After Art School I stayed on in Edinburgh and went on what was then called The Enterprise Allowance Scheme which gave me £40 a week from the Government. I also booked lots of portfolio interviews with Art Directors from Design and Advertising Agencies. Unfortunately most of them didn’t turn up to our meetings and it was all very disheartening. Eventually one Art Director (who did turn up) suggested I move to London, Germany or New York as my style of work wasn’t going to earn me a living in Edinburgh. London seemed my most comfortable option so I arranged a few preparatory trips, one of which was for a month when I booked nearly 100 meetings (none were cancelled), after which I made the brave move south. All those meetings resulted in only two magazine commissions, but someone kindly said, “See every meeting as sowing a seed – you never know when or which are going to grow”.
Slowly the odd illustration job came in but I carried on with the interviews, keeping my portfolio as sharp as possible. I asked every art director I met who they’d recommend me to see next and that way I always had new people to see. Advice was often given or asked for – some very disheartening and damning – but it paid to listen and I tried so hard to learn. Publishers would say my work was too sophisticated for children and to go to magazines or Design Studios, and those Art Directors would say my work was too child-like and advised me to go to children’s publishers! It became a bit of a Catch 22 situation until I finally managed to get some printed magazine work. This gave others the confidence to commission me further. It didn’t help that I was rather shy but I persevered as I hadn’t a clue what else to do if I couldn’t illustrate. It therefore didn’t seem like a slog but a necessity to keep driving forward and believing in myself.
After a couple of years of very hard work with a LOT of rejections, the commissions started to come in and slowly the sown seeds began to grow and didn’t stop. The fear of not having a job kept me working extremely hard, but it was interesting work as no two illustration jobs are alike and it stretched me. It’s a good career but a battle indeed to get ones foot in the door.
If you can(and I appreciate this is an obvious thing to say), do try to get yourself a website so Art Directors can look you up online. I’ve found this invaluable – more important to me now than a physical portfolio which is more or less obsolete as far as I can make out. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn are brilliant too if you like using them. Make your web pages as beautiful and enticing as you can; it is your show case. You will be judged by it, so prepare it in a way that really reflects your talents and abilities to their best advantage. Art Directors are by their nature highly visual people and they will appreciate a well-presented site to show and share with their colleagues and clients.
If you are not sure how to go about this The Association of Illustrators (www.theaoi.com T: +44 (0)20 7613 4328) have what’s called a Portfolio Consultation whereby you can make an appointment to discuss your work and how to present it, what to put in it etc. It’s important to create a portfolio/website to suit your strengths – i.e. if you’re more children’s book orientated, editorial, advertising, general etc. If you’re not able to, then do see if you can ask an art director near you to give you advice (look up Yellow Pages or The Association of Illustrators have directories you can buy). Their time is precious but you never know, they might squeeze you in!
In the US why not contact the Graphic Artists Guild, www.graphicartistsguild.org T: +1 212 791 3400.
Once you’re set up with your portfolio/website you really do need have your work seen. I am out of the loop, but recently asked an agent and they did recommend making appointments with art directors, as I had done when starting out, dropping off your folio with them or hopefully seeing them face-to-face. If the latter, do ask advice on who they would recommend you see next and perhaps what they think of your work and suitability for jobs etc. You’ll soon get a handle on where your place is in the market and can pitch more effectively from there. You may even have to have a total re-think and completely re-work your portfolio as I once had to. What a difference it made!
Another idea is to use a company who have up-to-date records of addresses and contacts across the board in the industry. One company I know of is www.bikinilists.com but there are others; so do check out who feels right for you or if this approach feels right. It doesn’t work for everyone and I haven’t tried it, so can’t really comment on its effectiveness.
The Association of Illustrators has a showcase annual called Images. You can submit artwork into various categories once a year and they have a selection committee who choose the best works. They then are compiled into a large book which is sent out to thousands of art directors across the various fields in the industry globally. I’m not sure if the Society of Illustrators do this too (www.societyillustrators.org) – if you’re US based, do check them out.
Sending postcards, samples of your work with your contact details etc directly to art directors is another idea – some prefer emailed images to reduce the carbon footprint.
I get asked quite a bit about how to present your work. What publishers seem to want to see is how you would tackle a book layout (this can be in pencil) and how a cover would look in colour and also one double page spread from your book in colour. Just one would do, no need to illustrate the whole book in case of inevitable changes or unsuitability with the text etc. Ideally publishers would love you to both write and illustrate but we’re not all blessed that way, so don’t worry if you haven’t a story. Perhaps you could find a story you do like, re-work it to your way of thinking and style and make an appointment with a portfolio of your illustrations and ideas. The publisher will probably be able to see very quickly how you’d fit in with their lists.
Another thing you could do is to go to a bookshop and check out all the books that your style of work would sit comfortably with. List the publishers and make your appointments. Here in the UK, the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook has all the publishers’ contact details and masses of good advice. Another book I found is Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market UK. These books will give you much better advice than I ever could.
Magazines are a great way to get your work seen. Deadlines can be tight which will stretch you but it is always interesting. Although the money is not always great, it is a useful ‘bread and butter’ income, and you will have the added bonus of having published work for your portfolio.
Really it’s up to you. Literary Agents (they take on illustrators too) take about 15-20% for a book contract. Illustrator’s agents take about 25-40%. For this they usually have you on their own website, they field calls for you, negotiate fees, present your portfolio/website to clients, invoice clients, advertise (though I think you pay a % of this too) and promote your work, give advice and feedback and basically look after the business side for you. It’s not imperative to have an agent, but if you’re not business minded or would rather not deal with that side at all then it would be well worth your while investigating. A great agency is www.illustrationweb.com
The Association of Illustrators (in the US Graphic Artists Guild +1 212 791 3400) will have a list of agents and their contact details. Again, make sure your portfolio is up to date and see if you actually like who you are meeting as this is like any relationship – you have to get on, trust and respect each other.
I’m often asked about what paper I use etc. I use acid free watercolour paper, good quality artist watercolours (so important – the student ones don’t seem to be so clear and beautiful to paint with) and occasionally dip pen and ink. After I’ve finished the painting I scan the artwork at 300dpi and tweak it a bit if necessary in Photoshop, give it a code and save it in a folder on my desktop. I now always send my artwork to clients digitally. There is one exception; a client who likes to scan artwork themselves and always do a beautiful job… therefore forgiven! I use an Epson Perfection scanner (V600 photo) and work on an iMac.
The Association of Illustrators (www.theaoi.com) has another very useful publication, The Illustrators Guide to Law and Business Practice. They also have advertising, editorial and publishing address lists to buy. In the US, the Graphic Artists Guild’s Handbook gives you all the information you need on pricing and ethical guidelines. It’s a wonderful book and you can order it online via www.graphicartistsguild.com or +1 212 791 3400.
It’s important not only to keep believing in yourself, but to also be realistic and keep striving to be the very best you can be. Keep drawing, push your boundaries creatively and build the best portfolio of work you possibly can. Make work you can be proud of and that reflects YOUR own and not someone else’s style and develop your own unique creative approach. I guess there’s room for copycats but to me that’s only stealing another’s hard work and originality. Others disagree.
It’s definitely hard to start with but some get lucky breaks quite quickly. I think it goes without saying that you may need to get a different job to pay the bills until you build up a good working reputation and client base. Remember, a lot is riding on you and your expertise so reliability is key, keeping to your deadlines and working as a team with your creative director. It’s they who have to report back to their client and their reputation is riding on your skill – their client will be spending a fortune of sorts on advertising etc. Having said all that it’s such a good feeling knowing you’ve done the best job you can for your client. Seeing your work in print after a happy collaboration is wonderful – this is a fine career!