Today I’m sharing a personal e-mail that I wrote to a young man who’s interested in becoming an illustrator. We got connected through Janet Jetkins, a talented art director with whom I have collaborated in different projects. First, you will see his e-mail, followed by mine. I hope that this post brings you some general insights about the world of illustration.
© Book cover by me ↓
Very nice to meet you too!
I’m looking for a bit of advice on how to break into this type of work. My degrees are in fine art & biology, but I have no formal education in illustration and I know virtually nothing about the field (apart from my own research). I’m considering taking some continuing education courses or even pursuing another degree. Do you work/live in the city? It would be great to meet and chat over coffee if you are free.
We just moved from LA to a place near Woodstock up here in NY. We’re loving it!
Maybe one day when I’m in the city we can get together or let me know if you’re ever around this area.
About becoming an illustrator, I recommend getting some formal education mostly if you’re interested in producing digital work, just speed up the learning process. But the truth is that it’s not mandatory to go to art school to become an illustrator. Anybody can learn different techniques from free tutorials on the Internet and consistent practice. The most important thing to make it as an illustrator is to develop a cohesive style that others can identify as yours, regardless of the medium.
If digital is not your main interest, then the most important thing is to decide what medium you’re going to master. When illustrators get hired, the people who hire them are normally looking for a particular style to suit their project. You need to become very good in one medium. Some illustrators master watercolor, some collage, some paper sculpture, some painting, or some digital…the list is endless. I even know illustrators that have mastered plasticine combined with other materials. The main thing is to put all the focus on a medium and become really good at it. Later on, you can expand to other mediums if you want, but 98% of the successful illustrators that I know are well-known for 1 medium.
The second most important thing is to have a website, blog, portfolio…some Internet place where your work can become visible. Behance is great as a portfolio and also Flickr. I have never approached an art director, magazine, or book publisher directly so far, they all found me on the Internet. Twenty years ago it was a different story, but today almost everything happens on the Internet. You can also find an agent to represent you. In that case, they will do their best to find you projects, but keep in mind that you will have to share part of the profits with them, normally 15% or more, depending on the agent. You also need to love that person’s taste and personality. There are some wonderful agents out there that have a great talent for helping your career grow, but they also need to love your work.
When it comes to doing the actual work, you need to be extremely flexible. Remember that you’re not running the show, the person/team who hired you is. Some people are super easy to work with and some are not, but in any case you need to be a good listener, respect their opinions, and disagree in a calm manner if you think that they’re wrong. That takes some practice, common sense, and social skills. Working for someone else is a great way to develop your ability to collaborate and your vision of things. I find it truly stimulating when I come out of my own creative world to listen to someone else and to work around their ideas. That ultimately makes you a better artist because it helps you see things from a different perspective. Another thing is that you have to work fast, that’s why you need to develop lots of skills in your medium. Always meet deadlines, be consistently reliable. You also need to be smart enough to bring your signature into everything that you create, that way you build a solid career. Doing your best work and developing your signature will make it easier for people to identify your style. Ideally, when people see your work, they should know that it’s yours even if they can’t see your name on it.
Now, regarding income, I still haven’t met an illustrator that is able to make a living out of illustration alone. Most illustrators work on that field but they also do their own thing such as gallery shows, writing and illustrating their own books, doing animation, or even have a second job in a completely different field of work.
About pricing, in my case, I have been increasing the value of what I do slowly. I started charging about $250 per illustration in the very beginning when I had no inexperience. Slowly, I started raising the price to $500, then going up to $1000, $2000, $3000…it all happened very gradually. Right now I get paid $10,000 or more for a complex project, but that doesn’t happen all the time. Regular projects are somewhere between $1000 and $3000. I can’t really count on income from illustration to support myself and my family. The income from illustration is something on the side to support my art career and to complement my husband’s income. But I can tell you that selling my work at art galleries and to private collectors is way more profitable. This is the case for many other artists/illustrators as well.
Here’s something else that comes to mind. Once in a while, you see the case of illustrators that collaborate on a book that becomes successful, so they get yearly royalties from that book’s profit. This happened to me with a book that I illustrated for a European publisher. But again, that income combined with all the other ones from illustration work isn’t enough to pay for all the expenses that life brings, unless you don’t have children or you live alone. If I was in that situation I would probably find a way to live out of my illustration income, but not in an expensive city such as NYC where you are.
But the most important thing that you should know is that illustration is like a branch in the tree of an artist’s life. Artists have their own language, their own interests, their own taste, they create what they create not because they have to, but because they need to, they love it, it’s part of how they function, and it is in a very organic way that they get asked to collaborate in projects such as book covers and many other types of projects.
My main advice is that you spend some time thinking about your very unique case to find out what you REALLY enjoy. If illustration seems to be something very exciting to you then you should go ahead and start working on building a career right away! Even if you take courses or go to school for it, the main thing is to start developing your own style. That doesn’t happen in a week, or a month, or even a year. It takes constant work and practice and having lots of fun during the process. More than to focus on the destination, you should be all about enjoying the process of building your own language.
I won’t discourage you from starting a career as an illustrator, that’s, in fact, one of the things that my 11-year-old daughter wants to do when she grows up! I will tell you what I always tell her: do anything that makes you happy, do it well, get very good at it, and then everything else will fall into place.
I hope that this helps a little bit.
Please don’t hesitate to ask me any questions.
I will be happy to answer them.