Interview with Richard Lee, Illustrator at Pok, Pok & Away
Richard is a Singaporean freelance illustrator with a background in architecture, and currently working at DP Architects. He counts the Singapore Tourism Board, Maritime Port and Authority, BLACK, Supermama, Chuan Pictures , MUJI, Shell and SunnyHills as his clients for his illustration work. He has also published a book entitled “Sayang Singapura”, which is a compilation of the lost and evolving landscapes of a rapidly changing Singapore.
1. What made you decide to get into your current line of work?
I have been drawing since a young age and found myself drawn to the history, memories and stories of the places I grew up in or travelled to, like Belgrade and Kyoto, for my illustrations. I have been actively doing illustrations since my days in university. Nowadays, I hustle on the side with illustrative work for different kinds of exhibitions and purposes as a freelance illustrator.
2. Why did you decide to do it?
I love drawing, and I have this sketchbook that I keep with me whenever inspiration strikes. I took a break right after National Service when I was caught up with my studies at NUS. However, a chance encounter with the works of Guy Delisle, a Canadian French illustrator and animator, ignited the passion once more. His works brought back the fond memories of reading comics such as Doraemon and especially the Adventures of Tin Tin by Herge to which Guy Delisle’s work bears a similar resemblance. More importantly, I was moved by intimate and personal stories presented through illustrations in his series of travel chronicles from Jerusalem to Pyongyang. I then started drawing again. This made me revisit some of the places that I’d lost touch with since my childhood, document my changing home and even be able to pursue my lost childhood dream of joining the Air Force in another way (just that this time I was drawing for them).
I didn’t foresee the response that came after I went back into it. One of the prints I did about ‘Kueh’, for example, got requests from Malaysians and Singaporeans living and working abroad in Dubai, Frankfurt, San Francisco, New York and London. These prints translated into a source of income to offset expenses in school and let me travel independently. The idea of being able to do something I enjoyed and ply an income was very liberating. Over time, I was also able to learn further from peers I made at the Illustration Arts Fest and activities organized by the Organisation of Illustrators’ Council (OIC) to make this a viable side-gig.
3. What would you say was your greatest difficulty getting into it as a freelance illustrator? Did you have to make any sacrifices?
The greatest difficulties came from me internally: I was afraid, anxious, I procrastinated and more. These are more challenging than difficult clients, competitive price wars or social acceptance, etc. I was essentially my biggest enemy: should I learn software or a new technique?
There is no accountant, secretary, HR manager or PR official to handle matters for you. Every day I had to tackle new issues and make difficult decisions that did not always relate to the work I enjoyed doing – drawing.
Illustration never felt like work for me. Problem is, there came times where I did not put a limit to the time I spent on the work, and time is finite. There are moments I wished that I could have spent more time with my friends and family or to take a long break, go invisible and travel for a bit.
However, in this line of work, one needs to have a presence as well, with social media in particular. There is difficulty and cost involved to stand out in a competitive field, and at the same time, there are situations where I feel I create work purely for money and not my passion. It’s a thin line. Despite these “struggles”, I think the process has been fascinating and beautiful. The process encouraged me to seek a balance and thus be critical of what is important in life.
4. How are you marketing your business and get clients for your illustration work?
Maintaining a digital presence such as Instagram posts, Facebook updates, Twitter updates, etc, is vital. While jobs might not come directly from them, these are channels to maintain a presence in the field. Think of it like having a marker on Google Maps, you need to exist.
I also maintain a portfolio website, because now that they know you exist, viewers might want to know more. If someone is looking for a freelance illustrator, I’d like them to think of me. Thus, I have leexinli.com and a Behance portfolio, where viewers could look at more of my work. I also regularly attend meetings, gatherings and get involved in communities like OIC, where gatherings really help. Through my friends, peers and the community, I got some of my most enjoyable projects. Be nice to people, but also be honest to yourself and also think thoroughly about the pricing and “exposure” because these affect not only my own image but also the industry as a whole, which can be detrimental.
If you price too low, you’re not just selling yourself short. This can affect how your clients expect other people to charge as well, which in turn spoils the deal for others if you’re setting the bar too low.
5. What would you say has been the greatest lesson so far since you started as an illustrator?
Take it easy. This seems like a simple piece of advice but it’s very challenging to achieve. It does not mean giving up, procrastinating or selling out. Taking it easy means keeping your cool when you encounter challenges like a client being unable to visualize your perspective (just as we probably won’t understand “pes anserinus” on a doctor’s medical description). I had some unpleasant encounters before, and slowly learned the hard way that things won’t always be easy.
When you stay calm and give yourself room and time to digest new challenges, you avoid making hasty and foolish decisions. In this line, I’ve met many different people with different perspectives on what’s acceptable. Thus, I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is that you need to take people’s opinion with a pinch of salt. Understand the ideas, and if valid, adapt and re-strategize. At 29, I’ve still got a long way to go and a lot to learn.
6. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Know the value of the work you do. This doesn’t happen overnight. It was a piece of advice from a mentor of mine: Michael Ng aka Mindflyer, one of the veteran illustrators in Singapore. Naturally, when you’re doing creative work, it’s exceptionally hard to quantify the value of your work.
There are times when you’ll under-quote for your work. It might not feel consequential (and it doesn’t mean it is not), coming from a full time background, but if you do the math as a fulltime freelancer, without CPF or if you have a child to raise, it is no laughing matter.
Under-quoting or payment by “exposure” could have detrimental effects on the industry as it affects the lives of those who depend on it for a living or make the practice of it unsustainable.
The solution is to get educated. Speak to peers in your industry and your clients to find a comfortable charge that you’re happy with. In short, don’t short-change yourself and don’t rip off the clients unreasonably as well, as it propagates a bad reputation for the industry, and that could potentially damage the profession or the business.
7. If you had to offer a piece of advice to someone that had zero experience or connections getting into business, what would you say?
I love to illustrate, but sometimes it’s no walk in the park. Some people might give that impression because they either come from more privileged backgrounds or are privy to strategies you don’t know about. It doesn’t always mean the amount of effort you put in translates into same value of success in a field. I’ll say it again, working harder might not lead to more results all the time.
Learn from the successful ones in your space. Look into their merits like their perspectives, branding strategies and technical skills for learning points etc.
On top of that, learn to take things in your stride. When you embark on a freelance career, it can become something that’s full-time. When it comes to that, it means you’ll probably spend a lot of time doing it. Don’t rush and be patient while working at it.
Understand that your journey will have ups and downs, as will anyone’s. Most of all, be disciplined and seek help when you need it.
When you do find help, find a way to give back and to help others that need it. Coming from an education system that is obsessed with academics, it might seem counterintuitive, but collaborating always beats competition.
8. What have you started trying this year that has been working well for your business?
I’ve become more critical on the projects I take. Quoting Mies van der Rohe, it is now “less is more” and that also meant freeing up time for myself to pursue personal passion projects and meeting new friends (and people)
I am an introvert. Social gatherings take a toll on me. However, meeting people from different fields have been very rewarding. This year, I got to meet and learn from figures like Clara Yee, Randy Chan and Royston Tan, all of whom are well-known artists and creatives in Singapore.
These discussions generate new perspectives and ideas each time and we also share similar challenges. I find strength knowing that other people are roughing it out there to build their own little enterprises too.
9. What is one book you would recommend that every new business owner or freelancer be reading?
Christoph Niemann’s Sunday Sketching
This book covers the many challenges one encounters as an illustrator but the experiences are quite universal for anyone doing freelancing. You can also watch him do a 99U talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dG-ZXiYtLy8
Also do read Rebecca Toh’s experience as a freelance photographer, she covered many relevant and valid points about being a freelancer from money matters to getting projects. As a freelance illustrator, I’ve learned plenty from her!
10. Share with us something you learned recently that changed how you intend to run your practice.
The medium, the world is always evolving, I am always looking forward to diversifying my work, exploring new medium and techniques as a freelance illustrator. Seeing more of the world has helped to enrich that experience as well.
Along with this, over the past 2-3 years I have been actively keeping track of expenses and that really helped a lot, as it allows me to be more disciplined in my spending and keep the budget in balance. With that, it grants me peace of mind when I deliver projects and be more selective on the kind of projects to take up. This was a shift from the more haphazard and spontaneous way of things that I am used to.
When you close doors with possibly bad clients, you open up your doors to do your best work for the best clients.
11. What are 3-4 tools (digital or offline) that you feel everyone should know about?
Wacom Mobile Studio Pro, is a powerful, laptop + Wacom tablet hybrid that is a step up from the Wacom Companion series. It is an mobile, ergonomic tablet made for drawing.
Adobe Creative Suite, the grand dame of all tools still remains relevant till today.
3D Coat or 3D Software for panoramic illustrations and conceptual work. I follow the work of Jama Jurabaev a concept artists at Industrial Light and Magic. 3D-Coat is one of the tools he uses to create conceptual 3d sketches and illustrations.
A Sketchbook, not the software but a real sketchbook. I think having a sketchbook to bring around to jot down ideas, do sketches and doodles remain relevant and useful even though all these tech stuff are around. I have been using Faber Castell’s Pitt Pens recently and Moleskine sketchbooks for at least 7 years now. If I want to do watercolour, and if I could afford it, Erwin Lian’s The Perfect Sketchbook is really good.
12. How can people connect with you?
This interview is part of our Expert Interview series where we endeavor to interview entrepreneurs or successful freelancers with interesting and useful stories/lessons on starting and running a business.