Wednesday, April 09, 2008
For a while now, I've fielded emails from folks looking to enter illustration as a career. And for that same while, I've been replying with an almost uniform compendium of tips, thinking to myself it'd probably more efficient to just write a post instead of having to type the same answers over and over. But I always held back, the chief reason for it being that I never really felt qualified enough to give such advice in as public a forum as this site.
These days, I still don't feel super-qualified, but I have made a great deal of progress since those first anxious months of 2004. And as I get older, and more established, chances are I'll forget how it was at the start, and forget the important points that can really help a beginner. So I figured it was time to at least write something.
With that in mind, I'd like to share some lessons I've learned about entering the field of illustration:
The first thing to get straight is that every illustrator is going to have a different path to success. Ninety-percent of illustration work out there is freelance work, and you make a living in freelancing by keeping your eye out for good opportunities, and pouncing on them. So don't worry about doing things "right" — the only things you can do wrong is curling up into a ball and whimpering when the path forks.
Not everything you draw should become public. You need to preserve your love for drawing — there needs to be art you do for fun. Find a balance between what you create knowing someone will see it, and what you create for yourself.
Many would-be illustrators seem to quit illustration after a subtle war of attrition, where tiny roadblock after tiny roadblock wears down their passion to make a living by the pen or paint, until finally they give up. I've gone through some very lean times as well, and I certainly understand the feeling. But I truly believe that anyone can make a living if they just keep at it long enough. If you can draw, chances are there's someone out there who will pay you to do it — you just need to keep trying to find them.
I'm a strong believer that instant and overnight success are absolute poison. Don't look for the big job that will instantly launch you into the center ring; you'll often find you might not have the experience you need to keep you there. When starting out, look for small, short jobs that you're confident you can handle, and build your career slowly and patiently.
When I left my old job to try my hand at illustration, I set two relatively achievable goals — make a living doing something I love, and earn enough to support both Kim and I within five years. I'm three years in now, and while Kim can't quit her job just yet, we can at least split the house bills. Every job I have is measured against those end goals to help keep me focused — if a job won't meet both criteria, I don't take it.
Try your hardest not to underestimate the value of what you do. The ability to illustrate is a skill, a skill some have and some don't. That means you have something you can market. It's especially important to remember that when starting out, because the public in general perceives illustration as a cheap commodity. Remember, when you take a job for a mere pittance, it hurts the illustration community at large; that means there's one more client out there with the wrong expectations on price.
This is a tough subject to address with any brevity, but a basic fact you should know is that everything you create you own; a client pays you not only to create the art, but then on top of that they're paying you for rights to use that art. Some clients want to buy the copyright to that art outright (at a standard cost of 200-300% the price of production), or just pay for certain small rights — for instance, the right to use that painting on a website for a year (I'd say... 15-25% the cost of production, but this varies in negotiating). Writing up a contract and not specifying what a client can use the work for is irresponsible. The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines is a helpful resource for industry standards. I also found that it was useful to see how much rights-managed artwork on stock photo sites would charge, and use that to help you judge an accurate percentage. Oh — and just so you know, purchase of the original artwork on a client job is negotiated separately as well (usually at 100-200% the cost of production).
Business should not be a cutthroat endeavor, where you're always looking for an upper-hand. Negotiate with clients; understand what they want, and help them understand what you can give, and find a price you're both happy with. Your talent might bring in first time clients, but your integrity, honesty, and responsibility is what will bring them back.
I didn't get into illustration to rock the world. I don't want to win awards, and I don't want to be a millionaire. I just want to draw for a living. Not being seduced by high-paying or high-profile work allows me to turn down jobs, and do the work that makes me happy. Whether or not that can work for you only you can judge; but if you want to draw for a living because you love to draw, that's what's worked for me.
It can be difficult starting out to earn money and pay the bills. If you plan to go into illustration, there's three ways you can provide for your future when times are tight: have a nest egg in place, have a supportive working spouse or parent, or have a part-time job. With luck, you'll eventually carve out a place in illustration, and be able to support yourself. Starting out is hard — jobs are few and far between — but if you weather the lean times, opportunities will come.
There's numerous markets for illustration. Some people want to do children's books. Some people want to do greeting cards. Investigate the different markets you could work in, find the one for you, and concentrate on getting work there. Just don't be too picky at the start. A job is a job when you're trying to make a living.
This should go without saying. No matter how good you are, no one can hire you if they can't see your work. And remember, not everything you've ever done goes in your portfolio; a portfolio should reflect the kind of work you want to do, the best work you do. If you're unsure if something should go in your portfolio, then it doesn't belong there.
While friends and former clients may have the capacity to push jobs your way, you need to earn that recommendation. If you're honest in business, and if you do good quality work, the people you've worked with in the past won't hesitate to give out your name. And then you'll have a network.
Accept it — there will be times where you get screwed. It's inevitable. One day, you may look back and think — damn, I should have charged more, or damn, I shouldn't have sold off those rights. Or perhaps even... damn, this guy hasn't paid me and I can't find him, or damn, these guys are using my art without permission and without paying me. You will get screwed. But don't let the fear of that keep you from trying. Every time you make a mistake, you learn something. And it would be impossible to make a right decision every time, especially starting out, and being unfamiliar in the industry. But you CAN minimize the degree of screwing by taking a few precautions from the start:
Try and find as much information as you can on trade practices, industry standards on pricing, and charging for copyright. Again, I recommend the GAG guide, with the caveat that it's not a magic book that you open and you immediately have your answer; I often have to use its numbers as a starting point, and have to come up with my own figures (which mostly has to do with the fact that illustrating for the web is still a relatively new market). And there's plenty of other literature out there, I'm sure (recommendations welcome, my fellow illustrators). And while I haven't been in contact with any Graphic Artist Guild members, I have spoken to a couple people who've contacted them and gotten some helpful advice.
Always, always, always work with a contract. A good starter contract comes with the GAG guide. If you just can't interpret the legalese, write up something yourself that dictates in plain language what the client is asking you to do: what it is you're supposed to illustrate, how much they've agreed to pay you, how many rounds of revisions they're allowed to have, when the job starts and stops, and when you're supposed to receive payment.
Try and get deposit from a client (either a half or a third of the final fee) up front. When a prospective client is willing to plunk down actual funds to get the project started, you know they're committed to the job just as much as you are.
When starting out, and not completely sure of how much you can deliver, it's best to play it safe and take small jobs that don't overwhelm you. And make sure there's plenty of room in the schedule to protect you from accidents and mistakes when creating your piece (my biggest problem with early jobs was getting to the end and hating what I did, and needing to start over — luckily, I always had time to do that).
I know. Getting screwed is still a dreadful thought; but even the smallest peon in a huge company is just as susceptible to a swift kick in the weekend plans. And I'll tell you, one of my major motivations in leaving the agency world was that if I was going to have to fix a fuck-up, I'd rather it was my fuck-up from now on.
There is no substitute for experience. A thousand tiny little lessons in business, drawing, and administration can't be taught or downloaded. You may want to conduct yourself like someone who's been working for five years, but you can't. What you can do is put yourself on the right road right now, and consciously try to avoid delaying things because you think you're not ready.
One of my biggest struggles starting out was finding other illustrators who could share their wisdom. Part of this has to do with me coming out of a web design background, with absolutely no illustration contacts. But here and there I contacted a couple names whose work I appreciated. And while (sad to say), the majority of them didn't reply, the few people who I did get to talk to really help alleviate a lot of the burdensome doubts I had when started out. I encourage you to ask for help and advice when you need it.
Like I said, I didn't get a lot of support from a majority of other illustrators starting out. Consequently, I've tried particularly hard to answer anyone who's written me with questions. I'd advise anyone else starting out to do the same, when they have a chance. And if you're balking because you don't feel qualified enough to answer, even that is a good enough reply for someone just starting out.
So there's some of the lessons I've learned since starting down the long road of illustration. I can't say I always practice what I preach. I'm certainly guilty of underquoting for a job, and I definitely did (and still do) my fair share of curling into a ball and whimpering. But they're still practices I try to adhere to, ones I truly believe have helped me through these years. I certainly hope they can help you.
Regarding hourly rates versus flat rates, Niff makes a great point in the comments. As an illustrator, it's in your best interest to quote flat rates. It will be easier for you to quote the cost of selling copyright, since that's usually done as a percentage of the final production cost, and it also keeps you from penalizing yourself for working efficiently.