The career path of an illustrator isn’t very clear and that is probably why people often ask me how I got started as an illustrator and if there is any advice I can give them in regards to becoming a professional illustrator.
I think having a successful illustration career comes down to the following: Unique Consistent Style, Technical Skills, Marketing, Tracking Work and Attitude. Hopefully, you will find something useful in this article.
Unique Consistent Style
I think having a unique consistent style is probably one of the most important keys to having a successful illustration career.
- Read this article: Does an illustrator need a “style”?
- Read this book: The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries and Laura Ries
It’s hard to execute a good idea if you don’t have the technical skills to do it. Having great technical skills not only allows you to realize your ideas, but also will save you a ton of time in the long run because you will be much more efficient and responsive when clients have feedback.
You can search for tutorial videos on Youtube and Vimeo , but in order to save you time I highly recommend Lynda.com’s video tutorial. You pay a monthly subscription fee which gives you access to all the videos you can watch on all the major programs (photoshop, illustrator, aftereffect, and tons more)
Marketing your illustrations
All your marketing efforts should point back to your web site. Your web site is a place where you can centralize information and understand the success of specific marketing tactics via Google Analytics and/or Statscounter. YOUR WEBSITE IS YOUR MOST VALUABLE MARKETING TACTIC!
What makes a “GOOD WEB SITE”?
Domain Name – First you need a web site with your own domain name.
(example: www.yournamegoeshere.com). Art directors won’t take you seriously if you are pointing to another domain (flickr, tumblr, etc) So if you don’t already have your own domain address you can register your domain name here:
Note: All you need is the domain name, don’t buy any extra services, it’s not necessary.
Portfolio Hosting Sites vs. Creating Your Own Web Site
Next, you can use a portfolio hosting service or create your own web site. I recommend using a portfolio hosting service, because they have already takem care a lot of the advice I mention below for creating your own web site (Search Engine Optimization, Usability, Permalinks, Technical Setup, etc)
Recommend Portfolio Hosting Sites
- I WOULD USE THIS ONE *There are others, but I think this one is the best!
- I created my alter ego’s web site using their services www.alexanderblue.com
Creating Your Own Web Site
If you decide not to use a portfolio hosting company and want to create your own site I recommend hosting it at www.site5.com. I have used them for years and I am really happy with their service. I host this site and my other sites there illustrationmundo.com, letterplayground.com, and proconist.com
Here is some advice for creating your own web site:
- Keep it simple – clearly explain what service you are providing. The simpler your message is the stronger and more memorable it is.
- Usability and Search Engine Optimization – Don’t use FLASH, Frames, Pop-ups, Lightbox, etc … stick with good old fashion HTML/CSS! I developed Flash web sites for over 10 years and for an illustrator’s web site my advice is DON’T USE FLASH! 40% of my web traffic comes from Google alone and by using Flash you are making it hard for search engines to index your site and hindering word of mouth marketing because of a number of usability issues. For example, lots of social bookmarking sites (Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon,etc) won’t be able to take advantage of specific content on flash sites.
- Unique URL – Make sure every piece of art on your site has a unique url … you know, in your browser where you type the web address. Example: http://www.n8w.com/image/art/urban_outfitters_pillows/ This is why you don’t want to use pop ups, frames, flash, lightbox scripts, etc – art directors often forward urls to editors, so you want to facilitate this process and not hinder it. Here is an example of a unique url that will never change.
-For a category search Google “Hand Lettering” or “Art Licensing Collections”
-For a specific art Google “chalkboard lettering” or “chemiCOOLS”
- Update your site frequently – BLOG/RSS Feed/Return Visitors – most good web hosting companies have an easy way to set up blogs, ask your isp for help or set up one at tumblr.com, wordpress.com or blogger.com. A blog is good because it will keep your site fresh and most clients are return visitors, so you need to give them a reason to return. Also when you blog something the blogs RSS feeds update the search engines.
- Google Analytics – In order to understand what works, you need a good stats system to track your marketing efforts. That will give you an idea what the ROI or the return on investment is for a specific marketing tactic. Google’s service is the best I have seen and its free, there is no reason not to use it. So a practical way you might use this information is to find out which thumbnail image from your portfolio is the most clicked on, this image might be a good image to use for your postcard mailer because it’s generating the most interest https://www.google.com/analytics/. You can create special links to track specific marketing tactics with the link builder tool. So for example say you pay to be listed in a web site’s directory. Instead of just giving them your web site link you give them the link generated by the link builder tool which in return will tell you a ton about the hits generated from this site and you can see if the ROI is worth it.
- Mailing List – once you make a connection with a client you want to keep it .. it takes more money to get a new customer than to sell to an existing one. People that have hired you are more likely to hire you again and again. There are lots of free emailing list options .. Google it. If you want something for free check out PHP List. Otherwise, I highly recommend … http://www.campaignmonitor.com
- Social Networking – People won’t check your site everyday, but they do check sites like Google+, Facebook, and Twitter everyday so it’s important to have a presences on these site that link back to the work on your site.
Once you have a good, user friendly, search engine friendly site. Post card mailers are probably the second most cost effective and effective tactic. Lots of times art directors just need to be reminded you exist. That is why I think higher frequency is better than spending a lot of money on one marketing tactic. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. I would rather spend my money doing 3 postcard mailers a year vs. one big book ad
Cold calls are something you will have to do when starting out. Find magazines, papers, etc that you like or think would be a good fit for you art and contact the art director, ask them if its okay to send them a few examples of your work. I would never send more than 3 pieces .. they will know what your art work is about after seeing 3 pieces.
After working as an art director for Microsoft’s Xbox .. I can’t say how important it is to have a positive attitude. Of course talent is crucial .. but talent isn’t the only thing that gets you work. People are people and it’s always nicer to work with someone that is positive and solution oriented. I used to hire tons of external agencies to create web sites and other online promotional material. All the agencies were extremely talented but those that could talk about their work in an exciting way, were easy to work with and accepted feedback well were the ones I hired over and over again.
I’m not saying do anything the client wants with a smile on your face. You were hired because you are an expert in your field .. articulate the decisions you made and get them excited about your ideas .. but it’s also important to stay positive and flexible.
You can save yourself a lot of extra work by asking a few questions up front.
First, get the basic information:
- Technical Specs – size, bleed, resolution, etc
- Important Dates – (Rough Date, Final Date)
If this is the first time working with this person ask them:
- Why did you choose me for this project? (I like your concepts, I like your painterly style, your work is cute and works well for teenage girl magazines, your style is rough and dark and works well for this editorial piece on drug abuse, etc)
- Which pieces of work do you particularly like and why?(I like the man on the boat cause it’s funny, I like all the texture in the piece you did for Converse, etc)
- How did you discover my work?
This will give you a better idea of what the client likes about your work, why they chose you for this particular project and what they expect.
Next, get more information about the job, if it’s a long editorial .. ask them:
- What part of the story do they really want emphasize?
- Is there anything they want to stay away from?
- Do they have any ideas?(This doesn’t necessarily mean to use the idea .. but it will give you a general idea of the path they want to take or what part they think is important/interesting)
Tracking the Work
If you want to make a career out of illustration you will need a good way to keep track of your jobs so you make the deadlines and get paid for your work?
- When are roughs due?
- When are final sketches due?
- Are there any jobs you need to complete?
- Are you too busy to take on more work in a specific month?
- Who hasn’t paid?
There are a number of ways to keep track of this information. I programmed a little MySQL database application for it .. but you can just as easily track it using a spread sheet or some other existing software. I highly recommend http://www.google.com/calendar
I have a web page for every job where the client and I can keep track of job’s progress .. this page includes:
- the job dates (roughs and final)
- contact information
- creative direction/job info
- pencil sketches
- final image
- a link for the client to download the final high resolution file ( It is really helpful to use a service where you can store your high resolution files online. This will make it easier for you to keep organize and share your files with the people that need them. I use the service http://www.dropbox.com )
Creating the Work
- Brain storming – get inspired by your environment – I always do my brainstorming and rough sketches outside of my house .. sometimes I take a bus ride with no destination in mind .. sit on a park bench and watch people .. or walk through the city. When you put yourself in new environments you notice things .. you notice subtleties. this is a great way to spark your creativity and start thinking of analogies that might be good for your illustration .. if nothing else it makes your life more interesting.
- Here is an article to help with the brainstorming process
Next you can talk to the client and talk about your ideas .. I prefer just to create pencil sketches, because a lot of the time it’s hard to envision what you are talking about .. and my sketches are extremely rough so they don’t take me more than .. about … 60 seconds … I try to sketch very loose and fast so the focus is on the ideas and not on the craftsmanship .. at this stage of the process it’s all about ideas .. and you don’t want a slow drawing hand to slow them from coming out of your teeming brain.
I usually take pictures of my sketches with a digital camera .. its a lot faster than a scanner and because it’s a rough quality isn’t so important ..
Next I scare my client with my super rough sketches and explain to them .. to just focus on the concepts .. the final piece won’t look exactly like this .. ;)
The client emails/phones their feedback .. usually something something like .. “sketch 4 is great .. but can we emphasis the blah and maybe reduce or take out blah .. make the cat a dog and make the dog a cat .. etc”
My process changes a little for each project .. but this will give you a general idea of how I work.
I create my work in a variety of ways .. sometimes I paint with acrylics, draw with sharpie markers, ball point pens,a wacom tablet, paint with india ink, create textures with water color or photocopy machines, etc .. but basically what I am trying to do is create a library of modular pieces I can, later, put into the computer and rearrange the size, composition, color .. etc .. I really like organic textures and loose free flowing lines .. but as an illustrator with quick turn around times I need to be able to make quick changes and easily incorporate client feedback .. so I mix all these really organic elements in a way that is easy to modify/edit via the computer.
To spark my creativity .. I often re-use pieces from my other works .. basically collaging my own stuff .. maybe a head, or a cloud, or a bike wheel, etc .. this helps me quickly create compositions .. but it’s more just for placement .. I then modify or create new pieces specific to the illustrations needs .. at the end you won’t even recognize most of these pieces .. but it really helps me get started .. breaks the ice .. gets the ball rolling .. etc
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