As a thank you for joining me here, i want to share the first chapter of my book. Hopefully it will be published in September 2023. If it takes longer than that, i’ll send you a new chapter each month. This is still a draft and hasn’t had it’s final edit, so it may change slightly, but i hope you like it.
Imagine the thrill of walking into a bookshop and finding your work bringing words to life, or seeing your illustrations advertising the world’s most prestigious brands. Illustration offers a skilled artist endless opportunities to captivate, motivate and educate audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
As a skilled illustrator, not only can you make an excellent living from your art, but you also have the freedom to steer your career in whatever direction you want. You can gain respect and recognition by doing something you genuinely enjoy. Illustration is an interesting career to talk about and share with others too – if you can’t be an astronaut or a rockstar, being an illustrator is pretty close! (In my book, anyway.)
Now more than ever, an illustrator who wants these things, and a long sustainable career, must focus on becoming outstanding at what they do. Clients are becoming less interested in ordinary illustrators producing average work. The competition from other creatives is fiercer than ever; there will always be people who will undercut your price. Additionally, stock illustrations provide a quick and convenient alternative, and AI technology offers clients who don’t value human creativity with a new, inexpensive way to source images for their projects.
Despite these challenges, there are still many exceptional and remarkable illustrators who are dedicated to their craft and have fought their way through the competition and come out the other side successfully. They have the opportunity to collaborate with clients who will pay a lot of money for outstanding work. While the value of low-quality illustration will fall in a saturated market, illustration that stands out from the crowd will become increasingly valuable – it has never been more important to be exceptional. It takes time to fight your way through the low-quality competition, but it’s worth the effort.
The best clients want to work with the best creatives. If you want to work with the best clients, you need something extraordinary to offer them. This book explores what makes an exceptional illustrator, and provides you with a clear path to get there.
Who this book is for
If you hope to make freelance illustration into your career, this book is for you. It’s for new illustrators who are committed to developing their skills, who want to offer the world something outstanding, and have the drive to push themselves towards a rewarding and fulfilling career.
Whether you’re just beginning or in the early years of your illustration journey, this book will provide you with the tools and insights to help you become a confident professional. The time it takes to get there will vary from person to person, but the information and ideas within these pages will help anyone get there faster.
Why should you listen to me?
In 2010, I set out to become a freelance illustrator, inspired by my heroes in the industry. I idolised illustrators like Jasper Goodall, Steve Scott and Vault 49, as their work seemed to be everywhere I looked. They were superstars of the industry, and I wanted what they had: respect, fame, and a cool job. (Note that I haven’t mentioned hard-earned skills.)
As time went by, I realised I liked the idea of being an illustrator more than I liked the process of becoming one; being creative on demand wasn’t for me. I found myself drawn to the idea of connecting talented creatives with interesting projects and helping others achieve their creative ambitions.
Today, I’m privileged to work with some truly skilled and dedicated illustrators as an agent. I see commercial artists at the top of their game working on an unbelievable range of projects every day. They are today’s illustration superstars, and they’ve shown me that it’s not just a fun job for them, and it’s not about fame or recognition, it’s about the craft.
These illustrators have dedicated themselves to the process of perfecting their skills so they can offer something beautiful and remarkable to the world. They have taught me what it takes to excel in a creative career, and this book shares those insights with you.
My early experience of freelance illustration, combined with the skills and knowledge I’ve gained as an agent have equipped me to support, guide, and advise illustrators at all stages of their careers. My blog and YouTube channel: The Illustrator’s Guide have helped many aspiring illustrators find answers to industry related questions and navigate the challenges they encounter on their way to becoming professionals.
Just as importantly, if not more so, my experiences have taught me what not to do. I have experienced my fair share of missteps, both in my own attempts at being a freelance illustrator and in my work as an agent. I’ve seen the good and the bad; I’ve been rejected and inspired. This book aims to help you avoid some common traps and focus your attention on what truly matters.
First we’re going to take a look at the mindset required to start up a creative career and break down some of the mental barriers and challenges a new illustrator might face. Then we’re going to consider the shortest route from beginner to professional illustrator, including what to focus your time on, how to develop a portfolio that will get you hired and how to build the creative habit.
We’re going to seek out feedback on the work to make it the best it can be and then dive into finding clients and discuss everything you can expect from illustration commissions.
We’ll work on developing your new freelance business and answer some questions on pricing work and negotiating and then we’ll get into everything you need to know about copyright, licensing, and contracts.
Finally we’ll discuss the pros and cons of working with an agent and how you can go about getting one if that’s the way you want to go. It’s filled with tips, exercises, and step-by-step advice to help guide you on your way to becoming an exceptional freelance illustrator.
Now you know what to expect, let’s get started!
Chapter One: How to develop an exceptional mindset
It’s okay to be a beginner
I love being a beginner so much, I hope I never think of myself as an expert in anything. The more I understand about any subject or skill, the more I realise how much there is left to uncover. If I thought I had nothing left to learn about a subject, I’d be bored by it. Writing this book has been an excellent opportunity for me to reflect on what I’ve discovered so far, and to think about all the things I’m yet to discover. I’m more interested and motivated to learn than ever.
Beginners are open-minded, curious, and listen to other people without pre- judgement. They’re not stuck in their ways, and they want to understand and improve. These traits are crucial for picking up new skills and will, ideally, be at the core of how you approach your work throughout your career, not least because it will keep things interesting and fun for you.
Keeping a beginner’s mindset means you still have a desire to improve, even when you reach an advanced level. If you stay this way, you’ll always be open to growing and building on your skills. But the more experienced we become, the more difficult it is to keep hold of these beginner’s traits. Someone who considers themselves to be an expert could become less open to new ideas and ways of doing things, but they’re going to be a lot less engaged if they stop learning.
Everybody starts somewhere
As a new illustrator, you shouldn’t feel inferior just because you haven’t been in the industry for long. Before your favourite illustrators were successful, they were struggling to make money, they were nervous about talking to clients, trying to get noticed and making plenty of mistakes and they were almost definitely doing underpaid work. They may have even considered giving up at various points, but they stuck with it. They showed up, put in the time and effort, worked hard, and overcame setbacks. We’ll look at some common challenges a new illustrator might face and how to overcome them in Chapter 2.
These experienced professionals are no different from you, and they’re certainly not perfect, they’re just a few steps ahead. They succeeded because they kept improving, and the best ones still do. You can learn a lot from the people more experienced than you and improve faster as a result, and there’s as much to gain from their setbacks as their successes. If you stay curious enough to keep improving, you have a hell of an advantage.
If you’re studying illustration in college, your teachers show interest in your work. They look at it carefully, give you feedback, and they guide you. It’s their job to do that. But once you get out into the freelance world, you’ll find that fewer people are willing to help you with your work – for a while, nobody cares about your work except you. That’s tough to deal with, but it’s a gift. In the early days of your career, when nobody cares about your work, you can experiment and make mistakes without anyone paying attention. In Chapter 7, we’ll dive into the importance of getting feedback on your portfolio and how you can go about getting it.
Once you start getting paid to be an illustrator and gain followers and fans, people will be watching you. Try to enjoy the freedom being a beginner allows and make the most of your anonymity. Experiment and take creative risks, then put what you discover to good use. There is nothing wrong with being a beginner; in fact, the industry needs new talent to show up and take chances.
You’ll face frustration and setbacks – just as any new business owner will – you may feel out of your depth when you’re learning new skills, and progress might not be as fast as you’d like. Being perfect isn’t the goal; what’s more important is that you keep improving and enjoy the journey.
Commit to the craft
Establishing yourself as a freelance illustrator is a long game; it takes commitment, just as anything worth doing will. Only a few aspiring illustrators become successful professionals; even fewer become the most sought-after and famous illustrators.
Most people who set out to be the best at something will give up somewhere along the way – not everyone has the dedication, perseverance, and possibly a bit of obsession required to get there – and others might move on to something else, either out of financial necessity or because they discover something that’s more important to them. The ones who stick it out and actually become the best are rare outliers, and that makes their work and their skills highly valuable.
Top performers in any field work hard consistently for a long time. At the extreme, you have Olympic gold medallists who show up and train every day and say no to activities that don’t help them achieve their goals. Concert pianists, fighter pilots, prima ballerinas and ultimate fighting champions have a single-minded focus. They put their goal above everything else.
Illustration isn’t as intense as all that, but it is competitive. We’ll look at this competitive environment in more detail in the next chapter. Even if you don’t aspire to be the best in the world at what you do for a job, why not aim high and see how far you can go? Aiming high and not quite hitting the target is far better than aiming low and getting a bullseye.
Being exceptional at anything requires consistent effort – even the naturally gifted have to put in the time, stay motivated and pick themselves up after setbacks. As a freelancer, you have (at least) two roles – you’re the worker and the boss. If the worker doesn’t show up to work or misses a deadline, you can be sure the boss will have something to say about it. And if the boss doesn’t encourage, motivate, and hold the worker accountable, nothing will get done.
Long-term success as an illustrator requires you to be a self-starter. If you’re not enthusiastic about becoming the best option for a client, you can bet someone else will be, and you’ll lose out. It’s not about working longer hours than the competition; spending more time chained to your desk doesn’t mean you’re a better illustrator. If you can only commit to a couple of hours a day, what’s important is following through with that commitment. Doing the work when you feel inspired is easy; showing up on the days when you don’t feel like it, and giving it your best effort anyway, is what will lead to an exceptional career. We’ll be looking at how to form and maintain the creative habit in Chapter 5.
You get out what you put in
How you approach your career and your craft will be different for every individual, but being a great illustrator is a choice; one that has to be made repeatedly until it becomes second nature. As we’ve already seen, committing to the work and striving for continual improvement is what sets a great illustrator apart from the competition, but it’s easier said than done.
At every stage of an illustrator’s career, they have the option to stop improving and settle into something comfortable (which many will choose) or to continue developing. Most people don’t carry on developing and improving – when they start getting good reactions to their work, they’ll continue making work at the same level; after all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But great illustrators continue to improve beyond that comfortable level, and when they carry on developing their skills, they can rise above the competition and their value as an illustrator continues to increase in line with their skill and experience.
The illustrators with the most successful careers get there by having the right attitude and dedication to their craft. And, as I’ve mentioned, they keep going, even when they don’t feel like it. They show up, do the work every day, accept the losses and celebrate the wins. They’re motivated to achieve great things, and they accept that it takes time to get there.
There are plenty of people who would like to be illustrators, but won’t ever get past it being a hobby – if they’re not putting in the practice, not showing their work to potential clients and not treating it like a job, that’s all it will ever be – this is the hard stuff, which we’ll return to throughout the book. An illustrator who chooses to master their craft and all the skills that go along with it, earns the title.
Everything an illustrator achieves will be a direct result of their own skill and hard work. You can decide when to work, what to work on and who to work for. You also decide how hard you work and how you present yourself and your illustrations to the world. There’s a lot about the freelance world you can’t control, but the way you show up and the decisions you make are up to you. Every project you win, every fee you negotiate and every satisfied client is down to your efforts. The more you put in, the more you’ll get out of it.
Expand your skillset
It should go without saying that becoming a professional doesn’t happen by accident: if you’ve studied illustration at university, you’ve had time to experiment and explore the creative part of the job, which is great – but practice, training and development doesn’t end with your degree.
To have a long and successful career, continuous professional development will be an essential part of your daily practice. It’s important to stay current with trends, technology, and techniques to stay relevant in the creative part of the job. There are also many skills worth developing that will play an equally important role in turning your creative skills into a business (We’ll look at communication, negotiation, professionalism, and more later in the book).
Thankfully, we live in a time where we can choose our mentors. We can learn from some of the world’s best creatives and thinkers, and the abundance of resources online means you can give yourself a great education for very little money.
You can pick up lots of useful information from other illustrators by following their careers: Many of them share their knowledge through podcasts, videos, online courses, and blogs. You can find valuable lessons in their mistakes and avoid making the same ones. There are also several online learning platforms that offer incredible classes in everything from basic drawing techniques to 3D animation (We’ll look a little closer at online education and professional development in Chapter 5).
A freelance career is a business, and developing good financial habits and negotiating skills, along with gaining an understanding of legal matters relevant to your career, are all important for success as a freelancer. We’ll look at these in depth from Chapter 10: Money, through to Chapter 14: Licensing, rights, and contracts.
Don’t forget to keep reading. Read a small business book, then another one. Read about sales, marketing, productivity and creativity. Investing in your professional development is never a waste of time, but you can’t become an expert by reading books alone – you also need to put yourself out there, face your fears and learn from experience. I’ve read a lot of books, but I’ve discovered plenty more from trying things out, making mistakes, and trying again.
In Chapter 2, we’ll look at some of the common challenges you may encounter as you take your first steps into freelance illustration.
- Keep a beginner’s mindset throughout your career.
- Make the most of being a beginner.
- Becoming exceptional requires consistent effort.
- Illustrators who continue to learn and improve can rise above the competition.
- Invest in your creative professional development and other complementary