How to ‘make it’ as an illustrator

How to ‘make it’ as an illustrator

I mentor for the Dots which means occasionally answering questions which are relevant to me in my niche in illustration and small business. I recently saw a question that resonated with me and after answering wanted to expand on the topic here with a blogpost;

So the question was about "How to make it as an illustrator" - which I interpret as living off of your illustration work solely with no other income.

I love this question because it took me SO many years to figure out how to earn enough from my illustration work to drop my freelance jobs in Textile Design. Now with the benefit of hindsight I see illustration as this crazy flexible business with everyone making it work in interesting and diverse ways.

So not to dive in too deeply but my background is that I studied Graphic Design but spent my degree drawing, which meant I didn’t get a job in Graphic Design! However I was lucky to be accepted onto a graduate scheme with H&M so I moved to Sweden and started illustrating t-shirt placements and creating patterns for kids-wear. I loved this role especially because of all the learning I did on the job and in subsequent roles but after several years and moving back to London to work in womenswear I was frustrated by the limits of High St Fashion and wanted to explore my creativity. So I went freelance in 2015 in order to 'do more of my own thing' which eventually become my illustration career. 

Pictured above: A range of products from 2017

I started out by creating products, then I had to shift them so I would take a spot on creative markets, before buying stands at trades shows to level up and sell wholesale too. I also collaborated with the other small business owners I met on the way and learnt new skills like Risograph and Silk Screen Printing. I generally tried a bit of everything that felt interesting to me, followed my creative itch and moved gradually out of Textile Design and into the illustration space.

Pictured above: Me selling at a market in 2019

So this was my journey in a very condensed nutshell, but when I look at professional illustration now I can see that there is so many paths to this goal but with no clear; do x + y and z will happen, I think most people setting out feel lost.

So I'm going to break it down into what I believe are the integral steps and attributes for success:

  1. Follow the Fun - so I think the moral of my story is that I followed that creative itch and believe me I am leaving out a big chunk of non aesthetic reality; the dead end jobs, the poorly paid jobs, the freelance anxiety that has you saying yes to all the things and being overwhelmed and not working towards your actual goals, just working towards paying bills. That is all there too and I've massively glossed over it. But I suppose as long as when you can you make time to build your dream portfolio and chip away at that, that's what's most important. I had an advantage of working in a fairly creative job where I'm still honing some creative skills like colour palette awareness even if I'm not working on dream jobs.
  2. Style - so this is easier said than done but knowing exactly who you are and what you stand for AKA knowing yourselves deeply and feeling comfortable in your personal niche is key. For example (Gardener/scientist/illustrator) OR (Kawaii/Fashion/illustrator) (Mental Health/cartoon/illustrator) etc etc So that all the work you make is reflective of your 'universe'; your soul and interests and naturally leads to jobs which resonate. I’m hoping to write a post on this as this needs to be expanded on but hopefully you get the gist.
  3. Spin lots of different plates; monetising different elements of your career; for every illustrator the different pie pieces that make up the whole are different for example for me it's Licensing and royalties + Regular online shop sales + regular wholesale + occasional product commissions. For someone else it might look like Regular Editorial Commissions + Patreon income + Font sales + Skill share classes etc etc the combinations are endless and entirely shaped by who you are and the type of work that you make. So as above identifying your niche and style are so important. The possibilities and combinations of possibilities are endless but should be reflective of you. Also I should mention that there are illustrators who don't need to do this because they are tremendously successful in say just illustrating books but they are probably more outliers and having diverse income streams is a good idea as something like a global pandemic might come along and really mess up one or more income streams! 
  4. Solid work ethic you can have style in spades and fingers in lots of different pies but if you only make a new bit of new work every few months your output is going to hold you back. Now I don’t want to be an advocate for ‘grind culture’ or capitalism but ultimately if you want this to be your career you have to be consistently making new work then sharing it on socials and repeat: strengthening your portfolio. For me this has meant that I’ve simplified my style over the years. I’m also a big fan of getting more ‘bang for my buck’ so if a Risograph print does well for me I’ll adapt it for Silk Screen Printing and add it to my online shop. Which is a lot quicker than drawing something entirely new. I also share work repeatedly on socials especially as I’m selling prints that I've photographed at different angles or in different settings. So I can remind people what I have as well as staying connected without always sharing something new, but if you are prolific then amazing that will really help!

A final note is that I don't think that traditional forms of educational are requisite for a successful illustration career. While some illustrators have taken traditional paths such as college/ uni / agent. I see more and more examples of self taught illustrators with marketing acumen and an eye for the zeitgeist having incredible careers so I think it’s important to rule out education as a ‘must have’ factor for success as that’s simply not true.

Pictured: my desk 2022

So to finish up I’m going to brainstorm a list of some ways that you might diversify your illustration income streams:

Teaching: (while not exactly illustration it's definitely can enhance your career) in universities / art colleges or online through Domestika, Skillshare or Daisy etc

Self publishing; books, zines and selling a fairs that celebrate this

Social media partnerships, this doesn't have to be working with a huge brand (though if you can great) this could be swapping products with a fellow illustrator to share with your respective audience or designing some GIF's for everyone to use and shouting about it.

Licensing and royalties - I joined the AOI soon after going freelance and the gulf between pricing your work as a textile designer vs illustrator is enormous and deserving of a blogpost of it’s own - chase me up and I will write this. In summary though if you aren’t sure about the differences or how to approach this then become a member and learn because you are going to protect the copyright of your work and earn more money from it.

Commissions - get in touch with companies that align with you stylistically and/or share values, chase leads the AOI sells lists of Art Directors and their contact info.

Selling your own products online, wholesale or IRL at markets - see my blog post

Collaborations: a good way to start getting your work out there and expanding your portfolio - eg approach a small brand you like eg chocolate and design a limited edition packaging together, sell it on your website and show off how good you are at illustrating packaging!

If you can think of more please add them to the comments below to help everyone!

Also let me know if this post was helpful and what else you’d like me to write about!

Jacqueline :D


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