How to Get Started as an Illustrator

1.) Education: While it is not mandatory and there are some illustrators that have made it in this business without receiving a four year college degree, I would still strongly encourage anyone interested in illustration as a career to receive that degree in Illustration, Communication Design, or Advertising Art. It will be very valuable and worth every cent.


2.)  Define Your Market:  After furthering your education, and before you can decide what to put into your portfolio, you will need to know what area of illustration you want to pursue.  Are you a technical illustrator interested in the science fields-medical, botanical, archaeology, or marine biology? Perhaps your illustration work is more suited towards advertising.  There are plenty of advertising agencies out there that need full time and freelance illustrators. There is also the editorial or book illustration field.  Book illustration includes many sub categories such as: trade, education, children’s, teen, and young adult. There is also a market for illustrators who enjoy working with Christian publications and editorial work. Are comics more your speed? There is also a market for illustrators in the automobile, architectural, map, animation, licensing, areas and more. You will need to research the areas that interest you and try to find your niche. John Roman has done an excellent job discussing the markets of illustration, so check out his blog post here.

3.)  Portfolio:  At first, you may have several areas that interest you and you may not be certain which area will be best suited for your style of illustration work. You can target different markets by creating different portfolios geared towards different fields, clients and publishers. Try to narrow down your interests to reflect the strongest traits in your work. But, be careful and selective. Usually ten to twelve pieces related to your target market is a good place to start. More on this next week!

4.) Website: If you are planning on a freelance illustration career, you will need a website. It is such an easy way for an art director to show and discuss your work with their client and fellow members of their in-house team.  A website is essential. It is your portfolio. Follow the copyright guidelines and make certain you do your best to protect your art work. There are plenty of options out there to get your website up and running. There are also plenty of sites that discuss the copyright issues artists have when displaying artwork online. It can be a bit scary—the thought of putting your art work out there only to have it ripped-off.  But, the other alternative, hiding it in a studio isn’t going to land the next big job either. I can’t stress enough the importance of learning how to protect your art work. It is a matter of researching and then forging ahead with a beautifully executed website.

5.) Research Your Market: Now that you figured out the area that you are interested in illustrating for, you need to further research your target market area. It is fairly easy to check out a company and the type of work they do. Go to the company’s website and thoroughly read through and investigate the work they do. I also like to check out what the company’s mission statement is. Is that a company that you would feel proud to work for? Is this company the right one for your style of work? Does it fit in with your goals?

6.) Artist Guidelines:  Next, check out the company’s website to see if they post their artist guidelines.  If they do, carefully read through the information and follow through with their instructions.  If a company does not have the guidelines posted, you can call the company and ask for more information. On rare occasions, you will even be transferred directly to the art director.

6.)  Follow-Thru:  You researched and compiled a list of possible companies that your work is suited for.  You found out what format the art director would like to see your portfolio in.  So, now it is time to do follow through! Start sending out the portfolio – whether it is personal interviews or by email, just start today.  If the art directors don’t know that you exist, you won’t be able to get any illustration jobs.

7.)  Follow-Up:  There are a lot of illustrators out there. It is important to keep your name and work in front of the people making the decisions for the next assignment. So, you sent out samples of your art, or showed a portfolio or directed them to your website.  Now what?  Follow up on your portfolio submissions. Sometimes, this can mean cold-calling the art directors. Or, sometimes, companies prefer that you do not call. In that case, you can send them a new sample on a regular basis. You could even do an occasional mailer.

To me, cold-calling is still one of the scarey parts of my job.  You would think that after all these years it would get easier. “They” say it will.  But, honestly, to me, I often still feel like that 22 year old making my first cold call to that art director in New York City.  On some levels I think it was actually easier back then because I was so “green”.  Fresh out of college and was able to just go for it—to  try something that bold and daring – looking for a New York City illustration job right out of college.  And, I actually did it, which I still find mind-boggling! So, after saying all of that, if I could do this, so can you. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up! If your work gets lost on the bottom of a pile, how will they ever find you? Keep it fresh, keep it new, and keep it exciting!

8.) Success! The art director just called you and wants you to illustrate his next project! Congratulations!
Ok, this is exactly what you want to hear and I hope it happens very quickly for you. But please remember, this is my very, very brief overview of how an illustrator gets started in their career.  The reality is that this is most likely going to be a process and a very long process at that. This will include a lot of time, energy, and leg work—sleepless nights, long days. There will be times you want to throw in the towel and give-up.  Freelancers are a breed all of their own. You have to have the right frame of mind to be able to stay in the game. It can wear you down mentally. But, if you stick with it and persevere, you will start to move forward and towards your goals. It will happen quickly for some, and not so much for others. Keep a positive attitude. Try to reach out to other artists and friends when needed. If you feel stuck and that you just aren’t getting anywhere, there are also many online art coaches out there waiting to help direct you.  You will have to figure out the best course for your career, and decide if illustrating is the right career path for you.

Best of luck.


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