How To Become An Illustrator, Canto I

I received an e-mail from Jim, who recently graduated with  a bachelor of visual arts from Boise State University in Boise, Idaho.  He asks: how does one go about becoming a professional illustrator?

That’s an excellent question.  I’ve been asked that question by more than one art school grad newly saddled with five-digit debt and no indication from his professors about how to make money with his skills.  Art schools: would it kill you to include a couple of business courses in your curriculum?

So anyway, since there may be others asking Jim’s question, I thought my response would make excellent blog fodder.  I’ll respond in several posts.  Illustrators/Designers: please comment if you have additional thoughts.  I’m just one guy; I can’t know everything.

Step One.  Get a job.

Being a professional illustrator means you’re a freelancer, you work for yourself, you own your own business.  There are very few staff jobs for illustrators.  If you can find one, fantastic, you’ve hit the jackpot.  The vast majority of illustrators are self-employed.

In order to be self-employed you need to have a clientele, a calendar full of jobs, a portfolio full of samples, a business checking account, a studio, studio furniture, computer, printer, scanner, phone, art supplies, office supplies and a coffee maker.  When I graduated from art school I had none of those things.  Moreover, I had no clue how to conduct an interview, so I was no good at prospecting for work.

Don’t fret—if you’re serious about being an illustrator, you will acquire all these things.  But that’s going to take time, and all the while you’ll need to buy groceries and pay rent.

Get yourself hired on staff somewhere.  Ideally, you’ll find an entry-level position with some connection to graphic design—a printer, newspaper, Kinko’s, quick sign shop, whatever. Getting an entry-level graphic design position would be ideal because that job will bring you into contact with other working designers, who may become part of your client roster. Since illustration is a graphic design discipline, you’ll be learning skills that will help you to illustrate.  But if you can’t, just get a job. Rent and bills come along every month, and you need a paycheck that comes along just as regularly.  If BSU has recently thrust a new batch of grads onto the unsuspecting businesses of Boise, you may find more opportunities if you relocate.

The main thing is, once you’ve secured a job and have a regular paycheck, you can get started building your business after hours.  This is called moonlighting.  Illustrators see a lot of moonlight—while their friends are partying or asleep.

7 responses to “How To Become An Illustrator, Canto I

  1. John,
    That is excellent advice! THANKS! Keep it coming, I could use it. I’m clueless about the business end of all this. I can do the art but… everything else if Greek to me.
    -Don

  2. I agree with you that art schools should offer their students a business course specifically designed for freelance artists. When I graduated a long time ago I was lucky enough to get work quickly, but things have gotten much more competitive. Since I have no head for business I have had a hard time keeping up with the competition. The pursuit of jobs never ends.

  3. Thanks for the advice! I’ve always thought EVERY college major needs some business classes connected with it, because no matter what you do, it’s a business. Gonna be a dentist? You’ll need to know how to run a dentist office…

    • I believe the reason art schools don’t include biz courses is because their focus is placing graduates in staff jobs. The admissions department relies on high placement numbers to enroll new students. A grad who goes freelance doesn’t count as placed. I’ve no argument with that; it’s just the way it is. Still, I think we’d see the graphic design industry as a whole become more lucrative if more of its practitioners had some idea what their time is worth. At the very least, the Graphic Artists’ Guild’s PEGS should be a required textbook. Hats off to the schools who do require it.

  4. Pingback: Art school question « John Manders' Blog

  5. Canto’s remind me of reading Dante’s Inferno in Lit back in High School. Oh.. I can feel the headaches coming back already!

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