Monday, December 8, 2008

My 2 Cents to Aspiring Illustrators

I have been getting a lot of questions lately about "how do you become a freelance children's book illustrator." Specifically, college students tend to contact me regularly to interview me as a "professional artist in your field of interest" for their class projects. I can't guarantee that the road that I followed will work out for everyone, but I do think that many illustrators got where they are today by taking a similar course. Since many aspiring illustrators have similar questions, I thought I would post the questions from these students and my responses. This is by no means a "don't contact me with any more questions" post! I love being able to share my experiences with others to help them get where they want to be with their career, just as other experienced illustrators did for me when I was a college graduate. I just figured that I might as well post some of this information on my little corner of the internet, and if anyone has any specific or further questions, feel free to contact me! Hope this helps as a good starting point to help new illustrators start off in the right direction:

Letter to Student:

I am happy to help you with your interview project, and am glad that you enjoyed my work for the Pirate School series. Please see my answers to your questions below.

1) Have you always wanted to pursue visual design as a career, or did you think you would be doing something else with your life?

Well, when I was 5 I wanted to be a paleontologist, but after that, yes, I have always wanted to be in an artistic career. During junior high and high school I spent many hours practicing in my sketchbook, and researching animation (mostly Disney), since I wanted to become an animator. In college, I majored in graphic design and virtual reality. Through this process I realized that while I still wanted to unite imagery and storytelling, I did not feel like a career in animation was right for me. I became a graphic designer, then a creative director for a multimedia marketing agency. Today, I have a fulfilling career as a children's book illustrator, and feel that this meets my goals.

2) How does a visual design career compare to what you imagined it would be?

I think many people have two misconceptions: 1- They don't realize how broad the artistic field is and 2 - they don't realize how hard one must work to realize specific goals. While graphic design and creative direction were not my end-goals, they provided business experience and much practical knowledge that was important for me to have as an illustrator. They also provided a steady income and health benefits while I worked towards my illustrator goal. This means that for 3 years, I worked about 75 hours a week (40 + at my full time job, and every night, holiday and weekend illustrating to build up a portfolio and client base). To become a successful illustrator, one must have a good deal of discipline and business sense, which I learned while on staff at my previous jobs. Few people just graduate and then jump into a successful illustration career. For many, it takes years, and you have to eat and pay bills in the meantime.

3) Where do you get your creativity and inspiration from?

Everywhere. I carry a sketchbook everywhere and doodle constantly. These often serve as inspirations for projects. I almost always draw or paint to music as well.

4) What do you feel is the best way to get your artwork noticed for the purpose of working steadily?

There is no guarantee that any method will work. However, here is a good course of action.

1 - First become so good at your craft that you stand out amidst your competition. Have a distinct style, and be able to execute this style quickly and consistently, with enough variety that each project looks like a unique project.

2 - Have a budget of about $3000.00 per year. Use this to buy a domain and website for yourself, get promotional postcards printed (which you then sent to art directors at publishing houses that you are interested in. Do this 4 times a year). Buy spots in online and printed directories (such as directory of illustration, Ispot and Picturebook - whichever are most applicable to your art). With research, targeted marketing, consistency and luck, your artwork should get noticed eventually.

Basically, there is no one avenue to promoting yourself. Successful artists use as many avenues and mediums as possible for promotion until they are known in the industry.

5) What other crucial advice would you give to an aspiring artist like me who would love to follow in footsteps very similar to your own?

Join SCBWI ( They have resources such as publishing house contacts, lists of agents, etc for illustrators and writers. Also, read everything you can in the discussion forums, since you will find answers to questions you did not even know to ask!

Get a full time job as a graphic designer, or some other regular paying job. You must invest a lot of your own money into this illustration business before it pays off, and you will need money to help fund that.

Understand that many of people who want to be in the business of children's book illustration will fail, because they will quit before they succeed. Before many illustrators can afford to leave their full time job, they have to put in long nights, have no weekends, no holidays, no personal time, and sacrifice financially. Some will simply burn out or decide that this just isn't worth it. That is fine. There is nothing wrong with deciding that freelance is not right for you, and being happy in a job with health benefits is not wrong!

I found that getting an agent (after I was published - most agencies to not accept non-published illustrators, and getting a good agent can be as hard as getting a publisher), was a good career move for me. My agent negotiates my contracts now and handles my marketing, as well as helps me to improve as an artist so that my work is more marketable.

Research, research, research before you do anything! Purchase the Graphic Artists Guild handbook (on Amazon for about $35.00) to understand pricing, rights, contracts, and everything. Know about business tax deductions, and keep detailed records of your expenses so that you can make appropriate deductions on your taxes. Research publishers before you send samples of you work (understand what type of work they publish, and tailor your samples to their interests). Talk to other illustrators. Remember, you are a business owner. You are your own secretary, lawyer, accountant, project manager, etc. It is your job to know industry standard practices, fees, etc. so that you can negotiate contracts accordingly.
Many clients will want artwork delivered digitally. Buy a nice scanner, set up an FTP site, and learn Photoshop (if you have not done so already).

Hope this helps! Good luck on your project and your career!