Making it as an Illustrator by Denise Bosler
Being an illustrator in today’s market is not easy. While the market opportunities may be quite large, and although illustrative work is needed for everything from editorial content, children’s books and licensed products to custom blog headers and backgrounds, cell phone wallpapers and apps, if you don’t have the right skills and motivation you may become one of the hoards of starving artists.
Talent – So You Think You Can Illustrate?
This should be a no-brainer. Of course you have talent. The real question is, do you have the right kind of talent. The industry is saturated with highly skilled and highly talented illustrators. The top schools churn them out right and left and seasoned professionals are around every corner. To add to the difficulty in finding jobs, gone are the days when design firms and advertising agencies have in-house illustrators on staff. Illustration is easily accessible as stock art, hundreds of portfolio websites are available on the web and sites like Flickr, Facebook and Twitter are great free advertising for illustrative services. To put it simply, you are not alone and you are on your own.
This begs the question, how are you going to stand out? Your work may be good, but is it different from anyone else’s? Does your work blend in with the masses? Your work needs to be ownable and distinctive. Look around at other illustrators and focus on what makes your work unique. Look at your technique, style, medium, perspective, subject matter and point of view. What is your niche marketability? Until you are able to answer this question, your work will be lost in a sea of talented but unexceptional illustrators.
Attitude – Illustration is not for the Weak
You work by yourself so you need to market yourself and you need to find work for yourself. Sitting back and assuming the work will come to you will end in you being penniless, hungry and working an unrelated job. If you do no advertising, promotional work or schmoozing, art directors will never know you’re out there. Simply having a web site alone is not enough.
You are your own boss and therefore need to pick up on some boss-like qualities. You need to be confident in yourself and your skills. You need to become a go-getter. You need to be aggressive in your promotional abilities. Meekly passing out business cards to your relatives is not enough. The more contacts you have, the better chance you will have in succeeding. Join illustrator-based organizations such as the Association of Illustrators, the Society of Illustrators or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Pay to participate in web-based initiatives like workbook.com and theispot.com or participate on free sites such as IllustrationFriday.com and threadless.com. Start your own blog or Flickr gallery and make sure you post at least once a week. Be sure to leave constructive and intelligent comments on other people’s artwork as well. Consider exhibiting at trade shows or taking part in portfolio reviews. You never know who you’ll meet and where that meeting may lead.
Be Savvy – Do You Need an MBA?
Illustrating is the easy part. Being a business person is not. Your first step in creating a sustainable business is developing a business plan. A business plan helps keep you on track, helps you understand how to market your talent, gives you confidence in your future and improves the chances of you being successful. A good business plan includes but is not limited to:
• Current Situation including financial needs
•Target Market – general and specific clients, market segment
• Competitive analysis – other illustrators, successful promotions
• Strategy – marketing goals, artwork goals, marketing and promotion strategy including web presence
• Execution Plan – timetable
In addition to a business plan, you must also behave like a business professional. You need to know how to do simple things such as balance a checkbook, properly keep paperwork for taxes and put together professional sounding emails. You need to speak clearly, speak confidently and follow through on deadlines and budget. You need to learn how to put together a proposal and discuss a contract. You may need to hire a contract lawyer to help with a more complicated job. You need to keep abreast of competitive rates. Consider purchasing Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines to help with your rates. If any of these tasks are issues for you consider taking classes such as accounting, marketing or speech. You are a professional so act like one.
Imagination – Draw, Draw, Draw and Draw Some More
Illustration constantly evolves. Resting on your laurels is not an option if you want to remain competitive in the market. All work can be made better, all portfolios can improve and all illustrators grow over time. Continue to challenge yourself to create new work even if you have no jobs in sight. Consider creating your own assignments. If you think you need to revise old work, do it. If you are not sure what to revise, take advantage of a portfolio review or ask a trusted illustrator friend to review your work.
Keep a sketchbook and draw in it everyday. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a new style or technique as you never know where something may lead. If you are short on time, at least create a fresh new promotional piece once a month. Contrary to popular belief you can get rusty over time so sketch a lot and sketch often. This will help you stay on top of your game so you can get the work you want.