‘Art is the fashion of now,’ says Ryan Stanier, founder of The Other Art Fair. ‘Everyone wants a piece of it at the moment.’ In particular, commercial brands: from shop fronts to clothing lines, office foyers to tube billboards, the work of illustrators, graphic designers and digital artists is everywhere. A new crop of creatives is taking corporate commissions while staying firmly in the driving seat.
Although there is a long history of artists taking corporate dollars, something different has happened in recent years. Consumers and artists alike have developed a new attitude towards brand collaborations. As long as artists work on their own terms, for cool brands or on interesting projects, the taboo of taking a corporate gig has been lifted. It has made artists less obsessed with being picked up by a gallery; instead, they’re thinking like independent businesses. Part of this means becoming skilled self-promoters.
Instagram has been a transformative weapon for the commercially-minded artist. Art and artists are no longer confined to rarified private galleries. The platform has turned the artists themselves into influencers. Brands want in, and the savvier artists have responded and gained a stream of lucrative corporate work.
The most fascinating part of this dynamic is where the power now lies: with the artist. They dictate their fees and are even increasingly empowered to present their own ideas with the expectation corporates will foot the bill. Evidence of this new business model is everywhere.
One of the most successful operators in this field is Jean Jullien. Even if the name is unfamiliar, his brightly-coloured graphic murals and leggy French cartoons are known to many. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2010, Jullien’s trademark playful characters have popped up everywhere; on bottles of Majestic Wine, takeaway boxes, and Le Coq Sportif caps, as well as in Ikea, Warby Parker and Uniqlo stores, Eurostar terminals and Byron burger bars. His work, both personal and commercial, is catalogued on his Instagram account, which has close to 800,000 followers.
Around the same time, Jullien was getting his first commissions, artist and graphic designer Camille Walala’s career kicked off too. In 2012, she was designing cushions to sell on east London’s Broadway Market, ‘selling cheese on the side’ to pay the rent, and painting bars and cafes for her friends in her spare time. Then, Shoreditch nightclub XOYO asked her to decorate its bar.
Further commercial projects followed. Her ‘Dream Come True’ building on Old Street was repeatedly Instagrammed, and Walala says she gained 20,000 followers in a month as a result. She was then commissioned to design sets for Giorgio Armani.
‘Now most of my work is coming through Instagram,’ she says. ‘I use it for marketing. When you do something quite graphic, it’s a good platform to show your work.’
Her collaborations with brands and companies range from designing prints for Caterpillar shoes to art directing a Kopparberg pop-up and painting a wall in Facebook’s London HQ. ‘I’m happy to be seen in a commercial way,’ says Walala. ‘It’s nice to be accessible, to make art approachable, something everyone can look at.’
The majority of brands are now discovering cult artists through Instagram and are keen to tap into the communities they attract. ‘Brands are communicating so much more, and need to continually think of new and exciting ways to do so,’ says Alex Bec, director of art and design site It’s Nice That. ‘Creativity is the key to good communications, so artists are in a naturally strong position. ’‘Instagram is just amazing right now,’ says graphic artist Lakwena Maciver.
She says the majority of her commercial work, including clients like Nike, Converse, Clinique, Red Bull and Toms, are coming through the platform. ‘It’s taken the place of agents in terms of getting work,’ she says. ‘With Instagram, you have a gallery in your pocket,’ points out Flora Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste, a website which showcases the work of emerging artists.
Founded in 2015, Arteviste is just one player in the new economy springing up around artists and brands. The Other Art Fair, which launched in 2011 as a platform for emerging artists without gallery representation to sell their work directly to buyers, has since branched out into a consultancy service, forming collaborations between artists and banks, restaurants and fashion brands. ‘We’re acting like a gallery in a way,’ says Stanier.
Although Instagram is diminishing the need for a gallery or agent for some artists, some are now repositioning themselves to help artists balance commercial work alongside their all-important public image. Agents are also carrying out the humdrum work of drafting contracts, managing schedules and presenting artists’ portfolios to potential clients.
‘Most of our guys are actively promoting themselves and doing a good job at that,’ says Tom Robinson, co-founder of illustration agency Handsome Frank. ‘We’re a secondary, louder voice to shout about their work.’
Agents can also help negotiate appropriate fees. ‘I probably got ripped off a few times,’ says Walala. ‘That first collaboration – even now, you don’t know what to charge.’
Robinson wouldn’t go into detail but said illustrators on his books could get anything from £300 for an editorial illustration to £100,000 for a TV ad. Membership organisation The Association of Illustrators says a large client might pay £4,000 for a large 48-sheet billboard ad, while a whiskey label might pay £1,500 per illustration.
In 2015, Maciver collaborated with Nike and Shoreditch fitness studio Frame to paint two walls and a ceiling at their site. ‘I had a lot of creative freedom,’ she recalls. ‘I definitely feel differently about it from my personal work, but it pays well. Depending on who the brand is, it’s good exposure.’
When it comes to collaborating with, rather than simply commissioning, artists, ‘Nike have always been the masters,’ says Bec. The brand offers freedom, ‘rather than just chucking money at them’.
‘It works when a brand takes something it stands for or believes in, and gives that idea to a creative as quite an abstract brief,’ says Rob Alderson, We Transfer editor-in-chief. ‘Then, the brand should get the hell out of the way and let the creative do their thing.’
Walala is often invited to pitch to brands. ‘I get the freedom to do whatever I want,’ she says. ‘I usually propose two to three designs and they choose one.’
Maciver is keen to move towards pitching to brands more actively – not personally but through an agency.
‘There are particular brands I’d like to work with,’ she says. ‘I have ideas, but in terms of delivering them, selling them, that comes a lot better from someone else.’
‘Being able to mobilise yourself is the key thing,’ says Ogilvy. ‘It was very institutional a few years ago. Now we’re in a situation where people are able to drive their own career in a way they weren’t able to before.’
Jean Jullien @jean_jullien
London-based French illustrator. Cheerful product packaging and doodles. His ‘Peace for Paris’ design was shared globally after the 2015 terrorist attacks in the city.
Camille Walala @camillewalala
London-based French graphic designer. Her feed features bright, playful murals in-the-making, product designs and a peek into her personal life.
Mr Doodle @mrdoodle
London-based cartoonist. Black-and-white doodles on walls, floors, ceilings, clothes, Boardies shorts and a We Work staircase.
Lakwena Maciver @lakwena
British artist and graphic designer. Her Instagram features behind-the-scenes mural painting, kaleidoscopic patterns and bold typography.
Joe Cruz @jcruz_art
British artist and illustrator. Record label illustrations, a collaboration with Whistles and a mural for brand marketplace Tictail.
Chris Labrooy @chrislabrooy
UK-based designer turned CGI artist. Hyper-realistic images of molten Nike merchandise, and 3D typographic ads for Pringles, McDonald’s and British Airways.
Malika Favre @malikafavre
French graphic designer. Murals and packaging for Sephora, editorial illustrations for The New Yorker and plimsole designs.