Say yes and then work it out - Illustrator Melanie Chadwick

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When a two-year stint in Hong Kong inspired Mel to pursue illustration, she put her fine art degree to good use and began teaching art workshops to top up her income.

Mel soon bought a Mac and taught herself how to use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, setting up a website and building a portfolio over time.

Mel’s earned money in a variety of ways since then, experimenting with workshops, commissions, products, and collabs. “You’ve got to be open to having conversations with people,” Mel says, “Your confidence and ability will grow with every project.”


Mel Chadwick: I graduated in fine art back in 2002, which is completely different to what I do now. I graduated from Chichester, and then got married, and then we moved to Hong Kong in 2006. In between that time, I was working for myself, but I was also doing visual displays and murals, painting murals in a local school, and doing workshops.

Mel Chadwick: Once we moved to Hong Kong, I couldn't work for six months, because it was the type of visa I was on. Finally that changed, and then I was able to work. I trained as a kinder music teacher, and then also started teaching kids again art.

Steve Folland: Oh, Nice.

Mel Chadwick: Actually, when I was in Hong Kong, was when I started to see illustration everywhere. They're in shopping malls. They have these massive shopping malls, just were full of art and murals. I just thought, "What is this? I want to do this," and so it was actually switching on little light bulbs in my head, thinking, "This is what I actually want to ... I want to go and do that." So, that was the start of it. Even though I'd had a degree in fine art, I, for some reason, just wasn't switched on to illustration.

Steve Folland: So, you find yourself teaching Chinese children English and art, or just art? Yeah?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. Yeah. Most of the children in Hong Kong anyway, they're very good at speaking lots of different languages, so they would normally be able to speak English anyway. There are a lot of international schools as well, and so it was pretty easy to teach a lesson in English, and then I would just do an arts workshop, more like an afterschool thing, or something that they could just enjoy, and be a part of, and relax a bit. Yeah. So, we were there for two years, and then we moved back to the UK.

Steve Folland: When did you come back to the UK? What year was that?

Mel Chadwick: 2008.

Steve Folland: What did you do then?

Mel Chadwick: Well, we moved to Scotland. We were in Aberdeen, so very cold, very different to Hong Kong, completely different climate. It's really humid in Hong Kong, and it was really dry and cold. I think we spent the years that we were there just freezing.

Mel Chadwick: When I got to Aberdeen, I just fell in love with the skies and the landscape, because having been in Hong Kong for those few years, and not really seeing the horizon, you suddenly go to Scotland, and you've got this amazing landscape. The light is very different. So, I started painting again, but I still had the idea of the illustration, so I just set about basically teaching again. I started teaching adults.

Mel Chadwick: There's a big oil industry in Aberdeen, and I went and approached some of these companies, and said, "Look, I can give your workers maybe some classes they can do after work, in art." I did that, and they went really well. So, I was teaching these adults after they've done their full day of work, and teaching art to them.

Mel Chadwick: Then, whilst I was building up some income, I then was able to purchase my first Mac, and then purchase the software that I knew I had to learn, so Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop. I basically was teaching myself how to do that, whilst I was teaching others how to do art.

Steve Folland: So, that whole time you are self-employed?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah.

Steve Folland: You're going out there, and making that opportunity, going out. A lot of people wouldn't make that connection, to go up to oil rigs type company, and say, "How about I teach you fine art?," or whatever.

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. It was pretty much that. It was using the skills I guess that I had from my fine art training, that I knew that I had a goal in mind. So, from building that revenue, I was able to then start building my portfolio, and start setting myself briefs, illustration briefs, and then build a website, and start putting stuff on there.

Mel Chadwick: Also in Aberdeen, I found a screen printing studio, and that's when I started to learn about screen printing. That helped me for my next chapter, which was when we moved down to Falmouth in 2011, and I was able to then set up with a screen printing studio, and started to print my designs onto things, and then sell those things.

Steve Folland: By the way, just to put this geographically in perspective, if you're not from the UK, Aberdeen is right at the top, in Scotland, and Falmouth is right in the opposite corner, down in Cornwall. It's right in the bottom left hand corner of the UK basically.

Mel Chadwick: Yeah, exactly.

Steve Folland: Okay. You start to warm up for starts. Now, you've actually got a screen printing business?

Mel Chadwick: Yes. I was doing T-shirts, and bags, and tea towels, and anything I could print onto, really. I started a brand name called Melly B. It became my full-time hustle for awhile, but it was basically my brand, and I would just design, and then I would burn it onto screen, and then print it off, and onto the different things, and then sell those to shops locally. Then, I would sell them all over the UK. I even had people in Australia buying from me, at one point, which is a bit crazy.

Steve Folland: That must've given you a pretty big boost in confidence.

Mel Chadwick: Yeah, I guess it was like, "Oh, well someone must like this." Definitely, in terms of my illustration style, I was beginning to get to know that, and beginning to just grow it, and build my confidence in that.

Steve Folland: You were literally knocking on shops doors, were you?

Mel Chadwick: Yep. I started just with where I was, in Falmouth. Falmouth, you've got the big college here anyway, and actually, illustration was quite well known to the people in Falmouth area. It was well known for illustration, so people could relate to what I was making. I found that it was easier to make a way in that area, because people knew what illustration was, and I seemed to fit quite well.

Steve Folland: You're getting it into shops, you're selling it online, so what happened next? At this point, you're not doing illustration for clients, it's product-based. Yeah?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. It's more product-based. I guess it's me who's setting the briefs, and then showing what I could do with it, and how it could look. Any images then, that I would get from that, I could then use into my portfolio. So, in the background, I was still working on this illustration side of things, the portfolio. If there was a design that really worked well, and I really thought it was good, and strong enough, I would then slip that into my illustration portfolio.

Mel Chadwick: Any time that I had, I would start looking if there were opportunities, like competitions, or possible collaborations with people, which then start to ... I looked back through my emails, at the first time that I actually approached someone that I thought I could work with, and it was back in 2012. I think it was beginning of the year. I said something like, "I'm an illustrator, I'm building my business, would you be interested in me designing something for your brand, for your business?"

Mel Chadwick: When I was looking back, I was thinking, "How did I do that?" I mean, why did I do that? I was just amazed at ... Sometimes, you just have to do it. You just have to go ahead and give it a go. The response I had was positive, and we went forward, and that was my first commissioned piece, so I was like, "Ooh."

Steve Folland: Yeah. I mean, so what happened from there? Did it just gradually build? Were you sending more emails? What were you doing?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. Once I'd done one brief, I then put it into my portfolio, and then talk about it, and share it on social media. Gradually, bit by bit, I would make more connections. More people would get in touch, or say, "Oh, I saw you do this for that person, could you do this for me?" You just basically keep slowly doing it, and that's how it builds. Each project you do, the more confidence you get, the more your ability grows, as well. Yeah. I just think it's so important to just put yourself out there, because you never know who's going to come back, and who will have seen your work.

Mel Chadwick: I mean, I remember being at a craft fair, and meeting a guy who owned a design studio. That was in 2012, and at the time, he was really enthusiastic about my products that I did, but at the time, it was like I wasn't sure about the connection. But, we made the connection, and now three or four years after that, he then started giving me briefs, and giving me jobs, and he's now one of my biggest clients, that I work with regularly, for proper illustration work. So, you just don't know where those connections are going to come from, but you've got to be open to actually having conversations with people.

Steve Folland: Obviously, you had a fine art degree. You obviously learned how to do the art, but did you also learn the art of business? Did you ever go on a course, or anything like that, or was that involved in your course?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. In 2014, I signed up for a course run by Lilla Rogers, who is an a big agent, and it was just brilliant. Such a brilliant course, because it gave me that education about the different licensing markets, and it was just really good for giving me a overview of what illustration is in the different markets you've got, in the field. You've got all sorts of different markets that you can put your work into, and that was really important, I think, for me to understand, and understand about licensing as well, which was very different to graphic design.

Steve Folland: So, up until that point, you're make it up as you go along, in essence. How did you find, I guess, the pricing side of things?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. Again, if I look back at the correspondence I had in the early days, and I look at the prices, I think, "Oh my goodness, Mel, what were you doing? It's far too cheap." I do think that's more because I was just totally winging it, and trying to work out as I went along, but now, I would definitely know ... You need to know where your value is, and it depends all on what kind of work you're doing, for whatever market, and for what they're using it for, as well. It's so important to learn those things, and really look into it.

Mel Chadwick: The book that I got from the Association of Illustrators, I think The Business of Illustration, that was so helpful, because it gives you an overview of of fees, and contracts, and pricing guides, and all of those terms that maybe ... Well, you need to understand, if you're going to actually have a business, or have a viable business.

Steve Folland: Jumping back into your story, you were doing screen printing, and starting to get your first commissions. How did it change from there?

Mel Chadwick: It just grew. I guess I kept bringing in more interest. More people kept coming in, but where I started seeing the leap, was when I actually started taking the business side seriously. What I mean by that is, actually writing a contract, having contracts in place, because although I had a paper trail like emails, and people may be agreeing through email, I didn't have proper contracts.

Mel Chadwick: Again, that's something that you learn over time, but it's important to have contracts in place before you do any work. I have been burned a few times, where people had said, "Oh yeah, I agree to that," I would do the work, but then I wouldn't get paid. That really made me think, "I've got to be serious about this." So, when I started taking myself more seriously, and my business seriously, then I would be able to take on bigger and better clients, because then obviously, the ones who are just going to be trying to mess you around, when you start mentioning contracts, they will just go.

Steve Folland: You just continued to put yourself out. You mentioned social media earlier, so I presume Instagram was a big thing for you.

Mel Chadwick: Not in the early days. No, not in the early days, because I don't think Instagram really was something on my radar, not until 2016 maybe. Before that, it was Twitter actually, where I was doing a lot of talking to people, talking to businesses, talking to other designer makers, or designers. Yeah, that was where I was reaching out also to people.

Mel Chadwick: It's funny how, for me, it's changed around, I hardly use Twitter now, but I use Instagram more, because of the visual content that you can put out on Instagram. But, for the initial launch, it was more Twitter, that I was using a lot more, to contact people, and then also going into shops, magazine shops. I remember going through all of the magazines in WHSmith, and writing down the editors' names and addresses, and looking at magazines that I'd think, "Ooh, that would be nice to work for them," and then contacting them, telling them about me, and then giving them a portfolio link.

Mel Chadwick: That worked on a few occasions, like Mollie Makes. I had work published in Mollie Makes, which is a craft magazine, and then also another magazine, Ferment, which is a beer magazine. They had some maps, and I wanted to do some map work, and I was like, "Oh, I'd love to do a map, and get it published in a magazine," so I just thought, "Oh, I'll pick that one." We just got in touch, and they were positive, and we got a brief, and a contract. It was all great. Then, did the work, and got published. You find, the more people you have published, it gives you, again, just a greater confidence then, to approach more clients.

Steve Folland: Were there many occasions where you wouldn't hear back?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. Yeah. There were times when I didn't hear anything, and then there were other times, when people would write back, and just say, "Yeah, we really like your work. We'll put your name on our file." Sometimes, I wouldn't hear from them, or then sometimes, it may even be a year later, that I hear from them. Just because they don't have work for you right then, doesn't mean to say that they don't actually like your work. It's normally because they're waiting for the right fit, or they're waiting for the right project to come along.

Mel Chadwick: That's why it's always good to put yourself out there, just so that they know that you exist. I would definitely follow up, as well, maybe in three or four months after you've sent an email, just to say, "Hi, I've been working on this. What do you think?," or, "If there's any possibility of a project, I'd love to know."

Steve Folland: So, gradually this is snowballing in the illustration commissions. Do you still do your own products as well?

Mel Chadwick: I stopped doing the screen printing Melly B stuff when I moved to Porthleven. That was in 2017. One, because I wouldn't have the space, but also because I felt I needed to actually niche down into just illustration. It was too much. It was too becoming too much, to do both the printing and the designing. And to be honest, financially, there's a lot more of a drain on your resources when you're having to produce. You're not only producing it, you're photographing it, you're trying to sell it. You spend just a lot more time on the whole thing, and on stock. I just knew that when we moved, I had to close that side down, and then just focus on illustration.

Steve Folland: You still have a store, but is that more a print on demand type thing, is it?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. Actually, in my store, I do have some print on demand, like Society 6, Redbubble, but I sell mainly in-person workshops now, and I use that store for that, and that's it.

Steve Folland: Well, there's another chapter.

Mel Chadwick: That's another line.

Steve Folland: This is interesting, as well, because I remember watching you on YouTube, making that move. I seem to remember where you used to do screen printing, now you mention it, and you showing us screen printing, and stuff like that. So, the geographical shift again, meant you changed your outlook, and what you were going to do.

Mel Chadwick: Yeah, completely. It was a really positive change going from Falmouth, where although we're by the sea in Falmouth, I wasn't really, really close to the sea, and then when we moved to Porthleven, the house that we were staying in was overlooking the sea. It's just beautiful. I would just be overwhelmed with wanting to go outside, and I started then taking my sketchbook with me.

Mel Chadwick: If you've ever been to Porthleven, you see all of the lovely old fishermen's houses. It's based around a harbor, it's really, really Cornish looking. I would just basically, every day, about seven, go out with my sketchbook, when no one else is around, and just start sketching. I used to do it for about an hour at a time, or less than that sometimes, but it really just got me back into just drawing, observing, and looking, and yeah, that again, developed a whole new area for me to go into.

Steve Folland: So, actually giving yourself a daily ritual challenge almost, even though it's something you wanted to do, that you were inspired to do. To go out, and every day, draw something in that sketchbook, and then share it as well. Every day you'd be sharing it on online.

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. Yup. That's what I did. I shared it on Instagram, and a lot of people seem to really enjoy seeing what I was doing, and yeah. The relationships then would form, because of me sharing that. I'd meet clients, because they saw my sketchbook stuff, and I'm working with clients now, because of doing what I did back then.

Steve Folland: You mentioned workshops. Did that grow out of that period?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. Yeah. I lived in Porthleven for about eight months, and every day I would go out and draw. I just saw the benefits for me, mentally, going out and doing that every day, taking the time out, to just be in the moment. When you're drawing, and you're just drawing from what's in front of you, everything else switches off. Your brain switches off. You're able to just focus on what it is that you're drawing, and I just thought this actually probably would be really good to share with other people. I thought people coming on holiday, or wanted to do something in their downtime. I just thought this would be great to offer to people, and so that's when I came up with the idea of sketch walks.

Mel Chadwick: I started them last year in the summer, and around Porthleven, and people have, I think, really enjoyed doing them. I'm doing them now this year, as well. Where we go out, and we just sketch, and we stop, and we just look, and then we just explore. We just do it for a couple of hours, and people are really quite refreshed afterwards. Yeah, it's really good.

Steve Folland: You're selling them via your site, as you mentioned, but are you marketing them locally?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. I market them locally, with fliers, just handouts, put them on notice boards, and Facebook as well. Do quite a bit of advertising, just using Facebook, and connecting with local groups. Some people just don't like Facebook, but it's actually really good tool for using, to tell about what you do. So, that's been really helpful, as well, to spread the word about the workshops. Yeah.

Mel Chadwick: I also run regular workshops, as well, just in a coffee shop. So, in Mullion, where we're living now, I use one of the local coffee shops to just base myself out of. People will come into the coffee shop, have tea, coffee, and then they can do some sketching with me, as well. So, it means that we both benefit. The business is benefiting, and I'm benefiting, and the community benefits.

Steve Folland: When you started doing your YouTube channel ... You started with Vlogs, and it was like I do with mine. It was like you'd be filming pretty much every day, and talking to the camera, and then ... They're brilliantly edited. I love them. Did you find that made a difference in any way?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. Again, it helped so much with talking, because as you can see, I ... Sometimes, it's quite hard for me to stay on one track, and also talking in front of people, so doing the Vlogs, and forcing myself to actually talk to the camera, was just really good practice for that.

Mel Chadwick: I think I remember in my first Vlog, I actually said I sounded like a robot, because I was just not quite sure what I was saying. I'm just too aware of being filmed, but the more I did, the more confident I became, and was able to communicate, and yeah. Also, through doing the Vlogging I was, actually ... you raise your profile, as well. You actually say, "I'm here, and this is what I do." It's, I guess, another tool that you can use for reaching out to people, and people getting to know you. I feel like I know you well, Steve, because I've seen you on camera, and I've heard you, and it's probably more than if, say I was just reading your blogs. I probably wouldn't feel as connected as I do to you, because I've seen you, and I've heard your voice. So, it's quite powerful, having a video, I think. Video in general, is very powerful.

Steve Folland: It gave you that confidence, it let people get to know you. Did clients find you that way?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah, I have had a few clients actually through ... they've watched my Creative Conversations that I've been doing, and they've been looking for illustrators, and because they've seen me on that, then they've contacted me and said, "Oh, I saw your Creative Conversations. I'm looking for an illustrator." So, even though, in those conversations, I don't talk about me, I'm interviewing another creative person, I guess they felt they could trust me, and they kind of knew me, because they've seen those. So yeah, they've been really good for that, connecting with new people.

Steve Folland: Those Creative Conversations videos are so beautifully made. I know how long it takes to do stuff. There's a reason I chat to people on podcasts, rather than, as well, going to their house, or their studio, and filming it, and things like ... How much of your time were you then giving that, and how are you justifying it to yourself, and things like ...

Mel Chadwick: I guess I just wanted to connect with more people, and that was the value that I saw in it. It was connecting with people. As a freelancer, sometimes you are very much on your own, doing work on your own, and I just felt ... When I moved, I just felt it's time to actually step out of my little bubble, and meet people where they are, and meet people locally, because again, I was maybe communicating with a lot of people, all across the country, across the world even, but actually communicating with people, and connecting with them in my area, that wasn't happening. So, I was like, "No, I need to go and do that." It had to be a project. It had to be under a project. It couldn't just be, "I'll just meet you for coffee." It could have been, but that's a bit harder, to sometimes get people to agree to, if they don't have a clue who you are.

Steve Folland: Well, it gives you a reason, doesn't it? That initial thing. So, you went around, and met, and you still make them, right?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah, I do. Although, at the minute, I haven't posted one for a little while. I was just working on it yesterday, so I'm hoping, in the next week, I'll get another one up. But, when I did craft fairs, the bit that I loved about craft fairs, was actually talking to my store neighbors, and finding out about them, and just getting to hear about how they run their business. It was from that, that I then thought, "Yeah, I'm sure other people, will be interested to see behind the scenes, and where they work, and how they do it." That's why I film it, why it's not just a podcast. It's like, I want people to see what they're talking about.

Steve Folland: They are brilliant videos. The editing, the camera work, everything, it's brilliant. We'll put links, of course, in the show notes, as ever, as we do for all of our guests.

Steve Folland: I mean, that all sounds like a lot.

Mel Chadwick: Yeah.

Steve Folland: How do you fit everything in? I mean, it's nice, because there's lots of different revenue streams, as well as things, like doing YouTube, which aren't necessarily revenue boon directly, as we both know. Presumably, you've got client work, as well. How do you go about structuring your day, or your week, and managing that workload, when you're also committing yourself to other things?

Mel Chadwick: Well, day-by-day. Seriously, there are moments when things are very full-on, and I've got to literally, every day, just write down what's the priority for that day. It does mean that, things that maybe I would love to do, I can't do, because I've got to actually prioritize the client work. I've got to prioritize paying the bills, and yeah, that does come first, because obviously, if I don't pay the bills, I don't have somewhere to work.

Mel Chadwick: There are times, obviously then, when it's a bit quieter, and then I can work out, "Well, what would I really like to do? What would I like to focus on for the next month?" I would just basically write down those things that we'd like to do, and then just work ... I guess, work my way through them.

Mel Chadwick: Obviously, there's other things that crop up, which I can't plan for, but I'm quite flexible. I mean, if I need to work later, I will work later. If I work early, I will work early. I love waking up really early. So, say I've got some deadlines. I'll probably wake up, and start work at seven, because I can do that, because I'm working from home, then that's how I fit it in. You've just got to be flexible.

Mel Chadwick: I've got a husband, who also would like me to be with him at times, so I've got to also account for that, as well. He's good, because he will say, "Look, I know you've got to work, but then you've also got to rest, and you've got to switch off," and that's really important. That's really important for me to do, so it's good that he will say that to me. He'll say, "Right, that's it. Stop," otherwise I might just keep working.

Steve Folland: In the last couple of years, has there been a change in your illustration work, in your client work?

Mel Chadwick: Yeah. I've definitely taken on bigger clients, and work is a lot more editorial, as in maps. I'd worked for Virgin, did some advertising map work for Virgin, which was a complete surprise. I'm not quite sure how they found me.

Mel Chadwick: When you take on a client that big, and you know how big there are, you just think, "Oh my goodness, what's going on here? How did I manage to get this job?," but I just approach it the same way with all my clients. I just look at what they want, follow the brief, and just deliver. Just make sure I deliver it on time, and that's all you can do, really, is just do your best for each client, and treat them all as individuals.

Mel Chadwick: Yeah, it's been really good, and really interesting, the different work that's come in, and I've definitely had more local business work this last few year, and that's probably because I've been working with ... well just working with local clients.

Mel Chadwick: So, the guy that I talked about, who saw my work through Instagram, doing the sketch works in Porthleven, he's a publisher, and he lives in Porthleven, and so I've been doing maps, I did a lot of maps for him. Through doing the maps, and being published locally, it means then, you're going to attract more potential clients, and so the last year, I've had a lot more maps for local places, which has been really good, because it means I can get to meet my clients face-to-face, and you build that relationship, which is really good.

Steve Folland: It feels like you're always happy to experiment with things, and try things out. Has there been things which have worked, or things which haven't worked so well, that maybe we haven't touched upon?

Mel Chadwick: I think you've definitely hit it on the head there, that I like to experiment, and try things out. Sometimes, definitely, as I was starting out, I would get projects come in, and I know that I wouldn't have had experience doing it, but I would still go ahead and do it, because I think it's important that you just sometimes say yes to things, and then you can work it out.

Mel Chadwick: I mean, sometimes people were like, "How can you do that?," but actually, you probably can do a lot more than you realize, and sometimes you just need the pressure of a deadline, or a pressure of being asked to do something, to actually get you to do it.

Mel Chadwick: I think I've discovered that about myself, is that I work very well under pressure, and sometimes if the deadline is far too long, it just doesn't incentivize me enough to do the work. I know that's probably not going to work for everyone, but that's how I like to do things. In most cases, I've managed to pull things off. Yeah, there's some pieces maybe, that I think, if I had a bit more time, I could've actually made it go in a different direction, or I could've changed things slightly, but again, you can only do the best you can do, and I try and do my best for each client.

Steve Folland: Now, if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Mel Chadwick: Get one good idea, and then persist, and stick with it.

Steve Folland: ... Have there been times when you've had one good idea, and you've thought about giving up?

Mel Chadwick: Oh yeah. I think maybe that's why I've had ... my path has been so ... like this. I've got to learn to maybe just, once I have an idea, I have to actually persevere, and follow it through. Sometimes, that takes a lot of effort to do that, because obviously, if you don't see results straight away, you begin to doubt yourself. Sometimes, you've actually got to go through that hard graft, and just stick with it, and that's where I've seen with illustration.

Mel Chadwick: I've been doing it since 2012, and I feel the more that I go into it, and stick with it, I start seeing the fruit. I think, if I had known that maybe, right back in 2002 ... I'd had known about it then, I'd probably ... my path may look a little bit different.

Mel Chadwick: I'm grateful though, for the journey I've had, and again, you've got to appreciate where you've come from, I guess, and how things have led to where you are now, but I still think, yeah, persevering with something is important.