Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Advice For Beginning Illustrators


"I've decided to throw my hat in the ring and become an illustrator - what should I do?"

I get asked this question all the time and the following are the answers I give. Whether you're just out of school or changing careers you probably have a lot of emotions bouncing around in your head. Hopefully this will give you a few ideas to approach your new career.

1) Make great art! This is my number one and it always will be! Know this: art directors, editors, and art buyers are ALWAYS looking for new fresh quality work. This business isn't like the acting world - only in super rare cases is getting that "big break" going to make your career. It's like this: do great work and you will probably start getting good gigs. This sounds overly simple but I'm constantly surprised when I see artists spending lots of time and money marketing work that doesn't stand on it's own.

It's like trying to ride a bike with a flat tire - sure you can make it move but you'll never gain momentum or coast. I'm not saying don't try. Get on that bike and pedal like a mad man but don't be satisfied with flat tires! Constantly evaluate your work against your heroes. Ask yourself hard questions: Why do I like their work better than mine? What are they doing that I'm not? What are my weaknesses and how can I turn them into strengths. Where am I cutting corners? How long are they spending on a piece of art? (don't know? - find out)

I did this. I asked these hard questions when I almost got kicked out of my college illustration program. I asked these questions in my first years of working as an illustrator. I still ask these questions because I'm still on a quest! I don't want to settle for what I'm currently capable of. You have to get pissed off at your current portfolio if you want it to get better in the future! (can you tell I'm passionate about this :)

2) Show your work. If you're making great art you need to understand that there are clients that will hire you if they know you exist. Marketing unfortunately has gotten much harder but also cheaper. Art directors used to look in a few places to find illustrators so life used to be much simpler. Now there are a zillion places you can pay to display your work. I'm noticing that many illustrators aren't finding great success with paid sites, source books, etc. The most important piece of marketing you can do is start blogging - adding regular new work and communicating using your humanity. If you're making great art others will link to you and share your work. Art directors are looking for and hire quite a few illustrators from blog hopping - I know this because I take the time to ask them.

The old stand by - post cards are still a great use of time and money as well. If you're sending out really good work - your cards will no doubt land on a few desks at the right time and you'll start to see them pay off. Again - what you put on that card matters more than who it's going to - more than a clever phrase - more than credentials - and more than the grades you got or are trying to get.

3) Create your own properties. As the publishing world is downsizing from the economy and the proliferation of electronic books - they're creating fewer books and subsequently hiring fewer illustrators. This is both good and bad for illustrators. On one hand it's harder to get commissions - on the other you can now create your own stories and publish them for little to no cost in the form of ebooks and apps. Now you don't have to wait by the phone hoping it will ring with that big job or book deal. Get busy writing and join or form a critique group with like minded people so you can get good honest feedback.

Make relevant apps or ebooks for your audience. It sounds overly simple but simply put - they have to be great. Average, predictable, mediocre aren't words you want used to describe your creations. You have to be honest with your work and only produce properties that you yourself would buy. But don't be paralyzed thinking that you don't have the right or that you're not good enough. You'll learn more by doing than by standing on the sidelines. Get in there and fail. Fail often but learn lessons each time you fail - you're walking aren't you? how did you learn to do that?

4) Go to conferences. It's time consuming and expensive but attending conferences like SCBWI and other writing & illustrating conferences around the country will expose you to people who have the same struggles you do. People who are having successes and are eager to share them - art directors, editors, and art buyers sharing their opinions, preferences, methods, and desires. There is a culture in the publishing industry that you need to tap into to start to understand where you can fit in. You should be getting your advice from many different sources so you can be better equipped to formulate your own opinions.

People who attend conferences get published and hired more often than those that don't.

5) Socialize. You need to be connecting with people using social media. Assignments and opportunities can come from many different directions and connecting through the internet can open you up for many new opportunities. Pick a few social sites and start developing relationships but be careful not to let it take over your time. You can connect with the world now - why wouldn't you take advantage of that?

And if you do decide to create your own projects you'll have a group of people who you've been connecting with that might buy your new_________...and if it's good - they'll talk it up. The days of "buy my product" are dying if not dead - it's the connections you make that will introduce your new_________to the world.

6) Don't always do it the right way. Be careful of looking for the right way to launch or maintain your career. We're in a creative industry so don't clam up and get mechanical about your marketing. It's time to separate yourself from your counterparts. Use your brain and don't be afraid to innovate new ways of getting your art out there. If you were to poll 10 of your favorite illustrators chances are they would all paint a different picture of their success story so don't get caught up in following the map - venture off the trail - you might be talking about your trip at a future conference!

7) Give. Number 7 wasn't in my original post but I'm going to add it now. Help others with their art. Ironically you'll learn and grow faster if you force yourself to put into words the processes you're using to teach someone else. It doesn't matter if you're an expert or not - just help someone that needs it. When you reverse engineer your process you'll hear yourself say things you didn't even know you knew. It will also force you to seek out principles from respected sources so you don't feel like an idiot when teaching. You'll make discoveries that you were never taught in school and you'll also feel great helping others but that's not the important thing...or is it?

40 comments:

  1. I have a bad feeling that there are no conferences like SCBWI in Poland :/ But who knows - as soon as I find out about one, I'll book myself a place.

    It's good to read those tips and truths over and over again, preferably every morning to get a good grip for the whole day. Thank you for sharing and reminding :)

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    1. I don't know much about conferences in your area - bummer - but sometimes when you don't have access to the same privileges it forces you to work that much harder - I wish you all the best!

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    2. Aleksandra, I couldn't tell you if there are or aren't SCBWI chapters. I will tell you a few things that I do know. The computer is a POWERFUL tool and the children's industry is one of the most generous and giving in a highly competitive world. You can connect to people via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (my favorites). Will's point about a blog is a GREAT one, especially if A) you do it regularly(at least twice a week) B) link to other websites and blogs and C) constantly add new work. Another thought, I live in a state in the U.S.which has treachorous roads in the winter, and I'm of a limited means economically. I created a critique group, tailor-made for me, of course, lol. Wonderful, talented people and we did it via the computer. (Yellapalooza.com, there's an article there on how we did it, or it's an article in the 2004 CWIM). We just celebrated our tenth anniversary as a crit group. Get in touch with the SCBWI here and perhaps they would share a way to network where you are. All it takes is like-minded people and diligence. Will, this is a wonderful article. Thank you so much for this and many other great posts! Great good luck to you Alekxandra!

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    3. This is a great answer Agy - thank you for giving!

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    4. You're right Agy. I try to be as much easy to find and interesting to follow on the Interenet as I can - surely something will come out of it (it already does!).

      Maybe some day I will just move to a country where are illustrators' associations ;)

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  2. Oh, love the stink bug! Great post Will. I love your passion and dedication to helping others.

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    1. Thanks Karen! It's all good times for me - if it helps others - that's a bonus!

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  3. I read this list on the edge of my seat! I can't sit still and write about how great I thought it was... because it is time to act! *zips off like an overeager puppy

    WISH ME LUCK!

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    1. Thanks Janet - I know a lot of people reading this already know this stuff - like you :)

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  5. Gosh darnit Will!! I may end up posting all of your posts on OnceUponASketch! Nobody says it better than you! I might as well quit now! ;)

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  6. So... how much time do you spend on a piece of art? I'm always curious about that. For some reason I have it in my head that good illustrators just sit down and an hour later have a masterpiece. I often get discouraged when a piece I have in my head doesn't seem to work on the page and I tend to give up on it.

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    1. Great question Heather - The stinkbug piece in this post took me about 15 hours - some take much longer. When I was working in acrylics the longest I ever spent was about 100 hours but now that I'm working in photoshop I think the longest is about 30 hours. When I was in school the longest I could focus on one piece was about 2 hours and then I lost interest.

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    2. Thank you for asking this question Heather, and thank you for answering it Will. I wanted to know...

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  7. Too many times we try to limit ourselves and implement our own stumbling block, saying we can do no better. But progression comes with hard work and diligence, just as the muscles grow with a steady weight lifting regime, so too can our artistic abilities grow

    Thanks for another great article, Will

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  8. Once again great advice. Thanks Will

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  9. Wow, this advice is well put and so motivating! Thank you for taking the time to encourage us!!

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    1. You're very welcome - I have to say - I was given great advice by several instructors and plenty of illustrators along the way - It's my pleasure to pass it on.

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  10. Thanks Will, another great post! I love reading your fabulous "teachable moments"...they are always extremely thought provoking!

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  11. Will, nice job. Sometimes you have to tell it like it is. Straight and truthy (from Steven Colbert). The hard fact is there are no easy answers and there
    is no turning back. Straight ahead to infinity.

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  12. Yes, Yes, and Yes! Will, I needed this, its like you were speaking right to me! ...and maybe you were. Any, Thank you Sensei.

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    1. It was good to talk to you the other day Cam - you're going to do great!

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  13. Great stuff Will. So the postcards still do the trick? I'll give it a try.

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    1. Thanks Brandon - it's all about the image on that postcard - if it's what they're looking for. I hear some people keeping really busy sending out post cards regularly 3-4 times/year and others don't get much if anything from a mailing - the ones that do usually know their market well and deliver great images for that market.

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  14. Been there, done that, and you are still brilliantly correct!

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  15. WOW Will what a dynamic and information packed post. I have reviewed your work, and the work of some illustrators on your "like" list (what a talented bunch)! I also look back on my first self published work and cringe...but I have learned a lot about the process and owe a lot to you for your online sharing. Because of it, I have one completed pdf to look at. Because it's genre is green, right now I am the only one looking at it:) However, this past week I got the crazy instead to send it out to over 100 MP's that were on the cusp of voting to pass a controversial omnibus bill where in it tons of environmental protection laws were about to get the axe to make way for the free and clear harvest of Canadian Black gold. It may or may not have persuaded them to care, they may or not have had the time to read it at all, but " I Leave You this World" got out there in a very unconventional way.

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  17. Great post Will!
    I bought your course yesterday and i'm already on video 3. Love it! I learned a lot! Thank you so much for that and all of these advice, shall put them all into practice.

    Giulia

    http://www.giuliamauri.blogspot.com

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    1. That's awesome Giulia! It makes me feel really good to know that I can help! Best wishes!

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  18. This is a great list Will! I wish I had seen this when I first started out.

    I like the idea of "getting pissed at your current portfolio". I would add though that there is always more to learn and you can't give into frustration. Never stop learning and put yourself out there with confidence.

    One mistake I made after graduating is that I thought the degree had taught me enough. I was getting work, but it wasn't great work. I still had (and have) many things to learn. I think it pays off to do what it takes to get feedback and instruction from the top talent in your field. As you said everything depends on great art. Okay art will bring work that is just okay.

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  19. Good points Kari - yes - it's ok to get frustrated as long as it doesn't cause you to quit. I noticed you went to the workshop last week - the art dept? I think it was. I'll bet it was well worth the time and sharpened your tools a bit.

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  20. Illustrator is one of the best career options to choose. The above tips are really very useful for all illustrator beginners. Thank you so much for sharing these guidelines.

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