How to Get Started in Illustration

October 8, 2012
6 min read
6 min read

Ok first of all I’d like to point out that this is not a ‘how to get started in illustration‘ from scratch article. If you’re reading this I’m assuming that you have some level of competancy with a pencil and pad. If not, then you should go away, start copying any drawing you find until you’re good enough to copy anything you see in front of you. After that start drawing the things you see in your head. After a few years of that when your illustrations are starting to look half decent, come back here.

This ‘how to get started in illustration’ article is for people looking to get into illustration as a profession, for people looking to earn actual money from their artistic talents. With that said, it is a difficult task, obviously people the world over draw just for fun and getting someone to pay you for the privilege can seem like a daunting task. I know from experience that when I first started in illustration I was so racked with guilt at the thought of charging someone for an activity I enjoyed so much that I charged next to nothing for my (sometimes extensive) work. It’s this mindset that can be the most difficult obstactle to overcome as an illustrator and it’s something that you’ll need to learn and learn fast if you want to make it as a professional. What is true of a lot of creative industries is ten times more true for illustrators; nobody can do what you do.

Those First Jobs

To get that first paid work in you have to look at the lower end of the market

Getting your first paying job is the first step to becoming a professional illustrator. Now granted, I know I just said that you need to know what you’re worth, but unless you can prove it to a potential client, you’re not going to get anyone willing to pay professional rates right off the bat. So to get that first paid work in you have to look at the lower end of the market. Now there are litterally hundreds of places and niches that need a good, cheap illustrator, but here some of the places I’ve seen crop up again again when illustrators talk about their first projects.

Friends Bands. Bands are always in need of illustrators and designers to help produce their next EP cover or a cool t-shirt they can sell at their gigs so they can earn some money. They always have really grand ideas and never have the money to pay for them, but we struggling artists have to stick together right? Maybe they can write you a song? Realistically speaking though, this isn’t a bad place to showcase your work. The band will be doing everything they can to show off your work (as it means they get paid) which will get you some decent exposure when you’re brand new, and they’ll also be getting attention from the other bands they play with who may be in need of your services.

Independent Comics. Comics are renowned in the illustration community for being like fly traps for artists. They sound awesome, and often there is money attached, but you can forget just how long it will take you to complete it. Sometimes the numbers sound great, but you don’t realise that the four issue series you just signed up for could take you eight months or longer to complete. This is how I got started and ended up working on a comic series for close to a year! That said, these do give you a really good chance to hone your skills as an artist and you have plenty of work that you can show off to future clients.

Charity. Working for charity is just a good thing to do, but there’s  no chance of you getting paid for your work. I try and set a few hours of my time aside every month for charity work, and I know a lot of other professional designers do the same, so if you’re a newbie and you go in expecting payment, you have absolutely no chance. However, the exposure you get from this is brilliant, often charities will get your work printed up professionally and it can look like you’ve worked with some real big fish to new clients.

The one thing you need to make real money

So what’s it all for? You’ve been slogging away for months now and earned next to nothing for your troubles. Well what you should have now is the the beginings of a tool that will serve you well for the rest of your professional life. You have a portfolio. With this you can prove to those new clients that you not only have the skills they need, but also the follow through and the professionalism. With this you can start looking for bigger clients with bigger jobs until you reach a point where you can feel comfortable speaking to companies rather than idividuals, and from there on in you can start thinking about earning a real living.

But where to get started?

Well, have a look online, that’s where I started. I enrolled on job sites like Elance and Guru and kept my eyes peeled for those smaller jobs that attracted less competition. To be honest there is a well of websites you can trawl through and I’ve done my best to list a lot of them on the jobs page, but one place I probably found the most work when I was first getting started was on the Deviant Art forums. If you look here there is actually a category for finding work and tonnes of people post proposals every single day.

It quickly became apparent to me that this ‘large client’ was in fact a leading online search engine who’s name rhymed with Moogle

When I first started I was applying to maybe 10 or 12 jobs every single day, none worth more than a few hundred dollars, but from time to time I would get a bite and have a new item to add to my portfolio along with a little cash. One day I managed to land a job drawing for a comic called Big Dog, the story had been written by Joseph Bondaryk who was actually the lead robotics engineer working on the real life Big Dog robot (If you haven’t seen the robot in action, I strongly suggest you check it out here, it’s awesome!). I completed the comic and then got a call from Joseph inviting me out to Boston to attend the Comic Con there with him and launch the book! Now I live in the UK, and at that time had never been to America, so this was a really big deal for me and I grasped it with both hands! During my time in Boston, Joseph was good enough to show me around Boston Dynamics which was the facility where the real Big Dog was being developed. Whilst I was being walked around I met the head honcho who had seen my work developing over the past few months, and right there on the spot he asked me to produce a design for one of their largest clients! I was blown away and immediately accepted. Now I can’t go into the full details of the project because a lot of it is still under wraps but it quickly became apparent to me that this ‘large client’ was in fact a leading online search engine who’s name rhymed with Moogle.

So there’s a quick example of how you never know what’s coming, and how these smaller jobs can quickly turn into something that makes you look super impressive to every client who comes after. If you have any queries on how to get started with illustration or have a story about how you got your break in the industry, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Photo Credit to VFS Digital Design

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is owner of Hunting Town Design, a small design house based in Manchester UK specialising in Graphic Design and Illustration. Alex is also the founder and editor of The Design Range. Find out more about Alex on his website or follow him on twitter.
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