By Emily Powell
When you start a business in your 40s after building a career for 20 years working for large
organisations you realise pretty quickly that you need to get used to being a novice again for a while.
There’s a whole world of businessy knowledge that you need but you just don’t have, and you can’t
learn it all over night. I’ve learned that you can’t work it all out on your own either, you need people in your life who can help and direct and support you, people who’ve done what you’re attempting to do and who can guide you.
As Brene Brown says, “We don’t have to do it all alone, we were never meant to”.
(Not) finding my niche
So early in my journey of growing my fledgling business, I took part in some online challenges, run by inspirational women who have successfully built and sustained their businesses, and even grown
them through a global pandemic and world recession. One of the consistent pieces of advice that really struck home for me was about focus and niching.
Picking one thing. Narrowing down to one ideal customer, with one perfect product.
And it’s really good advice. It creates focus for you and clarity for your customers. It doesn’t confuse
them with a myriad of different things that you can do, a load of different offers, that could mean
that they give up trying to work out what you do and go somewhere else for what they need. It
makes messaging and marketing and selling so much easier. It is absolutely advice worth taking.
But I am having some trouble with it.
I draw lots of different stuff, for different reasons, in different styles.. I’ve got an online shop with 50
products – some are personalised and some ‘off the shelf' (I draw bespoke commissions); some are detailed and realistic fine art, and others are whimsical and imaginative interpretations - I create bespoke hand drawn infographics and re-usable graphic facilitation templates for organisations large and small. So by my count, that makes at least three quite different things; or maybe even six…
Thing No. 1 – detailed and realistic fine art drawings
I have always loved to draw and have been drawing all my life. For a while during my childhood we didn’t have a TV, so my big sis and I filled our time with arts and crafts, encouraged by mum and dad. We made Play-doh models of tortoises and clothes for our dolls. We made models from polymer clay and we drew, and drew and drew. Mum read us stories before bed and we drew pictures while we listened. I drew horses and birds, tree roots and eagles and flowers. I remember drawing a cray fish from the Readers Digest Field Guide of the Water life of Britain.
I ‘knew’ I’d never earn a living through art or music, so after A levels, I got a ‘sensible’ job in Finance at B&Q. My love of drawing was reignited when I had to take a couple of weeks off work after an operation. Over the two weeks, I drew ‘Peace’, ‘Dame aux Fleurs’, ‘Old Boots’ and ‘Family’. I wanted to be able to draw realistic animals so I spent some time researching ‘how to draw realistic fur’ and I discovered the work of Mike Sibley, who creates the most amazing fine art pencil drawings.
I drew ‘The Dreamer’ and ‘Moonlight and Shadows’ after the workshop, slowing my process right
down and spending 20 to 30 hours on each picture in order to achieve the level of realism that I
Each of these drawings has a different story and personal meaning for me, and they fit together into my fine art collections, ‘Soul and Life’, and ‘The Wild’.
Drawing realistic and detailed animal pictures became a fascination for me, and I also started
drawing dog portraits, of my own dogs and those of my friends and family. I did some people
portraits too, but my love of animals won out and drawing pet portraits is something that I continue
to enjoy doing to this day, capturing not only their likeness, but something of their character and
personality as well.
Thing No. 2 – Hand drawn infographics and visual communication
My drawing took a bit of a backseat as my career evolved and we had our two beautiful children,
Katelyn and Thomas. After 13 years at B&Q, I started working for the NHS. I fell in love with the NHS, warts and all, and I found opportunities to explore my creative side again.
I co-designed a development session for the Finance Team and created a set of graphic facilitation
templates. I didn’t realise what they were at the time, but I loved the idea of incorporating hand
drawn graphics into the team away days as a fun and engaging way to generate and capture ideas and solve problems. I drew some doodles as a memory aid for myself during a week long training event and did some small illustrations for the staff magazine. Different people across the trust started to see my work and ask me to create visuals for their projects, and Thomkat Illustrations
(named for Thomas and Katelyn) was born.
I created my first paid commission in March 2019 for Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust; an
infographic describing what mental health ward rounds with respect and dignity should look like
from the patient’s perspective.
It’s hard to describe how much it meant to me to use my creativity to bring to life their voices in such a powerful and compelling way.
My drawings have brought customer voices to life, promoted mental well-being, positivity and kindness and much more. I am incredibly grateful to Beth Ford, Nick Broughton, Tom Westbury and Kim Perry, who gave me the encouragement and opportunities that helped my budding illustrations business take root in my heart and grow to where it is today.
Thing No. 3 – whimsical and colourful stylised illustrations
Creating these more informal and colourful drawings for the NHS opened up a new style of
illustration that I hadn’t explored before. Compared to the fine art graphite pencil drawings, they
are much quicker to create but no less satisfying. Instead of taking weeks or months to complete, I
could finish a picture over a couple of days, and could make tangible progress in smaller snippets,
rather than needing to devote several hours at a time to concentrated detailed pencil work.
The process of dreaming up the different and unique images to capture the various concepts I was
asked to illustrate for the infographics also started my mind working in a different way. I’d read a
document and think up ways to make it more understandable and memorable. I would hear a quote and imagine a little picture in my mind to represent it.
On one of the online challenges I took part in, run by the awesomely amazing Gemma Went, Gemma’s little sayings inspired me so much that I drew little pictures to capture them.
I began creating drawings to illustrate personalised affirmations and the words that people were
choosing for their "2021 word of the year".
Just for the joy of it, I drew a series of summer scenes for an art competition and put
them together into a collection that I have called ‘Tranquil Times’, to capture the peace and
tranquillity of lazy summer days.
So you see...I just can’t choose
I draw because it lights my soul and makes my heart sing. Each piece that I draw, the
stories behind them, the understanding that they bring, the truth that they share, the emotion they
create, the memories they capture; I hope to create a little moment of understanding, of magic, of
beauty in the world
So here’s to chaos and confusion, to not choosing and to living my dream. Maybe I’ll have to choose as my business grows and maybe the work I do will naturally increase in one area, but for now, I’m sticking with three (or possibly six!)
If you are someone who sees the beauty in the world, if you care about kindness, compassion,
happiness and purpose, if you are looking for engaging, accessible and memorable ways of
connecting with your people in a unique way, I would love to draw something for you.
🎙You can listen to Emily's journey as a small business owner on Episode 9 of the Her Business & Co Podcast here.
About Emily Powell
Emily is an artist and illustrator, creating hand drawn graphics, illustrations, portraits and more for individual and business customers.
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