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Mar 12th

What not to do

So much of becoming successful in any industry is learning what not to do, and avoiding the mistakes that other people have made.

So much of becoming successful in any industry is learning what not to do, and avoiding the mistakes that other people have made.

It’s not common for successful illustrators to talk about these mistakes publicly. For a freelancer, impostor syndrome is a big problem no matter what stage of your career you’re at. There is always an underlying fear of being exposed as not knowing what you are doing.

It’s even less common for beginners to ask about these mistakes and to try to learn from them. You only need to flick through any business biography by a titan of industry like Richard Branson, Tony Robbins or Elon Musk to know they have learned a lot more from their failures than from their successes. Why should it be any different for illustrators?

There isn’t one correct way to become a successful illustrator, but if you learn what not to do, you can speed up the process.

Don’t waste time on non essentials

These are the things you actually need to get your first clients:

  • A selection of great work
  • A ‘good enough’ website
  • An email address and phone number

There is a time and a place to design a business card, print mail-outs, design a logo, make a custom website, write a blog and build a social media following, but it’s not right at the beginning.

Step 1: Make a great portfolio of work
Step 2: Get paid to do more

Forgive the over-simplification, but the shorter the route from step 1 to step 2 the better, right?

Time is limited, and as a freelancer your time shouldn’t be free. Don’t waste your time on non-essentials. Worry about these things later when you are making money from illustrating.

Here’s a few examples of non-essentials:

  • Custom built website – Good enough is good enough.
  • Business card – You don’t need one.
  • Printed mail outs – Don’t spend your money on promo items until you are earning money.
  • Going to networking events – You will tend to see a lot of people exactly like you that are looking for jobs, not commissioning them.
  • Printed portfolio – Don’t worry about this until someone asks you for it. You might never be asked, so why bother?
  • Blogging and social media – Don’t invest too much time before you have people that want to see what you are posting.

Don’t get wrapped up in social media

A social media following does not equal success. Success is making a living from your illustration work. Sure, some artists get a lot of work through their social media network, but for a beginner, it’s probably not where you are going to find your first paid jobs. Chances are your first 100 followers are going to be your friends and family. They’re not going to give you industry experience, and are even less likely to pay you for it.

You could keep yourself very busy for a few months chasing likes and writing a blog only to realise at the end of it that you haven’t got a paid job yet. What’s more motivating for you: 1000 Instagram followers or seeing your first published work? Wouldn’t it be better to get published first and then earn your fans?

I’m not saying you should ignore social media completely, but If you are using Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Linkedin, Dribbble and Behance, writing your blog, plus updating all the other online portfolio sites you can find, it’s taking up a hell of a lot of your time. Pick one and focus on that. it’s going to be quicker, and it’s going to be easier to see which posts work and which ones don’t. That way you can learn something about what people like in the process, instead of just churning out more social media noise.

Thinking you should be visible on every platform is a great example of what not to do, but new illustrators do it all the time. They try to do everything, thinking it can’t hurt. But it can hurt, and it does. You are being kept so busy with more non-essentials that you have less time to focus on your craft and to find potential clients.

Don’t start without a strategy

It takes time to make a living from illustrating, even if your work is great. If you don’t have a strategy, you’re going to be wandering aimlessly, always hoping for your big break. Aimless wandering gets boring real quick, and that’s where a lot of people give up.

Motivation is half the battle with any new venture. If you haven’t seen any results after 6 months because you’ve been busy with non-essentials, it becomes very difficult to motivate yourself to keep working on something that’s not giving you anything in return.

Set goals, work out what your strengths are, and work strategically towards something.

Imagine you quit your day job, and set yourself a four month goal to get your first paying client. You’ve got a couple of pieces of work, but nowhere near enough to call a portfolio:

  • Focus on creating new work 100% for the first 3 months, as much as you possibly can. Experiment, find your style, challenge yourself. By the end of 3 months hard work, you could have a pretty respectable archive of work. You will like some, you probably won’t like those first couple of pieces so much anymore; Your style and process will have evolved, but you’ve got enough to call a portfolio.
  • Edit this collection down to just the best ones and get them up on a cheap, functional website. If your website is doing the job well enough, don’t spend more time and money on it than you have to.
  • For month 4, cut your time down to 60% creating new work and 40% hunting for clients. You shouldn’t stop creating new personal work until you are too busy working on paid commissions. Spend a couple of hours a day finding the names and contact details of art directors and whatever other kinds of potential clients you can, and spend a couple of hours a day getting in touch with them. It’s hard at first, fear of failure is a strong emotional barrier, but if you do a little bit every day, that fear will disappear.

Quick and cheap

The best and most effective marketing strategy is the one that’s cheapest and is going to get you results quickly. Make some calls, send some emails. Don’t spend a month designing mail-outs, spend your limited funds on printing and posting them, then spend another 3 months waiting and hoping that someone will hire you.

Send a personalised email with an introduction, a couple of examples of your work and a link to your website. If you haven’t got a reply within a couple of weeks then you probably aren’t going to get one. Feel free to follow up later, but at least you haven’t wasted your time and money. You can repeat this process with as many clients as you want and it’s not going to deplete your energy, or your bank account.

Don’t expect clients to find you. You have to get your work and name out there for people to know you exist. Don’t be passive, find the clients and introduce yourself.

Don’t cover up the hard stuff with the easy stuff

The non-essentials are easy, they are low risk. Don’t cover up the hard stuff (reaching out to clients) with the easy stuff (posting more of your work onto Facebook) The fans will come naturally once you are working regularly, without you having to spend your valuable time chasing them.

If you cut the non-essentials, getting your first client doesn’t need to take long. Getting paid is a great motivator, so get paid to do what you love as quickly as possible.

See more of Michael Parkin’s work here and follow him @parkinparkin


Leave a reply or comment

  1. Great article. I have been in an illustration career slump this past year, and these words on agents and how to get out of this situation have been helpful for sure. Keep it up!

  2. Brilliant article that hits all the nails on the head.

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