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?