If you’re anything like me and you wanted nothing more than to be an artist for a living since you could grip a crayon, you probably also grew up with the sobering reality that it’s one of the most difficult and competitive industries in the world. I can’t tell you how many times people, in some way or another, have suggested that I “get a real job” or that “being an artist for a living is unrealistic” and to just keep art as a hobby. Sound familiar? You’ve probably heard it too. But here’s the thing. It’s only true if you don’t know how to navigate the industry. So, figure out how to navigate the industry. Knowledge really is power. From one published illustrator to an aspiring illustrator, I’m going to clue you in on how it actually works. No vague theory, no outdated methods, just the honest truth as I have found it in my own illustration journey. I’m here to tell it like it is, folks. I’m going to go over prepping for the industry, managing finances, your portfolio, and getting seen by the right people to get this career of yours rollin’!
Here’s the great news: children’s book illustration specifically may be one of your best options in pursuing a full-time, sustainable career in illustration in general. Why? Since these are big projects that usually last for several months, that’s a consistent workload coupled with an attractive advance pay to sustain not only your living, but the overall growth of your illustration business. Miscellaneous commission projects here and there are nice to supplement your income and can be a lot of fun, but it’s difficult to depend on them as the breadwinner of your income streams since they are so inconsistent. That’s why, from a logistics and financial standpoint, children’s book illustration is a much more sustainable approach to an illustration career especially when starting out. (I also want to note that it really is a fun and fulfilling way to go-I’ve wanted to be a children’s book illustrator since I used to purposefully get in trouble in kindergarten so I would get sent to the reading corner by myself. Turns out flipping through children’s books wasn’t an effective method of discipline for me as a child-I loved it!)
Prepping yourself to break into the industry. Be aware that whether you link up with a traditional publisher or work with individual authors, (self-publishers) that they are going to want to see not only your skill as an artist, but consistency, uniqueness, and reliability. Does your portfolio website show a comprehensive view of what your clients can expect from you? Are you posting content regularly? Are you presenting yourself through text and/or photography that you’d be a pleasant person to work with? Show a little personality! If you can check off these boxes and you’re proactive, chances are you’ll be snapped up for a gig before too long.
Getting seen. I don’t have to explain why this one’s important. Some of the most effective ways of being seen by the right people include: a well-curated portfolio site featuring the kind of work you want to be hired for, entering illustration competitions, making friends with other illustrators, being proactive on multiple social media platforms (not just one, you want to be as find-able as possible) and using keywords and hashtags someone searching for someone like you would use to find you. Facebook and Instagram are my two primary sources of client engagement. Others have had great success on Linkedin, Twitter, Youtube, etc. I love going to events like Designercon in California each November to meet up with like-minded artists and people involved in creative projects. The key is to never expect a return on any encounter. That’s why networking has become something of a dirty word. Sometimes it feels like a bunch of people looking for what they can get out of someone else, not how they can be of value to them. Be genuine, giving, and present, and you’ll be rewarded with the right fits. Take some time to create well-designed business cards whenever the opportunity organically presents itself through conversation. (Nothing worse than people shoving cards at one another with little context! Just ends up being a lot of pieces of paper thrown in the trash later that day. Attach meaning to what your business card represents before handing it out so that the recipient sees value in it too.) My biggest piece of advice on your online presence is to curate your content. Present a consistent illustration style, branding, and sync all of your websites and social media accounts together. Make it so stinkin’ easy for potential clients to find you, so it’ll be so stinkin’ easy for you to communicate with them!
Here’s a little tip to generate leads before your first ever gig: hire yourself. What does that mean? Well, just as if an art director were to call you up and give you a project, you can be your own art director and assign yourself a project. This is also the best way to beef up your portfolio when it’s looking a little skimpy in the beginning. As an example, something I really enjoy working on are fantasy-related illustrations, and is something I always hope to be hired for. I decided to come up with a personal illustration series where I create my own interpretations of some of my favorite classic fairy tales. Just recently someone reached out to my email organically because they saw and liked my interpretation of Snow White. From there I went on to do some client work for her! Score! Thanks, personal projects!
Finances. I’m going to go on record saying that, at least for me, this is the single most fearsome and daunting hurdle being an illustrator for a living. But--I do have a simple two-part solution, it’s just not easy.
1) Keep a reserve of at least 3-6 months of your living expenses. This industry is unpredictable. Some months everyone and their mother seems to want me to illustrate a book. Other months, it’s crickets, crickets, and crickets some more. Keep a stash to live on in a pinch, because I promise you those dry spells will come, and you don’t want to have to panic scrambling for a job at the first gas station who will hire you because you weren’t able to close on a new book gig within a few days after your previous project ended. (It’s a dramatic example, but I think it gets the point across) Living on too tiny of a margin is just not going to be sustainable for keeping your fridge full and your bills paid. You don’t have to be a starving artist if you’re in control of your money, and not the other way around. Keep 3-6 months worth of living expenses stashed away. I promise you, this is so important. Don’t skip this step.
2) Spend less than you make. It’s not glamorous, but this really is what it all boils down to. If you’re making $12k a year, you’ve got to figure out how to live a lifestyle that matches that. Live in a cheap part of the country, have roommates, forgo vacations and concert trips. Where there is a will, there is a way, and there is always a solution. This is how the universe is going to weed out the people who just like the idea of being an illustrator, from the people who are truly hungry and earnest to be an illustrator. It’s going to be hard, but if illustration is the voice in your heart that sings the loudest, is there anything more important?
To wrap up, here’s a few words of encouragement as well as tough love, because you guys know I’ll always tell it like it is. Be honest with yourself on your skill level. Could you see a book published with your illustrations being successful? Or do you need to work on your art fundamentals and conceptual skills first? Quality always must come first. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed of the work you create, especially when it’s paid work. If you do, it may be a sign that you need to step back and practice for a while. (and that’s okay! I’ve done that several times myself. It’s how we level up!) For some reason it’s always controversial when I talk about this but my opinion remains the same: Stop switching up your style in attempt to accommodate the approval of more people. It’s wishy-washy, and no experienced publisher will see this as a winning attribute and will likely run for the hills in search of someone with a defined, consistent style. It communicates: “I don’t really know what kind of projects I want to do, I just want to be hired for anything and I guess I’ll give it a shot.” If they’re not digging your style for their project, it was never the right fit anyway, and you’ll never be able to satisfy them as a client. Stay on your own artistic path, and continue to hone your own style. There’s room in this industry for everybody, and the right fits will align. Don’t let yourself look like a second rate copy of another illustrator. You have your own artistic voice, I promise. Just lean into it and be patient with the process. Nick Harris, children’s book illustrator, says: “Aim for the magic, it’s there. When the right words find the right illustrator, it really ignites.” Since 2018 I have three published children’s books, have a fourth one on the way, and am learning more with every single book. Be confident, but humble and willing to grow. If lil ol’ Julie can figure out how to break into the children’s book industry, you absolutely can too. Trust. The. Process. And you’ll get there.
Peace and Love, Julie