5 Things I wish I knew before starting my career as an illustrator
Turning away jobs and projects is just as important as accepting them
When I first started my career, live sketching was a fairly new thing that was taking off like crazy. It was great because events were easy to come by, and the income allowed me to pursue my art full-time. The problem is that when you start to become known as a “live artist”, unless that’s what you want to be known as, it can be hard to get away from that. People like simplicity, and if the first thing they hear about you is “live art” that’s what they’ll remember, and they won’t think to hire you for things you actually really want to do like sell paintings and create editorial pieces or product packaging.
I recently read somewhere that Beyonce earned less than Ariana Grande at a Coachella concert, but obtained the film rights to it and sold it to Netflix for 10x the price. I guess short-term pain, long-term gain is the message here. Don’t rush into any jobs that come your way, but take your time to figure out what you really want people to remember you for. Think of it this way; if you could only choose one thing to do every single day, what would it be? If you’re like me, you want to pursue a career in this industry to take charge of your life, to be your own boss, to work with amazing clients and also to create amazing work. Don’t sell yourself short.
I would also like to add to this, that if you feel like you’re stuck being labelled as one thing or another, it’s never too late to rebrand yourself. Just make sure you do this with confidence and clarity so people know you’re not just flip flopping around. I’m also not saying that live illustration is bad, it’s actually quite fun. In my case personally, I don’t want to be doing events 2-3 times a week because I get very exhausted from them and it’s not where my heart is. I would much prefer to be known as an artist who creates custom illustrations and sells original & printed artwork, but in the future doing some live events with brands could complement that. It’s all relative to what you’re really going for.
2. Jumping into illustration full-time when you’re not ready for it is stressful and I don’t recommend it to anyone
Like I mentioned above, the events provided great income for me to get started, and I’m so glad I did them. They really helped me break out of my shell and become a confident illustrator. Aside from that, though, jobs were scattered here and there and didn’t really start to pick up regularly until November 2018. Good things take time, and as you’re starting out, it’s good to have a small, forgiving audience who can support you along the way and provide feedback when you ask for it. Embrace the stage of your career that you are in, the more you can do that I think the better luck you will have because you’ll have such better mental clarity.
If you work a part-time or full-time job to supplement the income and give you peace of mind, so what? You're doing yourself a favour by not rushing into things. You’ll also be learning so much more and you won’t be in a sort of panic mode all the time to have everything figured out. Take it from someone who jumped in too early, it’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, most businesses take 10 years to become established. In the grand scheme of things, having a job for a few years to secure the roof over your head and warm meals every day should be seen as a blessing, not as something that’s holding you back. If you’re afraid of not having enough time, find a higher paying job and work less hours (for example serving, bartending, tutoring, etc).
3. Get into licensing as soon as possible
I see art licensing similar to investing in the stock market, the earlier you get started, the better. Why? Because they take a few years to get rolling. I have artwork on Society6 that I uploaded 2 years ago and are only starting to take off now. Not only does it take time to show up on search engines, but it also takes time to get more and more eyeballs on it. See where your art fits and how you can break into licensing, whether it be textile designs, phone cases, art prints and home decor and much more. A few years from now you’ll thank yourself for having that side income to supplement your client work, especially if you have a dry freelance period.
4. Don’t stick to one style at first, try everything. Get your hands dirty, try a new software, use a gross medium you don’t like, do it all and make art that sucks
If I could plaster this on my forehead, I would. Make. Art. That. SUCKS.
Why? Because you’ll allow your inner creative child to come out and play, to think of different ways of moulding things together, to add a new perspective to something, to see how shadows can help convey a message or how a texture adds depth and dimension to your work.
I SO wish I did this more when I was first starting out, it took me 2 years and a massive burnout to start playing with paints again, and it has opened up so many opportunities for me already, not just because I think it looks better, but also because I absolutely LOVE it and I want to do everything and anything now. It’s making me think of new opportunities I can take on, different ways of offering my services, new imagery I can play around with.
Make art that sucks, because one day it won’t suck anymore, and it’ll actually be really freakin’ amazing. You’ll thank yourself for taking the time to figure all that out instead of getting looped into a style that you don’t absolutely love.
5. There is no end goal
I hate to break it to you, my lovely illustrator friend, but there is no end goal.
I thought there was, I really did, and I’m sure maybe you do too. You might see things on Instagram and think, wow, if I could do that one day, then I could die happy. Newsflash! You won’t. A true artist is always looking for ways to improve, to take on the “next big thing”, to see how their work can fit in to something else and something else. There is no end goal because your entire career is about unravelling all the layers that make you, well, you.
This should (I hope) give you a sigh of relief though, because once you can let go of “being great” or “successful”, you’ll realize that those terms are so subjective, and you’ll be able to embrace exactly where you are now.
Let the waves hit you, in fact, let them crash into you and wipe you out completely. You’ll be grateful they did, because you’ll learn something new and it will shape the rest of your career. Your end goal is today, right now, just the way it is. You are an artist, a creative, a super awesome talented individual and the world is just waiting for you to unfold your truest self.