“It’s an unbelievable story” — Michael Driver, illustrator
BY Jennifer Lee O'Brien
Michael Driver has bad luck renting in London.
These days, he lives in Stoke Newington with three housemates in a Victorian factory conversion. Two of his housemates are also creative freelancers; one is a filmmaker working on the sequel to the 2014 film Kingsman: The Secret Service, and the other is “taking a break” to record an album.
Michael and his housemates share a studio in their house: three desks in the middle of a room. In the studio are a woodworking bench; a giant Tintin rocket containing “loads of books”; a D&AD Pencil award from 2015; a collection of toys, including old Power Rangers, Megazords and Kaiju — Japanese movie monsters like Godzilla and Gamera. Michael and his housemate (“the one working on Kingsmen”) collect retro toys. “Really crap toys,” Michael says, before adding, “Well, they’re not crap to me.”
This is Michael’s second house since graduating from Kingston University in 2015; his second house since becoming a full-time freelance illustrator. His bad luck began in the first. Ten people lived in that house. It was under a bridge upon which ran a track for the District and Circle Line. When trains sped past — every four minutes — the house shook.
“It’s an unbelievable story,” says Michael. “There are too many plot points.”
There were the two weeks they didn’t have electricity. And the rats, mice and slugs. One time, Michael left a stack of books on the floor, and the slugs ate right through them. And then there were the music students who lived on either side; three of them played drums. One time, it rained so hard that water leaked through the roof into his bedroom. And then the toilet backed up and flooded their shared studio with human waste. Almost everyone had something horrible happen to them while living in that house, Michael says, and we believe him. We imagine the house in a Renaissance painting; toothy, winged creatures hang from its eavestrough, expediting its slow descent into Hell.
Michael’s new house isn’t like that; it’s nice. “A really lovely place to live and work,” he says. But then there’s this thing about the landlord.
‘Having a few landlord problems,’ he wrote to us in an email, when we suggested meeting for our interview at his studio. We decide to meet at Allpress Coffee Roasters in Dalston instead.
“When I look back on this last year I just think about disastrous house things, if I’m honest,” he says.
On paper, on Instagram, on the internet, Michael Driver has had a good year. In fact, he’s had two good years. At the end of 2015, he made a presentation to a monthly event by creative site It’s Nice That called Nicer Tuesdays. He talked about graduating and going freelance full-time and the fifty-something projects he had worked on that year. He talked about being in eighteen exhibitions and seeing his work on digital screens in train stations and shopping centres around the UK. He talked about getting hate on social media, negotiating creative control over his work and getting commissions from The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian.
The press picked up on Michael’s good year and they wrote about just how good it was for this young illustrator with clients, an agent and a big bright future ahead of him. It was triumphant. A success story to read over and over again, in a city that dissolves dreams like saccharin into hot coffee. Here was twenty-three year old Michael Driver, with upwards of 58,000 followers on Instagram, working with The Guardian, pretty much making it.
“I did a talk a few months back at my old university,” says Michael. “I was just talking about really easy things to do if you’re starting out; really sensible things with your portfolio, who to email and how to email and stuff. And somebody put their hand up at the end and asked, ‘How did you get all those followers?’
“And it’s just…” he pauses. “That’s not the point.”
Michael is a tall, likeable person with a dry, self-deprecating humour and quiet confidence. Nice in a bold kind of way; the kind of niceness that subsists on its own unrefined goodness, regardless of reciprocity. He cares about people; some of his favourite commissions involve mental health. “I think it’s important to never approach the mental health stuff as if it’s a joke,” he says.
Now that Michael lives in a house with an open kitchen he invites friends round for dinner; he loves to cook. Before Michael was a freelance illustrator, before he moved to London, he was a chef at a restaurant called Creme in Stapleford — a town on the outskirts of Nottingham, where he grew up.
“The thing that I miss a lot is when you’re plating up and everything looks right and it’s timed to perfection,” says Michael. “You’ve got your sugar spun, the balsamic drag is just perfect. The sprinkle of crumb. When everything just harmoniously fits into place.”
What made Michael go to London to study art?
Well, it started sometime during the Myspace era, back when he was listening to a lot of alternative music —
What alternative music? We ask.
He laughs, and pauses. “Uh.”
Michael listened to bands like Bring Me The Horizon, Suicide Silence, Bury Your Dead. Bands with the kind of dissonant chords that make you want to bang your head and scream, hard, for fun.
“Then there was A Day to Remember. And more hardcore bands like Trash Talk and Basement.”
Through music, Michael began following the work of Tom J. Newell, Keaton Henson and Dan Mumford; illustrators who designed gig posters and album covers, treating music as a muse for paper.
“So through really enjoying music I got into illustration,” he says.
By the time Michael finished his A-levels, he was bored of education. He wanted to get a job and “do grown up things”, so he cycled sixteen miles a day, six days a week to work at Creme. Creme served Modern English dishes; “Not Michelin, but Rosette-style,” he says. “Really fine quality food.”
Every day, Michael would hop on his bike and pedal to the restaurant, change into his chef whites and set up his station. He sent plate after plate through the pass, with perfect drags of balsamic reduction and fragile bits of thyme balanced on steaks, cooked medium rare. Every night, he’d prep for the next day, wipe down his station until it sparkled, get on his bike and cycle home.
After eight months, the cyclical feeling of his everyday hooked itself onto his back tyre and wouldn’t let go. He dragged it back and forth for weeks, until he decided to quit.
“I started to feel like I wasn’t really doing anything, and I wasn’t really enjoying work,” he says.
Michael approached applying for an arts foundation with the same thoughtful determination that he used to spin sugar; it was all about the end result, the perfect plate. He was going to move to London and work tirelessly to become employable.
When we ask Michael about his first year, his reply is: “Disorienting.”
“I think university culture is really hard to get your head around sometimes,” he says. “I didn’t really enjoy being here and I half considered quitting it. But I was like, if I quit, I’ll have to go back to a normal job.”
Instead of quitting, he submitted his work to contests, student projects, books and magazines. During his third year he exhibited four times in the space of a month, in London and Paris. He followed contemporary illustrators like Lizzy Stewart and Matthew the Horse and publishers like Nobrow. He posted on social media as much as he could.
He laughs. “Just shamelessly whoring myself out.”
For a final year project, he decided he wanted to improve his chances of getting editorial work. He asked his girlfriend, Lizzie, also an illustrator, to send him articles from news websites. His challenge was to produce an illustration that would reinterpret the concept of the article within a few hours, trying to capture ‘the feeling’. Today, ‘the feeling’ is a definable element of Michael’s illustrations; you don’t need to read the article to feel the concept he’s read and redisplayed.
Michael called his final project Skills; it was the kind of assiduous practice that could make him marketable. He didn’t have any illusions about what working as a full-time illustrator would mean.
In his Nicer Tuesdays presentation, he says: “Illustration is an applied art form, it’s not an art. You do it for the client and the client matters loads. And you’re just a pen-for-hire; and that’s kind of how it is.”
The audience laughs, but Michael’s right: if the cost of pure creative freedom is your creative career, then sometimes, you’ve got to do what it takes to keep the work coming in. And if that means ten different changes to your original design, so be it.
Several months before Michael graduated, he was contacted by London-based agency MP Arts. He had been getting commissions, but an agency could handle the contracts, negotiate the fee and help project-manage with clients. MP said they liked his work, and brought him onto their roster.
That July, It’s Nice That published an interview with him and praised his ‘concise and communicative images’. That same month, Creative Review featured him on their Gradwatch list and showcased his work on digital screens around the UK.
In September he was picked by Red Bull as one of twenty-four “inspirational young Londoners” under twenty-four.
In December, his Instagram account went viral. “Social media is just strange,” he says.
By January, Michael had been a fulltime freelance illustrator for six months, living in a house, “like a troll,” under a bridge. He had worked with a French children’s magazine, The Telegraph, Wired, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
“Living in London, you never really have the chance to appreciate the excitement of being commissioned because you’re always trying to make a living doing it,” he says. “You’re always chasing the next thing.”
Early last year, Lizzie wrote Michael a colourful list of tips; little things he could do when working in a damp studio, between freelance jobs, became tough.
Most of the suggestions were practical: chase-up any outstanding invoices more than thirty days old; try to stick to office hours — with a reminder to never work past midnight. She ended the list with ‘Be Positive’.
Nowadays, Michael tries to work ten-to-six like it’s a regular job. “I used to do all nighters all over the place; you find yourself truly immersed in work and you never get a chance to relax.”
He laughs, “I feel like my hairline is going back and back and back.”
On paper, on Instagram, on the internet, Michael’s profile as an illustrator is on a perpetual ascension. He talks about commissions for American newspapers, working with art directors, the evolution of his style. He pulls out his sketchbook and explains his process; storyboards, concepts and characters. He has become known for his characters; cartoony, colourful people existing in graphic rooms and landscapes.
“I started doing the pointy noses,” he says, sketching it out on front of us. “I feel like this is quite a trendy style; a haircut like that.” He draws out the hair.
“And then I suppose as it’s gone on things have become a lot more fluid; maybe the nose is slightly more bulbous. I tend to do this whole big ear thing now.”
In front of us, in Allpress in Dalston, scrawling in his notebook, Michael makes working as a freelance illustrator look easy. Maybe we buy the success story for the polished, pretty way it seems to end. But that kind of rewarding finish doesn’t belong in a world where cards are declined, roofs leak and your career is contingent on whatever comes next.
Yesterday, Michael was sitting in a laundrette waiting for his washing. He was drawing in his sketchbook. He’s been experimenting with his characters lately; this one was Krampus, a half-goat, half-demon from German folklore. He looked up to see a little girl staring at his sketchbook. She looked up at him, and he noticed the feeling he’d put into his drawing had made her scared. He quickly began sketching out happy clowns to make her smile.
“I felt really bad!” he says. And he laughs.
Michael says he likes living in London, at least for the moment. He might like to do a residency, somewhere like Japan or Berlin or Finland. Mostly, he wants to work on a big project; something that will last longer than today’s newspaper.
“There have been times recently where I’ve been, like, maybe I should quit commercial work and just focus on one thing,” he says.
Like maybe an animation, or a book.
“I’d love to do something that is long format that somebody holds onto for a really long time,” he says.
He says it’s lonely working in the house, sometimes. Sometimes he gets jealous of people going off to their regular jobs in offices and studios full of people.
“I think at the end of last year I did an interview with It’s Nice That and they asked me about my year and how it was. And I confidently said, I still don’t know what I’m doing,” he says.
We watch Michael Driver walk alone, back to his studio in his rented house in Stoke Newington, where this afternoon he’ll finish up an illustration for The Guardian. Next week he might be sitting back at the laundrette, waiting for his washing; drawing feelings, abstract concepts and funny characters into his sketchbook. Living off commissions in a city that will eat your dreams for brunch if you’re not chasing after whatever comes next like a bus that’s arrived too soon.
We think: he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Originally published in The City Talking: London — issue 02