Grace Helmer on creating tender illustrations, going freelance, and what to look for in an agency
London-based illustrator Grace Helmer draws viewers into her tender, painterly illustrations with a masterful use of colour and compositions that contain a sense of story. We caught up with her to hear how she's gotten to where she is and what illustrators should look for when seeking an agent.
Originally from Brighton, Grace first became interested in illustration when visiting degree shows while at college. However, it wasn't until studying her Art Foundation course that she discovered the illustration pathway and began to consider pursuing it seriously.
"I also had no idea what an illustrator was, really," she tells Creative Boom. "My dad wasn't so enthusiastic about me choosing illustration as he said I'd always be 'working for the man', probably the opposite of what many parents say! He has since agreed it wasn't a bad choice."
One look at Grace's stunning work will confirm that she made the right choice. While studying an illustration BA at Camberwell, she became part of a team of people who would go on to set up a collective called the Day Job Studio after graduation.
"This really helped me when I was setting out as I didn't feel so alone," she explains. "Illustration can be pretty solitary after all. We worked on many group projects together and often helped each other get jobs. For a while, I thought I'd never get a paid illustration job ever. I worked a lot of badly paid part-time jobs. Then slowly (over many years), the work began coming in, and I could take the leap to freelance full-time."
Despite this success, though, it's hard for Grace to feel like she's 'made it'. "I'm usually just focused on doing the work and then getting the next thing done, plus freelancing can be so up and down I've never assumed anything would last!"
Even though this is a common concern among freelancers, we think Grace is being modest. You don't land work with Apple, The New Yorker and Penguin Random House if you haven't got something a little special going on, after all. Part of Grace's appeal is surely her beautiful use of colour, which has been honed through practice, research, and experimenting with the materials she uses.
"I mainly paint with oil paints, and the colours are so vivid and stay vivid even when dry," she reveals. "It's so exciting going into an art supplies shop and choosing new colours to try out. Also, when I started to incorporate more digital ways of working into my practice, this really influenced the colours - on an iPad, I can try out lots of different palettes pretty fast. Then it's fun to try and recreate those colours with the paint. Then sometimes, while I'm mixing up colours, new shades will appear that actually work better than what I had planned."
Grace is known for her traditionally painterly style. However, she says her work improved a lot when she started to sketch digitally. "But I think doing the main part by hand helps me to loosen up and allow some spontaneity back in," she adds. "There is a lot you can't control with paint, and I'm obviously not the first to say that sometimes the accidents are the best bits.
As for her working method, Grace typically begins a brief with research, taking down lots of scribbly notes and roughing out thumbnails. From here, the best ideas are worked up on the iPad, and depending on the job, she'll add some rough colour ideas too at this stage.
"After a bit of back and forth with a client, I'll finalise the composition digitally, then get to drawing it up by hand and painting it (the fun bit). The paintings then get scanned, edited lightly in Photoshop, then onto the iPad where I use Procreate to add any extra details and finishing touches."
Another key component of her work is being part of the Brilliant Artists agency. This agency, set up by Hannah Shilland, specialises in nurturing and showcasing both established and up-and-coming creative talent. Grace first became involved with the agency in the summer of 2020 when Hannah reached out and asked her if she'd like to be part of it. "Of course I said yes! It is great having someone else helping me to find work, negotiate contracts, bug clients, and be there when I have random questions about things!"
For illustrators thinking of following a similar path to her and joining an agency, Grace says: "It's important to get an agent who can understand you and your work and that you get on with! If you struggle to communicate with each other, how will they represent you to others successfully?"
Wise words indeed. So what can we look forward to Grace creating next? "I'm excited to get going on a private commission for someone – it's the biggest painting I've done in a while, and I can't wait to spend a bit longer on one big image without any digital editing.
"I love the variety of work in illustration – if I am getting tired with a certain project, it doesn't matter as the next thing could be completely different, so I'm always getting excited to start the next thing."