Lillian Gray and her incredible story to become an illustrator: How hard can it be?

The story of Lillian Gray: My father always said that if I wrote a book about my life, no one would believe me. So you might be tempted to file this under fiction, even though this is just a little blurb in the life of Lillian, but I can promise you it’s all true, cross my heart…blah blah blah however that goes.

I had just finished at the University of Stellenbosch with a Cum Laude in Visual Design as well as an Honours degree in Business. I was 22 and wanted to be the world’s best illustrator.

My dream to become and illustrator

I was determined to intern as an illustrator at one of the foremost creative illustration studios in Cape Town. Everyone had told me that I wouldn’t get in, this studio didn’t ‘do’ internships for illustrators, but I applied and convinced them to start offering internships, that it would be good for business. I was their first recruit ever.

Even though I adored being able to draw and create 3D animations all day, I soon realised that the company was riddled with a terrible work ethic. Initially, I would show up for work at 8 am and sit outside the office for 2 to 3 hours until someone showed up. Once at the office, however, it wasn’t so easy to leave. Employees were expected to work all hours.  Except for early mornings, apparently.  The leading 3D artist literally had a sleeping bag under his desk!

More disturbingly, I soon discovered a sub culture of drug abuse. Management believed that drug use promoted creativity and employees and illustrators were put under a lot of pressure to partake.  I believe that humans are naturally creative beings that do not require any aids to engage in the creative process, we were born to create.

The final straw was an incident that still makes my hair stand on end. The instruction came to start working on this game called ‘Alice’.  One of the senior management team summoned a group of illustrators to a meeting, very late at night, at a strange, new location. Upon arrival, the place turned out to be a Mental Asylum. He promptly instructed us to stay the night and to do drugs in order to get ‘inspiration’ for the design of this game.  Needless to say, I refused, and this did not go down well.

The final show down took place less than a week later. My work was done and I was preparing to leave the office at 17:00. I had a family event to attend.  The same manager confronted me and demanded I remain at work. This grown man was throwing a tantrum at my desk with his face 4cm from mine, spit flying all over, and wagging his finger at me, very nearly up my nostrils. Euwh!

Well, that was that, as they say. I decided then and there, it was time to start my own business. I didn’t need this in my life. So I walked out.

All good and well but now I needed to act fast, I had bills to pay!

That Friday evening I opened up my laptop and knew I needed a website and business card by Monday morning.  I had never coded and I had never built a website. I was a Visual Illustrator, not a programmer. This was before WordPress was operative in SA and long before the invention of WIX.  Not one to be easily defeated, I rallied to our family motto of ‘How hard can it be?’ or, in the words of Marie Forleo, ‘Everything is Figureoutable’.

Being positive has always served me well and I firmly believe in the approach that YOU are bigger than the PROBLEM and step by step, you’ve got this.

So I sat down, with a cup (okay, alot of cups) of strong coffee and taught myself to code and built a website. After almost no sleep I was armed and ready on Monday morning, breathlessly waiting for the phone to ring. At 11 on that very Monday morning, I had my first phone call and made my first appointment for that Wednesday. I was elated! My business was off the ground.

My new clients wanted to build an app to promote conscious living. The main character would be a cat and the story line of the app would revolve around it, thus requiring an illustrator that could do a lot of illustration to depict the different steps and activities on the app. A development company had been appointed and the next step would be to meet with them.

So, green as I was (literally and figuratively), I waltz into the development company’s fancy offices and sit myself down at this HUGE boardroom table. The massive wave of iPhone Apps had just hit the country and I knew that this industry was about to explode.  Their offices were buzzing and I instinctively knew, here was a wave I needed to catch!  Now bear in mind that, at this stage,

I didn’t own an iPhone, I had never even seen one, and I had no clue what an app was.

Minor details, darling! I sat there, smiling and nodding and basically bull sh$tt#ng my way through the briefing session, trying to look confident whilst making mental notes of which acronyms to google afterwards. Fake it till you make it right?

I rushed back to my laptop and started googling the endless list of app language. UX, ASO, CMS, CPC, GUI, UI and countless others that had been gibberish to me just a few hours before.

I called my dad and said

“Daddy I need to borrow R8000 (600$). I need to buy an iPhone so I can see how it all works. I promise I will pay you back”. 

My dad gave in and lent me the money.   I got up to speed with it all and wrote my proposal.  That is how I landed my first contract as in independent illustrator!

Once the invoice was sent and deposit paid, I rushed over to one of my buddies from uni, burst into the office where he was doing his internship, swung his wheely office chair around, grabbed the armrest, hunched down and said

“You need to resign, you need to come with me, I am starting a company. “

Just like that, I had recruited my first employee.

That app, the first I had ever built, ended up being rolled out for BlackBerry and Android and not just iPhone. My company was solely responsible for all its layout and design. Later Oprah, yes, that Oprah, featured it in her magazine here in SA. She noticed us! Or her team did! Either way, I was ecstatic.

As a result, the development company entered into a co-op with my company, where we did all the creative stuff and they did all the tech stuff. We shared their offices, which was great for my start-up and I could fall into the slipstream straight away.

I ran my business for 7 years, employing 12 designers.  I had my own office space, complete with fancy boardroom as well as exclusive printing space and machines.  I built a company culture with core values, a mission and vision I was proud of and an environment where people mattered.

Illustrator, Lillian Gray

I did this for 7 years, made way too much money for a young adult and then life threw me another huge curveball, but that’s chapter two of this cray-cray life of mine.

Read my next blog on My Art Journey

Whatever the challenge, always remember you’ve got this. You can figure it out, one step at a time. I mean “How hard can it be, right?”

What time in your life did you have to figure out something really overwhelming? Let me know in the comments section down below.

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