Cartoonist Steve Nelson Talks How Comedy Helped Him Become An Illustrator Cartoonist Steve Nelson Talks How Comedy Helped Him Become An Illustrator

If you read The Evening Standard or spend your spare time scrolling through Instagram (who doesn’t?), you’ve probably come across the hilarious work of Brighton-based illustrator Steve Nelson. Instantly recognizable thanks to his use of bold colors and distinctive characters, Steve’s cartoons bring smiles to faces by changing logic and finding the funny in everyday situations.

However, despite regularly creating cartoons for big clients like Confused, Steve is relatively new to the illustration game. His first professional commission came in 2021, and since then, he has quickly amassed a large following on Instagram. Before that, he was a comedy writer with his own series on his behalf that he drew in his spare time until helpful encouragement from his wife guided him down the artistic path.

We caught up with Steve to learn more about his fascinating life thus far, how pursuing the “wrong” career for ten years can have a positive outcome, and how he turns the world around him into a source of humor.

You used to work in comedy. What made you want to switch to illustration?

Oh my gosh this could be a very long answer! Frustration, mostly. I spent about ten years writing comedy scripts with little to show for it. I had an agent, some bits on TV and radio, a failed BBC Radio comedy pilot and finally got my own comedy series on Audible called The Temp. He’s very jokey, and we only had three months to write and record the entire show. Man, I almost had a breakdown writing that! Plus, I had to do it all around my full-time office job. Craziness.

We did it and it came out great with good reviews on Audible, but that was about it. The industry didn’t really care, not a single meeting afterward. Also, the money wasn’t great, so I had to keep my full-time job. I felt like I worked so hard to get absolutely nowhere. That was kind of a nail in the coffin, really.

I was already drawing quite a bit during all of this anyway, and my wife, Bernie, was always asking me to focus on that instead of writing. I guess I finally took her advice! Less than two years later, she was doing it full time.

What comedy writing did you used to do and how has that skill carried over into your illustration?

Initially, I started out as a comedian in my late teens and had an ongoing love/hate relationship with him. I loved writing jokes and laughing. I didn’t like traveling and panic attacks before going on stage! That’s really the reason I switched to screenwriting. I kept writing jokes though, but was trying to think of better ways to present them than just a tweet.

It was only when I discovered illustration (I didn’t know it was a thing until my mid 20’s) and webcomics that I realized that this is the perfect way to present jokes. It allowed me to perform the jokes, in a sense, without doing stand-up. You could post a funny picture and get instant feedback.

The silver lining to pursuing the wrong career path is spending over ten years writing jokes. That fully prepared me for working as a cartoonist and illustrator, as I quickly come up with a lot of new ideas and have a lot of material I can draw on as well.

The hardest part was figuring out my style. I could draw, but I don’t necessarily think that really matters. There are some fantastic artists out there who can barely draw, or so it seems! You have to differentiate yourself stylistically from other illustrators and cartoonists, which can be tricky. I had to do a lot of drawing and refining to get there.

How did you get your first proper commission in 2021?

Sure, I’ll brag. I got the only illustration job I applied for. What a legend! Next question please.

Ok, I’ll elaborate. So, I spent most of 2020 drawing and trying to develop my style. The pandemic really helped with that. It was in my head that I wanted to master my style before trying to become a professional illustrator. So, I kept putting off requesting things and emailing art directors, just a constant feeling that I wasn’t ready.

However, the Warren Festival in Brighton holds an annual call for artists to submit a poster design for their festival. I finally plucked up the courage to try it in their 2021 call. They liked my design and gave me the job. It was fun!

What other cartoonists and illustrators influence your work?

So many! I came in late without any formal training, so I learned everything by absorbing many different artists.

I always loved Peter McKee. Even before he started drawing properly, he was always jealous of how good he was and wished he could do what he did. I love his style and I have several of his prints in my house and all his books! Same with Jean Jullien and David Shrigley, they’re also at the top of my list. They both opened my eyes to how you can combine art/illustration and humor. Pieter de Poortere is an amazing cartoonist. He created the Dickie comics. I was impressed when I came across his work at the Brussels Cartoon Museum.

Others I love: Safely Endangered, Simpsons, Demetri Martin, Liana Finck, Joan Cornella, Seth Fleishman, Gemma Correll, Will McPhail, Alex Norris, Rubyetc, Miguel Bustos.

How did you come to work with

I dont know! You should probably ask. It was after my social media went a bit crazy, so I guess that exposed me to the right people. I just received an email one day in March 2022 from a large advertising agency asking if I would like to do a weekly cartoon for on the front page of a national newspaper. He could do anything, but he had to be around the concept of ‘confusion’. I politely declined. No, obviously, I said yes!

It started on a month-to-month trial basis and it worked great, so it continued for the rest of the year. It will start again in February, so keep your eyes peeled.

Tell us more about what these weekly comics entail!

Essentially, I spend most of my days writing jokes and drawing, so when it comes to Confused, I go through everything I’ve written or sketched recently and see if there’s anything that’s based on confusion or anything that could turn into confusion. established.

Sometimes I may not have enough hits or the client wants something related to the news or an upcoming event, so I sit and actively brainstorm new confusing ideas. For that you have to put on the naive glasses and look at things with the eyes of a child. How could a child misinterpret a sentence or confuse two objects?

It affects my daily life too. One of the Confused comics that was used came from being in the duty free store with my wife, and I asked her, “How did you guys get all these liquids through security?”

You have amassed quite a following on social media! What is the secret to gain audience?

That’s hard since I don’t know how it happened! I was sharing my work relentlessly for two years before it randomly started one day. My pyramid comic somehow ended up on Instagram’s main explore page, and it just snowballed from there. So it was a bit of luck, but I guess people stuck around because they liked the other stuff I posted. I’m not very savvy about social media so I’m not the best person to ask!

I will say that I spent a lot of time being ignored and overlooked, so I know how that feels. But you should do what you enjoy and not focus too much on the numbers because that’s out of your control.

At the end of the day, if nothing comes of it, at least you had fun. My wife runs an indie band (Nature TV – check them out, they’re amazing and I do all the merch art and posters for her). You can imagine how impossible it is to get exposure or money in the music industry these days, but everyone just laughs making music and playing.

What work are you most proud of and why?

The Confused comics as a whole. I have to quit my job and draw cartoons for a living! It’s crazy. My favorite was the duck. I was pretty happy with myself when it came to me. Also, I love ducks and for some reason find them very funny, so I was glad I got to make one for Confused. I remember sitting at my desk, drawing it and thinking: my life is so strange now.

What do you hope to achieve in 2023?

There are two main things. I hope to make more things to put in my store. I love Shrigley’s fun merchandise and I want to do something along those lines. The other thing is trying to get my cartoons in the New Yorker. I’ve never tried to submit to it, I keep bottling it! I am a huge fan of the New Yorker cartoons, and I have a great ambition to include one of my cartoons there!

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