I was trying to think of a useful post for the last couple of weeks. One idea that persistently held its hand up for attention was some kind of guide to the first few years of an illustration career, from someone who went through them not all that long ago. I’m in my 11th year now, but the memories of the struggle are still fresh. So I hope this might be of some help to someone out there who has either taken the plunge, or plans to.
Firstly, I should maybe explain my own path to said plunge. I will keep it short, otherwise this will turn into an epic autobiography and no one wants that.
In a nutshell, I didn’t realise I wanted to be an illustrator until my late 20s (just about to turn 40 now). I always loved drawing but I didn’t know what being an illustrator entailed (I thought it was either political cartoons or storyboards) - but after a few years of dipping my toe in creative tasks (in jobs that didn’t necessarily require them - thanks to an understanding boss) I knew I wanted to give it a go. I emailed people - illustrators, ad agencies, designers - and asked (politely) how to do it. There was no easy guide - it was just a case of ‘go for it’. I quit my job and moved home to Ireland (from London) just as the global recession hit in 2008. There was very little work around as a result, especially for a newbie with maybe some raw talent, but no real quality in the portfolio. It didn’t matter - I was all in. Slowly but surely, one job lead to another (infrequently).
So with the benefit of hindsight, here’s what I would tell 29-year-old me to do in those first, tough, years:
1) Don’t change the hunger. That belligerent, stubborn refusal to cave and the desire to make drawing your living is all-important. The freelance illustration life rewards staying power. You will need grit.
2) To make the stubbornness less destructive on your life, manage your money. I wish I had started with fall-back savings instead of being penniless. Squirrel away. Set aside your tax money (it’s not yours) and save as much as you can because those rainy days are very frequent. The stress of not getting work, or worrying when a job pays late is seriously damaging in lots of ways. It makes you desperate - and desperation leads to mistakes like undervaluing yourself…
3) Don’t undervalue yourself. Don’t take the job for pittance just because it’s a job. Don’t offer to draw in any style a client likes just so you can earn a crumb. This is of no use to you in the long (or even short) run. Better to do less work for more money - that’s the goal (I’m still chasing it). If you have savings, or even a part-time job that doesn’t take away from your creativity (or tire you out), this will help you avoid those shitty commissions and focus on the bigger picture. Which is improving your output and making your work desirable to clients…
4) Improve your skills. Learn. The talent part is just the seed, the rest is knowledge and technical ability. Do Lynda (or similar) courses on new applications. Learn Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, After Effects & 3D (more on that in a sec). Learn about lighting, composition, anatomy and perspective. Study. This never stops - you will always need to learn and up-skill (I still suck at lighting). And if you know how to make your images move, or to use 3D to aid composition, you have more to offer potential clients and your work will be better. While you are doing this, it’s very important to…
5) Enjoy it. Learning the above should be pleasurable. If it’s not, you may be on the wrong path. There will be numerous opportunities to beat yourself up - there is no point in adding ah-jaysus-do-I-have-to stress on top of that. Doing personal work, learning new skills, researching the work of past (and present) masters is the fun part. Beats an all-nighter to make a deadline any day.
6) Make time for personal work. This is paramount. For one thing, it’s more fun than client work (sorry clients). For another, it’s the playground you learn most in. It will be better work because you are enjoying it, it’s from your own head and you’re learning while doing it. Potential clients love to see it, and nothing has opened more doors for me than personal work. On nearly every job I get these days the Art Director cites my Pan’s Labyrinth poster as a reference. I made that for fun years ago. Now it’s on a special edition Blu-Ray cover and lead directly to pretty much all of my current work. It is the most productive use of your time.
7) Don’t worry about style. This debate has been raging probably forever, and will never abate. Yes, you need a discernible voice to set you apart from the other illustrators - aka ‘style’. Having a jumble of all sorts in your portfolio is not a good look because clients need to know what they get when they hire you. For example I have a pseudonym for more cartoony work (Ignatius Fitzpatrick) because if I mixed that in with my regular stuff it would sow confusion as to what it is I’ll make for a particular job. But it takes time and experimentation to find that voice. It will come - but in the meantime just make stuff because you think it looks nice. Play. Who knows where the work will end up, but it will be fun getting there.
8) Be nice and network. I think maybe ‘Network’ can be a horrible word when used as a verb. It reeks of manipulation, so I don’t mean it like that. I mean that if you are nice, meet your deadlines and take direction well you will build up a collection of clients who will use you again and again. This also applies to fellow artists, both home and abroad. I have made many e-friends online that I’ve never met in person who are also illustrators and their feedback, advice and knowledge of the industry is invaluable. They’re also in the same boat, so it’s nice to talk to people who understand what you’re going through. Also you can geek out on things like typography or textures.
9) Look after yourself. Really. Those first years are very, very stressful. There are moments of extreme self-doubt, even depression. Much like acting (my brother is an actor so I’m well aware of the parallels), you’re putting your inner-self on display and opening it up to rejection. It can cut deep if you’re not careful. I’ve spoken about mental health in illustration before (here) but essentially just be aware that while you need grit, you also need to be kind to yourself. Exercise. Do stuff outside of illustration or creativity in general. Work hard, but make time for just hanging out with family and friends. This will benefit your work directly.
10) Take your time. Don’t fret over not ‘making it’. Just concentrate on improving (and enjoying) your work and the rest will follow, eventually. Don’t worry about how many followers you have (another thing I wrote about, for The AOI, here) or why another artist is getting all the plaudits or why you’re not as good as someone else. There will always be better artists, but none of them are you. Keep the head down and do your own thing.
EDIT: It was pointed out to me on Twitter (thanks @Carlydraws!) that I left out the need to learn about contracts & usage rights.. This is absolutely essential as usage & licensing is where you earn your money.. The AOI Book ‘The Illustrators Guide to Law & Business Practice’ is pretty essential reading.. Buy it here.. And joining an organisation like The AOI is the best money you will ever spend.. Huge help
This also made me realise there may not be enough practical advice here so next week I’ll write part 2 with a little more nuts and bolts...