The first steps in an art career are wobbly and uncertain. Even if you’ve spent years in school, you may still have a lot to learn about commercial work. Adding illustration to your offerings may feel unfamiliar to you if you’ve mainly worked in other styles, too. As you put your work out into the world, you’ll face criticism. Embrace any feedback, positive or negative, and use it as a way to grow and become even better.
There are about 50,300 artists in the United States, but their specialty areas vary widely. The top method of training is on-the-job experience. Like many other careers, the longer you work as an artist, the better you’ll get at it.
Whether you work for a company or you plan to sell your own creations, some things help you navigate the path toward success. These 26 illustration tips will help any budding artist.
1. Find Your Voice
As an artist, you have a very distinctive voice. Don’t let anyone change who you are or the personal style that makes your work so special. Embrace your eccentricities. You should always strive to improve your illustration work, but you must remain authentic to who you are.
2. Ignore the Competition
It’s easy to compare yourself to other, more successful artists out there. After all, there are some brilliant illustrators in the world. While it’s smart to study their work and learn from it, don’t compare yourself or allow yourself to feel less than they are. Even the most famous designers started somewhere. They may not have been as skilled as you when they began, so hang in there.
3. Doodle All the Time
You never know when you might find inspiration for your next amazing illustration. Doodle while you’re out and about, on the subway, in a doctor’s office or while at home. If inspiration strikes, create an illustration of it. You may be able to use your ideas later in your commercial work.
4. Test Different Mediums
Create your drawings in different mediums. Use ink only, create some pencil sketches, and try markers, paint or digital tools. Don’t be afraid to employ different methods and styles until you hit on the perfect look. If you’re selling your illustrations yourself, realize that many famous artists are known for a particular medium or style for their work.
5. Have a Backup Source of Income
If you aren’t working for a company, you must have a backup source of income or two. If you freelance for business clients, you will have dry spells. How will you bring in money during those times? Perhaps you set up at art fairs all summer and sell enough pieces to pay the bills for the rest of the year. Maybe you have a part-time side job. Until you can make enough to live comfortably, you may need to supplement your income for a bit.
6. Sign up for DeviantArt
DeviantArt is an online social media site for artists. Not only can you get your work seen, but the platform also has social channels. Others will give you feedback, encouragement and tips. Sites such as Facebook are good for presenting and advertising your work, but DeviantArt allows you to interact specifically with other artists.
7. Choose a Minimal Color Palette
An illustration can get jumbled and difficult to view if you throw too many colors at it. Stick with a simple color palette of two or three colors. That will put the user’s attention on the art itself rather than the rainbow of hues.
8. Enter Competitions
Your goal as a new artist is to get your work noticed and start gaining a fan base. One way to accomplish visibility is by putting yourself out there. Enter as many competitions as you can afford. Not only will you gain valuable feedback from the judges, but you might also place in a few of them and gain some attention.
9. Secure a Mentor
Choose a successful artist in your area and approach them about mentoring you. You might be surprised how many people are willing to pass on their knowledge. If the first person says no, choose another and keep asking until you find someone who will help you. Look also at people who run successful craft businesses. There are many different types of artists out there, and you can gain valuable insight from them about how to run your business.
10. Call Magazines and Newspapers
Any time you notice an illustration in a magazine or newspaper, particularly local ones, give the publication a call and ask if you can send some samples of your work so they’ll consider you for future projects. Don’t forget businesses in the area that might put out weekly or monthly newsletters. Develop a keen eye for spotting the type of work you do and then going after it.
11. Develop Good Time Management
There is a perception that artists are scattered and disorganized. This is often true for creative types, so you must work to overcome those tendencies if you want to meet deadlines and build a successful career. Learn to write down upcoming deadlines and break big projects into small tasks. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted by what’s going on outside your window.
12. Work on Communication Skills
Because creatives often work alone, even inside a company setting, it’s easy to not talk to other people for hours or days at a time. Actively improve your communication skills by taking online courses, learning to listen before speaking and even attending workshops through companies such as Dale Carnegie. You’ll be better able to communicate with co-workers, clients and management.
13. Be Your Own Biggest Fan
Some artists are very humble and shy about their work. It’s difficult for them to toot their own horn. However, you don’t want to miss out on sharing what you do with the world. Self-promote on social media. Tell family and friends about that art show you have coming up and encourage them to attend and bring a friend or two.
14. Go Back to Paper
In this digital age, many designers work on computers the majority of the time. However, there is something about drawing on paper that frees the mind and allows you to come up with something truly unique. From time-to-time, put the digital tools away and pull out your sketchpad and pencil instead. You can always tweak the drawing on your computer.
15. Start a Digital Tools Kit
Digital tools include texture packs, new brushes and a variety of pencil types. They can add up financially, so be choosy about which ones you buy and create a kit that works best for you. Invest in new kits a little at a time until you have everything you need.
16. Allow Enough Time
Have you ever planned to finish a project by a deadline, but it just isn’t coming together? You only have so much creativity to tap into, and there will be days when you don’t work as efficiently as others. Don’t expect to churn out illustrations nonstop for days on end without ever taking a minute to refresh your artist’s soul. Allow some downtime and extra hours for when you simply aren’t working at maximum efficiency.
17. Refill the Creative Well
In “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron, she talks about how to refill your creative well so it doesn’t dry up on you. If you do nothing but work, your ability to come up with new ideas will wither and die eventually. You must visit museums, go to the movies, find inspiration in nature and do things you love. Be a child again and actively work to refill your creativity.
18. Set Goals
If you don’t set a goal, you’ll never achieve that step in your career. Write out your goals for the next year, five years and 10 years. Then, look at your goals and think about what steps you need to get there. Do you need to draw an illustration every day? Perhaps you need to reach out to potential clients a certain number of times. Think about what you can control in aiming for the goal and add it to your to-do list.
19. Charge Enough for Your Work
Freelancers often quote much less for their work than they should. You must factor in all your time spent on a project, and figure out how much you would make per hour in an outside job. For example, you can choose to look at minimum wage as a starting point. Then, you must multiply the time to complete your art by at least two, if not three, to cover the time spent talking to the client and seeking new work. So, if it takes you three hours to complete an illustration and you want to make $20 per hour, then you should charge $60 per hour for the project.
20. Market Yourself as a Brand
As an artist, you are the brand. Create social media pages and a website. Come up with a logo with your name that shows you create illustration-type work. Think about what makes you stand apart from similar artists and use that as part of your branding strategy.
21. Draw Bigger
It’s best to create bigger drawings. It’s much easier to scale down to size than to try to blow up a small drawing and make it look clear. Higher resolutions should be your goal when scanning in your work. Consider using SVG whenever possible for a digital illustration, so you can size it up or down without losing any of the detail of the drawing.
22. Plan for Difficult Clients
Plan for how you’ll handle difficult clients. You finish an illustration, and the customer abhors it. You finished your work on time, but the client hasn’t paid you despite repeated invoices. A customer who calls you nonstop all hours of the day and night. What do you do in these situations?
23. Set up an Ergonomic Work Station
As an artist, you use your wrists a lot and can develop carpal tunnel. However, you’ll also find you hunch over a computer screen all day and don’t get up from your desk nearly enough. Setting up a workstation that allows you to move to different positions and protect your resources — your body — is a smart move. Get a gel wrist wrest and a mouse pad with built-in support. Invest in an adjustable chair and desk that allows you to go from sitting to standing. Think about what pains you and alleviate the discomfort.
24. Experiment With Light and Shadow
What often sets experienced artists apart from inexperienced ones is their use of light and shadow. Spend time trying out different techniques with lighting and see what looks best in each illustration. Study how other people use these elements in their own work.
25. Lose the Defensiveness
As a new artist, you will get feedback on your work. Some of the comments will sting, but you must learn how to put down your defensiveness and take what is usable from the information. If a criticism makes sense, then figure out how you can improve in that area.
26. Find a Niche
What is your personal niche? Look at the elements you’re particularly good at and then develop them even more so you are the best in your field. By developing a specialty, you become the person people turn to when they need an illustration with that style.
Never stop learning and growing as an artist. You’ll sometimes fail, and you’ll sometimes succeed. Learn from each experience, take classes, practice different techniques and seek people who know more than you. Developing your art is an ongoing, lifelong process.
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.