Ivan Smith (also known as @stolencomputer on social media) is an Abertay Computer Arts graduate, who left in 2014. He works now as a self-employed freelance, selling his work on Etsy and regularly designing the Jute City Jam night posters for Reading Rooms. He often reads and makes music also in his spare time. Below is our interview with him:
Hi Ivan! We’d like to talk a bit about your inspiration. Do you have a recurring source of inspiration you often use? Where do you collect your inspiration sources from? Do you have a particular artist or designer you often reference?
I get most of my inspiration from Instagram or Tumblr, I follow hundreds of great artists and art blogs. Also Youtube channels like the Art Assignment, and lots of books on art, and of course just hanging out with artists and creative people and having conversations about art over coffee or a pint.
I often look at the work of Elly Smallwood and @milkformycoconut (don’t know his real name!) for inspiration, although lately more John Larriva, Sophie Derrick, and Shanna Van Maurik. They’re all brilliant and definitely influence my own work, would recommend checking their stuff out on Instagram for sure.
These next few questions are more generally about jobs and how you go about earning a living from your work. After you graduated, what did you do? How quickly after did you manage to find work?
I lived off the last of my student loan and overdraft for a few months in a cheap flat with my friend from uni, basically doing nothing much, figuring out what I even wanted to do, and occasionally trying to find art jobs. I got a few commissions here and there just through friends and a few websites like peopleperhour (wouldn’t really recommend using it though!)
I was on housing benefit and the dole for a short while too, which was bleak but necessary, and helped a lot while I was looking for work and trying to improve with my art.
When doing commissions, how much creative freedom do you feel you get?
After graduation very little, I’d do whatever a client wanted because I had no real art style at that point or particular thing I was better at or enjoyed. These days if I do a commission it’s more often because they’ve come to me specifically and want it in my art style so they just trust me to do it. If they want it doing in a different style I will usually say no and turn down the work because I think they’d be better off going to another artist who specializes in what they want.
If it’s a portrait commission I definitely have to nail the likeness, but they know it’ll always be in my own art style. Sometimes I ask them their favourite colours etc. or to show me their favourite painting of mine and see if I can work it in to the new one, but it’s never guaranteed.
For Jute City Jam/Reading Rooms posters I get pretty much all the creative control and they just leave me to it and trust me. I think maybe once they’ve asked me to change something once it was done, but that was just unclear text.
Do you actively seek work or wait for commissions to come to you? How do you find work?
I used to look for it actively, but now I really alternate between two types of work over the days: creating new prints to sell on Etsy, and commission work which mostly comes through people messaging me on Instagram. If there’s no new commissions I work hard to come up with new print ideas, and if I have commissions on the go I tend to focus on those instead.
What do you feel employers are most interested in when looking at your work? Is it your social media pages, your CV or portfolio?
I don’t have a CV or portfolio, they aren’t really necessary for what I want to do. All my work comes through Instagram or tumblr or friends/mutual friends.
If I was applying for an internship or job I’d make one, but from experience they would definitely care more about the actual art than any qualifications (nobody has ever asked about my degree in 2+ years!)
How do you cost your work/rate of pay?
I aim to work for about £10-15 per hour, basically I’ll ask what they want doing, figure out roughly how many hours it’ll take (including time spent emailing and downloading photos etc) and then charge whatever it adds up to.
My portrait commissions are always £75 for a single portrait or £125 for a couples portrait, because I know each portrait painting will take approx. 5-6 hours by now because it’s a process I’ve done so many times.
Posters and stuff for the Reading Rooms etc. changes depending on the event and how much money it makes but it works out around the same rate each time. I’ve done work much cheaper as a favour to friends though, but wouldn’t lower my rate to a stranger.
I’ve worked for a lot less before though, sometimes in the past it ended up less than minimum wage (£7.20) which sucks, but it’s just part of starting out. I definitely would never, ever work for free, and any one who asks you to do that is really out of order. They can always at least afford to pay you £20 or whatever, so don’t let them take advantage of you (Also “you’ll get exposure!” is the biggest lie ever).
These ones are about your creative life now you’re away from university. Do you feel connected to the people or networks that were available in university? How do you manage to make new contacts?
At Abertay it was pretty nice, there was a fairly active community and the lecturers were great. I barely used social media during uni, I only made an Instagram account around graduation, so I’ve actually met a lot more like-minded arty people since leaving university just through social media and nights out and events.
99% of the work I get comes through people contacting me on Instagram, so I guess just posting lots of art and hashtagging it is how people discover my art and I make new contacts.
Making new contacts is actually dead easy through social media I think. The amount of amazing artists from all over the world I’ve spoken to and got to know just from sending them a DM or comment like “hey I love your art!” There’s a lot of stigma around it being “cringey” or “sucking up” to tell someone you really love their work, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it and it can lead to some great opportunities. If you tell a big artist their work inspires you, chances are they’ll have a wee nosey at your page, and maybe even follow you back, which can be a huge motivation for you to work harder.
What one thing do you know now that you wish you had known when you were leaving uni?
You won’t be a big success the moment you graduate just because you went to university, it takes time and work, and unless you’re incredibly lucky you’re probably going to be at least 2-3 years out of uni before you make any half decent money off your art.
That’s 2-3 years of consistent hard work though, it doesn’t just automatically happen without the extra effort. Going to uni and getting good grades isn’t enough to succeed long term in the real world.
Also I wish I’d saved a lot more of my student loan and spent it wisely on art supplies and equipment, rather than blowing it all on nights out and clothes I never wore.
How do you overcome difficulties during projects such as lack of ideas, motivation etc? How do you manage your time and adjust to going from having the uni schedule to not having a set schedule? Does planning help you?
I try not to worry too much; with portrait commissions there isn’t really an idea needed so it’s pretty simple work, but with a poster I need a good idea and sometimes I’ll go a week or two struggling. An idea always comes though, usually by chance. You just need to spend your spare time doing interesting things and absorbing as much culture as you can, because it really does help your art/work life.
For example with the latest Jute City Jam poster, I was feeling really uninspired for weeks after getting the event details, and at the last minute I went to see Trainspotting 2 with a friend a few days before it was due. As soon as the film ended I knew I had to create a Trainspotting inspired poster, I started it the next day, and even though it was probably the most last minute rushed poster I’ve ever done, it went down the best of any of them.
Did you do any internships, either are university or when you’d left? How did you go about finding them? (if you can name any websites this would be super helpful!)
I did a creative internship at the Centre for Stewardship in Falkland, Fife, about a year after graduating. It was just by chance, a friend worked there and let me know about this scheme the government had where unemployed people could apply for internships at certain places.
It was a really great experience, well paid for an internship, very creative and rewarding, but I’d consider it a very lucky break. I remember spending months looking for similar things and never having any luck!
I don’t really know how to go about finding good internships, other than just being involved in a creative community where people you know may link you to something if they see it. Sometimes it’s good to just know the right people!
And finally, what are your plans for the future? Have you considered going back to education?
I definitely wouldn’t go back to education, I could never afford it either in terms of fees or the time it takes up where you aren’t earning money.
My goal for now is to just keep doing what I’m doing; portrait/poster commissions, selling prints on Etsy, posting art on Instagram, and hopefully it’ll build up and one day make me enough money to eat something other than noodles!
I also want to get a lot better at acrylic and oil painting because I don’t have much experience in it, I mostly work in Photoshop, and I feel like the two mediums inform and influence the other nicely!
Long term I want to start doing exhibitions and collaborations with artists, travel to places other than Scotland to get involved in other art scenes etc. but all of that really takes spare time and money so is definitely a long term goal.
Follow Ivan on his social media accounts by following the links below!