Penelope Bell is an Australian Illustrator and Designer, specialising in fashion and children’s illustration.
Drawing from the time she could hold a pencil, Penelope was always going to go down the creative path of illustration and design, but little could she have imagined the opportunities that would come her way when she pursued a career in illustrating.
Describe yourself in three words:
Enthusiastic, natural, resilient
How would you describe your work?
Hmmmm… I think I would summarise it as ‘Communication through illustration’ and/or creative storytelling through imagery.
When did you first know you wanted to become an illustrator?
I think I’ve always known illustration was something I wanted to do but I honestly didn’t ever see it as a viable career choice or option. What I do know is the time when I admitted I would like to be an illustrator – it was 10 years ago, when I was 23. I was at a crossroads in my career and decided to enlist the help of a professional careers advisor, called Elizabeth. After a lot of to and fro-ing, Elizabeth eventually asked me what my dream job was and in a moment of weakness I said, “A fashion illustrator and television presenter of fashion”. I ignored my own answer for 6 more years, hoping that the more stable and lucrative jobs would satisfy me!
Did you do any study?
Yes. I started a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Film and Television and Drama at the University of Queensland before deferring to study Fashion Design at TAFE. During that time I also received a scholarship to study acting which I juggled (with fashion design study) for 1 year before choosing to focus on fashion. Fashion illustration was part of the fashion degree so I guess that’s where I honed my skills.
Let’s talk about creating an illustration from scratch. How does that process look, for you? How do you start, what steps do you follow?
For me, creating a fashion illustration always begins at the concept. What feeling does the illustration need evoke and what story does it need to tell? Once I know these two things, I draw a series of “thumb nail” sketches which are rough concept/ layout ideas. Things like posture, stance, light source, backgrounds, outfit styling, colour, layout all get taken into consideration when sketching and choosing the final illustration layout. From here, I draw my fashion figure as a line illustration. Once I have the finished line template I render the image using all sorts of different art mediums.
What has been the highlight of your career since then?
I think my illustration career highlight was meeting Professor Jimmy Choo. Upon seeing my illustration work he asked me for my contact details and said I should join his team (Um. YES!) He sat down with me for about 20 minutes and gave me some sage business mentoring which was phenomenal. Navigating illustration as a career path can be really tricky at times, so to have someone of his calibre reassure me that I was on the right track and offer his advice as well as asking me for my contact details was incredibly encouraging. Also, seeing my illustrations published on any collateral is always a highlight, especially when it’s a 7m x 4m billboard!
How long does it usually take you to sketch a look?
The time it takes to sketch a look all depends on the level of detail involved, size, and if it’s client based work. Sometimes the ‘simple’ sketches can take the longest time. To sketch and render a really rough fashion figure which has come straight out of my head onto the page, can take any time from 5 minutes to 4 hours or more.
What do you do when you’re not sketching?
A large part of my job is taken up with the tedious and sometimes boring admin that comes with owning a business… Invoicing, creating terms and conditions,writing business pitches, researching trends and business development strategies, marketing, sales and public relations.
I also sew a lot. I created a fashion project in August 2017 called ‘Consciously Spending Less To Create More’ (#CSLTCMProject – you can read about it here). Basically, I have put myself under a self-inflicted wardrobe arrest for 12 months, which means I’m not buying clothes for 12 months. Instead, I am shopping my own wardrobe and designing and sewing the items I need and want, based around the items I currently own. I created the project NOT because I was spending too much money on fashion, rather, I wanted to get creative again in ways other than illustrating (there is a common misconception that you have to spend a lot of money and time on fashion and beauty in order to be considered ‘on trend’ or stylish, and that’s just not true). I also have a strong social conscious about what fast fashion is doing to the environment, as well as humans, and I wanted to explore this. The project is being documented via my blog and so far it has been tough! It’s been really challenging and, at times, the bane of my existence however it’s also been one of the best things I have ever done.
How do you unwind?
I’ve always used exercise to unwind. Going for a run, doing a yoga or pilates class or playing touch football is such an energising way to start or finish the day. As cliche as it sounds, I love the outdoors and being around nature, so if I can escape the city then I will! I also love spending time with my family and friends, cooking and baking meals from scratch.
What has been your proudest moment to date?
Ooooooo… that’s a hard one. I think it would have to be making the decision to take illustration on as my full-time job, at the beginning of last year. It’s a decision that still unnerves me at times but at the end of the day, I’m really proud of myself for making the choice to be the person I always aspired to be.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
Don’t take things at face value. Be prepared to push the boundaries.
What’s your favourite way to spend a Sunday?
Going for a run up Mount Cootha (or doing something active) in the morning, catching up with friends and family over a Sunday roast/ long lunch and casually preparing (in a relaxed type fashion) for the week ahead.
Do you have any tips for those who are interested in pursuing illustration?
It is possible to have a career as an illustrator and it’s incredibly satisfying however mindset and resilience is everything. If you are pursuing illustration as a career, treat it as that. Be professional in your business dealings, charge fees that are to industry standard and replace any attachment you might have to your craft (ie. ego) with commitment. Charge for your time and for your work and whatever you do, do not work for free.