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