Are your illustrations good enough to get paid work?
So you’re the creative type, you like to draw or paint — maybe both. But you’re not quite sure if your illustrations are good enough to get paid work.
If this nagging doubt sounds familiar, I will let you in on a little secret. It crosses the mind of every (aspiring) illustrator out there and will never entirely fade. Even if you actually become an established and paid artist you can still feel insecure about it. Spoiler alert! It's a classic case of the imposter syndrome* and we all suffer from it. Now, before you get totally bummed out, it's important to know you can ignore that little voice and actually take steps to improve your career. Here are a few tips as a result of my own experiences, that can help you prepare and take action. Side note, I’m writing this with illustrators in mind, who want to turn their passion into a job. If you’re already in a further stage in your career, this might not be interesting for you.
Refine your skills and find your style
Let's assume for a minute you draw on a regular base. You're slowly seeing growth and some pieces actually look pretty substantial. If you want to improve, you need to draw even more often. No shortcuts, no ten golden tips to become a professional illustrator within a week (trust me on this one ). Instead of making success your focus, put your efforts in brushing up your technique. What proportions, angles, and colors work for you? Test out different mediums and tools. You don’t have to be good at everything but trying out a variety of materials will give you an idea of what you prefer and what brings out the best of your skill set. Now, how do you find your own authentic style? Figure it out by writing down characteristics about your personality, inspiration, dreams and subjects that spark your imagination. Additionally, you could make a mood board. Then try to include some of these aspects in your drawings. Do you spot an overall theme or aesthetic? What's the glue holding it all together? How can you translate it into a visual signature? For example, if you wrote down 'optimistic' in your notebook, would you associate this word with thick strokes of black ink or with bright colors and rounded contours? Dig deeper and deeper. You'll notice your own unique style will start taking shape.
Stop comparing - There's only one YOU
I know it can be difficult sometimes but try to focus on your own thing, even if everyone seems to be running circles around you. With access to a world full of talented illustrators just click away, it’s easy to get discouraged. Sure, there's obviously a difference between the work of experienced artists in comparison to beginners, but everyone started an amateur once, scribbling away with bright crayons in kindergarten. I’m sure Theodorus van Gogh was very proud to stick little Vincent’s first doodles on the refrigerator in the kitchen — Pitchfork hands included. Seriously though, you are the only one who can pour YOUR personal story into an artwork. Even if two people have the exact same tools, they will always use it differently. And the more often you sketch, the better you’ll get. They say ''Practice makes perfect'', I prefer to think practice makes progress.
Research clients needs
Back to the key question. Are your illustrations good enough to get paid work? Well, it depends. What is 'good' art? From a company's perspective, what do they look for in an illustrator? Possibly the creation of a visual to strengthen their article or campaign, perhaps an image to replace words altogether. Or they could seek art for printing on products or invitations. The solution can come in many shapes. How do you think your illustrations can benefit certain brands or companies? What links your drawings to their core identity? If you prefer focusing on commissions or consumers products, try to think about this question first: What do people want when they look at a piece of art? It could be numerous things: to feel emotion, to be put thinking, to escape, to feel inspired, to feel empowered, to be provoked, or maybe to identify. There are many different niches and audiences. The only way you can find yours and pierce through this market is to start being visible. Step out of the shadows and let people see your drawings.
It’s most likely you’re already doing it. In case you're not, start sharing your art on social media. You might think that's a no brainer, but lots of illustrators are anxious about sharing work. Also, don’t wait until your illustrations are ‘good enough.’ Most creative people are too tough on themselves, myself included. Just begin posting drawings and share your journey. Do keep in mind that social media can get quite overwhelming at times. It’s both a wonderful and dreadful place. If you get too fixated on numbers and the growth of your audience — or lack of it — this can actually affect your creativity and mental health. Try to remember that Instagram and Youtube are like a colossal machines with billions of users, all chasing the same thing. Add algorithms to the mix and getting your art noticed is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Before you give in to despair, consider that you don’t need one billion people taking note of your work. Find your own little community and hashtags. Be grateful for every single person following or leaving a comment. Wanting to see some progress and success is only natural. However, in my opinion working at your own pace and staying authentic to yourself is just as important. Keep putting your work out there (on and offline), exchanging tips with peers and reinventing yourself and your art.
Make a portfolio website
Set up a simple website. Even if you’ve only made personal work or school assignments, put it in there. Choose your five or ten best illustrations to start. If you're hesitating whether a website is still necessary when social media plays such a huge role right now, my opinion is yes. Here’s why. When you reach out to a potential client by email, you don’t know if the person your contacting is a millennial who practically lives inside Instagram or a traditional person who prefers viewing your work in a more common format. The website is the place to share a little bit more about yourself, and people don’t have to scroll back in a timeline to see your projects. It's an opportunity to present your best work. Eventually, you’ll add a resume with projects and clients as you grow.
Ask for feedback
It's good to be proud of the art you make. I know the feeling when you created something that really shows your character or the story you want to tell. Assuming you want to make a career out of it, it's important to ask for feedback and be open to criticism. I find it's best not to ask friends or relatives because you really want an objective opinion. Do you know any other illustrators? Or maybe an art teacher? You could ask someone in the creative industry, even if they don't do the exact same work. For instance, sometimes I brainstorm with a guy who runs a graphic design company. Currently, I'm asking people who work in the book publishing industry to have a look at my children's illustrations because that's the direction I'd like to grow in. You could even ask potential clients to have a look at your work. Do carefully choose the person you're asking and don't make it about personal taste. Ask direct open questions like ''What could I improve in this artwork?'', ''What am I missing in my portfolio?'' or ''What illustrations do you think I should highlight?'' instead of just asking if your portfolio is any good or not. Whether it's an email or real life meeting, keep it short and always be thankful, even if someone points out things that need improvement. This is the time to put your ego aside and try to learn something. Needless to explain, you shouldn't always agree or make decisions based on criticism. In the end, always follow your instincts!
Say yes to work, right now
All illustrators dream about creating illustrations for an official Harry Potter stationery set or the cover of a famous magazine. For some, this could actually happen, but realistically most of us illustrators start(ed) out by working for smaller or local brands. Look around in your environment, who could use some illustrations? Can you help out a boutique or performer with an illustrated poster? Do you know anyone who works for a brand or magazine that might be interested? Make a list of potential clients and start contacting them. If someone wants to hire you, say yes. Once the requests increase you can become a little pickier. Don’t be unreasonable or unrealistic about your starters fee. I've done some work for free once or twice in the early stages of my career. As long as you're getting something out of it — testimonials, exposure, portfolio material — it's worth it. Remember, it's important to gain some experience and develop a resume, but also don't let your talent be exploited just because you’re a newbie. Another tip, keep or get a regular job until you start making money as a freelancer (unless you've saved up or have someone to support you). Some financial stability will save you stress and give you a clear headspace for inspiration and creativity.
Be pleasant to work with
This is as important as your talent, if not more. Being polite and professional is a must. Treat clients with respect and feel out their tone of voice before you start throwing around emojis in your emails. I live in the Netherlands where people tend to speak informally to each other quite quickly (it can be different per country). Still, there are boundaries. You’ll eventually find that sweet balance between being friendly and professional through practice. Listen carefully to your client's needs, make creative suggestions and care about their project. But don't forget that we're all just humans. I've learned along the way, not to get too intimidated by someone's position or the magnitude of a well-known brand. I also noticed that some contacts welcome a break from their screen and just want to grab a coffee together in real life. Sometimes you dive right into business after a few sentences of small talk, other times they might tell you all about this fabulous new hairdresser in town and proudly show you pictures of their kids. In case of the latter, it's perfectly fine to tell them all about your new diet (only cheesecake).
Good luck and don't give up!
* Here's a great animated video from Elisabeth Cox explaining the imposter syndrome.
* This article from Jenny Brewer for It's Nice That has some great Portfolio tips.
If you have any questions for me, leave a comment on my Instagram page.