Portrait of Leonard Bernstein, during his final concert
Greg Manchess

You’re the student everybody pointed to in grade school and said “she’s the artist in the class.” You grew up drawing and making things. You were the arty one. All art interests you. And you like to work in all mediums because, after all, you’re The One.

I get a lot of questions when critiquing a portfolio about how one goes about finding work, getting hired, making a name, finding an audience. How does one go about it?

Finding your voice and your audience may be your greatest hurdle. Maybe even more than learning to draw and paint. This takes having a Zen-like attitude and blood that runs cool as ice cream. It takes a thick reptilian skin that can repel bullets of disinterest.

But the first thing you must do is get practical. Think about the business of illustration without the Prima-Donna effect. Without the desire to be the Next Big Thing. You must turn off your inner narcissistic Wannabe, and learn to look at the business with real, practical depth. And that, dear artist-type, comes from observing how things are getting bought and sold around you.

There is a catch here: you find your audience when you find your style.

Narrow it down.
So, you want to do it all. You want to be able to shift and change and not get cornered. You want to be able to do exactly what you want to do, without getting trapped in a “style.” You better hope to high heaven you even get that far, because in avoiding being trapped, in avoiding being typecast, you’re limiting yourself to the great unwashed bazillions that are thinking the same dang thing.

Sure, you’d like to get work from all over the industry. Comics, book covers, movie posters, children’s books, gaming, etc. First move: decide which one, maybe two, of these areas you really like the most. Do it now.

You already know down deep. C’mon. It’s burning a hole in your heart. And if you really can’t place it, you’d better take a long walk and get it figured out. Until you do, you’ll be all over the board. You’ll be scatter-brained. As will your work. As will any client that might want to use you. And this…this is BAD.

You cannot afford to confuse your potential client. They want to know exactly what they’ll get for using you. You must show them exactly what you do, and will do, for them.

Decide what you love most. 
My butt was handed to me at one point in my career about my portfolio. It was too scattered. I could handle nearly any technique, in any media. And no one remembered what it was that I did.

Not good.

Sit yourself down and give yourself a stern talking to. Walk a beach. Climb a mountain. Consult a crystal or see a shrink, but you’d better make a dang decision of just exactly what kind of art you love the most. Now. Today. Do not waste any more time. Decide.

Comics? Then focus on working for that. Book covers? Study what’s on the shelves. Magazines? Pick the ones you want to work for and make everything, everything in your book look like what they’d buy. They will not buy you for your creativity. They will buy you for the work you show them that reflects what they love to print. That’s where your creativity goes. Not waiting for them call you. Look at what they buy and mimic that.

Study artists who work in that arena.
LOOK at who’s being bought. Study every person working in that part of the field that appeals to you. Mimic what they do. Develop a method similar to how they work. Show potential clients in that area only the kinds of work that they need to see. Look at other people’s portfolios and websites that are similar. Do not let up. Become that kind of illustrator. Research your breath away. Tire yourself out studying that work.

Create pieces specifically for that area only.
After you’ve decided that you want to work as a conceptual artist for film, or a children’s book illustrator, then fill your portfolio with only that kind of work. LOOK at what’s being bought. Study everything that goes on in that sector. Become a nerd for that type of illustration.

Now put all of that into your book. Do not deviate. It must all appeal to that area of the field or even just to one client. That’s right, I said one client. All that work. One possible client.

Practice showing it around, test it out.
Show your book around, but only to people in that arena. Don’t waste time showing a comic portfolio to the Wall Street Journal. Or book cover work to Time Magazine. They buy portraits. Wizards of the Coast buys fantasy art cards. Got it?

A successful illustrator doesn’t shotgun this field. They sharp-shoot to hit the target they’re after. Strike that target well, and people come back for more. That’s when you start building clients. Then a direction, a voice, a style.

This is like an ‘elevator pitch.’ You know this term? It’s how much time you have to convince a movie mogul that your film will be amazing…in the time it takes to ride a few floors in an elevator. You have to hit them in the frontal lobe.

You’ll have all the time in the world. Two seconds, tops.

Develop what you want to see.
LOOK around you. What is it that you’d like to see on the shelves, in the store, on the screen? Start building a vision to manifest that picture in your head. You are unique in that vision. No one else has it. It’s all you.

The bad news is, others will get close to what you are doing. We are all very similar in our visions. That’s ok. That’s how things get created by humans. But if those ‘others’ have more gumption than you, guess who gets the work?

Don’t try to guess what will get attention. Don’t try to guess what will be popular. This is the part where you build something that’s your first love, unique to only you. But keep it out of your main portfolio. This experimental portfolio is developed over time and is only your best work, only the stuff you’d ultimately like to see out there. When you’ve got 10 solid, consistent pieces in that book, start sportin’ it.

Find a niche.
Start looking at the field and sizing it up for potential. Don’t take on the whole field at once. Don’t expect to sell to every client that looks at your book. Your genius comes out slooooowly, through time, effort, and due diligence. Mold yourself to the field. Do not expect it to notice you or cater to you or fawn over you. It won’t. It’s mean. It’s a bear. You have to tame it.

Do you like bears? They’re dangerous, y’know. They could eat you. Feed them gingerly until they rely on you for their meal. 

Find your niche by looking at the little stuff first, and build your way to bigger things. Or do what I did. I made my portfolio look like it had been in the business for years by making the samples in the book look like what was being bought at the time. Yes, I copied other artists’ work, but I didn’t lose myself doing it. I learned my own voice more accurately by allowing other artists to guide my hand until I knew where to go.

You don’t find your style. Your style finds you.
It finds you when you’re least engaged at trying to find it. When you are so stinking focused on drawing and painting well, no matter what the medium, your style leaks out of you. Soon, you recognize it. You have to draw your way out of that cage. Your pieces will tell you what you are interested in.

(btw, your style starts showing up here…)

But make a decision and focus. Make a boatload of paintings that allow you to relax enough to analyze your approach, your line, your stroke, your rendering. Did you think this was gonna be easy? Are you that insensitive to discovery?

Have you not read ANY art history? Sheesh.

The audience is you.
Imagine a cellist playing a solo piece in front of an audience. Does he consider the audience? Does he play differently to different audiences? Audiences of different incomes or ethnicities?

No. The work selects the audience.

Instead of imagining an audience for your work, no matter how large or small, create images for the art lover in yourself. You’ll have a much better chance at connecting with people if you can connect with yourself first. (refer back to item 2)

Specialize first, expand next.
Ok, so let’s say you’ve gotten down the road. You’ve made some progress at focusing and gaining some attention in the area that you are thrilled to be working in. You may even have a portfolio at this point that reflects a smart, observant thinker, and skilled painter.

That’s when you can broaden your scope. That’s when you can use that voice to tame other areas of the industry and get them wanting your vision. And not before.

SPECIALIZE FIRST. EXPAND NEXT. That’s when your audience expands.

Was that so hard?

You bet your sweet pumpkin it’s hard. This is Creativity, remember? It doesn’t come all shiny new out of a box.