Becoming an Illustrator in 2018

Guest Post by Kirbi Fagan

It’s difficult to find your way home in a forest at night, during a thunderstorm. When lightning strikes, everything is illuminated and it becomes very clear which direction to go. Once darkness falls again, you have to keep walking, hoping that you’re moving in the right direction. When lighting strikes again, you can sprint towards your destination with certainty and then it’s back to the darkness. Who knows how long it will last.

When I heard this analogy, I immediately felt it described my career in the arts. Artists looking for guidance on “breaking in” look to those who are at the top of the game today. Those artists “made it” in a time that seems like a different world, with different rules. It was a time you could make a day out of knocking on art director’s doors in NYC.

Today, you can learn to paint with tutorials that are a click away. Students are vulnerably developing under the watchful eyes of Instagram. There is a showcase of artist’s “greatest hits” every time we open our phones. I write this article as someone who is new to the industry, but proudly paying bills with my paintings. I want to share with you what I learned navigating this ever changing industry and most importantly, how I got out of my parent’s basement.

Curating Your Presence

As someone who specializes in feminine MG/YA book covers, I get asked if your odds are better to specialize or be a jack-of-all-trades. The real answer is that I don’t specialize. I have the appearance of specializing. A lot of people probably don’t know that I have worked in video games, animation and traditional portraiture (yes, some were dogs.)

Artists have passions and often times are skilled at many kinds of techniques, crafts and hobbies. It’s why we have a difficult time focusing! I feel, while at the start of my career, I can only be remembered for one thing. Therefore, on social media, I only share my work related to publishing. Thankfully, I am now able to be choosy about the projects I work on, which for now is book covers.

It’s Organic

I was devastated when I was told my work, “wasn’t ready.” After a brief breakdown, (my apologies to the man sitting next to me on the flight back from the “Illustration Master Class”) I went on a quest to improve. While I was focused on my techniques, I accidentally made friends. These true connections support me in unexpected ways.

I’m a firm believer that you don’t need a lot of clients, just a few great ones. One recommendation can keep me busy all year. Never underestimate the value of a genuine connection, not just with those who have a Spectrum trophy in their studio. This isn’t unique to the art world. Contrary to what people who know me might think, I’m not an extrovert. Living outside of my comfort zone has been critical to my career. For my fellow millennials, think of it this way: One in person interaction is equivalent to 5k likes on Facebook. Get to that opening, workshop or convention and support others.

What No One Wants to Hear

It takes time. Some of the more notable gigs I’ve had did not come from an Instagram follower, a cold call, or even from my skills as a painter. They came from long standing relationships that were built slowly over several years.

99.9% of the time I don’t hear back from an inquiry. That’s hundreds of emails and postcards gone unanswered. I can tell you several stories of clients who I contacted four times a year for 3-5 years and I never heard back until one day, I did. Being persistent is my secret sauce. My goal is to always have new, better work to show. This can be especially hard when all you hear is radio silence.


I Hope You Find This Relieving

Your prosperity does not rely on a massive online following. I rarely get work directly from social media. Unless you are selling a large quantity of items such as prints, taking care of a large following is just another responsibility. Don’t even think about using social media bots to help with that task. If you have to ask why, re-read the words “genuine connection” a few paragraphs up.

Think of it this way: One in person interaction is equivalent to 5k likes on Facebook.

Be selective about which social platforms to use. Choose places your clients are, not where artists are. That’s why you won’t find me on Deviantart (among other reasons.) I admire illustrators who create additional content for their online audience. I have little to share publicly. Paintings from last year won’t be out till next year and the rest are better off left in my sketchbook. Time is our most valuable commodity. I’m spending mine out of the rabbit hole.

Count On it

When all the portfolio slots were filled at a convention, I went to the line of artists and hoped that one of them wouldn’t show up for their review. It worked! I got my review but was never hired by the reviewer. The next time I tried that technique, it didn’t work, but I still managed to get my review later that night and I worked for that art director three years later. Whatever red tape gets in your way, it’s not a sign to abandon ship. The harder you work, the luckier you get.


It Gets Harder

I celebrate working for some of my dream clients but I’m not cheering, “I’ve made it!’ I work with the same vigor, questioning my craft with an eye that grows more skillful with experience. I work hard to earn the trust of my clients. I was surprised how challenging it can be to maintain my voice while pleasing a publisher. Only a few years ago my challenge was painting that final image. Now, creating a sketch that clearly visualizes and sells my idea is the most important part of my job.

The Obvious

Having great work is one piece of advice that will never be outdated. I don’t know anyone with a stellar portfolio who isn’t getting work. There was an important shift in my mindset that happened right before I started landing bigger, better paying jobs. With my skills improving, I became less concerned about laying down paint and more concerned about what I was painting. I was putting in more time designing the details than actually painting. This is why there are two mentalities of art schools, some schools focus on the technique but the work is so boring. Other schools put a lot of focus on conceptualizing but the artists have little skill to execute it. We need both.

We Define Illustration

To my friends in the trenches and my students who are trying to make it in 2018: The most important thing to remember is that we are the ones shaping this market. The wages you accept, how you treat others and how you allow yourself to be treated sculpts our industry. And for the love of God can we all stop posting “just a quick/rough/5 minute/loose sketch.” What value does this give to our craft?

Whether you are wandering in the darkness ready to sprint or galloping in the brilliance of a lightning strike, keep moving forward. The rest will follow.

Post written by Kirbi Fagan

Kirbi Fagan is a Metro Detroit based illustrator who specializes in creating art for book covers and comics. Her illustrations are known for their magical themes, nostalgic mood and feminine heroines. ​Kirbi currently serves as Co-Regional Illustrator Coordinator ​for
the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators​ and teaches illustration at ​the ​College for Creative Studies​.