20-ish years ago, I graduated with a fine art degree and became an art teacher, but now (for reasons I don't particularly want to go into here), I no longer wish to teach. Ideally, I would like to break into the illustration profession, but don't know how realistic this is.

I realise that, first and foremost, it is necessary to build a portfolio, but beyond this, things get rather vague. I have read various articles on the subject, and most tend to say something along the lines of what Emma Block says here:

There is no standard career path to becoming an illustrator. To be honest, it's a bit of a weird career ... I can't tell you how to become a successful freelance illustrator, but I can tell you what I've learnt so far.

Needless to say, there are many questions left unaswered, the most crucial of all being, is it worth it? I realise that only I can answer this, but I would like to be a little better informed before I make my decision.

There are some branches of illustration that don't interest me (infographics, technical drawing, etc.). I lean more towards children's / book / editorial illustration. However, the publishing industry has clearly been in decline since the digital revolution, and will continue to be. How has that affected these areas of illustration in terms of competition / career sustainability? Comparatively, how competitive is this field?

  • @Ryan edited to focus in on editorial cartoons. Hopefully I can ask separate questions based on this springboard question at a later date. – martin Jul 20 '16 at 14:11
  • Yep I saw and already reopened. And yeah you can always post different questions (though try not to flood us with 20 questions at once, we had someone do this before). – Ryan Jul 20 '16 at 14:12
  • 2
    Yes, the publishing industry has been in decline but books and illustrations shifted to online media. This barely affects illustrators. As for how competitive the illustration field is, this completely depends on where you live and your level of skill. Being a freelancer will always be a competitive field and requires you to put a lot of effort and time into networking and getting your name out to people. – Summer Jul 20 '16 at 14:20
  • 1
    @JaneDoe1337 please try not to leave answers as comments – Ryan Jul 20 '16 at 14:27
  • 1
    @Ryan This comment is based on my personal experience and thus I do not have the right information to add this as a valid answer. It is merely a comment, not a fact based answer to OP's question. – Summer Jul 20 '16 at 14:31

Keep in mind that your offering is changing to a product from a service that you performed for a fee. There is a different mindset that accompanies each.

It's nice that you have an initial interest; but, demand will probably determine your specialty. I specialize in the needs of the wealthy.

Continue doing what you can to augment your income while you plan your escape.

Use a business plan template to help you discover and explore the commercial aspects of your skills and specialized interests. A business plan can help you identify income opportunities best suited to you from among many. Find out what you already have, need, and what you must do to comply with the Best Practices shared among your successful colleagues. You must commit yourself to writing. At this point, it is not enough to be aware of the things you will do. A plan has deadlines and measurable goals to keep you on track. A structured plan has the detail you’ll need while you look at the big picture. This cannot be minimized.

Something like ICBB.com’s “Plan A” generic business and marketing template software will, by filling-in the blanks, become uniquely yours. Its products are used by some business schools, colleges, and universities. Disclaimer: I bought ‘em years ago, use ‘em, and swear by ‘em still.

Things you need for business will be in your business plan. So too, will be the case with your Marketing Plan. Its function is to help you figure out how and where to sell your fish.

Start by telling friends and relatives that you need their help spreading the word about your miracle. They will be your best representatives.

When you don't promote yourself, a terrible thing happens—Nothing.

You will need business skills to run your business. You will be interacting with bureaucracy. Small enterprises must operate according to local business practices. Start a part-time course in bookkeeping essentials and operating a small business. Don’t read a book. Force yourself into accepting exercises, quizzes and tests.

Even if you hire professionals to perform skills for you, minimum knowledge is needed to judge whether their performance is to some standard in your benefit.

Getting an agent may or may not be a great idea. Avoid agreements that will lock you into exclusive arrangements. Allow yourself to work on projects of your choosing in addition to what your agent brings to you.

Disclaimer: Graphic Designer, Montreal Canada

  • This is really helpful, if a little overwhelming! 'Avoid agreements that will lock you into exclusive arrangements' is especially useful advice. How large a portfolio will I need before I can start on any of this rather daunting process you outline? – martin Jul 23 '16 at 6:26
  • 2
    There is no minimum portfolio size. One piece can sell a concept or a job. Quality over quantity is the important thing. You'll keep adding, and modifying it as time goes by and for different markets and target individuals. For much of my stuff, I have no samples due to the confidential nature of the project or due to non-disclosure agreements. It's scary and wonderful at the same time. You'll have a different boss with every different project. You'll have a fire inside you. – Stan Jul 23 '16 at 13:27

Short version: there might not be a straight path to illustration as a career, and don't feel bad about having a day job until things take off. Draw for yourself, don't wait for a gig. Always work on getting better because there is an army of young kids that can draw and paint better than you, and they're 10 years old.

Longer version:

Re: how competitive is it? I went to school for illustration. It was an intense and rigorous program, but even as it produced many capable illustrators, most (none that I know of) could not do editorial/children's books as a career. They got hired in the game industry and usually the bottom-feeding social media game industries, working for very little. Even some of my very talented classmates, not being able to get an illustration job, went back to school for a master's or got another degree entirely - sometimes in computer science. Lately most people I know from that school are getting into UX/UI design. Or they sell furniture.

Personally, I wasn't able to get much in the way of illustration, a little project here or there through a friend or associate. I got a "day job" in graphic design. This was a really good thing for me, because it was still "creative." Also, I was able to do some illustrations as an in-house designer. This was really good too, because it lead to other illustration work. Now I am the odd graphic designer-illustrator. Of course I'd rather be doing illustration all the time, but this is working for me quite nicely. I still draw and do my own illustration projects.

My advice to you: depending on how good you are, you might want to consider doing a reputable online school to get your skills up. Schoolism.com is a good one but there are others. Of course you could YouTube it with tutorials as well for free. I do NOT recommend going to a regular art college or university - unless you have time and money to burn. Always strive to get better. Don't get complacent with your skills.

I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to get illustration jobs that I didn't like. I hate social media games, yet because at the time of graduating that industry was hiring a lot, I applied to them constantly and adjusted my portfolio appropriately. In hindsight, this was completely wrong because it was not for me, even if I did get hired, I know I would not have been happy there. I should have been honing my own voice without concern for industries. Know what you like and stick to that (easier said than done, especially when you want business).

Lastly and most importantly, don't wait to get paid to do your illustrations. Make them for yourself and that is what will attract clients. Don't feel bad about doing a related or non-art day job - no shame if you can manage to take care of your living costs and make time for illustration (until that becomes your full-time job).

Best of luck.

  • thanks for taking the time to answer - nice to have a realistic pespective.. – martin Aug 2 '16 at 20:20

If/while you still have a "safety net" of some stable income and few demands on your composure, consider a walk on the wild side to see what you think.

Pull your portfolio together, call a medium-sized advertising agency, and make an appointment to show your portfolio. When you get an appointment, show your portfolio with an objective to meet the person to start a relationship. Let's say it's the art/creative director. The first visit will be an introduction. I avoid giving work to people I don't know. I don't know many who do. This is one way to jump in.

You'll get feedback. You'll get a professional-to-professional opinions. You'll make notes of what they like and don't, and why. You'll get referrals to others and begin to network. When something comes up, you'll get a call. If you don't hear back, change your portfolio somewhat, and call the person again asking if they'd like to see more of your work. (Don't show everything on the first day.) Add a few pieces of things you've done since the last time you met. "Sure, they would," and so on. After a few visits, you'll be a known quantity.

After a few agencies (keep going after the first one), you'll have a current view of what's happening around town for you. More important, town will know about you. You is the operative term here rather than the competition. Multiply this process by each potential source of work and you'll have an idea of a large part of a freelance activity—sourcing new work.

Meanwhile, plan your escape. What is the take-away from your meeting(s)? Do you feel encouraged? Energized?

  • this is really useful practical advice - many thanks :) – martin Aug 3 '16 at 4:55
  • @martin What other directions do you want to explore? – Stan Aug 3 '16 at 4:57
  • do you means in terms of illustration, or outside that? – martin Aug 3 '16 at 4:57
  • thanks, that would be really useful :) Would you say a portfolio should be built with a commercial market in mind, or does that come later? – martin Aug 3 '16 at 5:11
  • 1
    That might be a great question to put to the group. Check to see if there are already similar questions. When you ask you question, you can broaden or focus it to cover your interest. Search the site for "portfolio." – Stan Aug 3 '16 at 5:14

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.