Meet Our Members: Will Rea

Guild member Will Rea tells us about the challenges and successes of his most recent project, a giant 50 x 30ft mural at Sheffield’s Orchard Square.

All photos by Joe Horner

It’s been a whirlwind of a journey since graduating from the BA Illustration course at Sheffield Hallam University in 2019. One shift from pursuing illustration part-time to full-time, one career changing commission and one global pandemic.

In September of last year, before ‘the new normal’, I was working my first graduate job at a screen printers in Kelham. Part time printing, part time working as a freelancer illustrating, animating and painting signs for Union St. It was around this time that I applied for an open call commission; to pitch for a public artwork project at Orchard Square shopping centre in Sheffield. After having lived in the city for four years, I’d been immersed in the existing public artwork scene and I  wasn’t confident that my submission would go anywhere. I had done some small scale projects for clients, such as The Showroom Cinema, Bungalows & Bears and The Leadmill, but nothing on the scale of this project. I thought that it would possibly get lost under a pile of people that had the portfolio to prove they could pull off a project like this. To my astonishment I was wrong. My application was shortlisted, then shortly after I won the life changing commission from London Associated Properties and Museums Sheffield.

Within one week of getting the news, I realised that I couldn’t juggle a day job and also paint a 50 x 30ft mural across a shopping centre facade. So unprepared but very excited, I quit my day job and entered the world of full time freelancing…

As the Orchard Square public artwork commission had been my first ever external mural, there were a few things I realised I hadn’t taken into account. These mainly included the fact that it’s a bad idea to paint in the winter; that a project of this scale takes a lot of time; and that I was terrified of heights. Nevertheless I decided to get the fixed scaffolding installed in October and predicted a deadline of four weeks until completion. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get it finished in four weeks, but I did manage to overcome my fear of heights way sooner than that.

Dodging all the rain, hail and snow I managed to get the first phase of artwork successfully installed by March. Massive thanks go out to my girlfriend Georgia and graduate friends Andrew, Callum and James for assisting with the painting. We spent countless days shivering with brushes in hand, and countless evenings with head torches on working into the dark. But it all paid off in the end. 

Shortly after finishing, the world went into lockdown. Sadly the gates to Orchard Square were closed and the public were kept away from coming down and looking at my newly painted piece. It was a strange feeling and an even stranger time, that I’m sure everyone can relate to. There was a bit of self-doubt felt during this period too. A lot of wondering whether going freelance was a good idea and a lot of wondering what  on earth I’d got myself into… Somehow I managed to pick up a few digital commissions during this time with some very appreciated clients that kept me afloat. 

 Back to the present and  things are back on track. The gates are open at Orchard Square, so visitors are free to  head down to see the piece in person. I’ve also recently gone back to work: I’ve installed a second phase of artwork to the back wall in Orchard  Square, and moved onto my next public artwork commission. It’s been so enjoyable working on external painting projects in these summer months. Especially now I know what I’m doing. 

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