Onyinye Ubah

Just to correct something that many people always seem to confuse. I am an illustrator and not an animator. Animation involves moving pictures on screen, like Tom and Terry but illustration involves creating still images, the type you see in children’s storybooks.

Drawing has been a part of me since I was a kid. I started drawing as early as when I was 3 or 4 years old. My dad helped my creative talent flourish by constantly buying me drawing books and color pencils. So, I was exposed to art early in life. Drawing is a natural talent, but I did not consider it seriously as a career. From my teenage years onward, I became exposed to numerous Disney cartoons. The Disney style became my greatest inspiration, so much so that I could draw Disney characters as good as Disney themselves.

When I finished my secondary school education, I wanted to go on and study law. To my surprise, my dad urged me to go and study art instead. What he did was contrary to what most African parent would do. Most parents would discourage their child from pursuing an art education, but my dad not only gave me his green light and blessings. In addition to that, he supported me and encouraged me all the way. That exactly was how I went to study Art at the Yaba College of technology. When I got into school, my fellow artist immediately recognised my style and it earned me the nickname in school ‘Disney’. The more I matured professionally, the more I tried to develop my own distinct style and move away from the Disney style which was too ubiquitous. Now most of my inspiration comes from my Nigerian culture. I have found that we have so much to draw from by way of inspiration and ideas. My goal is to continue to improve my illustration and painting skills and make them more child friendly, since that’s my primary market.

This whole process did not come without people looking down on me. Was it that bad? Oh yes of course, people really looked down on me. Here in this part of the world, arts are never taken seriously. People would think you will not amount to anything. To some, I was just a guy drawing silly cartoons. Actually, I didn’t care what people think. There is a huge market for my work out there and that’s the most important thing. In fact with globalisation and all, the world is now my oyster so to speak, after all, my clients include both local and overseas.

Looking back now, I have never doubted my skills or my ability to create art required of me, but most times I have doubted my potential to succeed and make a living doing what I love. But as I got better and better at what I did and my skills became more advanced, my doubts began to vanish. The truth remains that somehow, I always knew I was going to be successful doing this as a career.

In time, when people began to pay me for what I did, and loved my work, I knew this was what I was going to be doing. Art in itself is so much fun. Getting paid for what you love doing is even more rewarding.

One of the challenges in my early days was getting clients. At some point, I was doing some office to office marketing on my own hunting for clients.  But with the advent of new media, particularly social media, these days, it seems the clients are the ones now seeking you. I have an active presence and post work regularly on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Behance, Creativepool and my personal website. Most clients have contacted me via these online platforms, so I can say the challenge of getting clients have been overcome to an extent.                                                                                   

The second challenge is getting clients especially the local Nigerian clients to pay me what I charge commensurate to the quality of work I deliver. Most local clients undervalue art and underestimate the time, creativity, and skill that go into creating it. Hence, they tend to bid low and under-price your service. Most times, some have run for the hills when they found a certain price was above their budget. So, the problem is that clients here in Nigeria have little budgets when commissioning illustration work compared to overseas clients who are more inclined to pay standard global rates

Well, as an illustrator, the greatest fulfillment and satisfaction that come from this profession is not the money or recognition, but the fact that you are doing what you love and constantly improving your skills. The more proficient and skillful you become, the bigger clients you get. And the bigger clients you get, the more you are paid. For me, I think it’s an ongoing thing. There really is no fixed destination, just constant growth and improvement, and building my clientele.

One of the unforgettable experiences I have had was with a Nigerian client based in the UK. He said he was a co-owner of a publication that publishes cartoons in the UK. He requested that I should create cartoons portraying social issues in the UK. It was one of the most challenging projects I have ever worked on. Since I did not live in the UK, I had to research the social issues peculiar to the UK and come up with cartoons portraying them. As challenging as it was, I completed the project to the client’s satisfaction and amazement! He loved it! But guess what? He ghosted me. I was never paid a dime for all that work. In hindsight, I learnt a painful lesson from that experience, and that is: NEVER START A PROJECT WITHOUT A SIGNIFICANT DEPOSIT!  If I had asked for a deposit, at least I would have been paid an advance. Unless a client is a big name publisher, I always insist on an advance before I commence a project.

 Fair enough, I have had so many good experiences too. But the one I appreciated the most was the one that helped me appreciate the wisdom of constantly improving my skills. Immediately after I left art school, I worked in an advertising agency and then a publishing company respectively as an illustrator. Working in these places further helped me develop my skill, but at some point I stopped improving my skills and began resting on my laurels. I got into a rut. I wasn’t observing that the illustration landscape was changing in terms of style and quality of work in demand. I had an audience of admirers and fans who praised my work. Since none was giving me any negative feedback, I felt I was good and did not need to improve my work. I continued basking in their adoration, all to my detriment. In reality I was just a one eyed man in the land of the blind. I was not growing as an illustrator, to my fans, it was not obvious but to other professional artists, they knew there was something stagnant about my work. International art buyers never contacted me. One day, I had a rude awakening that jolted me from my creative slumber. On Facebook, I saw the post of a young illustrator who did not even go to art school. He posted a beautiful illustration he had created. It was obvious that he had developed his skills on a personal level. And with each work he posted, his work got higher ratings and likes on social media. Though I could illustrate, the quality and finish of my work could not be compared to his own. This was the wake up call I needed. I was challenged. I was determined to improve my skills. I ordered books from Amazon on digital painting and rendering. I read these books diligently and applied the principles taught in my art work. Almost immediately the quality of my work improved drastically. And here comes to very good part. A publishing company based in New York saw one of my illustrations. They were impressed by the quality and contacted me. I was commissioned to illustrate a children’s book afterwards. This client has subsequently given me more jobs. So, the lesson I learnt was echoed by a bible proverb; ‘Have you seen a man skilful in his work? He will stand before kings and not before common men (Proverbs 22:29). I have been taught that talent is never enough. You must continually improve  and upgrade your skill to meet the needs of a changing market.

Henry Ezeokeke – Illustrator

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