Where do you start with illustration as an absolute beginner? Should you invest time in learning how to draw first, or should you start by mastering digital software?
Being an illustrator is an attractive occupation for those who love to draw. It is creative and commercial with a prospect of having your work seen and admired by thousands of people. However, to get to a stage of being commissioned and making a living from it takes commitment, perseverance and artistic skills.
From my experience, there are three main components to becoming successful at illustration:
- Confidence in your style
- Regular practice
- Self promotion
(and a bit of luck 🍀)
Tips for finding your visual style.
If you are an absolute beginner, then finding a way to express yourself visually will be the most important step in your practice. Drawing is the most obvious way that illustrators use to express their ideas, so learning to draw will definitely be high on your agenda.
A few things that you can do to get started are:
1. Get a sketchbook and use it to draw from life regularly — in any way you can. In the beginning, a pencil and a blank sheet of paper become two most terrifying things on earth, so you will need to take care of your mindset before you begin. Read this article for a few psychological tips.
The aim here is not to become very good at drawing, although that might also inevitably happen, but to become comfortable with your own creative expression. For example, if your drawing is a bit ugly, or infantile, you might decide to embrace that as part of your style. It doesn’t have to be realistic. Or you might decide to abandon drawing altogether and use other mediums like photography, collage, or puppet making. Remember, that contemporary illustration does not confine in drawn images only. Draw in your style, draw any way you can. If drawing does not come easily then experiment and look for other possibilities.
2. Doodle, draw from reference (from photographs), or draw from your head — do anything you can to get more confident with holding a pencil and telling a story.
When I was very young I used to make stick men comic books. I wasn’t very good at drawing but I wanted to tell a story, so I did it in any way I could. My other friend, who used to go to a ‘proper’ art school used to laugh and tell me that comic books couldn’t be made with stick men. That has obviously stuck with me and took me a while to get over. But after years of design education I learnt that in reality, visual communication can be expressed through many mediums, so there is no shame in using humble stick men to convey your story, or circles, or smudges, or lines.
3. Copy other people’s work (for educational purposes — do not try to pass off other people’s work for your own).
Right now I am not a fan of copying. BUT! When I think back on my own learning curve, I have to admit that copying was helpful in the very beginning, when I didn’t have enough confidence in my own drawing abilities. When you have absolutely zero experience and skills copying is a great start. If you are copying, try to use the same materials as the artist, and use the process as a tool to discover which art techniques you prefer. And remember: copying someone else’s style while not working on developing your own bears a danger of becoming a one-trick pony with no personal voice. You have been warned. Also, word of warning: do not try to pass other people’s work as your own.
Do read this blog post on finding your own personal style.
Please note that this process of discovering your style will take time, and you might find it difficult to stay motivated on your own. There will be plenty of opportunities to procrastinate and abandon this project whatsoever, so it may be helpful to enlist your family and friends to support you. Or, you can proclaim yourself as a buddying illustrator in a new Instagram account or even start a blog. Maybe you can look for Facebook groups or challenges and drawing marathons. We joined forces with a US-based illustrator Sophia Moore and ran a Short Story Prompt challenge earlier this year. I could see that a prompt and community support helped people achieve some amazing results. This accountability from others will help you keep going when times get rough.
As to learning the software, I would recommend learning the basics of drawing first. Once you are comfortable with your drawing, it is pretty straightforward to then learn how to make it digital. You might save yourself time by exploring more accessible tools for image making first. Also, many contemporary illustrators work with minimal or no computer use, so lack of software knowledge shouldn’t be something to deter you.
However, if you are a digital native and reading this makes you feel like you would be better off starting straight on the computer, then, by all means, go for it. I myself started using Photoshop when I was 15 just for fun. So being able to do simple manipulations to my drawings was fun and enjoyable way to explore image making. Discovering new Photoshop brushes and filters is a guilty pleasure that no illustrator should ever be denied.
Where to find inspiration.
Now that you proclaimed yourself a creative person, you should start to think like one. Begin collecting colours, textures and references into some sort of scrapbook or a digital collection. Get obsessed with weird things that other people rarely think about, such as certain species of beetles or 1960s holiday resorts. Go to libraries and art exhibitions and keep your eyes peeled.
Look at works of illustrators and artists from other creative fields, such as films, books, music, ballet, etc. Notice new things in stuff you see on a daily basis, as it can also become your inspiration. Record these findings if you can in a sketchbook, a notebook, or a box, or use a Pinterest board. You are going to need some content.
Illustrators are so called because they illustrate something: a mood, a piece of text, a concept, a theme, a person, etc. But your own personality plays a big part in creating your artist persona too. So to develop your illustration practice, you will need to have a theme or a project to give you structure. Maybe it will be a story that you made up yourself, or just a general topic like “cats” or “magic”, or a book that you have always loved, a song, or a poem. Maybe you will draw all your colleagues as succulents. Whatever it is, start by giving yourself a challenge.
Practising illustration regularly is 98% of your success, really. But it is also important to keep your practice fun. You don’t want this process to become a stressful chore. Balance is the key here. Continue creating work regularly, but don’t stress about it too much and don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
For some tips on approaching clients please check out this video:
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I hope that these ideas will be helpful for you when you are starting out with illustration. If you enjoyed this article, let me know in a comment, follow me on Instagram or subscribe to my mail-out here for more tips and news.