Profile: Ben Sanders

Published:  November 26, 2011
Sam West
Profile: Ben Sanders

Ben Sanders began his illustrating career when he was just 12 years old. In anyone’s book that’s impressive. Since then, Sanders has spent the past 20 years illustrating for everything from children’s books and magazines to posters, stickers and advertisements across all kinds of media. Given the amount of time Sanders has spent in the illustrating business, desktop thought it would be a good idea to ask him for some tips about career longevity in an industry that can be tough to crack.

Looking back to when I was 12 years old, I was trying to convince my parents I needed more pocket money and zooming around on my BMX, whereas Sanders was already building his illustration empire. He is quick to point out, however, that life wasn’t simply an endless supply of mixed lolly bags and sherbet straws bought with the proceeds of his hand-drawing skills. “Just because I had a contract with a publisher before my teen years doesn’t mean I wasn’t begging for pocket money! Though it did mean I didn’t have to wash as many cars or take out the cat like some other kids had to. The story is that my dad was a printer and one of his clients needed illustrations for children’s stickers. They sold well, so the publisher kept coming back for more. Every summer during my teenage years I would create a whole new set of characters for them: walruses smoking pipes, elephants riding bicycles, apples with bites out of their bottoms… you know, really profound stuff. Apparently, octopuses wearing clogs have worldwide appeal, so the cheques kept rolling in. Yet the funny thing was that when I went to see the career counsellor at school neither one of us considered illustration as a career path even though I was already doing it. Somehow ‘rodeo clown’ and ‘fortune cookie writer’ seemed to be more realistic options.”

Brad & Amp


So it seems that in this case the joke was well and truly on Sanders’ career counsellor. Back in the present day and Sanders’ website lists his background as art director, studio manager and illustrator, with each role giving him a well-rounded understanding of his clients’ needs. “When I left secondary school I pursued graphic design as it was the one career path that would allow me to keep dabbling in illustration. After completing my design degree, I quickly became interested in the advertising industry and the following year graduated from the AWARD School – which is all about coming up with ideas for ads,” he says. “I love design and advertising, but after a few years working as an art director at a hectic international advertising agency I was super keen to return to illustration. I was tired of briefing illustrators when I really wanted to do the illustration work myself. As a stepping stone, I managed a studio for a few years that had a really strong illustration slant before starting my own company, The Milk Agency, which solely provides illustration services.

“So I have been on the client side,” he continues. “Which helps in understanding the expectations, pressures, frustrations, deadlines and loooong Friday lunches of the ad and design industry. It would be harder to do what I’m doing now without those ‘behind the scenes’ experiences.”

Imaginary Friends


Sanders’ work often seems to have a nostalgic slant to it, with a definite nod to the simple and almost childlike aesthetics of the 1940s and 50s – an era the appeal of which, it seems, has transferred itself to his personal life. “If you visit my house, you step back into the 1950s,” he explains. “We even have a diner-style booth that we sit in for meals. I just like the naiveté and witticism of those times. Back then the Cold War was just warming up, smoking didn’t kill and Elvis wasn’t fat yet. I’m heavily influenced by Jim Flora, and find his album covers and book illustrations visually inventive and very quirky. There is a tongue-in-cheek wit to his work that makes me giggle like a little girl. There are also many other commercial artists of that time that have had an influence on my style. It can be found on ice-cream vans, breakfast cereal packets and cheesy magazine ads.”

This same vintage style easily lends itself to Sanders’ commercial work, as he adapts to each new client brief. But how important is it for an illustrator to have a distinct and consistent style? “I do think it’s really important to present a distinct style in your folio. Consistency is also important, but flexibility is even more so. There are some briefs that simply don’t fit my house style, and it would be foolish to try and make them fit. It just means being flexible, and doing my darnedest for the client knowing the work will never make it to the folio. I find that only a small percent of jobs are outside my style anyway, as the brief is often influenced by the work displayed in your folio.”



With his work spanning a number of different mediums over the years, does Sanders have a particular favourite? “Maybe editorial jobs have a slight edge, because you get a story instead of a brief,” he says. “It’s nice to read an article and create concepts that will work with the story. It’s a bit rare, but I’ve had a couple of briefs from ad agencies that required me to do concept work, and it’s great to be trusted with the ‘thinking’ side of the process. Involving illustrators earlier in the creative process often leads to better results. Illustrators should be thankful for advertising creatives that allow this kind of freedom.”

From concept to completion, Sanders has his own processes when it comes to drawing up a storm. “Well, the most important thing is that I get myself immersed in the brief. Understanding the message the client wants to get across. Once I have that sorted, I can let my mind wander around all over the woods, but there has to be a Hansel and Gretel-like crumb trail leading back to where the client wants you to end up. I think illustrators are required to be creative thinkers as well as good drawers, and this is where you can add a lot of value to your work. Much of the ‘Hansel’ work is done whenever there is brain space; the illustration part is much more of a set process, but no less interesting or challenging.”


Similarly, while the brief is integral for meeting a client’s illustration needs, it goes without saying that, regardless of how good the brief is, without inspiration you’re inevitably stuck for ideas. “[When that happens] I just have to remember to stop thinking too hard, stand back and give it some air,” says Sanders. “Just get everything that comes to mind on paper, whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea. Most of my initial ideas are bad, but getting them on paper flushes them out and gives my brain more space for the good stuff. When I’m really stuck, I look at the work of artists who have succeeded at cracking a brief. I have a folder called the ‘Inspiration File’ with hundreds of brilliant illustrations by dozens of illustrators, and it’s always worth thumbing through some. You start to think, ‘Gary Larson has come up with hundreds of brilliant ideas, so surely I can come up with just one’.”

Meanjin Cover


Aside from The Milk Agency, Sanders is involved in a cool-as- cucumber project with fellow illustrators, Travis Price and Sam Harmer, resulting in a collaboration aptly named Triiike. “A couple of years ago… we produced a bunch of ‘tag team’ illustrations where one starts an illustration, then it’s passed around to each of us several times until it looks like it’s ‘finished’,” Sanders explains. “We didn’t expect Triiike works to be seen anywhere, but we’ve had a few exhibitions now and our limited edition prints have sold well. People often ask what the next Triiike project will be and, yes, there is always something bubbling like a crock pot in the background. We’ve had a lot of ideas, but we just need to nail a couple of options down and make them materialise. We are planning something big for the end of the year, so keep an eye out… but not so long that it dries out and you can’t blink anymore.” Along with Triiike, Sanders has strong ties to agencies Picture Pig and Illustrators Australia, both of which are specifically set up to promote illustrators. Sanders believes such agencies can really help both budding and established illustrators when it comes to getting their work seen. “Definitely join a collective if you can,” he advises. “It’s brilliant to be connected with the wider illustration community, and you can learn a lot from the professionals, and nutters, of the industry. For me, Triiike is hands-on creative development, Illustrators Australia is a finger on the pulse of the industry, Picture Pig is great exposure and a privilege, and The Jacky Winter Group is the best way to get quality work. If you get the chance to join or get involved with any of them, do it – it’ll be great for your career and will give you the kind of warm feeling that you can only replicate by peeing your pants.”

Desktop pretty much assumes you don’t want to ‘pee your pants’ to get that warm fuzzy feeling described above, so before we wrap up we press Sanders for an alternative. “To be honest I just love drawing, but the best part of the day is when my wife comes out to the studio with a hot cup of frothy coffee. The worst thing is when she’s too busy to come out to the studio with a hot cup of frothy coffee. It’s a very frothy double-edged sword.”

Images are copyright by Ben Sanders.

From desktop magazine.

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