Monday, 12 May 2014

Six Tips for Illustration Graduates PART ONE

It's been over a year since I quit my day job and became a full time illustrator, and I have to say it's been one of the happiest years of my life so far! The projects that I've been able to work on and the sheer amount of work I've produced have been more than I ever could have hoped for. When I first quit my job as a waitress last April, I was fully prepared to live on tinned soup and face weeks without work, but it hasn't panned out that way and the work seems to keep on coming. I'm extremely grateful for that.

If you'd like to understand just how grateful I truly am, I suggest reading this blog post I wrote in 2011 (cringe, maybe not). As you can see, I really really REALLY wanted to be an illustrator, and I wasn't really sure it would ever happen. Oh, I remember the pain and struggle.

Occasionally people contact me for advice, usually art students who want to know how to get work in the industry, and I try to answer them as best I can. I sympathise with them, because I remember not really knowing how or whether I would ever make it, and needing all the advice I could get my hands on. 

And so I've decided to spend a little time writing about my experiences in the hopes that it helps some of those bemused people. This will be the first in a series of blog posts about becoming a freelance artist. I've decided that it's sensible to start from the beginning, so this is a post for those who are preparing to leave education. This might be art college, or it might be university.

Please know that these are things I've learnt from my own experiences, and I don't pretend to be all-knowing in my (thus far) short career in illustration!

1. Portfolio Reworking

At this stage, you should have a physical or digital portfolio of some of your best work from your time in education. This is the work that shows the most promise, and that you can see yourself building upon. This should become your obsession, and should be something you come back to again and again to add to, to move things around, and to think "what's lacking?" When I left Uni my portfolio consisted of a lot of portraits, and some weird collages that I've since burned (!). I knew I wanted to illustrate food so I painted some. Which brings me on to...

2. Self Initiated Projects

So you want to illustrate for fashion magazines? That's great. But if you haven't done much fashion illustration, how will clients know you're the person to hire? This stems from tip 1, look at your portfolio, see what's lacking and set yourself a brief. It's challenging to work for yourself, not for grades or money, but I think it's extremely important, it builds will-power and it's good practice. Which leads me onto....

3. Do What You Want to Do, A Lot

Doing what you love for a living is a huge privilege that I hope I never take for granted. You can be certain that the most successful artists and illustrators have worked extremely hard to get where they are. And so you must work hard too. Every moment you can spare, practice your art. Carry a sketchbook with you, go to life drawing classes, set yourself challenges (I set myself the challenge to paint 3 paintings a week back in the day, most of them were awful but it's so important to keep practicing!).

4. Know Where You Want To Go

The creative industry is a baffling place. But it's important to have an understanding of it, and try to get to grips with where you see yourself within it. I love editorial illustration, so I bought a lot of magazines and studied them, noting illustrators I liked and questioning how I would illustrate the article better.
If you understand how a piece of artwork can improve a format, whether that's a magazine article, a website or packaging, then you can learn how to be that improvement. Again, I will reference my own work as an example: I noted that often food photography looked a little tired and dated, whereas food illustration always seemed to bring a page or product to life - so I knew there had to be a market for it, and I could be a part of that.

But this could apply to anything - I would suggest technology as a fantastic area to aim for - look at creatives working in the industry, and see what you could bring to the table.

5. Online Presence - Too Soon?

With social media as inherent as it is in everyday life one can only assume that you are already using it to promote your work. But here is a warning, at this early stage in your career it is important to be selective about the work you are showing, and the impression you create. I am more than a little bit embarrassed about some of my old work that is still floating around the internet, and perhaps in hindsight I wish I hadn't posted it. It's important to get the balance right between getting your work out there, and revealing too much and appearing amateur. My solution to this is to revert back to step 1 as often as you can, followed by steps 2 and 3, until you feel you've reached a level that is worthy of...

6. The Big Reveal

Having a physical portfolio is one thing, but having an online portfolio is quite another. I would say the latter is more important these days, as I very, very rarely show original artwork to prospective clients. But timing is everything, so don't rush into it.

Here is a checklist of things that might suggest you're ready to make (or remake) your website and present it to the world:
  • You've filled in some gaps in your portfolio - and can show you've mastered a few areas in your chosen field.
  • You have a strong, consistent style - your work makes sense as a whole.
  • Your work has a purpose - if you're interested in packaging design for example, you have clear examples of how your style would fit.
  • It's executed to a high standard - drawings are scanned and edited, products are properly photographed, nothing looks sloppy.
  • Your style is yours, not copied from elsewhere.

That's it for the first post in the series - there is a lot more to come! In the next blog post I will discuss ways to build a client base, and approach potential clients. Please feel free to leave comments, suggestions and questions in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Great, very interesting post, thank you to share it with us.
    I look forward to new posts.

  2. Really nice post Holly, although I think you should be careful with point 6. Far too often I meet illustrators whose work is excellent, but they've never send out a single promo card, or sent an email to an art director. They're so worried that they've not yet produced their best work, so they hide away in their room and become frustrated. I think that art directors understand that your work will improve and move on throughout the years. Maybe it's better to get started with promotion as early as possible, and learn your lessons along the way? I'm like you in that I'm embarrassed by some of my early work, but I think that's just one of the things that you have to accept with the internet :/

    1. Hi Willa,

      Thank you for your comment. Your point is very true! I completely agree that artists should be putting themselves out there, and hiding is never a good idea! However I do think it's important to hone your talents for a period of time after university. The competition between illustrators is huge, and the standard of work being produced today is incredibly high, and keeps growing. There is no harm in sending work out early on - although I know I didn't get much response until I'd taken some time to polish my skills.

      Having said that, I hope that my post doesn't encourage hesitance in new artists. That was not my intention at all. I suppose I was hoping to encourage a more considered approach, to looking at a portfolio regularly, and to make regular improvements - something which can be forgotten when tutors are no longer assigning projects.

      Thank you for your comment - it highlights a really valid point!!!

      H x

  3. Thank you! This is really helpful! It's also just refreshing to hear a process. Sometimes it can seem so mystifying how we get from point A to point B in a field.

  4. Thank you, Holly, for these amazing tips! This post made me reconsider most of what I thought I knew about becoming an illustrator. Definitely waiting for more!

  5. Really enjoyed this article, I've been freelance illustrating for about a year now, and these tips are such a good refresher. Thanks Holly!

  6. Hi Holly, I just came over to your blog from an Illustration Friday Facebook post, I think, and I absolutely love your watercolors! They are simply gorgeous! So much juicy paint!
    Thank you for this particular blog post as well - my own day job will end at the end of this month and then I hope it will get really busy with painting and really interesting in a good way.
    all the best,

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