An artist with an international following for his illustration work discusses constant learning and the benefits of sticking to what you love.
Karl-Joel Larsson followed his passion for illustration after studying at one of Sweden’s top design programs, committing to a life doing what he loves – art and, in particular, illustration. So far, it’s been the right choice. He’s grown a noteworthy following for his approachable, Matisse-inspired work, while also growing what appears to be a thousand Monstera plants in his apartment/workspace. He regularly takes on commissioned illustrations for various international clients – even the Tory Burch team are fans of his calming, colourful style.
How long have you been working as an illustrator? Is that work full-time?
I started taking my illustration seriously about two years ago. I’ve worked with it part-time on freelancing basis since I got my bachelor degree in June 2016 and full-time since May 2017.
What motivated you to freelance with illustration?
Well, I wouldn’t really want to be doing anything else because I’m happiest when I’m drawing and I’d rather barely make it than work with something else and be unhappy.
After a while, I noticed what gained traction and what did not and fortunately my illustrations were well received.
What kind of work environments have you previously worked in?
I’ve studied different creative studies since graduating high school. And since graduating from design school, I’ve only had uncreative part-time jobs to be able to stay afloat and do creative stuff with the time left over.
What were the most crucial steps you took to start freelancing, and building a reputation?
Looking back, the first step was when I was still studying, my last year of my bachelor. I started taking my illustration practice more seriously, and with that, also taking my Instagram account more seriously – posting more, and more illustration related posts, and slowly phasing out unnecessary personal stuff.
After a while, I noticed what gained traction and what did not and fortunately my illustrations were well received which made me even more dedicated to continue making and posting more. Slowly, some commissions started coming in from people that had seen my account. But there was a lot of working for free – usually on fun projects, but sometimes not. I learned by each commission – and I still learn, to be more clear with what I want, like getting paid decently.
The other important step was just finally making my mind up, quitting the stressful day job I had, to try this out. Fortunately I had some savings to make it for a few months if it wouldn’t work out. But it sort of has, at least for now. This was earlier this year and I’m still very new to this, so who knows how it will go.
I’ve actively worked on “getting out there” (i.e. the internet) where most commissions come from.
Would you say that getting illustration projects ‘just happened,’ or that you actively made them happen?
I’d say both. I’ve actively worked on “getting out there” (i.e. the internet) where most commissions come from – from people that have seen my work on Instagram or somewhere else online and have then contacted me. I’ve also contacted a few places that I’d really like to work with, some of which have actually become real projects.
Finish this sentence: it would have been impossible to freelance if I hadn’t…
… had a pretty cheap rent, had really nice and supporting parents, had the aforementioned tiny amount of savings to live on while getting started, had the positive response from my Instagram followers.
What does your current work environment look like?
At the moment, I’m working from home, which is far from ideal. My goal is to have a more office like environment as soon as possible, so I can work on structuring my work time, and also separating it from non-working time.
…I’ve only had uncreative part-time jobs to be able to stay afloat and do creative stuff with the time left over.
When you work, what’s your creative process or routine?
It differs from day to day. Sometimes I need the get into the “zone” and other times I just need to start working on something – the latter being something I feel is very important when working from home, and is still something I’m working on bettering.
Do you finish everything you start?
Yes, usually. If an idea or a sketch feels good enough, I always try to reach the goal line – which can be a bit blurry at times. But I do leave a bunch of ideas and sketches in early stages because they don’t feel quite right.
Have you ever failed? And what’s your attitude toward failure?
In a way, yeah sure. I have found myself in positions where I’ve not felt completely comfortable – with the work I’ve made, with the business arrangement, etc. Which sometimes have felt like failure. But I do feel like I’ve learned from every experience, good or not so good, and I’ve learned to be better at saying no to requests that feel unorganised, unclear, underpaid or not good in any other way. So I believe failure – as hard as it can feel sometimes – is necessary to learn and evolve, which is something I feel is a constant, ongoing process.
I believe failure – as hard as it can feel sometimes – is necessary to learn and evolve.
What percentage of your work time do you spend getting/managing clients?
I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about this. Sending and replying to emails is just a daily chore.
How many projects do you take on at one time?
At most I’ve had 4 projects running at one time and it actually worked well, some having a longer time line and others shorter.
What skill do you feel you need to improve in order to keep working independently?
I need a bit more structure in my work time combined with separating it more effectively from non-working time. I do think this ia very important when both working from home and working with your passion.
Do you feel that you’ve lost any passion for illustration by making it your full-time work?
No, I don’t think so. Sure, sometimes it has felt like that, but overall I think it has definitely given me more drive – and time – to be passionate about drawing.
…be clear about what you want out of something, be clear about how you work…
Do you continue to illustrate and explore for yourself, or only for projects?
I still have plenty of time to explore for myself in-between projects, which I value highly.
What’s your best tip for handling bad days, people, press, etc?
That’s something I too still struggle with and I don’t really have any good tip except maybe to be clear about what you want out of something, be clear about how you work – try to be as clear as possible in general. And if nothing else, taking a walk, getting some fresh air and changing your surroundings to clear your thoughts is always good.
Do you have any goals with your illustration?
To continue making work that people find interesting or relevant, or that have a positive impact on them. And in a more selfish aspect: to continue working full-time with illustration, working on either big or small projects that feel really good and that evolve my style and thoughts about it.
All photos contributed by Karl-Joel Larsson unless otherwise noted.
Karl-Joel Lives in Gothenburg, Sweden. Check his latest work on Instagram, and his portfolio. Some works can be purchased via his webshop.
Want to read another story about a designer? Try here.