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.