Life, advice and inspiration: an interview with freelance illustrator and artist, Sebastian Ciaffaglione

Sebastian Ciaffaglione is a freelance illustrator and artist from Melbourne, Australia. His illustrations have appeared in the best-selling Keeper’s Trilogy by Lian Tanner and Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series published by Allen & Unwin.

The Australian College of Journalism spoke to Sebastian about his freelance career and found out about where he finds his inspiration, creativity and illustration process.

- How and when did you first get into illustration?

Sebastian Ciaffaglione: I’ve always drawn or painted from as early as I can remember. I first thought of illustration as a career when I found the illustration course at the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE. I thought, if they were teaching it, then it must be a proper job, right?

- While working, do you ever practise and create illustrations just for your personal amusement or are you kept fully occupied with paid gigs?

SC: Oh, yes! I paint for myself all the time. Sometimes I spend too much time on my own paintings when I should be focusing on other projects. I’m part of a number of Facebook artists’ groups that are constantly distracting me with interesting topics to tackle.

- You’ve worked on children’s book covers, fantasy novels and comics. What is your favourite type of commercial project, and why?

SC: Book covers are my favourite. I enjoy reading, I love having the chance to dive into someone’s world and try to interpret it visually.

- Describe your current working environment as a freelance illustrator and how it works for you.

SC: It’s pretty simple really. I have a couple of desks set up, one for digital work with my Wacom (a touchscreen and stylus program designed by a Japanese manufacturer) and a couple of monitors, and the other for traditional work. I just switch between them as I need to.

- How does a typical “day in the life of” a freelance illustrator go?

SC: Well, I’m up around 7:30, have coffee and waste time on Facebook/email/Reddit. Then I will paint for the rest of the day. I like to try and have weekends off these days but it doesn’t always work out that way.

How did you get your first illustration job?

SC: We had an end of year exhibition at TAFE and I was lucky enough to be noticed by a publisher here in Melbourne who offered me my first cover job. It all snowballed from there.

- How do you go about getting your current freelance gigs with professionals such as bestselling authors, Lian Tanner and Garth Nix?

SC: Those jobs are both essentially for the same client, Allen & Unwin. In that case, one job led to the other just from the experience of working together. Most of the time your best marketing tool is just to be published in the first place. Kind of a Catch-22 for people starting out, I guess.

- Take us on a journey through your design process. What does it look like, and where do you start?

SC: I start with the script of course! Taking notes as I read, I pay particular attention to the tone and mood of the story as well as the physical descriptions of the characters, and the world.  After I feel familiar enough with the book, I take out my little thumbnail sketchbook and draw dozens and dozens of little “basic thumbnail” drawings. This stage is just about working out a good composition and something that will satisfy everyone. I’ll usually choose two or three of these thumbnails and refine them into a more finished work, but still with “loose” drawings, which I then send to the publisher for approval. Based on their choice and their feedback, I begin the final painting.

- Where do you find your inspiration for both personal and commercial projects?

SC: I am constantly looking at art. Every day I find new artists I love. The sheer amount of brilliant work out there is what inspires me.

- Lastly, do you have any advice you’d like to pass on to aspiring illustrators? Anything you wish you could tell a young, Sebastian Ciaffaglione before becoming a successful freelance illustrator?

SC: Meet your deadlines. That’s the most important piece of advice I can offer any artist. You may be the greatest painter in the world, but your clients will always hire the second best artist if he or she is the one who always meets their deadlines. It’s not just about making art as beautiful as you can.

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