Hi Gemma, why and when did you decide to start your business?
I decided to start my illustration business in 2015. I graduated from an MA in illustration in 2006 but it wasn’t until I had two small children at home that I fell in love with illustration all over again through endless hours of reading picture books and drawing together at the dining table.
I read a quote somewhere that said ‘If you don’t build your dream someone else will hire you to help build theirs.’ I now know these to be Tony Gaskins’ words. While I was at home looking after my young daughters, working hours were in short supply.
Stumbling across those words was a profound moment of realisation for me. It occurred to me that if I didn’t begin building up my illustration skills and putting myself out into the world right away, I would continue to find myself busy with other people’s projects and not finding the time to do my own. I decided to commit to drawing every day and sharing my progress online. Everything grew organically from there.
What had you done previously?
Previously I worked as a photographer and graphic/web designer. I studied fine art photography and did freelance photography work to pay the bills right through art school and beyond.
After my illustration masters I found myself, somewhat unintentionally, building a small business doing photography, branding and web design with clients through word of mouth until I decided to pursue illustration full time.
How would you describe your brand’s ethos?
I strive to create timeless work that is of high quality, while keeping consumption as meaningful and waste free as possible. For my illustrated goods, I run Gemma Koomen Shop with my partner Jody. We try to be as thoughtful as possible in terms of the sustainability of the products we create. We want to have a gentle impact on the environment.
All our cards are made with FSC 100% recycled paper. The printing company we work with are ecologically minded, based in the UK, provide a living wage, and package everything using compostable and biodegradable materials. Our prints are made with a small carbon neutral company in the UK. We try to keep our entire product range plastic free.
What does a typical day look like for you?
At the moment, I like to start the day by meditating and having breakfast with the girls then I take my coffee into my tiny studio and do a short session of journaling followed by creative writing. I move onto drawing out ideas either for myself or commissions. I then take a short break outside with the dog for fresh air and sunlight and have a bite to eat.
After that, I paint for as long as possible. In the late afternoon I work with my partner Jody and we tackle a lot of the business tasks from product development to photography, customer service and inventory management.
How does your location inspire you?
We are based in rural Northumberland in the North Pennines. It’s hard not to experience and interact with nature here, wildlife and noticeable seasonal changes are on our doorstep. You don’t have to go too far to be in quiet, wild places.
Stepping out of our tiny house to see the barn owl swoop over the garden, the flock of starlings going to roost in the old ash tree, a red squirrel collecting acorns in the plantation of the farm are all things that have made their way into my work, as have the wildflowers and plants of the hedgerow.
Can you tell us a little about the processes used to create your work?
Though my processes vary, my illustrations often start life as a pencil or ink sketch. Sometimes I have a direct theme in mind, which can often be seasonal. I will sketch out ideas and look through my vintage reference books and my own photographs. Inspiration also comes from just living life, seeing something that moves me, and sketching it down right away.
Once I’m happy with the sketch, I move into paint, then scan it, lay out the design digitally and send it to the client if it’s a commission or onto the printers.
Your designs are inspired by life’s simple pleasures – why is this so central to your illustrations?
In a chaotic and often fragmented world, small things remind me to slow down and take better care of myself, others and nature. The simple things in life touch my heart and take me out of my head and into the present. I can be consumed with worry until I see a song thrush hop onto the branch outside.
Then I am captivated by the miraculous nature of such a delicate, perfect, autonomous living thing existing in the same reality as me. This somehow lightens me.
A beautiful moment in nature in connection to someone I love; I want to try and capture a moment to encapsulate that feeling. Or time spent with myself, in little rituals of simple things like picking fresh wild flowers or greenery to put on the table to admire while drinking tea and writing in my journal. These small acts help me remember what is important to me and might help someone else to do the same.
Which is your most popular product?
The greeting cards are the most popular product that we offer. People really love them, they are uplifting, affordable, and ethically produced. People have been enjoying them so much that it’s sometimes been hard to keep our whole range in stock during the pandemic.
I wonder if it is because sending a special handwritten card is such a nice way to connect to a loved one in these circumstances.
Do you have a favourite product?
My picture book Flock, A Treekeeper Adventure published by Frances Lincoln/Quarto books has a special place in my heart. I worked so hard and poured so much love, care and time into that story and to illustrate that world. It is quite personal to me and my daughters too.
The story helped my youngest learn to overcome some of her shyness and begin to feel more confident in her friendships.
How do you approach PR and marketing?
I see marketing as sharing. I document my process and show it on Instagram. I also let people know about new things or products I’m excited about there and in my occasional newsletters. I take time to make work that I am happy with, select my best photographs, tell the story as authentically as possible, and share things that are genuinely uplifting to me.
My PR strategy is to make the highest quality work to the most ethical standard I can. I then trust that people will want to share it with others because it is of genuine value to them.
What’s been your highlight so far?
Even as a child, I aspired to publish a picture book. To see Flock, A Treekeeper Adventure become a reality, and to work with some very skillful people in UK publishing to guide me through the process, was a real highpoint in my illustration work.
And finally, if you were to share any words of wisdom with readers looking to start a creative business – what would you say?
Daily habits and practices go a long way. They have a cumulative effect, building momentum. Is there something that you really love and want to get better at, with the hope of being able to make a living from it? Start with a small daily action that builds towards that goal.
If your goal is to become an illustrator, start drawing every day. If you want to be a writer, start writing every day. An aspiring photographer should start photographing every day.
Even if it’s 10 minutes or a single sketch or photo each day, it builds the muscle that you will need, the core skill that will be the anchor for your whole business.
Once you have built some confidence, it’s so important to share your work with the right people. The people in your life will not always have the same taste as you or understand what you are aspiring to do. So they may carelessly say diminishing things which can crush the tender beginnings of a creative adventure into the unknown. So do put your work into a space that is potentially more neutral, like a new Instagram or Tiktok account that is just for that purpose. Follow other creatives you admire. Getting feedback from these spaces can be really affirming.
Describe your work in three words: gentle, peaceful, nostalgic.
What are your creating rituals? My creating rituals change from season to season but I have found the following to be useful. Lighting a candle or smudging palo santo before beginning work. Cleaning my desk and doing a short meditation with a hot tea or coffee before starting new imaginative work. Mixing up a new colour palette from my inspiration mood board before starting a new series of work. Listening to a podcast or favourite music while I paint. Taking a gentle walk and mindfully observing my surroundings. Taking notes of any lines of text that pop into my head and photos of what I see to bring back into my work in the studio.
Tea or Coffee? Both? Usually coffee, but if I’m feeling anxious I like to switch to decaf.
Mountains or sea? The sea, always.
Night owl or early bird? I am a night owl, but I wish I was an early bird (one day maybe, I live in hope!).
I wish someone had told me… Talent is overrated. Persistence and commitment are the most important things that will help you make a living from being an artist. Don’t look to others for validation, be the judge of your own work.