Tuesday, 31 May 2011

A degree in Illustration: Reflections on my year as a graduate. PARTONE: Spec Work (Boo!)

I've wanted to write about these things for a while now, and as a fresh batch of Illustration graduates are released into the wild (world) now seems like apt timing! Hopefully an interesting read for old and new graduates alike...

Last year I graduated from Middlesex University with a 2:1 in Illustration. It was an exciting time, I'd never worked so hard in my life, and I was getting a positive response from my paintings. I felt mostly optimistic (and 10% terrified) at the thought of getting my work out there into the world and starting my journey to becoming a Freelance Illustrator. It's a job title that has me sighing with wistful longing, for a career where I work for myself, where I'm respected for my talent and where my creativity is put to good use.

Fast forward a few months and I'm working in a dreary Italian restaurant in my home town of Bristol, and on the verge of tears 99.9% of the time. Don't get me wrong, waitressing is not a career choice to be frowned upon, as it requires extreme confidence, stamina and a passion for customer service... all qualities I don't particularly see in myself. For me it was a pretty hellish job. I missed the Uni days in London, when I was passionate about what I was producing and worked long into the night to perfect it. In the months that followed Uni however, I felt drained. Drained from long shifts at the restaurant with a fake smile plastered across my face, and from missing my boyfriend left behind in London and from having no time to do what I love: painting.
Having said all that, I did manage to do some work. I completed a commission for Redwood Publishing (my first PAID job!), was accepted into the AOI annual Images and was featured in Ballad Of magazine, Sketchbook magazine and Amelia's Magazine website, along others. I accepted a lot of 'spec work', and by that I mean jobs that had no payment at the end of them. Of course back then I had never heard the phrase 'spec work' and I was giving my work away for free, in the hope that it would drum up some publicity for my illustrations.

 I'm sure I went down the same route most newly graduated Illustrators go down. I appreciated the opportunity to give my work purpose, instead of it sitting on my website seemingly unnoticed. The creative outlets promised an opportunity to have my work seen, and for my efforts I did get a few more followers on my blog and on other networks. But on reflection, I feel as if I was lied to.

Sure, people were looking at my work, but were they the right type of people? Were they people that could and would offer me work in the future? No! Of course not! They were people just like me, young people interested in the creative world, in reading about it and collecting pretty images, but not people who could hire me.

It seems to me that spec work has become the norm for many creative graduates. Websites are as important now as printed publications, and asking an artist to produce an image for a website somehow feels less outrageous than asking them for an image for a printed publication, one that will be sold for profit. But most websites still make money. It's just not so visible how profits are made. But one thing is sure, your work on the website will be serving a purpose, whether thats setting a tone for an article, illustrating a clothing line or creating a visual identity for the website. Does it seem fair to be asked to give these valuable attributes away for free?

As its graduation time, I've also begun to notice a lot of 'competitions' being announced, asking young creatives to submit their artwork for a chance to win 'prizes'.  I'd like to name Don't Panic as a key contributor for this competition epidemic (I hope this doesn't get me in trouble!). It just angers me that they ask trained graphic designers and illustrators to produce designs, for the latest film poster or whatever, and expect not to pay a soul. The 'prizes' are never worth the effort and the voting system they use makes me think of the X Factor.. Is this what we want the world of Illustration to become like? Where talented artists are rewarded with useless cinema tickets or  yet more 'publicity'? No thanks. Being a creative requires an abundance of skill, drive and intelligence, and we deserve to get paid money for this, just as the people who work for Don't Panic (for example!) get paid.

I'm not saying it should be easy to get paid for Illustration. And part of me thinks its fair that the struggle for pay should be that much harder than regular jobs, as the industry is that much smaller and more over-crowded than others, and because (lets face it) we're being paid for doing what we love, which is a privilege. But that does NOT mean that we should be exploited along the way.

So, to conclude, I feel as if I should offer up my pearls of wisdom as advice for new graduates, in the hope that together we can stop the downward spiral of spec work. These are some things I've learnt in a year, and that I'm still practicing now.

1) Know your value.
You've got a skill that many others don't have, and companies WILL pay for it. You just have to MAKE them pay for it.

2) Use your time wisely.
In order to make those companies want to pay you for your work, you have to look the part. Instead of spending your time creating free work for others, create work for your portfolio. Make the best website you possibly can, blog and tweet often and spend time (and unfortunately money) printing the best samples you possibly can to send to companies. THIS WILL PAY OFF.

3) Be active on social networks
Twitter is a marvellous thing. Tweet about new prints you're selling, about new work on your blog, about anything really! It allows struggling artists an audience (if you're a likeable tweeter that is) and you can connect with other Illustrators, learn from them and moan with them, AND very very very occasionally you might see the allusive tweet: "Looking for an illustrator. Paid commission.."

4)Accept this might be a long struggle.
I have moments ( ...if by moments you mean days... and sometimes weeks) when I forget this. Its painful not being able to see the finish line, but keep going, and one day you just might make it.

Websites to look at:


  1. I totally agree! I'm in exactly the same position as you - swap dreary waitressing job for dreary bar job and part-time strawberry picker - but things are starting to look up. Diligence does pay off in the end, but it takes a long time to learn this. The worst feeling I think is finishing a great job and finding that, actually, you're back where you started again. But I'd choose this over working in a grey office filling in Excel sheets any day.

  2. good post! on my course at Kingston they have always said to us, especially during third year that you shouldn't work for free(or for little money), as it really devalues the industry a lot. Yet lots of people do.. but it's actually really bad cause it makes it worse for other illustrators! I think university should really tell people about this more as it is their responsibility when they are sending new illustration graduates out there after they've paid like £9000 to learn about it..x

  3. Thanks for your responses! Makes me very happy to know I'm not alone on this.
    Hannah- I'm so impressed your Uni have even cottoned on to this issue, my uni was absolute bollocks at advising us post-graduation - which is a topic I'm considering expanding on in another blog post?! Kind of feel like most (not all!) Uni's have ££s for eyes, and don't give a shit what happens after the moneys handed over. You only have to look at the sheer amount of Illustration courses in the country vs the tiny amount of Illustration jobs out there, to get the feeling somethings not right..
    Appreciate your feedback! x

  4. yeah :) i think kingston is good and we are lucky. Did i read on twitter you were interning at AOI? cause we got a lady who used to work there come and talk to us and she was so helpful about this issue. I think more unis should be responsible and try and arrange more lectures like this for their courses. Doing work for free damages everyone and it's not fair! It makes me sad that uni's aren't educating people properly! especially when it costs so much :( Xx

  5. AnonymousJune 05, 2011

    I agree. I've done an awful lot of free work and I think it's time for me to stop. 'Exposure and experience' and aren't worth it, and to be honest it's only likely to lead to more free work, not paying any paying work. I'm also not a fan of competitions where the prize is less than it would be if were a real job (does that make sense?).
    Occasionally it's the right thing to do though. Being in Amelia's Compendium of Fashion Illustration lead to my agency finding me. :)

  6. I'll be finishing my final year of Illustration in two weeks time and I've been told to sign on straight away and look for a 'real' job rather than start working as an artist by my tutors, so this advice you've given me is super helpful in keeping busy when I'm not freaking out over finding a job <3 xx

  7. Holly Exley, this is a genius article, thank you for writing this!

  8. Thank you very much! your words help a lot.
    God bless you.

    Writting from Dominican Republic.