On graduation blues and learning a trade 

Most students see graduation as a goal, the finish line, when in fact it is only the beginning of a new kind of race. In theory it’s the one you’ve been preparing for during your studies, but in reality very few of us come out of school with a clear plan… at least I know I didn’t! 

Here are 3 tips on how I navigated my first year out of art school, and how I discovered my career path… what was the hardest thing for you after graduation? How did you find your first creative job? Let me know in the comments!

1. Figure out your long and short term goals: what do you want to achieve in the future and what do you need get better at right now in order to do so

Even though I was a pretty dedicated student during my fine arts studies at Central Saint Martins, and managed to get valuable work experience while still at school, I still felt lost after graduation. I remember being vaguely warned about the difficulty of keeping a studio practice after losing access to the school’s facilities, or tepid advise about self motivation and peer review… But I must have been very naive because despite all my well meant intentions and work experience, when school closed, I still had no clue of what I would do. 

With a lot of time on my hands and pressing money issues - London is not a cheap city - I prioritised advertising agency jobs for the first few weeks, accepting any storyboarding / corporate illustration job I could get my hands on. I even missed my graduation ceremony to freelance at TBWA for Lidl (!) But soon, I realised that these were not the kind of jobs I wanted to be doing. I had been drawn to illustration because I wanted to create beautiful images and challenge myself and skills, I was never gonna feel creatively fulfilled in that line of work. 

Now bear in mind that I had studied fine arts - video art to be precise - and not illustration. I knew I wanted to be an illustrator, but it was still very unclear to me how to go about it. I was lucky to be surrounded by successful designers and illustrators like Clayton Junior, Saulo Jamariqueli, Matteo Farinella or Meg Gaffarelli who were all giving me advise on how to build my portfolio. But because of my fine arts background, I had major impostor syndrome. I was too aware of my technical shortcomings and decided my priority was to get hands on design experience. I wanted to find a job where I would become really good at drawing and learn about composition, line and colour. 

2. Share your goals with your network, your dream job is just a friend - of friend - away

Just as I was formulating that thought in my mind, by a random stroke of luck, a new flatmate moved in my derelict East London warehouse. Charlotte Allison was an interior designer at JR Design and straight away suggested I work as a decorative painter. She had just discovered a tiny atelier in south London specialising in hand painted wallpapers and furniture renovation and offered to put me in touch with them. 


I harassed them for a few weeks until they gave me an interview. As I walked up the cobbled alleyway to their Camberwell workshop, I knew I had found my dream workplace! Imagine a large warehouse with ivy covered bay windows, paint splattered herringbone floors, tastefully painted apothecary cabinets and shelves loaded with jars of pigments and gold. BBC 4 humming the background, half empty cups of milky tea lying around and the intoxicating smell of saw dust, oil paint and turpentine… 

Mathew Bray and Matthew Collins’ Decorative Arts Atelier was a multi-disciplinary studio. These two childhood friends were obsessed with the Arts and Craft movement and had basically decided to go about producing everything from murals, wall finishes, trompe l’oeil, shagreen, embossed leather, faux painting to custom furniture or antique mirrors for luxury interior design projects in London and around the world. 

I started as an intern and for the first month I mostly scrubbed paint brushes. Little by little, the senior decorators taught me the ropes. The project calendar hanging on the wall was made of taped up A4 sheets and reached down to the floor, detailing all the clients and pieces on the waiting list for the next six months! I loved that each project was so different and that from one week to the other we’d work on a mural to a wallpaper, to wood work, it was never boring. 

Over the course of a year I learnt to French polish (“vernis au tampon”), using layers and layers of shellac varnish to slowly transform wood into a glossy mirror - while getting drunk on alcohol fumes. I was trained in making mirrors from liquid silver - a technique somehow similar to analogue photography processing - or from silver leaves, sometimes with gold inlay. I loved the smells, the textures, the repetitive and meditative tasks that had to be accomplished with method, patience and extreme attention. My favourite was painting the decorative panels, sinuous flowers, birds or damasks patterns… 

I was also for the first time completely immersed in the world of interior design, learning about historic decorative styles, and listening to passionate discussions of Renzo Mongiardino or William Morris’ work. Through my mother taking us on road trips across Italy as children, I had already developed a sensibility for painted walls, intricate decors, layered patterns. But at the studio I vowed to learn as much as I could about decorative arts. I went to the library and read about interior design and furniture styles, paint mixing and pigment sourcing… It was an education.

Marie Mathew Bray studio portrait.JPG
3. Don’t get swallowed in work: keep your long term goals in sight and re-assess when needed

I thought I had found my dream job and was almost forgetting about illustration. As the studio manager prepared to go on maternity leave, I also took on more responsibilities, organising the studio’s ressources, ordering materials, overseeing projects…

But being a decorative artist is very hard work. Despite protective masks and gloves, I was constantly exposed to fumes and dust. The hours were long, often on loud building sites, carrying buckets of paint up and down ladders and scaffolds, moving heavy objects or furniture… it was exhausting. 

Finally after a year and a half my body broke down. I had been supervising the production of cracked gesso panels for Rose Uniacke - still one of my favourite British interior designers to this day - for which I had to mix my own paint out of melted rabbit skin and marble powder and lay the thick goo on linen canvas week after week. The repetitive movements were so strenuous that I herniated (slipped) a disk, the pain so intense I could barely walk. 

Now I know the NHS is doing the best it can considering its funding, but the first physio appointment I could get was 3 months away, and I had almost no savings. I had been on a zero hours contract which meant I also had no work injury insurance or paid sick leave. Ultimately the constant financial and physical stress was just too much to bare and I decided to pack my things and drive back to Paris after over 5 years in London. 

I was lucky I could move back in with my parents, but not gonna lie here, moral was low! I straight away got an offer to be a painter at the famous Atelier Meriguet. But I was still a bit weak and decided I had to make a real change. 

I knew everything I had learnt was extremely valuable, but I was not yet sure how to go about trading that experience. Once again conversations with friends and mentors helped me come up with a new plan: instead of producing these incredible decors, I would be designing them directly for interior designers. I just had to find one that would hire me...

Next part: from the Atelier to the Agency | Photos: House & Garden UK

From business to art school: how I discovered illustration

Other artists often ask me how I became an illustrator. When I was still questioning my career orientation, reading about other designers’ journeys really helped, so I thought I’d do a few blog posts about it. Let me know if you like this and want to read more...


I’m afraid this story starts like every illustrator’s story: “growing up I was always drawing…” nothing special here, sorry! I was very fortunate to have an art historian mother who took me to museums and even set up a little atelier for me in our garage. There I would draw, paint, build things out of wine crates and plastic bottles, it was a mess...

I also took drawing, painting and sculpting lessons, in the local cultural center and then at the Ateliers du Carousel in Paris. I had some wonderful teachers, my favorite was Arnauld Rouèche, who taught life and perspective drawing. I took his class every week for 3 years, over the course of which I think I probably made only 3 drawings worth keeping. He was very patient but also ruthless. He made us draw on A2 or even A1 paper, with charcoal or large tools to force us to “draw from the shoulder, not the wrist”. Using a stick to measure proportions, I trained my eyes to see properly and my hand to translate what my eyes saw. 

I was drawing on anything I could find, often with two pens at the same time: I was ambidextrous until a teacher forced me to choose when I learnt how to write - I chose left. I remember getting told off countless times for scribbling on my books and assignments. I’d draw comics about my classmates and teachers and pass them around in class. 


I was always pretty good at school and cruised through easily. When I made it to the final year of high school, I was definitely not ready to choose a study path, let alone a job! Because I had good grades, I followed my teachers and parents’ advise and went to one of the most competitive business prep schools in France at Henri IV, a two year program to prepare the gruesome business school exams. It meant intense studying, even on weekends and a curriculum filled with mathematics and economy. 

When I made it to the final year of high school,
I was definitely not ready to choose a study path, let alone a job!

That’s when I realised that just because I was good at something, it did not mean I had to do it. I needed to focus on what made me happy. It was not easy leaving my economics studies. Even if my friends and family were supportive, I still felt like I was letting them down, like I was a quitter. I had been studying so hard, that it felt anticlimactic to just… stop. 

I took some time off from school and applied to prep art schools. I got into all of them, including the competitive Intermedia class of Atelier de Sèvres, but chose to go to Parsons for a year instead, to prepare my portfolio. I didn’t know many people in creative professions and didn’t really know what my options for creative careers were, looking back I have no idea how I even made my school choices. 


I had been very lucky to meet the Austrian artist collective Gelitin at a party in my last year of high school and to assist them while building their show "La Louvre" at the Museum of Modern art in Paris. Playing and performing with them inspired me, and our conversations opened my mind to different ways of thinking about life. And so I naturally gravitated towards Fine Arts, performance and video installations. 

I applied to art schools in Paris, Berlin and London. I was already in love with Berlin but didn’t make it past the interview, my German was not glorious at the time… I clearly remember the day I got the admission response email from Central Saint Martins. I was in a life drawing class and shrieked with joy. For the first time I really felt like I was on the right track. 

I joined a bachelor of Fine Arts in the 4D / video section. I was so happy to move to London and start art school, but quickly I once again I felt out of place. Central Saint Martins was too conceptual for me, I could produce video work and write about it, but I didn’t feel like I had anything to express. Feeling a bit lost, I held on to my drawing practice. 


I did an Eramus at the Universität der Künste in Berlin and spent the entire time in the lithography workshop, creating my first animal compositions. Back in London, I remember feeling so jealous of the design students, of friends telling me of their type setting classes and clearly defined assignments. I craved a more structured and technical training.

I craved a more structured and technical training.

I met Saulo Jamariqueli and Jaime Kiss, the founders of design studio Nearly Normal in my second year at CSM and quickly decided to take a year out to intern with them. They worked out of the legendary Panther House offices in Clerkenwell, a damp brick building that had resisted the Blitz and hosted a flurry of graphic designers, music producers, motion designers, animators and illustrators. It was such an inspiring environment and I finally felt like I was learning something. 

In my video course, drawing was slightly frowned upon, but at Panther House it was a useful asset. I started with image research and running errands, but quickly progressed to storyboarding, assisting on animation shoots and illustrating for my first jobs. Nearly Normal was producing a stop motion animation for Google, I loved the fast pace of the advertising and design world. 


We shared the studio with the illustrator Clayton Junior and sometimes he would let me “assist him” which basically meant he tolerated me sitting next to his desk while incessantly peppering him with questions about softwares, colours, editors, pens… I don’t know how he put up with me! But I was just fascinated, it looked like my dream job. I taught myself how to use Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign and After Effects, with lynda.com and started working on my own illustrations. 

After a year I reluctantly went back to CSM to finish my bachelor, while still working for advertising agencies and co-directing an animation short with Saulo. At that point I think I was convinced I wanted to be an illustrator, but to be honest I was far from good at it and had no portfolio to speak of. There was not doubt I was done with school, but I still had lots of learning to do… 

Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll write about my first jobs out of college and how I became a full time illustrator. 


Pictures by the wonderful Rosita Pompili, while working on my first graphic novel in my Berlin studio.