Computer Arts

50 insider tips for illustrators

Work smarter, not harder, and keep your head above water with these tips and insights from some of the top names in the creative world.

Some of today's hardest working illustrators take time out to share their own top 50 glistening, information-packed, gems of knowledge. Carefully mined from real-life experiences, these handpicked nuggets will add an insider edge to getting on in your career. Get the low-down on starting up your own studio, promoting your work, the pros and cons of agents, getting that portfolio working effectively, winning clients and new business, pricing jobs, inspiration and collaborations, and how to structure your working week to fit it all in!

Part 1: Getting started in illustration

1 An education in illustration
Many illustrators swear by the education they received as full-time art school students, while many others maintain 'learning on the job' is the best route. Steve Wilson, graduate of the University of Brighton Illustration BA course, notes, "I made loads of mistakes when starting out - there's a lot that can't be taught, you have to do it in practice."

2 Putting education into practice
Picking your own way through the minefield that is contemporary illustration practice isn't easy. McFaul, himself a graduate of Kingston University's illustration undergraduate course declares, "Although the education I received was second to none, I'm still under the impression that those of us that left education at that time were dropped off in the middle of nowhere blindfolded!" Watch out for the pitfalls.

3 The highs and the lows
Life as an illustrator can be rewarding one day and frustrating the next. Although it's demanding being your own boss, it's also an attractive lifestyle. JAKe, illustrator, cartoonist and animator, explains: "I haven't had a 'real' job for ten years - I'd find the structure too hard. One of the highs of life as an illustrator is that there's nobody telling me what time to get out of bed!" Create a daily structure that works for you.

4 Working from home
Setting up a studio to work out of is a crucial first step. If resources are low, your first studio may well be where you live. Jody Barton, illustrator with Big Active, having left his urban London lifestyle for a rural one, describes his space: "Two wobbly desks, two computers and a telephone - situated in the middle of nowhere. From my window I can see a truck on the way to the slaughterhouse."

5Your first studio
You'll know when the time has come to set up your own studio away from where you live, because you'll have problems: a partner demanding the spare bedroom back for visiting guests or the kitchen table heaving under the weight of a Mac, monitor, scanner, printer and other kit. You can't set up your own studio until finances allow, but make sure you do it before it starts to affect everyone that you live with!

6 Turning a hobby into a job
Why work in illustration when it can appear such a haphazard career choice? Jon Burgerman, illustrator and king of doodles, admits, "It can feel isolating, but it turns your hobby into a job." McFaul, however, goes a little harder on his advice for aspiring illustrators: "Think lifestyle, not job." Get involved in illustration because you love doing it, not because it appears a smart career move. Jody Barton states: "Make work that is your own, not what you think will get you a big fizzy drinks ad campaign!"

7 Ask for advice
Seek advice from those who have already set up a studio, ask questions of internet service providers and telephone companies, and view a number of rental spaces before you make a final decision. "My working environment," explains Michael Gillette, based in San Francisco, "is a small cramped room, although I am moving to a new larger studio. I've always worked in chaotic places, but it doesn't seem to affect my work."

8 Technology - keep learning
Understanding software and hardware issues is a necessity. Become friends with a technical whizz-kid or learn how to keep your kit performing in tip-top condition yourself. The pros outweigh the cons of the digital era, as far as Michael Gillette is concerned: "The flexibility of illustration in the digital age is a huge bonus," he states. "It allowed me to move from the UK to the US, after all."

9 The taxman and the accountant
Enlist the services of a good accountant, one that understands the creative industries. Ian Wright, the London-based innovator, admits that his accountant has "bailed me out many times - he could be the key to my survival!" JAKe also advocates being organised from the outset although he admits to being a little lax: "For me it's receipts in a shoe box until I really have to look at it!"

10 The software police
Don't get prosecuted. Be street legal and avoid the temptation of using anything other than legit software. Update regularly, although in most cases you can skip every other version to save funds, and keep abreast of new software developments by reading magazine reviews and trying 30-day demos.

Part 2: Finding work

1 Issues, ideas and strategies
Decide what self-promotion methods work for you but, whatever you choose, avoid annoying the people you're marketing to. Some illustrators advocate simple procedures: Patrick Thomas of Studio laVista, based in Barcelona, suggests simply, "Do every job as well as you possibly can - that's the best way to promote yourself." Jon Burgerman agrees: "The best self-promotion is doing great work and getting it seen."

2 Portfolio do's and don'ts
Your portfolio is a valuable tool, so prepare it well, keep it organised and look after it. Anthony Burrill, designer/illustrator, offers useful advice: "Keep it simple, with a good mixture of self-initiated and actual commissions. Make it look professional - good quality print-outs on decent paper." Steve Wilson suggests, "Put your hand in your pocket and invest in leather - your book, after all, will be going to big ad agencies competing against other illustrators' portfolios for the same job."

3 Online portfolios
Every illustrator needs a web-based portfolio, perhaps even more useful than a leather-bound one for reaching a wider audience. Richard May, co-founder of Pixelsurgeon and Black Convoy, reckons, "Better 20 large images than 60 tiny ones." He adds, "Make sure that the presentation does your work justice - keep it simple and to the point."

4 Attitude and commitment
Ian Wright advises hitting the streets and seeing lots of potential clients with your work: "Take notice of their reaction to your work, don't be afraid to ask for advice - we were all new to the profession once." Patrick Thomas offers clear-cut thinking: "Be prepared to work bloody hard if you're going to get anywhere." And Anthony Burrill quotes from one of his own letterpress selfpromotional posters: "WORK HARD AND BE NICE TO PEOPLE!"

5 Keeping contacts
Get a good database application or get used to using a digital address book and spend time keeping it up to date, because it'll easily take up huge chunks of time later if you don't. Miles Donovan of Peepshow explains his own procedures: "All my contacts are on my Mac and iPod and are regularly updated and backed up - all important!" Peepshow's work-experience folk "phone around asking for names and emails of art directors, which is handy," admits Miles.

6 Winning clients and business
There is no magic formula for getting the job, nor a wand to wave to ensure success. It can be down to luck, but more often it's down to graft and persistence. Ensuring that your work is visible and is being seen by the right people at the right companies that are in a position to commission will help. Original work that is both brilliantly executed and communicates clearly will find admirers.

7 How to pitch
There are occasions when a phone call from an art director puts you in an interesting position. He/she explains that the agency is doing a pitch for a client and if it comes off, there will be stacks of work for you, all very well paid naturally. However, they need you to work frantically non-stop for 48 hours to win the pitch and can barely offer you £200. Think carefully about what to do.

8 Agents - pros and cons
There are so many factors for and against getting an agent, but the bottom line is that a great agent can get you work that you wouldn't have time to chase or even know of its existence. "My agents in New York," explains McFaul, "are worth their weight in gold, but I'm also very proactive myself." Miles Donovan agrees: "They find work you wouldn't normally get, command higher fees and offer support if things go wrong."

9 Be aware of industry developments
Being aware of what's happening in the design world is crucial, and keeping abreast of recent projects by other illustrators through news and reviews in magazines will help too. Checking sites such as Design Observer and Pixelsurgeon on a regular basis will ensure that you're constantly up to date. These activities shouldn't be a chore; they're valuable research.

10 Successful meetings
Arrive early at a business meeting and make sure you've done your homework: know who you're seeing and familiarise yourself with the client's recent work. Large design and advertising agencies make this easy for you by having their press releases bound and in their reception areas. Be organised, take a notebook and pen to the meeting and ask questions if you're unsure. Be well groomed too - appearance does count.

Part 3: Managing your projects

1 What makes a great idea?
Knowing how to recognise a strong idea takes time and experience, although being aware of when your creative thinking is not up to scratch is a good start. A great idea will communicate your message without the need to talk it through. Remember, you won't be there to explain your illustration to everyone who views it! Richard May's straight-talking advice about how to recognise a strong concept is: "You just know!"

2 How and when to get ideas
There's no sure-fire, tried-and-tested method that will guarantee you'll always get a great idea, but that uncertainty and buzz you'll get from the pressure of having to come up with one is quite some drive. JAKe, from his studio in East London, reflects: "On a good day, it feels like they come out of nowhere - just sketchbook and pencil and start loosening up and see what happens..."

3 From beer mat to mood board
Illustrators' visuals/roughs vary as much as there are styles and ways of working. There is no rule-of-thumb to help here. Experience will determine how much work you'll need to undertake to get your idea across. Some art directors demand a high level of finish, others are happy to have a chat on the phone or via email and then let you go straight to artwork. Decide what's best for your own way of working.

4 The importance of originality
To survive in illustration, you need to offer a unique take on the world around you - it's your own visual language that will get the respect and the work from commissioning art directors. "There are far too many illustrators and designers churned out of colleges," states Patrick Thomas. "You are competing in a very strange environment against a huge number of talented and determined people," adds Jody Barton. "Make your own work!"

5 Making life a little easier
Having a game plan, understanding where you are right now and where you would like to be in 12 months' time can help dramatically. Plan carefully, structuring your week and your month in detail. Decide when you're going to make appointments to see potential clients, and when you're going to spend time updating your website. Michael Gillette recalls advice given to him by another illustrator: "What have you done today to show the world that you exist?"

6 Getting the price right
When putting a price on your work it's important not to panic. You can always take some time out to think about it. If you're offered a fee over the phone, ask for five minutes to have a think about it and say that you'll call back. Use your five minutes wisely: sum up against your previous experience, check against previous commissions to ensure that the fee seems fair. You can even make a phone call to another illustrator if you need a second opinion. If asked to name a price, you can always put the boot on the other foot and ask what the budget is - every job has a budget!

7 When to work for free
Nothing upsets illustrators more than discussion about free work. JAKe says: "You wouldn't ask a plumber to fix a leaky tap for free€¦ 'It'll look good in your portfolio, maate!'" Michael Gillette agrees: "Only do free work for charities - it devalues the whole industry if you do it for clients, so don't do it." Patrick Thomas, guided by his principles, states: "A job that has no production budget is simply not worth doing. I don't regard making a piece of work against war, for example, as a 'job' - I consider it a moral obligation."

8 How to command the best fees
Advice about commanding top dollar for your work varies from illustrator to illustrator. Jody Barton advises that it's wise to keep in mind exactly what you do: "You are a professional, mostly with a qualification and sooner or later you'll have bills to pay. Never ever charge less than £100 per day and, of course, much of the work you undertake will demand somewhat higher fees."

9 Sticking to deadlines
Late nights working against the clock, working throughout the week and then straight through the weekend into the following week - illustration is rarely a nine-to-five existence, because some projects demand high levels of input to meet the deadline. Your professionalism is not only judged by your output, but also by your ability to deliver on time. "To miss a deadline for press is inconceivable," stresses Patrick Thomas.

10 Delivering the goods
Whether it's being available on the end of a phone or answering emails within a reasonable length of time, communicating regularly with your clients all helps ensure that you come across as a professional. If you want to work for a client a second time, make sure that their experience of working with you is a positive one. This isn't rocket science, just common sense.

Part 4: Creative thinking

1 Research and development
Illustration isn't an exact science: each illustrator has his or her own approaches to making images. However it works for you, it pays dividends to occasionally reflect upon your own working methods and processes. McFaul describes his creative process as follows: "Draw, paint, cut, scribble, splash, scan, photograph, coffee, phone calls, email, draw, paint, manipulate, stare out of window, laugh, fiddle, scan, manipulate, go out, come back, scan."

2 Looking and learning
All work and no play makes an illustrator a dull boy or girl. Creative meanderings or visual wanderings off the beaten track can add untold pleasures to an illustrator's archives and collections. Inspiration can come from anywhere: a colour combination spotted and photographed for later perusal, a torn discarded scrap of paper with part of a photographic image smudged but with a unique visual language. Be on a constant look-out for inspiration.

3 A life outside illustration
It isn't healthy spending all of your time submerged in the discipline. It takes dedication and long working hours, but you need to emerge once in a while and live the rest of your life. Michael Gillette keeps his head out of illustration for references and inspiration: "I like old 19th century stuff at the moment - it's better to be inspired by an esoteric reference than a contemporary one."

4 Iconic inspiration
For most people, there are key illustrations that define moments in their lives. It might be an album or CD sleeve: The Beatles Revolver or Radiohead's OK Computer, for example, or a Martin Sharpe psychedelic poster or book jackets for Penguin classics. Whatever they are, these are important images that mark moments in our lifetime. As illustrators, we dream of creating iconic works - enjoy the dream!

5 Addictive illustration
Never satisfied, illustrators are constantly on the prowl for the next fix. Getting a job is a great high, and doing the job is another head rush; but like a junkie constantly demanding another fix, illustrators constantly strive to get their work into new fields. Ambitious illustrators yearn for an array of canvasses - Austin at NEW (also a Black Convoy member) wants it all: "More collaborations, more live illustration, painting, exhibitions, publishing and chaos!"

6 Collaborative projects
Working with other creatives opens up new possibilities and connections. "Sometimes it's all peaches and cream, sometime it's chalk and cheese - but it's all good! explains Austin. McFaul, a Cofounder of Black Convoy, has his own take: "It's an educational experience that can open up many avenues, you can benefit from the opinions of others." Neasden Control Centre agrees: "It's healthy and keeps you fresh."

7 Risk as a learning process
Stepping into the unknown, creatively, can give you a boost. Ensuring that the repetitive process of commission, creation, delivery and invoice is injected with moments of madness is important in remaining open to new ideas. Jon Burgerman explains a recent project: "I'm working with a Danish artist, Sune Ehlers, on Hello Duudle books. I've never actually met or even spoken to Sune, but the process of bouncing JPEGs over email yields new ideas€¦"

8 Playing around with new ideas
As well as working with others, it's important to retain aspects of the 'art school' experience to your working methods. Take time out of commissions to make new things and use this time to really explore new ways of working. Bring new processes to your working pattern - if you normally draw from photographs, draw only from life; if you always create colours purely in Photoshop, scan lush colours hand-painted on watercolour paper. Keep experimenting.

9 Managing your time
Everything you do takes longer than you think. Watching the clock and wondering when you can 'clock off' is not an option for an illustrator - you are more likely to spend time wishing the clock wasn't rushing ahead so quickly. With deadlines to meet and clients phoning, emailing and general everyday workflow issues, it really is sensible to map out your working day, and even working week, to stay ahead of the game.

10 Get into a routine
Have a structure to your day. Organise your time well, answer emails and open post at the start of every day, then get down to being creative. Anthony Burrill, illustrator/ designer, explains why a structure helps his creative flow: "During the day I make and receive countless calls and emails. I am addicted to email but sometimes have to turn it off to get rid the distraction." It pays to recognise good working practice.

Part 5: Career development

1 Don't sell your soul
It's important that you enjoy what you do. Anthony Burrill, when asked about the lows of working in illustration, states: "I can't think of any." Others are more reflective: McFaul doesn't enjoy "the solitude" and Richard May warns that "cash-flow can be a huge problem if you're not careful", but Neasden reckons "there are no lows." Only 'do' illustration if you feel a passion for the activity.

2 Job satisfaction
"Saying no and turning down work, and the money, can make you feel great, in charge," states Ian Wright. Why would you say no when it can take forever to even be asked to undertake a commission? Michael Gillette explains why he says no: "When I get a sinking feeling when reading the brief and realise that doing the job will make me feel like a lesser artist." Although he adds honestly, "This is sometimes negated by the need for cash."

3 Giving something back
Away from the screen, the phone and the solitude, many illustrators enjoy a regular teaching slot working with students. "Teaching reminds me why I wanted to be an illustrator in the first place," admits Ian Wright. Austin at NEW states: "I think it's healthy. I like discussing ideas and meeting people who are excited at the prospect of doing something new, describing their world." Jon Burgerman gives lectures: "They make me take stock of what I've actually done," he says.

4 Getting a job in education
Interested in getting involved in some teaching? Start by getting a CV together and samples of work and send them to courses at foundation and undergraduate level. Explain in a covering letter why you'd like to get involved, offer to give a professional practice lecture to students about your own experiences, perhaps start by contacting the very course you studied on - after all, you're a success story, aren't you?

5 Building your profile
Some illustrators crave recognition by their peers. For many it isn't enough to see their work in print regularly and they look to other methods and means of spreading their gospel. Speaking at conferences and live events, posting comments on discussion boards, writing to magazines and sending in press releases containing new work are all ways of getting your work in front of more people, but don't overdo it - too much and it turns people off.

6 Maintaining your profile
Keeping clients aware of your latest work is a fundamental aspect of good marketing. A regular email newsletter with information about recent projects will keep people informed. Again, too much and it'll have the opposite effect. "It kind of puts me off when I see people really hyping themselves," states JAKe. McFaul has his own advice: "If your website doesn't have a firm handshake then the commissioner will be shaking the hands of others€¦"

7 Extra-curricular activities
Careers in illustration are broader than ever. McFaul thinks that the edges more blurred: "Boundaries between illustrators, photographers, designers, animators and artists are long gone," The list of potential outputs continues to increase too. "I now like to do more of my own work," explains Miles Donovan of Peepshow, "and then find an outlet for it. I just spent a month doing my own thing and then sold the lot to a T-shirt company in Japan."

8 Eat, drink, breathe illustration
Hard work and determination will pay off, but only if you have raw talent and a visual language that combines creativity, communication and, above all, originality to a high level. If you're still at art school right now, use your time wisely: use the facilities and expertise to their breaking point, because you'll never get another chance. If you're out and working in illustration, ask yourself, "Am I giving it 100 per cent? Do I want this more than anything?"

9 Advice from those who know
It may be tough, but remember a few pearls of wisdom on dark days. "Try to keep a handle on what you enjoy about the process of image-making," offers Jody Barton. "Don't do anything half-heartedly," adds Austin at NEW. Patrick Thomas at laVista believes, "Your own projects and sketchbooks will feed your commercial work and help keep you sane." Finally, Miles Donovan warns: "Don't let the computer dictate what you do!" Wise words indeed.

10 The last word
Illustration may be your entire world, but remember it isn't for everyone. "Keep things in perspective," Ian Wright argues. "Being paid to be creative isn't essential to the world's survival!"

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