Before Shillington, Rachel Urquhart aka Raych Pony Gold worked as a full-time journalist while moonlighting as a freelance illustrator. Her passion and talents took her seriously far—working with big name clients (Urban Outfitters!), serving as a Volcom Brand Ambassador and attracting a massive Instagram following. But when she finally decided to make the career change to full-time creative, she turned to Shillington. Rachel studied full-time at #shillomel to develop technical skills, learn how to bring her sketches to screen and build a portfolio of commercial work.
And on top of it all, she found time to create this incredible video of The Shillington Experience!
Today on the blog, we get the inside scoop from Rachel about her love of illustration and hear what’s on the horizon for her brand new design career.
When did you fall in love with illustration?
I’ve always liked to draw—one of my earliest memories is dragging out the big encyclopaedia, looking through it and trying to draw all my favourite animals. Also, my parents have this unintentional DIY ethos: my dad’s a leather and woodworker and he won’t usually buy a new thing until he’s had a crack at making/fixing/frankensteining something similar. My mum was into macrame and weaving in the 70s, and now she’s trying to grow every species of plant possible. So I think they maybe unwittingly fed me this idea that everyone can make things, it’s just a matter of problem solving and trial and error, which translates pretty well into the design world too.
Anyway, I probably started taking illustration a bit more seriously around five years ago. After studying journalism in Brisbane, I moved back to the rural area where I grew up to work at the local paper, and drawing kind of replaced my social life while I was there.
My background is in journalism, so I was working as a magazine editor and general communications person, which wasn’t too bad a career. The only problem was that I was writing about the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in buildings, which wasn’t the most exciting world to be in.
Why did you take the plunge and decide to study design?
Over the past few years while I was working on magazines, I was also moonlighting as an illustrator. It was almost like living a double life—some of the people I worked with didn’t even know that I had this whole other life where I was selling work to people all over the world, travelling with Volcom (as a brand ambassador), waking up at 4.30am to start working on projects before sitting down at my desk for the day.
Eventually my illustration work started to gain its own momentum and take up more and more of my time, and it got to a bit of a breaking point where I needed to work in an industry that was more flexible and compatible. It was a scary decision at the time, but of course, the world didn’t end because I decided to change direction!
Initially—and this is maybe a bit shallow, but we’re talking about design, so I think it’s fair—I just liked the school’s branding!
But more seriously, with half my life in a related industry like illustration, and a few years of self-taught Adobe in my pocket, I knew I wanted to do short course, not go back to university.
Also, I met with a friend-of-a-friend, who runs a design studio in Richmond, and (with no prompting from me) he mentioned that the most consistently impressive portfolios he came across were from Shillington.
How did you find the course?
It was exactly what I was after. That immersive, intensive nature is just so important for setting you up for what work is really like. It teaches you how to push for a deadline, work under pressure, be efficient, to discard things, simplify, or make compromises to meet those deadlines.
It’s a huge amount of information to take in and process, but that immersion (yes, so preoccupied with design that I was sleep-talking about advertising layouts…) is really efficient. I didn’t realise until afterwards, when my boss commented on how I work in InDesign, but that intense, everyday exposure to the Adobe suite almost teaches your hands another language. And you do have to use it all day, everyday to pick up that muscle memory so quickly.
What have you been up to since graduation? We heard you landed a job!
Initially I took off on a two week road trip to get my head together after those last few intensive weeks! I caught up on all the freelance illustration jobs I’d been putting off during study, and started to pick up more illustration and design jobs. But as much as I love freelancing, I really needed to work alongside a more experienced designer so I could learn more and push myself—so I started looking for part-time work to balance my illustration work.
I’m now working as a designer/marketing/bit-of-everything with Rebello Wines, which is a local Melbourne wine and cider company. It’s kind of perfect for me (not just because of the cider!) because the owner is not only a really savvy businesswoman, but also has a background in design, so there’s a lot to learn from her. And I get to work on new and different design projects all the time (backlit slushie machine signage?), which keeps it fun.
You have a crazy-impressive Instagram following. What’s your take on using social media for your career? Any tips?
Social media has played a huge part in my illustration career in terms of bringing in clients and getting my work noticed by people/companies. I think it’s just a matter of using good-quality content and photography, collaborating with people and brands, sharing knowledge and just anything you find really striking or special.
But really, people just seem to like the pictures of my dog wearing flowers the most, so there’s always that.
Twoone (Hiroyasu Tsuri) and Miso are my favourite artists, for having such a powerful magic in their works. RoAndCo (and Roanne Adams herself) is my all-time favourite in the design world. And illustrators Jay Howell, Sean Morris, Ben Lopez, and photographer/artist Dana Trippe. There’s too many!
Where do you turn for inspiration?
The natural world is always my first stop—it’s like the direct line into visual language and ideas.
After that, there’s always good guitar music and 60s-era American literature and 70s-era design to fill in brain gaps. The internet too, but it’s such a treacherous place for procrastination and confusion of purpose.
What do you love about your creative career?
I won’t lie, getting to hang out with my dog all day on freelance days is pretty awesome. It’s nice (and daunting) to work on something that means so much to the client—a lot of the time in journalism, people were actually pissed that I was working on something about them, so the vibe is very different.
And the fact that there’s always a new project to work on, and it’s just totally consuming. I’m always surprised when eight hours have passed and I’ve been in a total locked-focus trance working on something.
Could you tell us about a recent professional project?
I’m working on branding and packaging for boutique botanical chocolate made in Oregon at the moment, which has been really fun and challenging. It’s brought together my illustration and design brains, which kind of rallied against each other. The client came to me via my illustration work and was interested in that style, but for a logo it just doesn’t work as well. So it’s a big balancing act, and the whole brand is still evolving as we’re working too.
When I first started out as a journalist, I worked on a really small paper and had to do everything from reporting, to layout (in Quark!), and press photography… so that really sparked my interest in playing around with DSLRs. I’ve always been an obsessive documenter too, so I love setting up photos and just adding to a story.
Probably designing textiles for Gorman. Or some kind of killer stalwart brand like RM Williams or Harley Davidson.
What would you say to someone in the industry who is sceptical about the Shillington course?
The course is a good proving ground—if someone excels in that kind of intense atmosphere, it’s likely they’ll make a good worker in the real world. The course teaches you to respect deadlines and allocate your time, take ownership of and responsibility for what your work, and to respect the process of developing concept.
So not only is it a strong foundation in the technical and conceptual side of design, it’s also a good test of a person’s mettle, really.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone starting at Shillington, what would it be?
Really apply yourself from the very beginning—pay attention, learn what you’re being shown, and try to push every brief as far as you can as you’re going through the course, it will help at the end.
And look after your health from the very beginning! You’ll need good health to draw from when you decide to spend the last two weeks living off sugar and coffee.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Just a big thank you to the Shillington teachers Frances and Beccy. They were total rocks throughout the course (even when I cried in class because I thought my dog was going to die!). They go on such a monumental journey over those three months—it’s not just the teaching, it’s managing egos and disappointment and triumph. I have no idea how they restart with a new class a couple of weeks later. Legends.