Ten Golden Tips to a successful career in illustration
last updated 25 February 2019
At Bright, we are dedicated to attaining exciting opportunities with fair conditions for our artists to enable them to create wonderful work. It is immensely rewarding to support artists in this way and to be able to offer guidance as they navigate their way through the industry.
However, over 15 years of supporting artists’ journeys - with so many achieving brilliant success - we have witnessed that there are key things artists can do as individuals to get ahead of the game and progress thier career.
Making simple changes can have a powerful impact, opening doors and countering the many inevitable challenges that arise in this unique, creative and, ultimately, wonderful profession.
So we sat down and collated what we have learnt through the years, aided by the valuable hindsight of our artists who shared what they wish they had known at the start of thier career.
Whether you are an artist starting out, a graduate looking for advice or an established creative in need of new energy, here are our Ten Golden Tips to building a career in illustration and living as happily and successfully as you can.
1. Stay connected
Whatever stage of your career, but especially at the start, there is nothing more buoying than connecting with like-minded people. Build an artistic community around you to feed your inspiration and creativity. Whether that means working in a studio so you don’t feel physically cut off, or making time in your diary for more social events and networking, use this community to bolster your confidence and to get feedback on your work.
There are many resources out there to get you started - joining organisations such as The AOI and Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) can offer support and keep you connected with industry events and opportunities. The Illustrator’s Survival Corner at Bologna Children’s Book Fair is a hub of creativity dedicated to the profession, and there are many other great live talks and discussions available through Waterstones Events and Event Brite, plus Ted Talks and a wealth of other online podcasts that allow you to tap into the wider industry.
2. Build your online presence
The benefits of making your artwork searchable online cannot be undervalued. Prospective clients will always do a google search before meeting you and they should be able to easily find your work presented in an accessible and visually appealing way.
The best way to showcase your portfolio is to create a website featuring a cohesive body of your work clearly laid out. Social media, especially Instagram, is powerful too; building up a following shows an awareness of your work and that you are driven to connect with others and build recognition. With one click, clients can get an instant overview of your style and a measure of the commercial potential of your work for new projects.
Equally, remember this online presence means you are visible, and people can see a record of what you post! Everything you share contributes to your brand image and creates a story around what you might be like to work with.
(For more in-depth advice about this area, our ‘Guide to Marketing Yourself Online as an Artist’ is to follow.)
3. See each meeting as planting a seed
Meetings may not always go as you hoped or produce instant results, but it helps to remember that each time you meet someone in the industry, they could hold the key to other connections that will spark opportunities in the future. View these meeetings as an exercise in self-promotion and a chance to learn more about the industry instead of putting too much pressure on them.
Be in it for the long run and know that whilst there are no guarantees, the journey is full of bright experiences and it is important to remain positive about the possibilities.
And always take your artwork, sketchbooks and visuals to every meeting - you never know when you might need them.
4. Showcase what you love
When submitting work to a client, consider whether it represents the kind of work you want to be hired for. Whilst it’s great to demonstrate variety in terms of theme and subject, you are far more likely to stand out with a few strong projects that reflect your personal brand, than submitting 20 pieces of contrasting styles.
For submissions to an agency, you can afford to showcase a greater breadth of work as they might have a range of client projects that your style would suit, but the pieces should still be coherent and tell a story about who you are as an illustrator.
5. Be disciplined
The flexibility this career offers can be both a blessing and a curse. Looking after your mental health is important at all jobs, especially ones where your days are largely your own to design. Maintaining a routine will help to increase productivity and positivity, keeping distractions at bay.
Find what works for you; whether it’s breaking up the day with exercise or taking a stroll to get a change of scene. Even dressing in a way that shows you mean business can increase focus - if you are in an overly relaxed mindset, this could come across in your work.
Social media can be a major drain on your time and energy, too. Your focus is needed for your own progress, not scrolling through other people’s finished pieces. Switch it off so your precious work time isn’t percolated with intrusive bleeps and notifications.
The lack of traditional work structures, such as having a ‘boss’, regular appraisals and morale-boosting one-to-ones, does mean more self-motivation is required to progress in this career. However, with the right mind-set, this fluidity can be incredibly freeing and allow you to tailor your work-life balance to suit you.
6. Put in the hours
… Especially at the beginning. All artists are in agreement with this one! The time you spend now will pay off in the long run. This might mean fitting in assignments around your full-time job or accepting that your working day doesn’t coincide with your friends’ routine 9-5.
Part of this hard work involves pushing through challenges that are outside your comfort zone. Be tenacious and say ‘yes’ to these daunting projects to gain experience and better establish your identity as an artist.
Artwork by Karl James Mountford
7. Good working practice
Working collaboratively is the secret to a project’s success. Receiving critique is inevitable if you choose a career in commercial illustration, and an important part of the process is listening to the client’s changes and offering solutions.
Whilst you know the characters better than the client and don’t want to compromise the integrity of the art, remember that the client has valuable wisdom about how to sell a book and this will make your work better. Be prepared to make those late-night changes. You want to build strong professional relationships that might lead to recommendations or opportunities in the future, and it is always worth remembering that the power of nice goes a long way.
8. Keep it light
Creativity isn’t linear - by the nature of the profession your workload will fluctuate, and it is important not to pressurise yourself in a way that is detrimental to your output. This might mean starting part-time to avoid added financial pressure or dipping your toe into smaller projects on the side.
Not all the briefs you work on will be your ‘dream project’. You might take on jobs that are simply to keep the wolf from the door and that alleviate pressures in other areas of your life, which in turn gives your creativity space to grow. Plus, one small job can cause a snowball effect.
9. Make time for personal projects
Give yourself the time and space to be playful artistically. Whilst getting paid is the goal, making time to create without a brief and allowing your imagination to shine without imposed limits is important for development too – as well as a great boost for your portfolio.
When you are busily working on a client project, it can be hard to make room for other creativity, but if you have a personal sketch pad on the go and keep new ideas evolving, these will act as a springboard into new projects when it comes to the end of the current brief.
Artwork by Lucy Fleming
10. Believe in your work
Put your mark on your style and believe in it. As hard as it can be, try not to compare yourself to others - but do take inspiration from them! - it will be your uniqueness that makes you stand out.
Be proud to show off your work – people can’t support your creations if they can’t see them! – and share your journey as you hone and develop your craft. It is a brilliant, exciting profession – share with others how good it can be.
Artwork by Petr Horácek