Being a successful illustrator is not just about being a good artist. That may be the overarching focus of what you are after, but there are many factors involved that determine a steady, productive career.
We talk about those factors quite a bit here on Muddy, but below are my rock bottom items for flowing into the workplace and becoming a sought-after professional. They may seem simple, and some obvious.
Remember that what you think and say and how you act within this very small industry is a reflection of the business as a whole. In that regard, none of us are alone.
1. Don’t be a jerk.
As if we need more grief in the business. No matter who you are dealing with, whether they can give you work or not, you must not allow yourself to lay a trail of destruction behind you. It catches up.
2. Good handwriting.
We are in the communication business. A good, clean handwriting style is appealing. People melt when they see someone write with a good pen hand. You’ll look intelligent, aware, and capable of dealing with details. Most notably, the details of their assignment.
Notes become pieces of art that art directors tack to their wall. And they remember…
3. Learn to speak and write well.
Master the English language and have a good vocabulary. Don’t use street vernacular when interacting with potential clients, and especially don’t use it when writing email. Only when you’ve worked with a client for a while can you relax your speech.
And if you’re pissed off, do not–repeat, DO NOT–write that email you want to write, even if you are in the right. Better yet, write it and put it in Drafts. Then write the email you know you should.
Proof read. Proof read. Proof read.
4. Learn to articulate your approach.
Speak well, and express yourself clearly when you present your portfolio. To anyone. Like handwriting, or intelligent English, it bolsters you’re effectiveness. Clients will be drawn to you (pun intended) even if they’re not ready for you yet. The next time you call, they’ll be willing to spend time with you.
The old adage that artists are inarticulate about their work is exactly that: old. Don’t be that loser. It is not impressive to any client that you are too ignorant to explain your work. “Gosh, I don’t know…it just comes out. Guess I’m just amazing.”
Don’t let “umm” be your go-to verb.
5. Develop a thick skin.
No matter what anyone says about your portfolio, good or bad, it is opportunity staring you fat, flat, in your face. They might be right, but you must let it roll off your back. Thank them for a compliment and appreciate their cold candor if not.
Either way, you gain insight.
6. Study what’s being bought.
Go to a bookstore, gaming store, go online, watch movies, go to galleries, look at magazines and study what is being bought in the area of illustration that you want to work in. You must. Do not allow yourself to say, “Those are cool, but I want to do something different.” Not yet.
You have to get work first before you can change the world.
7. Have a strategy.
Look at five years out. Build a plan of where you want to have your work five years down the line. Step backwards from that point to apply incremental steps of what you can do to get there; what needs to be in your book. Pace it off. See if you can’t come all the way back to knowing what you can do today to head toward that goal.
8. Stay out of debt.
When you get paid for a big job and you feel on top of the world, do not go out and buy a car. Or a house. Save that money. It will feel so good just to see it sitting in your bank account.
Conventional freelance wisdom says you must build up a buffer to cover yourself for three months starting out. Then six months, then one year. This is your only chance to be able to survive this business without living paycheck to paycheck.
Be patient and build that bank nut. Then you can loosen up.
If you must spend that money, then put it back into your business. Use it on advertising. Again, we’re in the communication business. Never skimp on getting your images out there. Consider the costs, certainly, but promotion comes first.
Accolades come after.
10. Play the field.
Set your sites on The Industry, not just one part of it. Don’t be myopic. Think about where you can apply your pictures to work in many sectors of the field.
Separate areas of illustration don’t watch each other. Children’s book folks don’t usually watch what’s happening in advertising or even book cover work. Comic book people generally don’t pay attention to editorial clients.
You can work in multiple areas of the field at one time. This will broaden your abilities and your survival rate.