How To Become An Illustrator, Canto III

Anyone left in the room?  If you read Steps One and Two and you’re still here, you must really want to be an illustrator.

Okay.  You have a day job, you’ve begun the process of organizing your business—now let’s move on to

Step Three.  Build a portfolio.

Who is your market?  Figure out who your potential customers are.  Take a hard look at the work you like to do and honestly determine where it would fit—editorial, children’s publishing, game animation, corporate, advertising, greeting card (just naming these off the top of my head).

The Society of Illustrators publishes a catalogue of their annual competition.  It’s divided into sections: advertising, corporate, publishing, editorial.  Looking at the different styles of work in those categories may help you choose your market.

Do the research.  For instance, if you want to do kids’ books, go to a bookstore and see how compatible your illustrations are with what you find in the kids’ section.

Now comes the tough love.  If you want to sell illustration you’ll need to stick with one style and market that style exclusively.  Don’t make your portfolio a mixed bag of styles.  It’s really difficult to sell a portfolio like that, simply because an art director wouldn’t be sure what you’d deliver if he gave you an assignment.  You may have to choose between two favorite styles—and say good-bye to one of them.

Put together a portfolio of 6—8 samples of your very best work.  They don’t need to have been published.  Get your samples scanned.

Invest in a professional-looking portfolio case.  Put into it prints of your work—not originals!  They should be in poly sleeves, or get them laminated. Every sample should have your contact information on it somewhere. Get extras printed as leave-behinds.  On the handle, put one of those name-tag thingies with your business card—because sometimes art directors ask that you drop off your portfolio.

I was tempted to suggest burning a cd of your samples, but I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of making your images as accessible as clip art.  And even in this digital age, ADs like to see printed samples they can hold.  When I visit clients I take a portfolio with printed samples because often the meeting is in a conference room with no computer handy.

All this is just one guy’s opinion; these suggestions have worked for me.  I’d be interested to hear if any ADs or illustrators want to weigh in.

0 replies
  1. Michael Kline
    Michael Kline says:

    Hi John,
    Good points on the portfolio. I also encourage young illustrators to put images in their portfolios that they are at ease creating. Simply put, if you receive a commission for 20-30 pages, your love of the art is going to keep you going when everyone else in the house is asleep, and you’ve heard the newspaper hit the porch for the third morning in a row. 😎
    Nice web page!

  2. Ham
    Ham says:

    Hi there, just wanted to drop a note to say thanks for posting up these tips and hints on kickstarting an arts career. There’s not enough stuff like this out there!

    You sum up the situation of the arts grad perfectly, I’ll certainly take on board a lot of what you say whilst I’m sorting myself out.


  3. Jerry Russell
    Jerry Russell says:

    Hey John! I went to high school with John, and he was a formidable talent even back then!
    John is right on the money (pun intended) with his advice to find a style and stick with it! Something I’ve never been able to do. I work in a lot of styles and media, and have never been able to settle on just one.
    In the national/global market, an identifiable style is an important trait. ADs want to know what they’re gonna get when they hire you. My schizophrenic portfolio is the reason I’m not known in larger circles. However, there is a market for people like me. I have done a lot of illustration for a lot of clients, local to international, because being a “jack of all trades” I can pull off most anything, from cartoons to 3D modeled technical cutaways. (Check my “blogfolio” to see what I mean: )
    That being said, what is also true is that I do a lot of package/print/web/ design work to help pay the bills. Having design skills, and proficiency in InDesign/Quark is very handy when illustration starts to drop off – and it will. To really make it as an illustrator, you need talent — but more than that, you need to be aggressive, focused, organized — and thick skinned. Keep up the good work, John, and thanks for sharing!

    • johnmanders
      johnmanders says:

      Jerry has some great points. Before I made the decision to concentrate on kids’ book illustration, I also took on all kinds of projects—both illustration & design. My advice is based on what has worked for me, so please take it as such. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.


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