16 March 2024

Illustrator and Designer Molly Maine on How To Run a Creative Career While Travelling the World

Ever been tempted to chuck in the 9-5 and follow your dream while travelling the world? That's exactly what illustrator, designer and creative consultant Molly Maine did in 2016, and since then, she's been enjoying the joy of travel while bringing her creative ambitions to life.

It's 2016. Molly Maine is single, living alone in London, and working full-time in publishing. But something isn't right. Despite enjoying both her job and the company she worked at, she was finding it difficult to keep up with the cost of living in the capital while paying back her student debt. And on top of that, her ambitions of becoming an illustrator were still niggling away in her mind. Her solution? Quit and travel the world.


This may sound like a rash decision, but it had been building for some time. Molly had studied illustration at university and only found herself in design and marketing jobs due to their security. "I still loved drawing, and I had a strong desire to create my own artwork, but after long days in the office, I found it impossible to find the time or energy to work on my portfolio," she tells Creative Boom.


After feeling trapped in a loop with no clear way out, she decided to make the change. A big change. One that would allow her to create some space to work out a new plan. But without any savings, the luxury of time was hard to come by. That's until she discovered the perfect opportunity.


"I had been practising yoga and meditation to help me deal with my anxiety, and I happened to come across a six-month volunteer placement at a yoga school in India, working as a graphic designer in exchange for food, accommodation, and yoga," she says.

"After that, everything happened very quickly; I took a leap of faith, applied for the placement, quit my job, took my final paycheck, and flew to India. After the placement ended, I finally had the time, space, and confidence to set up my own creative business. I set up my laptop in a little cafe in the Himalayas and began looking for clients…"


Since then, Molly has been travelling non-stop. After India, she headed around Asia, including spells in Thailand, Vietnam and Bali. This allowed her to work on her portfolio and grow her business without too much financial pressure. As her income increased, she travelled to places with higher living costs, such as Hong Kong, Las Vegas and Portugal. "I've now been to 51 countries, and I'm excited to see where I'll end up next!"


Travel broadens the mind; in Molly's case, it has broadened her creativity. "I have always been obsessed with the interaction between light and colour and how these aspects can help to define a place's character and mood," she explains.


"During my travels, I realised that each country had its unique colour palette, even down to the shade of blue of the sky. Mexico, for instance, blew my mind. I would spend hours just walking around the streets in a visual stupor, soaking up the bright pinks and yellows of the buildings, getting high on colour!


"Early in my travels, I started a passion project, creating an illustration for every country I visited, trying to capture little snapshots in time that encompassed the essence of each place. This then evolved into a collection of travel prints, which in turn caught the attention of various clients from the travel and lifestyle industries, turning into commissions."


Travelling is not without its setbacks, though. For Molly, like the rest of us, this presented itself in the form of a pandemic that brought the world to a halt. "I spent my first lockdown living on a vegetable farm in Vietnam, so I was lucky enough not to have had too much of a difficult time," she reveals.


"With the borders closed and no tourism, my partner and I took the opportunity to ride a motorbike around the northern Vietnamese countryside, which was completely empty, a trip that inspired many of my artworks at the time. However, being unable to leave the country and worrying about my family's health in London gave me a new desire to be closer to home again.

"Once the borders opened up, I flew back to spend some time with my parents, and my partner and I decided to create a base a bit nearer to home. I didn't want to move back to the UK, so instead, we got an apartment in Lisbon, which is now our 'home base'. I spend much more time in Europe now and take more frequent trips back to the UK. This has also been helpful for work, as it has allowed me to touch base with clients, attend industry events, and exhibit at shows such as The London Illustration Fair."


As well as a pandemic to contend with, the practicalities of being a creative were only amplified for Molly as she wrestled with working remotely. "I used to create my illustrations by hand using black ink and then scan my drawings into Photoshop to finish the colour," she says. "This became a nightmare whilst travelling, as I was always hunting down scanners (very difficult in rural Laos).


"Nowadays, I work a lot more in Procreate, which has made things much easier and completely streamlined my process without compromising the outcome. Part of my income comes from selling illustrated art prints and products online, for which I use a print-on-demand platform (The Printspace). This means that I don't have to worry about the logistics of physically shipping out prints and products, as orders are automatically fulfilled and sent to customers, turning this aspect of my business into a passive income stream.


"I also have various apps that help me track time zones, check wi-fi speeds, and even book Zoom rooms in co-working spaces for client meetings. Occasionally, I will hire virtual assistants to handle various administrative tasks, freeing up my time to focus on creative work and connecting with clients."


This is hard-won advice, as years of travelling have been a learning curve for Molly. And one of the biggest challenges she encountered was the absence of feeling like part of a stable community. "Freelance illustration, by its nature, is often a solitary job, so when you add constant travel into the mix, the feeling of being disconnected can intensify," she says.


"To try and overcome this, I try to seek out creative co-working spaces or studios wherever I go, rather than working from home. These spaces aren't just about having a desk and good wi-fi; it's about connecting with other creatives, forming friendships and sometimes even collaborating on projects.


"I'll also try to find local life drawing classes and attend exhibitions and creative meetups, not just to help me stay connected but also to provide fresh inspiration for my work. Whenever I'm back in London, I join events and try to immerse myself in the local creative scene."


Speaking of events, Molly recently spoke on a panel for the Association of Illustrators, where she discussed the various ways illustrators can diversify their incomes. "The nature of freelance work is that it ebbs and flows, so I learnt early on not to rely solely on one source of income," she says.


"As part of the discussion, I shared my personal journey and experiences in diversifying my income, including illustration commissions, freelance graphic design work, online sales of illustrated prints and products, participation in events and fairs, speaking engagements, creative consulting, and wholesale.

"The AOI has been a huge support throughout my career, and I've learned so much from the events and resources about everything from licensing to contracts and client acquisition. The event was a reminder of the strength and support that comes from being part of such a dynamic and collaborative community, and it was great to have been able to be a part of it."


And when it comes to practical advice for working in a similar way to her globetrotting self, Molly is bursting with tips. The first of which is to choose your destinations wisely. "It's important to balance the cost of living in a country with your income, so do your research, work out your expected living expenses, and always have an emergency fund — enough to cover an urgent flight home if necessary," she says. "There's a huge difference in cost between working remotely in Japan versus the Philippines, for example."


Another hot tip is to take your tools with you and look after them. "Whether it's your favourite set of watercolours, your DSLR, or your new Macbook, ensure you have protective cases and insurance for everything. In many countries, these items will be hard to replace if they get damaged or go missing."


Travelling the world means you'll be changing time zones frequently, so don't forget to take that into account. "If your clients are in the UK and you need to be in regular communication, consider sticking to Europe or South Africa."


Starting your journey in countries welcoming to digital nomads is also something to keep in mind. "I use Nomadist to check which countries are currently the best places to work remotely. These places will have reliable internet connections, short-term rental accommodation, and co-working spaces, making the transition smoother."


It's easy to forget details like your phone when travelling, so Molly recommends you unlock your phone before leaving your home country, ditch your contract, and switch to using local SIM cards. Deciding on working hours and sticking to them is also a must.


"It's easy to get swept up in the adventure of travel, but without discipline, your work will suffer," she says. "Equally important is to allocate time for exploration and adventure — after all, that's a big part of why you're travelling!"


Finally, honesty and transparency with clients about your location are essential. "I keep my current country updated on my Instagram profile, ensuring clients and followers always know where I am. Right now, I'm in Chiang Mai, Thailand!"