Nathan Hackett / How Illustration Changed My Life

Nathan Hackett

I grew up in Stourbridge, quintessential suburbia in a town in the ‘Black Country’ middle of the UK with a dad who likes football and a mom who was one of many. They hadn’t planned for an illustrator son but stationary was an easy Christmas present and all the grown ups agreed that I was ever such a quiet, good boy and “doesn’t he have lovely curls?” All the kids at school used to give me the crusts off the sandwiches in their lunch-boxes because that’s how you get curls, obviously, and I was the boy with curly hair who drew things.

It never occurred to me or anyone I knew that I would be anything else, and everybody seemed to universally agree on my ultimate doom. I had plenty of art books, and from them I remember getting into trouble because my mom caught me painting naked ladies. I simply thought that’s what artists did and even still, later, I overheard her showing the neighbours. It was all very confusing until I first heard the term ‘Illustrator’.

When I was 10 my teacher, Sir, caught me in the middle of maths drawing, and instead of my rightful sentencing he stopped the lesson and showed the class. Sir told us stories about his friend, the drummer in his Beatles tribute band, who was an illustrator and said I should be that. At the time I thought Sir meant a drummer but the lesson dawned on me eventually.

Again, accidental luck struck and I met the man who inspired my illustrative expedition when I was studying illustration at university. I was sent to meet him by my visiting theory lecturer who thought I’d like him and upon our meeting, it was either his accent I recognized or his work that prodded an old buried memory, I solved the identity of the mystery man from 10 years before and he was perfect. Like a seasoned war veteran, he was delightfully cynical about anybody joining the arts and if he couldn’t deter me, I don’t think anyone could. He was so refreshingly honest and I am so selfishly stubborn.

I had odd jobs during college, my Art foundation, University and just after. I strongly refute any claims that I am responsible for the fall of Blockbusters and the chocolate shop is still doing well. I really enjoyed everything and It hadn’t occurred to me that it was a job because I was an illustrator doing work as a hobby before skipping home to get back to drawing.


In my real work, there is always an emphasis on drawing because I owe it so much. I try and make my practice malleable so I can pivot into a lot of themes but I aim to make my illustrations enjoyably wholesome or use humorous narratives, even if the illustrations content is a satirical take on a theme that is otherwise despairing.

At university I spent my time hiding drawings and reading and since then I play with architecture and urban lifestyle in my compositions that are most informed by my preoccupation with people watching. My illustrations are often a conceptual exaggeration on an idea to make my elaborate melodramas because I can then control an illustration’s ability to be read fast or slow; as a whole or in smaller bites. I have my most fun encouraging a viewer to inspect an illustration and rewarding time spent with unexpected details.

I am a tinkerer who loves to play, so typically my illustration work repeats this method in its humour and tones that often exaggerate the trivial to ridiculous, dramatic scenes and character design embellishments. I can get excited by a premise, and an idea can build in a composition to find the unexplored minutiae that was before hidden when at the starting point.

My first real commission came and I don’t know how the art director happened across my work, but she did happen across it. It’s painful to recount but I was asked what the fee would be, and I had not a clue. Acting like I knew what I was doing, I thought I’d ask for an amount and see if I’m as lucky as I appear to be. The art director was too nice and she told me you must have made a mistake, ‘that is too low!’  She quintupled the fee and my cheeks have never returned to their pre-red state.

I’ve found difficulty helps creativity, and I had a laptop, (RIP), that only worked in short bursts. It made an excellent radiator but I had to draw everything in pencil and ink to scan at the library or with my finger on the tracking pad because I couldn’t afford a mouse or a tablet yet. My first commission was exhilarating and I was so happy to be drawing. The money went towards a computer and tablet just in time for my next commission.

I couldn’t value myself, but I needed somebody to at least. I’m cursed with being cripplingly self-effacing and so if I couldn’t represent myself and thought so little of my self worth, then I needed to start looking for an agent, because apparently I desperately needed one.

I started my research and made a multicoloured spreadsheet, but I was especially drawn to the AnnaGoodson Illustration Agency. I was already a fan of the illustrators and, ever the optimist, I wanted my work alongside them. The agency wasn’t faceless but a person and Anna’s mission statements online were profoundly affecting.

I thought I’d chance an email at least.

It all happened very fast and I was dizzy and elated. Too quickly, I had an email back the next day confirming my success. I thought this was much too stressful and went for a walk to tell the ducks all about it. People were walking by in the park and were interrupted by me saying ‘it’s a lovely day for it’; It was probably raining but I hadn’t taken any notice of that. I was still green and had so little experience but Anna seemed excited, or was most certainly prepared, by my undiscovered work I was toiling over. It was a very unfamiliar feeling.

Since and because I am so lucky, I’ve been commissioned on a wild jumble of projects since, and It’s just brilliant to be asked. I’ll be missing many but I’ve had the pleasure of working with people in editorial design for publications like The Hollywood Reporter, the Guardian, Reader’s Digest, GQ, the AAA and the WallsStreetJournal. I’ve helped illustrate covers and insides in non-fiction, children’s learning and fiction books with people like the Economist, Profile books and Scholastic and illustrated a map for UCR university. Meanwhile I’ve worked for Global Witness warning of the dangers of cattle farming in the Amazon, an animation for Wells Fargo celebrating the launch of their new bankcard, an advertising promotion for Red Bull sports in the UAE, an animated game explaining the hazards of office life for Accenture and a board game and jigsaw for Iello featuring superheroes inflicting havoc on a metropolis.

What I mean to emphasis is, I’m very lucky.

Nathan Hackett