illustration advice

February 11, 2008

AddThis Social Bookmark Button Illustration Career

People often write me to ask how I got started as an illustrator and if there is any advice I can give them regarding making a career out of illustration. When I first started, I wrote illustrators that I admired (Jordin Isip, Modern Dog, Kirsten Ulve) and they were very generous with their information/expertise .. so I would like to return the favor by helping out new illustrators. Hopefully, you will find something useful in this article.

Technical Skills

It’s hard to execute a good idea if you don’t have the technical skills to do it. Having great technical skills not only allows you to realize your ideas .. but also will save you a ton of time in the long run because you will be much more efficient/responsive when clients have feedback.

I highly recommend’s video tutorial. You pay a monthly subscription fee which gives you access to all the videos you can watch on all the major programs (photoshop, flash, illustrator, aftereffect, and tons more)

They are not paying me a dime to give them a plug … They really make learning easy.

Unique Consistent Style

The first step to a successful illustration career is to find your voice – a unique consistent style. A lot of artists have trouble committing to one style at first because it kind of goes against an artist’s nature of exploring and not limiting their expression, but as an illustrator, art directors hire you because they want to give a project a specific tone, feeling and they need to be able to count on your work being a certain way for their project, campaign, etc. Imagine if you bought a Metallica CD and it was full of acoustic Bolivian folk music .. you would be kind of confused??? Art directors usually don’t want to play style roulette.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t do other styles.. it just means when you present them to art directors have consistency between the body of work. A number of illustrators, writers, and musicians work under various names for this particular reason. For example, my alter ego is Alexander Blue. This is a wackier, colorful style I do.

Here is a really good book to read regarding this subject:

The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding
by Al Ries and Laura Ries

Here are a few examples of illustrators/artists with unmistakable styles .. you see their work you know it’s theirs:

Marketing your illustrations

All your marketing efforts should point back to your web site. A web site is a place where you can centralize information, keep it up to date, and gives the client a few actionable options (contact you via email, phone, subscribe to your RSS feed so they are updated whenever you post new work, book mark a piece of art they like, etc).

So the first thing you do is make sure you have a good web site.

  • If you don’t already have a domain (example: you can register you domain name at .. All you need is the domain name .. don’t buy any extra services .. it’s not necessary.
  • Next, you need a good web hosting company. I use and they are amazing. They have tons of automated tools so you can install a blog at the click of a button.
  • Keep it simple – clearly explain what service you are providing –
  • Usability and Search Engine Optimization – Don’t use FLASH, Frames, Pop-ups, Lightbox, etc .. stick with good old fashion XHTML/CSS! I developed Flash web sites for over 10 years .. and for an illustrator’s web site my advice is DON’T USE FLASH! 40% of my web traffic comes from Google alone and by using Flash you are making it hard for search engines to index your site and hindering word of mouth marketing because of a number of usability issues. For example, lots of social bookmarking sites (,,, etc) won’t be able to take advantage of specific content on flash sites. I have received some really big jobs from clients who found me through Google .. for example DELL Computers
  • Unique URL – Make sure every piece of art on your site has a unique url .. you know, in your browser where you type the web address .. no pop ups, no frames, no flash, no lightbox, etc – art directors often forward urls to editors, so you want to facilitate this process and not hinder it. Here is an example of a unique url that will never change. Try Googling “Green Marketing Illustration
  • Update your site Frequently – BLOG/RSS Feed/Return Visitors – most good web hosting companies have an easy way to set up blogs, ask your isp for help or set up one at A blog is good because it will keep your site fresh and most clients are return visitors, so you need to give them a reason to return. Most blogs automatically generate a RSS feed. RSS feeds are not only great for search engine indexing, but more and more people and products, Windows Vista and Mac OS X, are taking advantages of RSS feeds. In a nutshell, RSS allows people to be automatically notified when a web site is updated. I subscribe to lots of illustrators RSS feeds so I can post some of the newest work on
  • Google Analytics – In order to understand what works, you need a good stats system to track your marketing efforts. That will give you an idea what the return on investment is for a specific marketing tactic. Google’s service is the best I have seen and its free, there is no reason not to use it. So a practical way you might use this information is to find out which thumbnail image from your portfolio is the most clicked on, this image might be a good image to use for your postcard mailer because it’s generating the most interest
  • Mailing List – once you make a connection with a client you want to keep it .. it takes more money to get a new customer than to sell to an existing one. People that have hired you are more likely to hire you again and again. There are lots of free emailing list options .. google it .. I personally recommend PHP List.

Once you have a good, user friendly, search engine friendly site. Post card mailers are probably the second most cost effective and effective tactic. Lots of times art directors just need to be reminded you exist. That is why I think higher frequency is better than spending a lot of money on one marketing tactic. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. I would rather spend my money doing 3 postcard mailers a year vs. one big book ad

Cold calls are something you will have to do when starting out .. find magazines, papers, etc that you like or think would be a good fit for you art and contact the art director .. ask them if its okay to send them a few examples of your work. I would never send more than 3 pieces .. they will know what your art work is about after seeing 3 pieces.

Take advantage of online communities .. you will communicate with other artists, share info, find mentors and be more connected to the industry.


After working as an art director for Microsoft’s Xbox .. I can’t say how important it is to have a positive attitude. Of course talent is crucial .. but talent isn’t the only thing that gets you work. People are people and it’s always nicer to work with someone that is positive and solution oriented. I used to hire tons of external agencies to create web sites and other online promotional material. All the agencies were extremely talented but those that could talk about their work in an exciting way, were easy to work with and accepted feedback well were the ones I hired over and over again.

I’m not saying do anything the client wants with a smile on your face. You were hired because you are an expert in your field .. articulate the decisions you made and get them excited about your ideas .. but it’s also important to stay positive and flexible.


You can save yourself a lot of extra work by asking a few questions up front.

First, get the basic information:

  • Dimensions
  • Resolution
  • Color or Black and white
  • Important Dates
  • etc

If this is the first time working with this person ask them:

  • Why did you choose me for this project?(I like your concepts, I like your painterly style, your work is cute and works well for teenage girl magazines, your style is rough and dark and works well for this editorial piece on drug abuse, etc)
  • Which pieces of work do you particularly like and why?(I like the man on the boat cause it’s funny, I like all the texture in the piece you did for Converse, etc)
  • How did you discover my work?

This will give you a better idea of what the client likes about your work, why they chose you for this particular project and what they expect.

Next, get more information about the job, if it’s a long editorial .. ask them:

  • What part of the story do they really want emphasize?
  • Is there anything they want to stay away from?
  • Do they have any ideas?(This doesn’t necessarily mean to use the idea .. but it will give you a general idea of the path they want to take or what part they think is important/interesting)

Tracking the Work

If you want to make a career out of illustration you will need a good way to keep track of your jobs so you make the deadlines and get paid for your work?

  • When are roughs due?
  • When are final sketches due?
  • Are there any jobs you need to complete?
  • Are you too busy to take on more work in a specific month?
  • Who hasn’t paid? (

There are a number of ways to keep track of this information. I programmed a little MySQL database application for it .. but you can just as easily track it using a spread sheet or some other existing software. I highly recommend



I have a web page for every job where the client and I can keep track of job’s progress .. this page includes:

  • the job dates
  • contact information
  • creative direction/job info
  • pencil sketches
  • final image
  • a link for the client to download the final file

I created my own solution using php/mysql .. but an easier route might be to do this using a WordPress or BLOGGER account.


Creating the Work

  • Brain storming – get inspired by your environment – I always do my brainstorming and rough sketches outside of my house .. sometimes I take a bus ride with no destination in mind .. sit on a park bench and watch people .. or walk through the city. When you put yourself in new environments you notice things .. you notice subtleties. this is a great way to spark your creativity and start thinking of analogies that might be good for your illustration .. if nothing else it makes your life more interesting.


  • using your senses – we interpret the world with our senses .. and the more senses you can engage .. the more memorable your piece will be .. try and think of how the project you are working on relates to touch, taste, smell, sight, etc
  • 3 words-I try to think of the best 3 words to describe the subject matter of the illustration
    (motorist, anger, crazy) or (small mountain town, invasion, film)
  • symbols-then I try to figure out what best visually represents these words.
    (motorist=car, motorcycle, guy drinking coffee, etc)(anger=red face, hands in the air, fighting, yelling)(crazy=in this case ridiculous situation, motorist and a cyclist in a boxing ring with amazing strength) If you get stuck Google images is a great way to see images associate with specific words.
  • Relationships-then I think.. how can I arrange these symbols in a way to convey a point, show a relationship between these symbols .. there are a number of ways to do this .. by how the symbols are interacting (boxing, racing, tied together, on top of each other, etc), their size to one another, their properties (metal=strong, ice=cold)etc

Pencil Sketches

Next you can talk to the client and talk about your ideas .. I prefer just to create pencil sketches, because a lot of the time it’s hard to envision what you are talking about .. and my sketches are extremely rough so they don’t take me more than .. about … 60 seconds … I try to sketch very loose and fast so the focus is on the ideas and not on the craftsmanship .. at this stage of the process it’s all about ideas .. and you don’t want a slow drawing hand to slow them from coming out of your teeming brain.

I usually take pictures of my sketches with a digital camera .. its a lot faster than a scanner and because it’s a rough quality isn’t so important ..

Next I scare my client with my super rough sketches and explain to them .. to just focus on the concepts .. the final piece won’t look exactly like this .. 😉

The client emails/phones their feedback .. usually something something like .. “sketch 4 is great .. but can we emphasis the blah and maybe reduce or take out blah .. make the cat a dog and make the dog a cat .. etc”


My process changes a little for each project .. but this will give you a general idea of how I work.

I create my work in a variety of ways .. sometimes I paint with acrylics, draw with sharpie markers, ball point pens,a wacom tablet, paint with india ink, create textures with water color or photocopy machines, etc .. but basically what I am trying to do is create a library of modular pieces I can, later, put into the computer and rearrange the size, composition, color .. etc .. I really like organic textures and loose free flowing lines .. but as an illustrator with quick turn around times I need to be able to make quick changes and easily incorporate client feedback .. so I mix all these really organic elements in a way that is easy to modify/edit via the computer.

To spark my creativity .. I often re-use pieces from my other works .. basically collaging my own stuff .. maybe a head, or a cloud, or a bike wheel, etc .. this helps me quickly create compositions .. but it’s more just for placement .. I then modify or create new pieces specific to the illustrations needs .. at the end you won’t even recognize most of these pieces .. but it really helps me get started .. breaks the ice .. gets the ball rolling .. etc

Useful Links

  • Q and As – More questions and answers by other people in the industry
  • Forums – Communicate with people in the industry (artists, illustrators, art directors, etc)
  • My Favorite Illustrators
  • 3×3 Magazine
  • American Illustration
  • Society of Illustrators
  • Communication Arts
  • How Magazine
  • Juxtapoz Magazine
  • and many more at