Illustrator and animator Ellen Porteus talks about plunging into freelance work with one client and no leads, moving to Melbourne after uni on a wing and a prayer, and gaining representation with her dream agency.
Ellen Porteus is an incredibly welcoming host.
Just before I ask my first question of the digital illustrator and animator in her Collingwood studio, she leaps out of her chair to bring out bowls of jelly snakes and pretzels she prepared especially for the occasion.
(Unfortunately, in the midst of the I Quit Sugar eight-week program at the time, I had to decline—sorry, Ellen!)
That gesture, I learn, is symbolic of Porteus’ gracious and thoughtful nature. It’s evident in the radiating warmth of her demeanour, the complete transparency with which she speaks and the soft energy that bleeds into her work—work that’s animated figuratively, as well as, oftentimes, in the literal sense.
Once you make the connection between Porteus and her illustrations, you suddenly realise she’s everywhere. With a style immediately recognisable by its bold lines, solid colours, vector graphics and animation loops, it’s little wonder Porteus is in such high demand.
Represented by illustration agency Jacky Winter, Porteus’ roll call of big-ticket clients in her short career thus far is thoroughly impressive. Counting TED, Who Gives a Crap, Fast Company, Bonds, Father John Misty and Bill Gates among them, it’s not hard to assume Porteus has it all figured out.
But things weren’t always that way. After high school, Newcastle-born Porteus enrolled in visual communication at the University of Technology Sydney, having no idea what the degree actually entailed.
“It just sounded up my alley because I was always artistic and liked English,” Porteus says.
“So I was like, ‘Visual communication—that sounds about right!’”
As it turned out, she loved the course. But, Porteus says, she didn’t really embrace illustration until the very end of it.
“Then, once I jumped onto the computer and started creating things digitally, something really clicked for me,” she says.
“I think, to some people, it doesn’t seem authentic, but for me creating stuff on the computer is the way I express myself the most authentically.
“I guess I was always on the computer when I was a kid, just being a millennial. So it’s just something I’m comfortable with.”
Upon graduation in 2014, Porteus started a “pretty boring” graphic design job while she also worked on exhibitions and personal projects. It’s through that self-initiated work that Porteus came to the attention of Bloomberg Businessweek, a prominent US-based publication that commissioned her for a double-page spread.
“I loved [that experience] so much,” Porteus says.
“Once that happened, I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to be a freelance illustrator’, even though I had one client under my belt and no contacts or anything.”
So Porteus did as many young creatives have done before her: she quit her ‘safe’ job and moved to Melbourne to pursue a freelance career.
“Looking back now I think that was a really crazy risk!” she says.
“I could have lost all my money and never had a break or whatever.
“But I had no commitments at that time. I’d just finished uni; I really didn’t have anything to lose. I didn’t overthink it.”
Instead, she “stubbornly” threw herself into personal projects, building a network and working towards agency representation.
“I set my sights on Jacky Winter, because that was my definition of ‘making it’,” Porteus says.
“So I said, ‘I’m going to work really hard at that, and if it takes me 10 years or it never happens, that’s fine—I’m just going to work at it’.”
It ended up taking Porteus a year.
“It’s crazy—I still pinch myself about it!” she says.
“In the first year I was [in Melbourne] I was always worrying about whether I’d have to get a part-time job or start looking at Coles vacancies or whatever, but then something would always come up and I’d just keep going.
“But once I got signed to Jacky Winter and things started really picking up I stopped having to worry about that.”
But with that meteoric rise to success and early representation with what is arguably Australia’s best illustration agency, Porteus says she sometimes finds herself struggling with the feeling that it may have all just been a big mistake.
“I feel like an imposter all the time. I’ll probably always feel it,” she says.
“My career happened really quickly and I felt like a lot of it was down to luck—that I was just in the right place at the right time and my work just happened to stumble across the right people.”
To the outsider, it’s clear that’s not the case. But, wise beyond her years, Porteus concedes that fear is present in many people working in the creative industries.
She also cites Instagram as a major source of the anxiety feeding that self-doubt, and says she’s glad she wasn’t active on the platform when she was forming her style.
“I think I would find it really hard now—to not look at what’s on there or what’s trendy,” Porteus says.
“On a personal level, even with body image, I can’t look at Instagram. I find it really intimidating.
“It’s hard not to absorb the things you’re following every day.”
However, the irony of needing Instagram for her work isn’t lost on Porteus—particularly, she confesses, because she rarely updates her website (side note: she just updated her website).
Perfecting that balance means Porteus sometimes finds herself overthinking the content she shares on Instagram. And when that’s “a bit different” or a piece to which she’s very attached, concerns around how followers will receive it start creeping in.
“It’s hard to ignore what gets more engagement on Instagram and what doesn’t,” Porteus says.
“I try not to let that influence what I enjoy doing but it’s really hard.
“If I do something I really like but it doesn’t get as many likes as this other thing, I’m like, ‘Why?’ But I know it’s so silly.”
Like many early career creatives, Porteus says she finds herself grappling with the dichotomy between that intrinsic obligation to take on every job that comes her way and knowing when to say no.
As a result, she sometimes finds herself taking on too many projects and rushing them. And that leads to what is often the ultimate failure for a highly driven young creative: producing work she’s not proud of.
“That is a terrible feeling, and something I’m trying really hard to stop,” Porteus says.
“I find it really hard to say no to things. I feel like I’m really grateful that I’m at the stage where I’m at, and I don’t want to be turning down great opportunities.”
As for her biggest challenge to date, Porteus doesn’t hesitate to name the creative project she produced for a very prominent client in late 2016.
“It was a fantastic brief, they were fantastic clients, and I had a lot of creative freedom,” she says.
“But it was just a challenge to create something I was really happy with, because I had the time and the brief to do that.”
The luxury of a relatively open brief and the intimidation of knowing there would be “a lot of eyeballs on it” compelled Porteus to sleep in her studio for the duration of the project, taking short naps between long stretches of work put into perfecting the piece.
“I look at it now and I’m happy with it, so that’s a good sign!” she says.
It’s a credit to Porteus’ incredible work ethic and the high expectations she has of herself and her abilities. But, like the best of us, she tussles with creative blocks, particularly when she’s feeling overwhelmed or overworked.
“Sometimes I start to feel like there’s something wrong with me,” she admits.
“But I’ve got lots of notebooks I’ve kept over the years that have heaps of ideas, pieces or phrases in them, so if I’m feeling really stuck I’ll go through them and usually find something relevant I can springboard off.”
It’s clear the passion Porteus has for her craft—her talent a total given—will drive her towards big things in the future. But having already achieved so much so early on, what does she hope to accomplish next?
“I want to start making things I can sell—different objects or fashion or textiles or jewellery,” Porteus says, adding that she already has something in the works.
“That kind of thing really excites me, and I haven’t had the time or means to do it until now.
“I still always want to do commercial and editorial illustration. But I want to have all these different things I can dip into so if I get bored of one, or one’s not doing it for me anymore, I have all these other things I really enjoy.”
Virtual pep talk
“Stick to your guns. Be patient. Make your own luck. Put your work in as many places as you can. Enter competitions. Submit to things. I think that’s a really good way of getting your work out there.
Also, surround yourself with people who make you feel better—who make you feel positive and spark your imagination. I think that’s really important.”