An interview with freelance illustrator Tim van den Broeck

Tim is an ad guy gone rogue. He used to work at a big ad agency and decided to take the leap to start on his own as a freelance illustrator. 

In your former career, you were an art director at a big ad agency, why the move to illustration?

The short answer: Creating advertising full time didn’t make me happy anymore. (busy people can skip to the next question here)

The not so short answer: Although I studied advertising (and graphic) design in college, I have been drawing as long as I can remember. So, the move to illustration felt natural to me. 

I remember feeling like I was standing on a crossroad. Staying in advertising was the safe way to go. Then there was another path, one that seemed dark and creepy, but also mysterious and strangely alluring. It took me a while to notice it and summon the courage to take the first step.

The main catalyst was my first visit to Pictoplasma, an annual conference about character design in Berlin. I was blown away by the amount of creativity and potential shown there. I felt like a kid again. I still do my best to hold on to that feeling.
From that moment on I kept seeing faces and characters all around me in objects, textures, architecture… I still visit Pictoplasma each year to get an inspiration boost.

Tim Van den Broeck

Most of the drawing I did as an art director was to communicate ideas to clients. The drawings were a means to an end. I felt that they deserved to be more than that.
Not long after that, I started illustrating. I quickly noticed how time became irrelevant when I was drawing and how the results made me happy and confident.
I also wanted to create work where I could express myself more, a sort of extension piece of my personality. Maybe to create as a way to explore my personality. 

Above all, I longed to have the freedom and time to try new things, find out what I like, improve and evolve. Also, have some fun along the way and hopefully meet inspiring people. People that help change your perspective, turn your world upside down, kick you in the butt when you need it and leave you with important insights. I hope I can be the same for others.

Are there similarities between being an art director and an illustrator?

Because of my art director background, I’m probably not a typical illustrator. So I may work in a different way than other illustrators. With me, the two are so much interwoven, that they influence each other constantly.

Most commercial projects are different: it depends what you are saying, how you are saying it and who you are talking to. I usually try to bend my style and adapt the execution so it fits the brand identity and the tone of voice. At the same time, I still want to make sure that the result fits into my universe. It’s about finding the right balance. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I go too far. It’s a constant process and I still don’t feel that I have arrived where I want to be. Actually, I hope I never do arrive.

Some similarities that come to mind:

  • You get to create cool stuff and you get paid for it (sometimes). 
  • You drink too much coffee.
  • If there’s no deadline, you can’t get anything done (this includes chores).
  • You drink too much coffee.
  • On many occasions, you have to thoroughly explain to people what it is you do professionally.
  • You drink too much coffee.
  • People don’t think you have a real job.
  • You can dress like a homeless rapper and it will only enforce your image.

How does an ordinary workday look like for you?

An ordinary day: Have an espresso, eat breakfast at my desk, open some e-mail and check if I have any cool job offers. If there are any: do my secret happy-joy-dance. If not: still do the secret happy-joy-dance to cheer me up.

Then, do some sketches. Throw sketches away. Do some better sketches. Skip lunch. Refuel on espresso. Maybe eat a little piece of cake. I like cake and cupcakes, muffins too. Thinking about cake makes me hungry, so I eat lunch. Insert espresso number 3.
Do some design or illustration work. Send to the client. Redo the work because the briefing has changed. Go outside and complain to people in the street. Maybe chase some cars.

Tim Van den Broeck

A not so ordinary day: Decide to skip work and go out. Get invited for a UFO ride by a small, sad looking, purple alien with 3 fingers instead of a butt. Drive spaceship because… well, alien only has 3 fingers and he says two of them are strained. Take off, visit several foreign galaxies, officially open some black holes and then have breakfast (some kind of furry space eggs with floating bread). Fight blobby space monster who tried to sneakily steal floating bread. Hug monster and share leftover bread. Talk about tentacles and bowling.

Return to our galaxy and bump car while parking spaceship. Get in a fight with the aggressive car owner. Zap him to another dimension with a pink ray gun. Eat a lollipop. Make a sitting hole in the sofa for an alien. Watch some TV. Maybe eat a cookie.

You seem to prefer character design, where does that come from?

I love characters because they have the power to convey emotions and humour, without having to be human-like. People can relate to them regardless of their form, colour or amount of legs. They can do all kinds of fantastical stuff: fly, shoot lasers with their eyes or fart coffee. On the other hand, some can be annoying too. The small pink one who lives on my site has no manners at all. So I sometimes let him be cut in half. He always grows back though.

I’m not sure where it comes from (I’m not too sure about anything). Maybe it’s because of my childhood, mostly spent watching animated series, reading comic books and building Lego robots (which often got annihilated by the enormous, screaming baby-sister-monster). Maybe because by creating characters, I will never truly be alone. That sounds a little sad, doesn’t it?

How did your style of illustration evolve over the years?

That’s a hard question. The subject of style is still a little vague for me. A part of me would like to have a recognisable style because it feels like home and creates an identity and direction for yourself as an artist. Another part of me doesn’t want to be pushed inside a box because it seems so one-sided and superficial. It wants to be able to experiment, adapt, grow, react to opportunities and has the freedom to, occasionally, throw everything overboard. 

I’ll try to answer… My style evolves because interesting projects challenge me to find a fresh approach or custom solution. It also evolves because I try, fails or succeed and grow, skill-wise and as a person.

I have only recently begun to create some sort of symbolic, visual language. Small ideas, often with a personal heritage, that I can incorporate in my work and that could make it recognisable. It’s interesting because it gives me an opportunity for introspection and how to translate what I find. I’m curious to see where this goes.

What is the hardest part of being a freelance illustrator?

There are several things that are quite challenging: trying to successfully handle the business part of this adventure, self promotion, looking for new clients and assignments, working alone, creating the time and energy for personal work, not panicking when you have no job offers, finding the right balance between work and personal time (especially when you work at home like me), failing and trying again (and again), learning to let go of things that mean a lot to you…

One of the hardest things is having to turn down a project you really wanted to do because you don’t have the time to do it well. That still breaks my heart. Then I do my secret happy-joy-dance. (I am allowed one a day)

Tim Van den Broeck

What part do you enjoy the most?

Finding the idea when you create. Designing a character that’s spot on after having produced much crap. Producing much crappy stuff and being fine with it, discovering an unexpected solution.

Finding the courage to do the things that scare me the most. I might fail utterly or it may work out better than I expected, but doing them is what matters most. The scary things are always the ones that are the most worth doing.

Waking up every morning and looking forward to starting work. Being allowed to do what I love and even making it my profession. Having the luxury to collaborate with nice and talented people, who appreciate you and help you grow. Being able to create my own world. Meeting people who are enthusiastic about my work. Doing artwork for charities because it makes me feel good.

Pronouncing English words that end with a “y”: nippy, sneaky, flashy, snarly, … And then snivelling like Muttley from Wacky Races.

Tim Van den Broeck

What are your future plans?

World domination, I am secretly breeding a new race of extra fluffy bunnies that shoot lasers out of their eyes. I call them: laser bunnies (still working on the name, I already have a logo though). In a while, my army will be ready and all of you will become my humble servants, attending to my every whim! (practising evil laugh)

If that doesn’t work out, I will probably do some more illustrations, hopefully, create some great products of my own and eat too many cookies.

Discover Tim’s illustration work




Published by

Timothy Helmer

Designer, curator of Let's Talk Design and founder of Creative Network.