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Advice to Graduates

This time of year is when illustration majors everywhere are graduating from their programs. Here’s some advice for those of you about to embark on this difficult journey:

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

It takes your average illustrator seven years to be able to fully support themselves on illustration work alone. While some may conquer the world overnight, most won’t. Don’t despair if it doesn’t happen right away. Keep working and promoting yourself. If it’s meant to happen, it will.

You have to play to win

I know classmates from fourteen years ago who still have yet to send out a promotional mailer. You’ll never become an illustrator unless you actually try. While it’s nice to wait until you feel your work is “ready”, don’t let that paralyze you from promoting it. Start small if you need to. Those tiny jobs can add up and will help make your portfolio more professional.

Get a day job

Until you can make a full living off your art, you need to support yourself. Find a day job ASAP. Preferably one in a creative field.

Don’t compare yourself to your peers

People move at their own pace. Some of your classmates will find instant success. Some will struggle forever. Constantly comparing yourself to them will drive you mad. If you’re putting all of your energy into your work and doing everything in your power to improve it and get it out there, then feel good about that fact.

Talent is the smallest part of illustration

Some of the most talented artists I went to school with were not able to support themselves with their work. It takes discipline, effort, shameless promoting, and the ability to work well with others and take direction. Being dependable, likable, and driven can get you a lot further than simply being an amazing drawer.

Take advantage of your youth

You can put up with far more in your twenties than you’re willing to in your thirties. Take advantage of your healthy constitution, your fast metabolism, your boundless energy, and your lack of disdain for living in squalor. Now is the time to work like a dog for your dreams. The older you get, the harder it is and the more road blocks that will get thrown in your way.

Location matters

One of the nice things about being an illustrator is that you can do it from anywhere. However, if you want to maximize your chances of success, move to a large city with a vibrant community. The people you’re around will affect your work and push you to be more motivated. Being around an industry will also give you more chances to meet people and make contacts who can help your career. Who you know can really help you.

Do your own thing

Don’t just send out promo cards and wait for client work to come in—do your own thing. Work on your own personal projects or make your own merchandise. Find something that speaks to you that you can make all by yourself and be the boss of that’s 100% you. You’d be surprised how much those personal things lead to the other bigger things.

Make your own luck

As your careers progress, it’s easy to view your classmates’ successes and think about the lucky opportunities they got. But every single one of those people made their own luck. You need to put yourself in situations that will give it to you. That means leaving your apartment/studio and getting out to meet people, or joining a community, or doing that project that terrifies you. You don’t get opportunities if the world doesn’t know to give them to you.

Do something besides art

Art is wonderful, but if you live, eat, and breathe it, it can grow stale. Feed your creativity by living life. Go places. See things. Learn new skills. Take up a non-art-related hobby. All of these experiences will eventually go back into your work in unexpected ways.

Take care of yourself

You will be working non-stop on a computer or drafting table for the rest of your life. If you’re not careful, you can really screw up your body. I know plenty of people with carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis or various back ailments. Take a lot of breaks when you work. Invest in a good chair. Get a gym membership. Most of all: listen to your body. It will tell you well-in-advance before a real problem develops.

Savor the victories

It’s hard at any stage of your career. So, when you do have a success—no matter how small—enjoy it. You earned it. It’s these small victories that will keep you going and make it all worthwhile.

Listen to criticism, but know yourself

You will be given a lot of feedback on your journey to becoming an illustrator. Don’t argue with it or internalize it. Learn from it and use it to make your work better. But also hold true to yourself and your own idea about your art. This is your work and you need to feel good about what you’re putting out into the world.

Don’t stop creating

It’s easy to get caught up in a day job and blink only to find it’s ten years later and you still haven’t picked up a pencil. Don’t become a statistic. Make time for yourself to create something new on a regular basis. Build habits to aid in this. Don’t lose sight of why you wanted to get into this field in the first place.

Final thoughts

This is a tough career and I don’t envy anyone starting out right now. But it can certainly be done. Keep working hard, don’t lose sight of your goals, and push yourself as much as possible to grow. If you do those things, you’ll have as good a shot as anybody to make it as an illustrator. Good luck, class of 2014!

[Do you have some advice you want to share with graduating seniors? Leave your best in the comments below!]

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hi Neil. My name is io! and I write you from Spain. I only want to introduce myself. I manage a website quite similar to yours in spanish called “illustrating doubts”. It’s really nice to see more info about the english speaker illustration business. I focus in the mediterranean and latin-american business because the way of working is quite different and we don´t get things in such as respectful way as you (even when not every client respect that much illustrators) by the clients. So imagine the jungle we live in here. And it’s even worse in Latin American countries…

    Just want to congratulate you for the great site. And hope we get to do something good together in the future to help beginner illustrators! 😀 It’s good to add strengths and work together to get better results.

    Big hug from Spain! If I ever come back to NY I’d love to have a meeting!


    1. Hi Io! Thanks for the nice comments and introducing yourself—sounds like we’ve both got similar interests in spreading information about the illustration business! And, sure, a future collaboration sounds like it could be cool. Maybe looking at the differences between the business of illustration in the U.S. vs. the Mediterranean and Latin America? Email me if you want to talk further at some point. And, sure, let me know if you’re ever in NYC!

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