Considering a career in Illustration? Here are 9 handy tips to secure your success.

By Gemma Creagh - Last update


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Do you pride yourself in your painting skills? Can’t go a day without sketching? Well, imagine you got to do what you love and get paid. If you’ve got the talent and the work ethic, a career in illustration might be right up your alley. Here at Nightcourses.com, we’ve compiled a list to help you hit the ground running when it comes to achieving your professional goals in this competitive industry. Design yourself a career for yourself that you can be proud of.

Illustration Career Tips

1. Practice, Practice, Practice

Like any skill or talent, the more you work, the more you will grow as an artist. While Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become ‘world class’ in any field has been completely debunked by psychologists, there’s no denying that the more you work at your craft, the better you get. The key is in challenging yourself. Pick an area in which you struggle and tackle it head-on; take courses, get critical feedback on your work, study the people who got it right. This all part of the never-ending learning process, and no matter what anyone says, 99.999% of successful people in this industry worked their ass off to get there. Aptitude can only get you so far. The rest is elbow grease and tenacity.

2. Find your voice

Each artist has their own distinct perspective. They have their own take on events and set of experiences that shape their view of the world. A rich and diverse scope of backgrounds can provide fresh insight through their work. When it comes to harnessing your creativity, dig deep, and be honest. What makes you unique? What affects you? What do you care about? It’s important to find your internal compass and let this inspire and drive your work. Many artists start off their career copying the techniques of others, but if you want to excel, really developing your own style will elevate you to that next level.

3. Best foot forward

While it’s important to present your strongest pieces when going for a commission or putting together a portfolio, what is just as important is the image you put forward. For instance, it’s certainly not wise to go to reputable launches, guzzle all the free wine and boast about your work. Don’t be sanctimonious or aggressive on social media.  Be very careful about publically bashing any influential organizations. Publishers or potential employers will notice you for all the wrong reasons. If you’re going to a professional meeting, no one expects you to wear a suit, but a respectful outfit and a moderately coiffed appearance go a long way. You can project the aesthetic of an outspoken, eccentric artist all you want once you’ve made it big.

4. Discipline

This is not school and you will not be spoon-fed micro-deadlines. If you land a project/commission, the responsibility is on you to deliver what you promised and on time. In the vast majority of cases, if you miss a cutoff date for your client, that’s the end of your working relationship. These creative industries are small and people talk, so if you enjoy getting paid, a good reputation is mandatory. At the end of the day, yes, illustration is a fun, creative endeavour, but you need to treat it like a job. There’s no waiting around to feel inspired. Stick to a regular working schedule that fits your lifestyle.

5. Your digital footprint

Like a great chunk of society right now, you might not be Facebook’s biggest fan. Yes, Google is guilty of using scarily accurate targeted ads and Instagram can be quite hard to use for any non-millennials out there. Unfortunately, marketing yourself online and being visible is now part and parcel with being an illustration artist. A strong portfolio of work hosted online is a great way to get your work seen by the right people.

6. Preparation is Key

So you’ve gotten your first meeting/pitch and things are looking up. Don’t blow it now! You can never, ever, ever be over prepared. Research everything the company has done, learn about their background and your role in their output. Depending on what exactly they are looking for, don’t be afraid to go the extra mile and do mockups or a pitch document. Practice the meeting/interview with a friend. Go on a googling spree on the person you’ll be chatting with. What is their title? What is their role in the project/company? Be mindful that on LinkedIn, some people see who’s looking at your profile.

7. Fail Upwards

You will be rejected again and again, so I’m telling you now, just get used to it. The worst thing you can do from a potential employer’s point of view is get defensive when you are rejected. It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do, it just didn’t resonate with them. And that’s ok. Art is subjective. Be humble, be appreciative for the opportunity and always ask for feedback. You never know why they didn’t go with your work in the end; it could be taste, someone else might have been more suitable, your work might be too similar to another project of theirs. Listen to their response and take this on board for next time.

8. Diversify

Keep it fresh. It’s important for your own career growth that you keep an eye on trends and generally watch what’s happening in the industry. Don’t be afraid to try something a little different from time to time. If all the work you produce is too similar you run the risk of pigeonholing yourself. Mix things up and show other sides of your ability. If you are challenged and engaged by your projects, you don’t run the risk of phoning it in. Also, don’t be afraid to switch fields now and again. Based in book illustration? Try storyboarding for a film. Or digital marketing design.

9. Network

Having strong links in the industry is vital when it comes to keeping an ear to the ground for opportunities. With a group of like-minded peers, you can spur each other on and give and receive feedback. Cultivate your network by chatting to people at events, swapping information at courses, actually go to those meetups and launches. You’ll be grateful you did, as when things go well, it’s nice to have a host of enthusiastic friends at your launch. Conversely, if you get a difficult client or a disappointing rejection, a solid support system will provide solace and an objective view when it comes to advice. At the end of the day, it’s always nice to have people who know what you’re going through fighting your corner.

If this is an area you would like to go into, check out the list of courses available online, as well as Adrienne Geoghegan’s popular Illustration Boot Camps.


Gemma Creagh

Gemma is a nomadic writer, filmmaker, & journalist. She was born in Cork, lives in Dublin, and studied in Belfast & Galway, where she graduated from NUIG’s Writing MA. She has penned articles for national publications and is the editorial assistant for Film Ireland Magazine. Gemma was the writer and co-producer of the five-part comedy ‘Rental Boys’ for RTÉ’s Storyland. Her short films have screened at festivals around the world.
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