world where small business thrives and communities work together and support each other? How we spend now is determining our future and the future of this planet, and I believe that the small gesture of shopping from an independent maker over a chain strengthens the community!

Image: rest time (bedroom jealousy much!).

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