Hi Nina, how would you describe your work?
I’d like to think of it as playful, reflective and relatable. I try to capture a moment, feeling or message in quite a simplified, thoughtful way through minimal composition and a limited colour palette.
What inspired the idea of setting up your business?
I kind of naturally fell onto the artistic path from quite early on. Growing up in a creative family (my dad is a storyboard artist), I’ve always drawn and going to art school seemed like the right thing to do for me. It wasn’t until halfway through my illustration degree that I began to actually enjoy my work. There was a moment when I realised that you can have fun and take something very seriously at the same time. I still apply this attitude to my practice now. I like working to a brief and within certain guidelines (even if I set them myself), so working in the illustration industry has gone well so far – despite the various ups and downs that come with freelance life!
What did you do before setting up your business?
Fortunately, I started working straight out of uni and had a couple of book contracts lined up early on. That really helped me to create a work routine and learn how to be confident, assertive and professional with my work from the get-go.
Where do you find creative inspiration?
It’s always hard to pinpoint an answer to this question. It sounds cheesy, but I try to be inspired by (almost) everything, or at least have an interest in most things. The best inspiration can be found in the most unusual or unexpected places. As much as I admire the work of other illustrators/artists, I find it’s best not to look too closely or too often as this doesn’t always give me confidence – comparison is not a good habit! Instead, I love going to museums, browsing Pinterest where I have dozens of specifically themed boards, listening to film scores, going for walks outside, looking at buildings, rearranging my shelves and making displays, sitting in coffee shops, people-watching, journaling, and travelling as much as I can. These habits help to refresh my head and eyeballs and allow me to step outside of myself.
Are there themes that run through your work?
My work tends to focus on story-telling, particularly female narratives; the everyday ups and downs and somewhere-in-the-middles of modern life, and those mundane, sad or ridiculous thoughts or scenarios that a lot of us have in common with one another. I believe there is a story in anything – it’s just how you go about sharing it.
Describe a typical working day…
Being freelance, each day can be very different from the next. It depends on what projects I have on the go, but typically, I have my morning coffee (out of the house preferably), head to my studio and make a big old list in my sketchbook of current tasks (whether work-based or personal – I like to break my day up most of the time, unless I’m super absorbed in creating something). I stick on a playlist that matches my mood or the weather and make my way through the day’s jobs, usually starting with smaller trivial things to warm up. I tend to use my brain more in the first half of the day and then go a little slower in the afternoon, so admin is done first and then the rest of the day can be spent pottering about or getting stuck into drawing something.
What are the values behind your business?
It’s important for me to consider who I’m working with/ for and if it fits with both my personal and professional values. It has to make sense and align with what my work is about, especially if I’m publishing it myself or helping to promote it to my audience. This has led to some great projects and meaningful collaborations over the years. However, I’m not going to get on my high horse about it – people take on work for their own reasons and I appreciate that it signals a certain privilege to be able say no to some clients/ jobs. Overall, I value clarity, communication and trust when working with someone plus it needs to feel authentic.
Describe your work process…
Firstly, I research and make lots and lots of notes! This is usually to understand the brand/client/context and the aims/message of the project. Then I make scribbly roughs and start to come up with composition ideas and how to best get the theme. I decide on a colour palette and then go on to make the final piece (sometimes physically on paper, sometimes on the iPad). I try to document the process and show behind the scenes content wherever possible.
What sort of space do you work in?
I work in a studio near Hastings town centre, a couple of minutes from the sea. I enjoy working out of the house and having an excuse to walk and get fresh air. For me, it’s also important to be around other creative folk (in the same building). It means I can have my own space yet don’t feel cut-off or isolated. My room is in a Victorian building, with a tall sash window, a high ceiling, and old wooden floorboards. It’s filled with books, stationary and very random trinkets. I have a fireplace (non-working sadly) and an armchair. Lots of people say it feels like a grandma’s living room…which I take as a compliment!
Tell us about your neighbourhood…
I live in the seaside town of Hastings, on the south east coast (of England). It’s a vibrant community-driven place with so much character and history, and I love it. My studio is in the America Ground, an area known for its independent shops and cafes.
How valuable is the online community to your work?
Massively! My work is probably most known through social media and it was certainly the major launching pad for my online illustration career (alongside my more traditional, editorial work done more in the earlier days). I am super-driven by having an audience to share work with, it motivates me to create more content (without being a slave to it!) and I love to see when a piece I draw resonates with other people.
Working as an independent maker: what are the joys, and what are the challenges?
I appreciate the freedom of saying yes or no to projects (unless there are money issues which doesn’t leave a lot of choice). I think I’m at a place now where I consider myself a collaborator rather than a contractor; that is to say, I need to consider the type of clients I’m working for and how that fits with my business and my outlook rather than seeing my work as purely serving others. It needs to work both ways. I like how each day is different and I have a choice in which direction I’m going in.
On a bad day though it can be very stressful. There’s a certain amount of pressure to always be better than your last job and to keep yourself inspired, motivated and relevant; there’s a constant pressure to make enough money and sustain yourself without selling out or succumbing to stuff you don’t want to do. It can be tricky to keep on top of admin, and contractual/legal matters can be incredibly dull and tiring, particularly when all you want to do is make work. But ultimately, it’s been good to learn these aspects as it’s part of making a business and understanding how the industry works. Professionally, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing!
What has been the greatest hurdle in starting your own business?
In the early days, I found it hard to know my own worth, what to charge and what jobs to say yes or no to. It all takes time and I learnt gradually by candidly talking with peers and others in the industry. I also adopted a confident, experienced and professional front (even if I didn’t have a clue what I was doing!). There really is a truth in the saying “fake it til you make it!”
How do you approach marketing and PR?
It certainly doesn’t come naturally to me. Social media can put pressure on you to constantly produce fun and engaging content yet make you feel weird for plugging your own work or products. It’s kind of wild how many different roles creatives are expected to play – it’s rarely about just making work these days, it’s also about how you make it, share it and apply it. I try to do this as organically as possible through my social media channels; talking about a piece and then mentioning the product that’s also for sale from my online shop. I guess it’s all relevant because it all comes from me!
What have been your business highlights so far?
A few very different ones! Being commissioned by HBO to help promote the TV show GIRLS after they spotted my fan blog on Tumblr. I was given a VIP pass to Lena Dunham’s London book launch and got to meet her backstage; illustrating a ginormous map of London that was installed at Tate Britain last year, as well as co-founding and running HiFest (Hastings Illustration Festival) with my partner for five years (2014-18); riding the Trans-Siberian Railway and self-publishing a book about it off the back of a very fun and successful Kickstarter campaign and designing my own signature sketchbook and seeing it for the very first time.
Do you have any creative pastimes or hobbies?
I collect many types of trinkets and am really into property renovation TV shows. I’m fascinated by buildings and people-watching and am often trying to capture them in my journals / sketchbooks. I also got into punch-needling over lockdown and really enjoyed it. One day I’d love to make a huge rug!
Any good advice for makers who are just starting out?
1. Know your value and your voice. Try to know what your work is worth and what defines your unique style (whether it’s the medium, the colours, the feel, or the themes). This has been crucial for me in developing a style that is recognisable and hireable.
2. If you need help or advice, just ask for it. It’s really important to have peers around that you feel you can talk to about the ups and downs of work. Everyone has to start somewhere, and sometimes you have to improvise or make things up as you go along – but that’s OK.
What does the next year hold for you?
As it’s been for a while, things are still a little up in the air, so who knows! I miss travelling so much and hope that it will be back on the cards sometime in the near future. I’m super excited about the sketchbook I made earlier this year and am really enjoying sharing content (over at @ninacosfordsketchbook on Instagram), and building on this community of sketchbook enthusiasts. Keeping a sketchbook is something I will always be passionate about and can talk about forever!
Describe your work in three words? Playful, relatable, thoughtful.
What are your making rituals? Atmospheric music, north-facing/indirect light, coffee/tea, sketchbook and a clear desk space (to begin with anyway!).
Night owl or early bird? Neither really! When I was younger, I used to be better at burning the candle at both ends (especially as a student), but now I fall much more in the 9am to 5pm category. I wish I was more of a morning person though…maybe one day!
I wish someone had told me… Not to worry so much about what other people think. It’s not up to others to define your worth – that’s something that you set yourself and something you have to keep reminding yourself to maintain.