How to get started as a professional Illustrator

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Many aspiring illustrators often ask me how to go about getting started in this industry. Here are a few pointers that I hope will help you out.Firstly, it is very important is to understand the difference between doing “art” for yourself and doing “art” that is “commissioned.” Once you understand that, you are half way there.It is really important in my opinion to develop a unique style. Often when I am showed student’s portfolios and there are several styles of work in the same book. This is often required in schools that teach illustration and want to have you explore various styles. That’s great for school but I would stay away from doing that in “the real world”. First, it makes it hard to recognize your particular style and second it does not give a recognizable look or signature to your work. Art directors are always looking for a certain style at any one time and tend to associate one particular style with one particular illustrator. Even thought you might be great at a few styles, I still stress the importance of choosing just one to focus on.When preparing your portfolio, either hard copy or website, I suggest that you sit down and go over all of your work. Study it and see which style appeals to you the most. The chances are the one you like and enjoy working in will be the one that is the most successful for you. When an illustrator enjoys working or has a certain energy it does shine through into their illustrations no matter what the subject matter is. If you just got on with what you believed to be a commercial style that you don’t personally have some sort of emotional reaction to, then you may not enjoy it as much. Illustration can be a lonely career, don’t waste your time on something that you have no feeling for – again this will always be reflected in the work.Once you have chosen your style. It isn’t such a bad idea to make sure you have enough work in that particular style. In my experience, you might have to come up with a few new pieces for your portfolio. The more you work in a particular style the better you become. A great way to get ideas for new illustrations is to look at existing editorial articles. Pick up any magazine from your local newsagent, if you don’t have any lying around or find something on the web. Work on articles that interest you as well as articles that don’t. You rarely get to choose in the subject matter or content of the piece you may get hired to illustrate. You might be surprised at the great work you come up with on the articles that bores you to death. Sometime a challenge will bring out the best in you and get the creative juices flowing. You don’t need to just stick to editorial for inspiration but I think it’s a good place to start and it’s the same advice that I often give to new illustrators when I take them on.Once you have a recognizable portfolio full of images you need to put them together in some kind of order. I would spread them out starting with what you feel are your strongest images first, then the rest and then end with a strong and memorable piece. For most book portfolios, I recommend that you show no more than 24 images to get started. I think that two dozen images are more than enough samples to really show your work. On your website, you can show as many images as you like. When creating your site, keep it as simple as possible. AGM launched its first website back in 1996 and even though we have revamped it about 5 or 6 times since, we have always kept it simple. Art directors and designers have so little time as it is, they don’t have time to sit through a fancy intro or listen to the music. They only have mere moments to scan through your site to see if you are the right illustrator for the job. I am not an expert on websites and therefore consult people who are, but I do know a thing or two about the business of illustration and trust me the simplest sites are the best!So now you have what you need to get started, its time to get started.If you can get yourself in with a reputable Agent or Rep that is a great start and of course from my point of view, that is the way to go. See my last post “Should an Illustrator have an Agent represent him/her“. If you are not ready to take that road just yet or you have no intention to be represented then you need to do the legwork and get your work out there and seen. There are many ways to market and promote yourself and you need to decide what is best for you and within your budget. Many illustrators make the mistake of thinking that if their work is great or they won a few awards that work will some how just start rolling in. This is not usually the case. It’s an awful lot of work to promote and market yourself but it’s extremely important.I have worked with many illustrators over the years and I can tell you first hand that if you work hard, remember to always believe in yourself and in your work, don’t take no for an answer and enjoy what you are doing, you will definitely succeed in this industry. Best of luck to you!