5 secrets of a successful illustration career

Carving out a successful career as an illustrator isn't just about artistic skill – it's also about having the right attitude and going about things in the right way. We canvassed top artists to find out the secrets of their success: here's what they had to say...

01. Planning ahead

setting goals

A painting by Svetlin Velinov, who urges artists to learn lessons from failures and use them to improve

The word 'plan' can be a fickle thing when it wants to be. It’s not always possible to achieve personal objectives, but it’s the trying that counts.

So why do we do it? According to comic book legend William Stout, "goals are the beginning of one’s motivation process, and it’s essential to differentiate between goals and fantasies or desires."

02. Taking time to reflect

car setting goals

Bruce hung out in New York aspiring to paint book covers, but now designs cars such as this one, the Aeroliner car concept, that went into production.

Reflection is a vital part of every artist’s creative journey. "Most of my goals aren’t time dependant, and it’s important to set realistic targets," illustrator Ralph Horsley explains. "Setting shorter time-scaled, achievable goals creates a series 
of confidence boosting steps, rather than something that might be so long term and difficult as to be a negative influence."

Building on good and bad times helps 
you take what you can in order to grow. "As a comic book artist I set a goal of working with my five biggest comic book heroes: Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Jean "Moebius" Giraud and Alex Toth," William recalls, "I got to collaborate with all but Alex Toth."

03. Learning from your mistakes

dragon goals

Ralph is a firm believer that beating personal targets makes you a stronger artist.

But what if it doesn’t work out how you hoped? "If I miss a goal, I just move onto the next one without looking back for very long," William says. "There’s no time for regrets." Giving into negativity can be all too easy, but training yourself to spot the good out of the bad can make all the difference.

"Each failure is linked to a lesson to learn, and this makes you better," says Wizards of the Coast artist Svetlin Velinov. "It’s not possible to achieve all your goals. Going down that road will turn you into something you don’t want to be, so failure is useful because it makes you set new goals to chase until you succeed."

04. Thinking outside the box

There’s still plenty to be found with an alternative route, as automotive concept artist and graphic designer Bruce Kaiser found out. As a youngster, Bruce envisioned becoming a sci-fi painter and following in the footsteps of his heroes.

After graduation, he realised that his fascination with classic cars could land him regular freelance work after spotting a shortage of vehicle artists. "Because there weren’t 
a lot of people specialising in automotive illustration and graphic design years ago, 
I always had plenty of work day-to-day and never had a specific plan."

05. Doing rather than dreaming

space goals

Bruce would jump at the chance to explore sci-fi art further.

Although not what he initially planned, Bruce’s career has since flourished, and his work has received praise from several of his favourite automotive artists and has been exhibited alongside them at various shows. "I’m also proud of the reputation I have with my clients," he says, which is certainly something to be cheerful about. It just goes to show that seeking new goals and positive thinking can make all the difference.

So no matter how big or small that goal may be, it’s the doing that really counts. We think that Les Barany, agent to the legendary HR Giger, says it best: "Stop aspiring and start doing." And if that plan does veer off track, set new goals and enjoy where it takes you.

Words: Nicola Henderson

Next page: Boris Vallejo & Julie Bell offer their advice on setting goals...

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