How to become an Illustrator

Updated: Sep 11

A lot of people ask me how I became an illustrator or how I got started as one. I would love to have a one fit’s all answer but sadly it is not that easy. But I will try to do my best to describe processes and things that you can do start as an illustrator that I believe are pretty much universal and apply to all or most of us in the business. And I will tell you a bit about my own story with this journey and what happened when I decided to pursue Illustration.

Remember this is my own perspective and the once from some of my colleagues and friends. So let’s get rolling.

Are you an Illustrator?

So the first thing we need to cover is where you are coming from. Do you love to draw a little, as a hobby, when you are on the phone? Or is it your obsession. Is it something you do constantly. Having the urge to create whenever you can. Making it something you breathe in and out. That does not mean do you have a pencil in your hand constantly it is more about how you see the world. Do you see how things involve and change, how color changes and how it can be visualized?

If you are breathing this already you are already an illustrator! That doesn't mean that you can't get there. Practice look around draw and discover so you can get the love for this craft. Because being an illustrator is more than a job, it needs to be your way of communicating the world around you. Otherwise, this journey will be harder than you think.

Why is that?

Opposite to the romantic believes that people may have of illustrators. Illustrating is a difficult and hard job. It is not drawing occasionally and getting money for it. It is being an artist, an educator, a communicator, being in a constant creative state and never lose focus of your client so you are also your own office manager. It is long hours and big discussions. It is sleepless nights, failed ideas, horrible sketches, and creative potholes.

But it can also be a creative endeavor, a finding process, a beautiful journey, a vibe you carry with you, a smile, a cry, a powerful message and so much more.

It is your voice. It is your style.

The Job of an illustrator is to communicate a message. That can be your own, or the one of your client. Telling the story of a mood, a product, an article, an organization, a website, a magazine, an album and more. It is about telling the story of what needs to be told.

So are you ready to be an Illustrator?

The very first step:

Before you can even consider being an illustrator you need to have some practice. That means you need to draw. Daily.

Go to classes, visit workshops, take your notebook and draw. These drawing do not have to be perfect. Not even a little. Simply do it. This way you don’t only discover if you like it or not your will automatically get better and better. You will get practice and you will start to develop a voice wich is the very first step to becoming an illustrator.

What do I mean with a voice? I mean the thing you want to tell. This is not your style yet or your perfect drawing. It is the things that pop into your head and the things you need to share!

But what if I only draw horses?

If this is horses for the first half year that is perfect! You develop a voice and with every year that passes you will find different stories to tell. I started out with horses. A lot of them in my math books, in my homework assignments, everywhere. It was my voice as a kid. Then I drew little monster. My voice as a student, then women and now fat queer women. A Voice develops with your character but it is important because it will guide you into your style.

My monsters in my 20's. This was part of my BA Final presentation.

And remember you are not immediately a genius artist and illustrator! Practice is everything! When I look at those monsters I want to jump back in time, but back then it was the best I could do!

So keep on drawing horses until you feel like you need to draw something else.

So drawing horses of course only brings you that far in the illustration world. You need to develop further now because this in its own will not make you money right?

So what’s next?

School? Sure a possibly. But not the only one. I know we are told that going to University, doing your BA and MA will bring you further in life and they can.

They did for me. I would never want to miss these opportunities. They were some of the best times of my life and the brought me a little closer to people which meant contacts which meant job opportunities. Both of my employed positions came from contacts from the university. It was also a great place to make friends, learn from other creatives. Explore my work and get lost in parties. 😅

So hey there are some great upsides to studying. But maybe you don’t have the cash or the energy to go through 5 years of studying. I tell you now you do not have to. Nobody asked me for my certificate when I applied for jobs. No art director asked me if I studied when they wanted an illustration. It is not about where you learned. It is about what you learned. It is about where you are then and there when you apply for a job or an illustration gig. Your work counts. You count.

Ok I practice, I drew horses and studied or practiced a hell lot. What now?

Ok, now it is time to narrow down your voice and style. Can you already describe it? If you can’t describe your work by now you need to find a quiet moment and find this place. Is it colorful and quirky? Dark and gloomy? What is your favorite way to illustrate? What messages do you share?

I never did this and I regret this to this day. I believe if we as illustrators would introduce a regular feedback session for ourselves as a practice we could grow so much faster and more impactful. So my advice to you is to focus this voice of yours down.

Figure out what and how you are telling it. What is your favorite thing to work on? The forms you like to use? The colors which are your favorite? What do you like to tell me in your work? Is it feminist? Powerful? Soothing? What moves you in your work?

I know I make it sound so damn easy so if you ever need support go to a portfolio viewing, or talk to friends to help you out to narrow it down.

But when you have this you will have a muuuuuuuuuuuuch easier time finding clients, finding an audience and selling your work. So get right to that.

Oh and btw. Just because you are setting a style and voice right now does not mean it is set in stone. Your style can always and will always change so don’t take this too seriously.

So what about that making money aspect thing

Whohooo you are already so passionate and amazing. This is a tiring process and I know it can be a handful. So don’t panic. You are on an amazing journey. So you did work on your illustration style for a while and you are sure you want to dove into being an illustrator.

There is two ways you can entertain this idea.

1. Go and get hired by an amazing company to do illustrations and get a fixed pay every month. I know it might not sound as exciting but it an absolutely legitimate way to work and live as an illustrator and don’t let people tell you otherwise! If you need stability for whatever reason this is an amazing way to work. Especially Start-Ups are a great way to start. With Illustration getting more and more popular in the digital sphere they are always looking for people to do their illustration full or part-time. If you even have a little graphic design experience you can be the jackpot they were looking for.

2. Be a self-employed illustrator This one is the one you might have been looking for. By finding your own style you created one part of your foundation towards being a self-employed illustrator. The other one is definitely to figure out the business part of things. This seems like a small thing but it so important. I wish that universities would teach this part as a mandatory class which they sadly don’t. When we study in school or not there is a lot of romanticized ideas about being discovered and just needing an agent to make. This is not the case. It was never the case but in today’s social media world it is even worse. So make finding out about the business side of things a priority! Read the books and do the courses! They are important and I wish soooooo much that I would have done it sooooo much earlier.

I would love to hear your what your thoughts are. Simply comment below.

PS: Diesen Newsletter gibt es auch auf Deutsch. Einfach hier klicken um dich für die deutsche Version anzumelden.

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