Hand Drawn Creative is a successful business based in Bangor that provides illustrations and creative design for clients around the world. Sole trader Neal McCullough has been drawing since he was a child.
“Even when I was 14 or 15 I was doing pictures as gifts,” Neal recalls. “I was on holiday with my parents and we bumped into people who lived next door to Giles, the cartoonist for the Daily Express. And they said they must show my pictures to him. That was the time I realised I could make something of this.”
Yet it was business and languages that Neal studied at the University of Glamorgan – skills that only became useful to him when he began running his own enterprise. His unhappiness at Glamorgan made him recognise he wanted to focus on drawings and design, so he returned to study in Belfast on an arts course.
“Then I ended up as a graphic designer,” says Neal. He worked for a Bangor company for a couple of years. “It was one of those jobs where you hit the ground running and I had lots of late nights,” he recalls. “I learnt so much, so quickly. I went from a junior to a senior designer in a very short time.”
After that, Neil moved onto London for five years, working as a freelance, for various agencies and several staff jobs. Again Neal could build-up his skills, not least by working with older colleagues who had started drawing in a pre-computer era. “It was really old school, where I could learn my trade,” he says.
But on a return visit home he met his future wife, so he moved back to Bangor. “Then I worked in Holywood for five years, in advertising, and suddenly the illustrator in me came out again. Clients seemed to like it. By the end of my time there I was using illustration for everything and I realised that was what I really wanted to do.”
However, in October 2008 the advertising industry went through a near collapse. “I was made redundant on the Friday. Over the weekend my wife said, go for it yourself and she said you can make this happen. On the Monday, we found she was going to have our first child. It was also my birthday and the Red Arrows were flying overhead leaving coloured trails, so it was almost like it was written in the stars. So we said, let’s do it!”
After doing a few weeks of research, Neal established his business in early 2009. “I did not want to go door-to-door in Belfast begging for work,” he says. “If folks in Northern Ireland heard about me, then it was going to be for the right reasons, with me having clients outside Northern Ireland and outside the UK.”
Some of Neal’s work popping-up on the internet. “ I love the American illustration style of the 1950s and my work at the time reflected that,” says Neal. An unknown fan posted one of those illustrations on the website Found.com. As a result, an art director of Time magazine saw it and phoned Neil – who at first assumed it was a friend playing a practical joke. Instead it was completely serious and his big break was being published in one of America’s most iconic magazines.
Other work in the United States and Canada followed. More recently, through a local agency, Neal picked up a major contract for the Kia car firm and has also done illustration work for Comic Relief and for the BBC’s CBeebies’ programmes Big City Park and Sesame Tree. Neal now has a strong client base that i international and local – one of his latest clients is Belfast fashion designer Bronagh Griffin, who manufactures limited edition shirts. Large commercial contracts are backed by more low key personalised work, much of it sold on his website, http://handdrawncreative.co.uk.
“Over this summer, things were getting a little tight, so I am now doing my own prints,” Neal explains. “Very short runs of 20 or 30 and they sell incredibly well. After each new print I will usually get a call saying that’s great, can we do something like that for my company.”
With a second child born recently, Neal describes himself as currently working part-time, but doing so very happily. He has a newly built shed/office at the bottom of his garden and his parents come in to do childcare. “The way I work now is comfortable,” says Neal. “I can take 20 minutes off, check on the kids and then get back to work. I have taken the stress out of my work.”