Interview with artist and designer Katie Bell

When designer Katie Bell went on maternity leave she was determined to find a way to work from home. So she answered every design-based ad she could find.

Then almost by chance she stumbled on creating portraits of friends’ pets. Read how she’s now launched her digital pet portraits as a home-based business.

What’s your career background?

I’m a graphic designer, and had a successful career in London – my last job was with Sky TV making their film promos. I also specialised in branding, typography and print with international brands.

How did your career change after having children?

I decided to pursue my passion for art and design which I could do from home. I saw it as an opportunity to fit in my creative/earning needs around being a full time mum.

While I was on maternity leave I applied to as many adverts on Gumtree as I could find which had any design/art relevance. I got an interview with a children’s author to work on a range of books and met him with my four month-old daughter in her pram.

I explained I could only work limited hours at home, but would be committed. I got the job! That led me to pursue designing for other clients and I’ve continued to work from home for the last two years.

In the first year I worked during my daughter’s daytime naps and a few hours in the evening. Completing each project was a huge confidence boost.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

There were a couple of avenues I could have pursued. I love sewing and crafts and have made a few quilts and childrens dresses.

My friends suggested I set up sewing classes after they asked if I could help them make childrens Christmas stockings. I may do this at some stage, but I’ve rediscovered art and illustrating since I’ve been at home, and it’s become so pleasurable that this is now my main focus.

In February I was looking for a new project, and just out of interest I illustrated a selection of my friends dogs and cats which I’d seen on Facebook.

I posted my completed portraits and got a really positive response. In the past few weeks I’ve have received more commissions and my customers have been delighted with their framed portraits. So already it’s steadily growing and very exciting.

What’s your USP?

I am an artist digitally illustrating pet portraits in my own unique style. I provide an alternative style to classic watercolour, pencil and pastel artworks. My illustrations arrive framed to hang on your wall.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

I always try and talk to dog owners now when out for a walk and have postcards of my work that I give out if the opportunity is right.

Recently I joined a networking club which has been great. They offer me support and advice on how best to promote my business. I also post on Facebook and recently Instagram.

Later this year I plan to sell at local craft fairs supported by a targeted Facebook campaign. That’s my plan for the next 6-12 months.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Self doubt. To actually go for it and represent ‘me’ – my business. Being a creative person, I’m always been far more comfortable in the background and always reluctant to stand in front of others and sell myself. Now, I stand up and sell my business since attended the networking events.

I’ve fluffed the short presentation each time, but gradually it’s teaching me to keep practicing and turn that into a positive.

And your proudest moment so far?

It was receiving that first batch of pet portraits, completed and framed. They looked terrific.

What keeps you motivated each day to do what you love?

Fundamentally, I suppose it’s recognition from others who I hope will want to buy my art. Completing a portrait that my client is really happy with does give me great pleasure and a sense of achievement. I enjoy earning for myself and being my own boss.

I want be a good role model for my daughter; proud that Mummy is making a living as an artist. I want her to grow up and realise that you can do something in life that you enjoy, and if you work hard enough you can earn a living doing it.

Who inspires you?

I love the work of David Hockney. The way he sees colour is just wonderful to me. Hashim Akib is a great acrylic artist. He runs workshops, which I’m attending later this year. Instagram has been amazing and I follow lots of pet portrait artists from around the world of all styles.

What challenges have you faced running a business from home?

Being interrupted all the time. When you try and make a business phone call you can guarantee that ‘the little monkey’ will have a tantrum. I wish there were 16 more hours in the day, so I could get eight hours more sleep and eight hours to work. But on the plus side I can work anywhere, and I don’t have to commute.

What does an average day look like?

Up at 6.30/7am, breakfast as normal. In the morning we go to playgroups or classes. Lunch around 12noon then her nap. That gives me 1–2 hours to check emails and a cup of tea and biscuit.

Afternoons are going to the park or home baking, painting together  –  great fun. Supper early around 5pm, then play, bath, story time and she’s in bed by 7pm.

Though I feel like flopping some days, I spend 2–3 hours an evening illustrating or writing quotes. I work Saturday and Sunday evenings too.

I relish working for myself. My daughter now goes to a child-minder two days a week and I use this precious, uninterrupted time to work. I feel the balance for me is right, and it works for us as a family.

My husband is extremely supportive and takes an interest in what I’m doing. I ask his advice a lot. We make time to be in the garden, watch films and enjoy family time.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

My three top tips would be:

  1. Research as much as possible.
  2. Don’t be frightened of asking questions.
  3. Prioritise your self promotion.

I’m learning each day as I ask questions of suppliers and my peers, it’s such an exciting learning curve. I received a marketing document, recently which helped me prioritise my self promotion, and focus on investing time in the big things I really want to achieve, rather than lots of little things.

Asking questions has taught me to be responsible and represent myself as best as I can. Research wise, I’m currently reading up about starting an Etsy shop. That’s a big step for me. I wanted to get my website finished first, then build up my product range so later this year I will be able to have a good stab at selling online.

What’s the process you go through to get to the beautiful finished portrait of someone’s pet?

When someone commissions me they email a range of their pet photos. I’m looking to try and capture the character of the animal – a great pose helps me see what it is I want to portray. Ideally the reference photos will be nice and clear.

Whether I’m painting or illustrating I enjoy using bold colours. I will see reds, blues – all colours, which I use to highlight and bring a painting to life. I will often put down a piece for a few days, then look at it with fresh eyes.

I email my client a couple of times throughout the 2-3 week process and check they are happy. Once approved, I send the artwork to the printers for framing. It is shipped, ready to hang on their wall.

I want to provide added value, so additionally I post out a Certificate of Authenticity and can produce greeting cards, mugs and coasters.

You can see more of Katie’s work on her website.