Skip to main content

Why illustrators need to be business-savvy

You can imagine my shock when I received a Facebook message saying, “Wow, Amy, your work is in my latest Computer Arts magazine!” I’d entered 2011’s Graduate Showcase and it took a while for it to sink in that I’d made it in...

Having said that, the fact that I was named as the actual winner in the Illustration category still hasn’t... I believe every emerging artist and designer should seize any opportunity to enter a competition. Even if you don’t believe you stand a chance, you may just be surprised. My illustrations are all hand-drawn and painted, so when I entered the Graduate Showcase, it was without any hope of my traditional style being of interest to a ‘computer arts’ magazine. While I was finishing university, I feared that my work seemed old fashioned and there might not be a place for it in today’s world of digitally heavy commercial design. But the enthusiastic comments published alongside my work by the judge, the renowned fashion illustrator Autumn Whitehurst (who went on to become my mentor for the next 12 months) were very uplifting and not only gave me confidence and pride in my work, but also woke me up to the fact that there is still an appreciation for traditional artwork in today’s design world.

Aside from entering competitions, there are, of course, lots of other ways to present your work to the world. There are many design blogs, for example. I’ve found, however, that these don’t always lead to commissions. While the internet has great potential for showcasing your work, it’s vast and brimming with talented artists, and I’ve come to realise that to have a chance of standing out in such a competitive field, you can’t rely on the internet to attract clients for you, no matter how many websites feature your work. Creatives need to be business-savvy individuals who have the ability to target the right audience and address the right contacts – which is a far more challenging and time-consuming process than many graduates initially realise.

During my time at university, I was contently naive and blissfully unaware of how difficult it is to make a living out of being an illustrator. I imagined promoting my work would be easy. And while the graphic design students were gaining experience from placements in design studios, I should have been diligently studying the ways of working freelance and getting a head-start in promoting my work, because on leaving university I was very under-prepared and felt quite lost.

In this past year, the learning curve has been very steep. Through trial and error, and learning from my mistakes, I’ve quickly realised that being a freelance illustrator is essentially running your own business. Being naturally very shy and modest, I’ve struggled with the idea of actively approaching people, whether in aid of promoting my work or asking for advice. However, I’ve learned that making an effort to connect with people is very rewarding, and I’ve gained some invaluable insights and advice from doing so – not to mention been approached with some fantastic opportunities and been able to work on some exciting projects. My new-found knowledge of the time-consuming and sometimes complicated business side of freelance work has also given me more of an appreciation for illustration agencies: an artist who has an agent can be relieved from a large portion of the business tasks, leaving them more time to actually illustrate.

Having Autumn Whitehurst as a mentor has also been a fantastic help throughout. She has enthusiastically provided me with encouragement and guidance, and has helped me to make sense of what it takes to be a professional illustrator. Autumn has also given me lots of ideas to consider about how I view professional illustration, which has helped to focus my intentions.

As I’ve ventured out into the world of illustration, I’ve discovered just how difficult it is to break into the commercial industry. Thanks to the Graduate Showcase competition I’ve been fortunate to have someone with experience to turn to for guidance, someone to ask my many questions and air my concerns – from anything from self-promotion to the pros and cons of agents. It’s also granted me the honour of being able to advertise myself as an ‘award-winning’ illustrator, which is something that any creative would be very thankful for in such a competitive industry.

Head over to our sister site, Creative Bloq, for an in-depth review of Illustrator CS6.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

The Creative Bloq team is made up of a group of design fans, and has changed and evolved since Creative Bloq began back in 2012. The current website team consists of six full-time members of staff: Editor Kerrie Hughes, Deputy Editor Rosie Hilder, Deals Editor Beren Neale, Senior News Editor Daniel Piper, Digital Arts and Design Editor Ian Dean, and Staff Writer Amelia Bamsey, as well as a roster of freelancers from around the world. The 3D World and ImagineFX magazine teams also pitch in, ensuring that content from 3D World and ImagineFX is represented on Creative Bloq.