What are the five common mistakes that beginner illustrators make? You can watch this video to find out or read on if you prefer.
I spent over ten years trying to figure out what to do to become successful in illustration. And I had to figure out the hard way what worked and what didn’t work. Good news is that you don’t have to make the same mistakes as I did and become a successful illustrator much faster.
So let’s get started with the mistake number one.
1. The first mistake is not having the right work in your portfolio.
Let me explain. There are different markets within illustration: the main ones are art licensing, children’s illustration and editorial. It would be best if you had specific artworks in your portfolio for each of these markets. For example, a portfolio for greeting cards would look totally different from a children’s book portfolio.
It’s ok if, in the beginning, you want to explore more than one route, but generally, it’s a good idea to start with a market in mind. This way, you would not waste your time drawing anything that comes to your mind. Instead, you will have a list of artworks that are suitable for your clients. The more specific you are with who you want to draw your artwork for, the more successful you will be.
If you want to know what you should draw for each of these markets, it’s a good idea to do some research by looking at what sort of themes are out there already. You can find examples of illustrations in shops, books, magazines, and look at WHAT is being depicted. For instance, a children’s portfolio should include images of kids showing different emotions. And art licensing portfolio can consist of florals, lettering and patterns.
2. The second mistake is to keep changing styles in hopes of getting commissions.
Of course, you should be confident about your style and have at least 10 to 15 artworks in your portfolio before you reach out to a client or illustration agency. Your work should also be suitable for the specific client you are applying for and show your abilities to work with composition, colours and characters. But many beginner illustrators fall into the trap of thinking that their portfolio is not good enough and postpone their self-promotion for years just because they keep comparing themselves to other more established illustrators.
For example, I spent years changing my portfolio and trying different styles before I felt ready to apply for jobs. Looking back, I can see that the style that I initially thought was not good enough was actually ok. I should have invested more time into learning what to draw and how to promote my artwork instead of learning all the different Adobe software and constantly changing my style to make it look more on-trend.
Also, remember that even if you get a rejection, it is not a bad thing. For example, you can get some valuable feedback and learn from your mistakes.
3. Not taking part in competitions.
When I was starting out in illustration, I didn’t pay enough attention to illustrators competitions. I was sure I wouldn’t win and didn’t feel like it was worthwhile to take part. However, taking part in competitions is really beneficial.
Firstly, you will be able to work on an exciting brief and create new portfolio work. And secondly, there are chances to get a good promotion if you win or get shortlisted.
One of my favourite competitions is Bologna Children’s Bookfair competition, which promotes the winner’s works to publishers worldwide. If you want to know which illustration competitions you should take part in 2021, check out this link.
Now to mistake number 4.
4. Relying only on Instagram for self-promotion.
There is a belief among beginner illustrators that they will be commissioned if they make a perfect looking Instagram profile. It is easy to think that you are doing self-promotion if you put work on Instagram, but it is not entirely true.
When I started with illustration, I used to put an image on Instagram, add loads of hashtags and hoped to get discovered and commissioned. But Instagram is so competitive these days that it is almost impossible to get noticed there unless you know social media marketing.
A much better strategy would be to register on freelancing websites such as Upwork or People per Hour or directly send your portfolio to clients. You can find their contacts in special directories to contact clients, available from associations like AOI or Bikini Lists.
5. Not knowing what your style is and adapting your work to what clients ask.
This is so typical of beginner illustrators. Sometimes when I was starting out clients would come to me and say: “Can you do a design in this style?” — And I would say yes because I needed the money and I wanted to get commissioned. In the end, I would create a design that I personally didn’t like, and I couldn’t use it for my portfolio because I wouldn’t want to draw in that style again. Clients didn’t come to me because they wanted me and my style. They just wanted anybody who could do that work in the style they want. Do you see the difference?
So the better way to approach this is to spend some time developing the style you like and then finding the right clients who would commission you for your unique style. This way of working will bring you enjoyment and fulfilment. You will be creating work that you are proud of, and that will strengthen your portfolio. Remember, You want the clients to approach you because they like your style, not because you are a Jack of all trades who can imitate anything.
I hope you found this article useful and if you did, leave me your notes and questions in comments.
Have you ever seen an illustrator who describes themselves as “award-winning”? There are so many good opportunities for illustrators to get noticed and stand out through illustration competitions and awards.
Taking part in illustration competitions can open many doors, even if you don’t win. You will be able to create new work and get your art seen by the decision-makers of the industry.
And if you win or get shortlisted you will gain massive exposure to potential clients. I know many cases when even the shortlisted illustrators end up with a publishing deal.
Also, being an “award-winning” illustrator will help you charge more for your work in the long run.
There are many illustration competitions out there but not all of them cut the grade in terms of quality and exposure opportunities.
Here is my list of top 7 best illustration competitions to enter in 2020-2021.
Bologna Children’s Book Fair is the main event in the children’s publishing industry. Each year the fair runs a competition for illustrators. The winners get exhibited in the special section of the fair.
Beside this, the artists selected are offered other chances:
To win the International Award for Illustration – BCBF-SM Foundation (for under 35s only); US $15,000
To win the ARS IN FABULA scholarship (for under 30s only);
To be chosen to develop the visual identity of the next BCBF edition
This competition is asking to create a picture book with no text in it. The author of the book project selected as the winner by the International Jury will receive a money prize of Euro 4.000 as an advance for copyright with publishing agreement.
The AOI (Association of illustrators) is a UK-based organisation supporting illustrators. They run a yearly competition where you need to pay an entry fee. In return, the winners get a lot of promotion through exhibitions and published catalogues.
If fashion illustration is what you love then take part with this award with the likes of Dior and Hermes in the jury. This Award is part of the Digital Innovation Fashion Awards with Conde Nast and Wired Magazine.
The selected work will be showcased at the exhibition and published in the Annual which will be distributed to institutions and industry publishers.
The exhibition then travels to other venues for the year. Past exhibition spaces have been the likes of Pitt Rivers – Oxford, The Wilson Museum and Art Gallery, The museum in the Park Stroud and the London Book Fair.
Illustration Awards for Students
If you are lucky enough to be a student, you can take part in these student illustration awards:
Every year they run a cover design competition across three categories: Adult Fiction, Adult Non-fiction and Childrens
If you are not a student but fancy a portfolio project you can set yourself a brief for portfolio development. However, you won’t be able to submit your entry unless you are studying on a Further Education or Higher Education course (part time or full time) in any subject and at any level.
Macmillan Prize lets people submit their own dummy book on a certain story. Again, it is a great opportunity for a student artist, as their book can end up getting published. Sadly, you can only use it as portfolio practice if you are not a part time or full time student.
Let me know if you entered any illustration awards in comments!
Where do you start with illustration as an absolute beginner? – I get asked this question very often. Here is my absolute beginner’s guide to illustration.
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. I believe that becoming an illustrator is not difficult, but you have to be smart about what you do.
From my experience, there are three main components to becoming successful at illustration:
Confidence in your style
(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.
Check out these easy drawing exercises for beginners in this article.
How to kick start your drawing practice:
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.
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 naive and loose, you might decide to embrace that as part of your style.
It doesn’t have to be realistic. Some people trained as classical painters and drawers struggle when it comes to illustration. That’s because contemporary illustration favours more expressive styles and fast turnaround.
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 then but wanted to tell stories. 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 comment 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.
Or you might decide to abandon drawing altogether and use other mediums like photography, collage, vector art or puppet making. Check out the work of this illustrator who uses paper collage as her main medium.
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.
4. Stay motivated
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. This accountability from others will help you keep going when times get rough.
5. Use your personality
Your own personality plays a big part in creating your artist persona too. You are a person with certain interests and stories that shaped your character. Use that knowledge to form your style as an illustrator.
It’s important to capitalise on things you are personally attracted to. It may be cute floral patterns or historical events, but start with researching what you naturally enjoy and create illustrations on that theme.
Should I learn how to draw or master digital software first?
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. Drawing on an iPad is an excellent way to start drawing, much easier than learning Photoshop in the desktop.
Where to find inspiration.
Now that you proclaimed yourself a creative person, you should start to think like one. One of the best takeaways from my design degree was learning to think like an artist.
1. Begin collecting colours, textures and references into some sort of scrapbook or a digital collection.
2. Start a digital Pinterest board and collect images that you like.
3. Get obsessed with weird things that other people rarely think about, such as certain species of beetles or 1960s holiday resorts.
4. Go to libraries and art exhibitions and keep your eyes peeled.
5. Look at works of illustrators and artists from other creative fields, such as films, books, music, ballet, etc.
6. Notice new things in stuff you see on a daily basis, as it can also become your inspiration.
You are going to need some content to feed your mind to be able to produce exciting imagery.
Creating structure with briefs and self initiated projects
Illustrators are so called because they illustrate something: a mood, a piece of text, a concept, a theme, a person, etc.
So to develop your illustration practice, you will need to have a theme or a project to give you structure.
In the industry creative projects are called briefs. It’s important to learn to work to a brief if you want to become a commercial illustrator.
I have put a list of where to find real industry briefs here. They are unpaid but they provide a great practice to develop your portfolio.
Alternatively, work on self initiated projects.
Find yourself something to illustrate for. 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.
Download a free list of illustration prompts here.
“Should I learn drawing properly or should I start by practising illustration every day?”
This depends on the style of illustration that you want to do. If you are interested in doing very detailed photorealistic drawings, then you would benefit from traditional academic drawing skills. Think life drawings and old fashioned fine art lessons about perspective and tone.
However, if you are interested in contemporary illustration, you will notice a variety of styles, most being sketchy and expressive. If that’s the style you like, then it’s not necessary to learn to draw “properly”. Instead, you need to learn to draw with personality. Your clients will come to you because they look for a “human touch”, an emotional way of expressing a subject. Otherwise, they could just use a photograph.
Your job is to discover what style of illustration you want to do. Is it sleek digital vectors? Is it expressive line drawings? Or is it colourful and friendly picture book art?
I believe that the main thing you should aim for is being comfortable with your own drawings. You should be at a stage when you know you can easily draw anything in your own style to take commissions. You need to develop your own way of drawing that you can happily sustain. And to do that you need to practice regularly. There are definitely some tricks that will help you improve your drawings. I wrote about some contemporary drawing exercises in this blog post.
You can also improve drawing skills relatively easily by:
Going to local life drawing classes
Some life drawing classes just put the model in the front and let you get on with it. Ideally you want a class where the teacher will introduce you to a new art material or give you some tips. Life drawing is not essential to become an illustrator but it’s a good practice if you want to draw people.
Joining a local sketch crawl
There is a big community of artists who get together and sketch around the city. You can find a local group in most places around the globe. Going out drawing in a group is great because you can learn tips from each other and it’s easier to draw outside with other people (you don’t get too many weird looks from the public)
Check out local museums and galleries for free drawing classes
If you live in a big city then you are very fortunate to be near museums that might offer drawing activities and guided walks. Drawing in museums is very convenient, because it’s quiet and you will not get disturbed. Also, you can find inspiration that is unique.
“Should I go to college or should I just do short courses?”
I am a firm believer that you don’t need a degree in illustration to work as an illustrator. It seems strange coming from a person who did a BA in illustration, but looking back the main benefits of going to uni were:
social aspect of being around other creatives
broadening general knowledge and awareness about design history
Lisa Rogers is an illustration agent who offers many niche courses on different styles of illustration. All her courses are driven by industry experience and geared towards working as a professional illustrator.
A style for an illustrator is like a voice for a singer. Ideally, you want your illustration style to be unique and commercial. Nurturing one’s style is an illustrator’s life’s work. A consistent style is what makes an illustrator stand out and takes her career to the next level. So how do you go about developing that crystal clear style?
First of all, if you are anything like me and can’t decide on just one thing, the good news is that you can have more than one style. For instance, I have two different styles which are used for different illustration niches – one for licensing and one for children’s book art. So you don’t have to have just one style and once you find your style don’t feel like you shouldn’t ever change it. It’s ok to develop your style and even change it complete as time passes.
How to develop your own illustration style?
Reaching that golden balance of consistent yet lively work is the goal here. It took me years of studying, freelancing, getting a book published, and constantly creating artwork daily to start seeing certain glimpses of a recognisable style. The truth is, I am very excited to try new ways of creating artwork and settling on just one thing is rather difficult for me. I struggled with this for many years until eventually I realized that working in a variety of ways is not a hindrance for an illustrator, and can even be a blessing.
As with anything in illustration (and life), there is never a definitive how-to guide to developing a strong style. Here are my own five considerations I had to take into account when deciding on my personal style as an illustrator.
1. Know thyself (and know your market).
First of all, collect a Pinterest board of style that you personally love. Also do a research on trends in your chosen niche. For instance, you can research what is popular in picture books, or printed onto products, or editorial illustration. You don’t need to copy these styles but it’s a good idea to start collecting what you like, so that you develop your own taste.
A style is a deeply personal thing. It is easy to get swayed by other people’s opinions, by a tutor at the art college or by the next big trend. The only person, however, who can decide what your style should be is YOU. It’s like having an inner compass which is always pointing to your unique voice — you can explore different directions as long as you are always pointing towards your inner truth. And the opinions that should matter to you (if any) are the opinions of your client and target audience. So even if your friend, or your partner, or your mother is not keen on your work, it is absolutely irrelevant.
2. Experiment responsibly.
At an art college, experimentation is often presented as an answer to everything. And don’t get me wrong, experimenting is good, especially in the early stages of your illustration career. It is possible to learn a lot just by looking at other people’s work and by replicating their style. At some point, however, experimentation turns into procrastination, when artists keep trying new things because they lack the confidence to tackle their own style. You certainly don’t need to try every material available on the planet to find what you like. The rule of thumb is that experimentation should feel like a play to be useful. It should never feel like a laborious task.
If you are a complete beginner, then copying other artist’s styles can be useful for educational purposes. The best way to do this is to find an image that you like and then draw your own image in the same style using the same materials. This way, you are learning the artist’s technique but not copying their art.
You may also try combining style elements from different artists together which will result in a new style that’s unique to you.
3. Easy does it.
An art teacher once said to me: “A good design doesn’t need to take a long time”. This simple phrase stayed with me, because, being a high achiever, I always believed that spending ages on something will reap great results. As if to prove that what you created is any good, you need to suffer a great deal in the process. In fact, that is not always right. Simplicity works better in most cases. When you trust yourself, creating something great does not take long. It also doesn’t mean that you are cheating, or that you should charge less money for it, just because creating something that comes easily to you. On the contrary, it means that you are confident and have a good eye and feel for your design, so the marks you make are (generally) inspired and right.
For example, you may decide to use simple line drawings as your style, or laborious and detailed painting techniques. Remember that both of these styles are valid and appropriate for different client’s projects. Don’t feel like you have to learn all the complicated digital software in order to become professional, your style may be analogue and hand drawn and still find its customer.
4. Be practical.
Too often, when thriving for a specific illustration style, we can get carried away. We think that the more complex the style is, the more value it has. That’s not true. It’s useful to approach your style with a business mind. The way you create your art needs to be practical and easy enough for you to be able to replicate the process over and over again if you want to have a sustainable illustration practice.
For example, I now use templates and reuse my older drawings as much as possible tocreate new images.
5. Take care of your emotional and mental health.
This is a big one and very often overlooked parameter. Having a “high maintenance” style (very complicated, hard to make changes, “fussy” expensive materials etc) puts pressure on the illustrator, resulting in all sort of emotional and mental problems. From fear of not being able to deliver the same style that the client asked, to the thoughts of watercolours not behaving correctly on certain papers, choosing a difficult to maintain style will add stress to your life. So stick to your strengths. If you are a traditional watercolourist, you don’t have to learn all the latest computer software. If you like to work digitally, that doesn’t mean that you need to try out every single traditional media available.
Self promotion for illustrators
Very often people don’t get anywhere in their illustration career mostly due to lack of knowledge about self promotion. But instead of putting efforts into getting their work out there and finding projects suitable for their style, they start thinking that it’s their style that is to blame. So watercolour masters start contemplating learning vector graphics from scratch. While people who are great on computer consider re-training as classical painters. I hear these stories all the time, when a person who has a good style but failed to get themselves out there starts thinking they should learn something new like animation software because it’s more popular.
To find a suitable niche for your style, do some research and see where else you have seen similar styles before.
To sum up, choose a style based on what you have always been pretty good at and go with it for long enough. Don’t be afraid of being repetitive or doing the same thing over and over again.
Use a process that you can reliably replicate over and over again.
Do work in a way that is exciting to you and enjoy it.
How are you getting on with your style?
Please leave a comment and follow me on Instagram if you enjoyed this article.
This blog post is an ode to one A5 handmade sketchbook that got me drawing again after a long break. This book has travelled to many places with me and became a safe space for exploration. Following my Masters Degree and a start of my full-time teaching job in Cambridge, I found very little time for doing anything creative. I knew I had to find a way to get back into drawing regularly, but I didn’t know where to start.
Every time I tried to start a sketchbook before, I would quit half-way through, and I had a pile of unfinished sketchbooks with empty pages laying around. To make this sketchbook different, I decided to create and hand-bind the book myself. I found a handy Youtube tutorial and learnt how to do Coptic stitch binding. I didn’t want my sketchbook to feel too precious, so I used discarded scraps of paper of different shape and colour that I found at work. It wasn’t perfectly cut, and it wasn’t perfectly straight, but that was a good thing. It made me much more relaxed about drawing and making a mess out of it.
When the book was finished, I made a pact with myself.
I said that I would fill this book with drawings. Idealistically, I imagined that I would accomplish this task within a few months, but it took me a whole year. And even though it sounds like a hell of a long time, it still made a massive difference. The following year, I completed 5 sketchbooks, the year after I got a picture book contract and a few years later on I was heading into illustrating full time.
Making that one commitment paid off in a big way.
I began my drawing year by taking pencils and pens (and my sketchbook) everywhere I went. This very first sketch was done at the tearoom, where I quickly realised how out of practice I was. However tempted I was to get upset about not being able to accomplish a “perfect” drawing, I knew I had to be easy on myself in order for this exercise to last.
I decided that it was ok for me to produce imperfect drawings and that the whole point was just to do it, and not think about it too much.
I carried the sketchbook with me to work, I also took it on holidays and soon I found myself making time to go to places just to draw from life. I sketched people and Roman monuments at the British Museum, beaches in Scotland, cups and mugs in the cafes around the country. Because I made my sketchbook from found paper with different textures and colours, it made my drawing practice more exciting.
I also practised letting go of the way how the drawing looked like and drawing just for the fun of it (although I have to admit that didn’t come easy). I tried drawing people in motion: walking, rowing and cycling. Those sketches only lasted a couple of seconds, and I found that they helped me simplify my drawings and made me worry less about the outcome.
Every other day I would manage to do a quick sketch after work. Even when I was really REALLY tired, and didn’t want to do anything, I found doing sketching helped my mind relax.
Drawing from life doesn’t require any conscious thinking, so it helped me take my mind off work-related stress.
A lot of the drawings in my sketchbook feature domestic scenes drawn while sitting on the sofa, absolutely exhausted.
Soon enough, I found that my drawing was getting better. By better, I mean that I was happier and happier with the outcomes. I definitely felt more creative and whole as a person. And the fascinating thing is that when I look at each of these drawings, it takes me back in time to the moment when it was created. Drawing makes you remember things in a much more vivid way then photography does, as you can remember smells, feelings and colours of that moment in time.
Making a simple promise to myself worked wonders for me. If you are looking to get back into drawing after a long break, I suggest you try this sketchbook exercise.
Get a new sketchbook, or make it yourself! Make a promise to finish it in a certain period of time.
If you are feeling all up for it and competitive, set yourself strict targets. If you can’t bear to work under pressure, just start and see where it takes you. I won’t judge you if you give up halfway.
Draw with any materials that you like and in any way that you like. Observe, draw, explore, and do it regularly — and your drawing WILL improve. If you start a sketchbook, feel free to share your progress with me.
I would never forget my first drawing lesson. The teacher arranged a selection of natural objects on the table said: “Draw them”. I was really scared, as I never drew anything from life before. I picked the easiest object to draw – a simple tree branch – and luckily, I soon discovered that most students at the table were of the same ability as I was.
My teacher once said that drawing was a mechanical skill and that you could even teach a monkey to draw. A personal interpretation of life in the drawing was far more important. Since then, I began teaching drawing classes myself and then I realised something. The issue that most people experience with drawing has much more to do with their mindset rather than their ability to draw.
The good news is, your drawing can improve dramatically if you just change the way you think about it.
Whatever stage you are at, whether you want to improve your drawing practice professionally, or simply would like to take up drawing as a hobby, these tips will help you reach your highest potential and grow as an artist.
Draw for the fun of it, not the result.
I think that drawing should always be fun. Treat drawing like going for a walk in a park. You don’t go there just to get from point A to point B. You go for the experience and the pleasure of it. With drawing, the same principle applies. Enjoy the process of spending 10, 20, 30 minutes looking at something while making marks on paper. Explore the object by drawing it. Don’t get too impatient to get to the end result. Maybe you can use this time to calm yourself down after a long day at work or to experience something more fully while you are on holiday. Whatever it is, enjoy the journey and don’t judge the outcome.
Here is a fantastic book that I recommend for practical and fun drawing exercises that really work. It is used by tutors of many art colleges in the UK and concentrates on developing creativity rather than academic drawing skills.
Don’t tell your mind what you are drawing.
This tip sounds crazy, yet it really works! Sometimes drawing means re-programming your brain. Next time you draw something, do not tell your brain what you are looking at. Instead of thinking, “I am drawing a …” imagine that you are just looking at areas of light and dark tones, lines and shapes that the object is composed of. When you tell the brain what you are looking at, be it a hand, a face, a building, our brain immediately conjures up a flat and generic image of that object. This can really affect your drawing. Try drawing a face without acknowledging that you are looking at a face. Treat it as a strange collection of lines and shapes, and you will be able to trick your brain and ultimately create a better drawing.
Do not compare yourself with others.
The way in which you draw is unique to you, it is your personal creative DNA and just because it doesn’t fit the accepted norm does not mean that it is wrong. Look at the art of Tracy Emin or David Shrigley – they are not particularly “good” drawers in a conventional sense, yet they are UK’s top fine artists. Just because you can’t draw a perfect photo-realistic leaf does not mean that you are a worse artist than someone who can. Find what you are good at, and don’t be harsh on yourself.
A drawing is never “good” or “bad”.
My favourite question to ask a group of students who just came back from an experimental drawing session would be: “Do you like your drawing?”. Most people always reply that they hate their drawing “because it is ugly”. What they really mean by that is “it is not photorealistic”. For some reason, realistic drawings are perceived as beautiful, and correct, whereas expressive drawings are perceived as ugly, and wrong. Yet, what we see in contemporary art is the opposite – drawings with a strong character are usually much more interesting and rewarding. If you are tempted to judge your art, keep in mind that your view is subjective and doesn’t have anything to do with your real creative abilities. In fact you have been preconditioned by the society to judge your art in a certain way.
Do it your way.
Not going to a traditional art school turned out to be a blessing for me, as I never had any pre-conceived ideal of what drawing should be. However, working with students I realised that most people were actually terrified of trying more experimental ways of drawing. Although I knew that there was a science and reasoning behind those experimental approaches, many people dismissed them as silly or were scared to be out of their comfort zone. If you are feeling stuck in your ways of drawing and need a change, you should definitely try and become a rebel with your drawing. Don’t like to draw with a pencil? Use twigs dipped into ink. Make collages, play with scale. Make your own tools. You may discover something new about yourself!
And here are my top 3 experimental drawing exercises:
1. Continuous line drawing
Continuous line drawing means putting your pencil down on paper and never lifting it up until you finished drawing.
Why? It trains your hand to eye coordination and teaches you to better perceive the space you are looking at.
This is what is called a contour drawing, because you are tracing the edges of the objects with your eyes.
Expert tips. Please go slowly with this exercise. Don’t rush it. Really take care to follow your hand everywhere your eye goes.
Variations Want a challenge? Try drawing continuous line with your left hand.
Or, how about doing a blind drawing? That means simply not looking at paper at all while you draw. Sounds scary? Good, give it a go!
2. Drawing with your left hand
I love seeing students’ facial expressions when I announce this exercise. Drawing with your non-dominant hands seems utterly useless at first. After all, you can be sure that your drawing will not look perfect. And that’s the point!
Why? We are so pressured to create a “good” drawing that we can’t truly relax when drawing with our dominant hand. When we use a non-dominant hand, be it left or right, we don’t hold any expectations and thus can draw freely.
Secondly, it works on your other side of the brain than what you normally use. All round goodness to train your drawing abilities.
Expert tips. Make sure to approach this with an open mind and a playful spirit. Do not judge yourself… at all!
Variations. For an extra challenge try different drawing tools with your left hand. Or, go for blind left hand drawing, or combine it with continuous line.
3. Timed drawing
Nothing gets your drawing juices flowing better than a timer. Set yourself very short timers of 5 minutes, 1 minute and 30 seconds.
Aim to complete your drawing within a given time frame.
Why? Perfectionism is a killer of progress. Spending hours on a drawing can be nice, but doing lightning fast drawings is brilliant for teaching yourself to capture a glimpse of an object quickly and expressively.
Expert tips. This exercise works brilliantly with portrait drawings. Invite a few friends, set a timer and draw each other fast.
Those portraits might not win awards, but they are a fun and challenging drawing exercise.
Variations. For even more fun try combining the above technique with a timer approach.
It took me years to get comfortable with my drawing skills. Yes, I did a lot of practical work, but a mental shift played a huge role as well. Eventually, I came to a conclusion that the way I was drawing was okay. Now I don’t care if my drawing looks good or not because I simply enjoy doing it. I trust myself to make certain decisions and I know that drawing is not a beauty contest, it is a snapshot of who I am in the moment of time.
Thankfully, we had an incredibly creative atmosphere at college. Our teachers were on a mission to make drawing lessons different. They were teaching us how to draw in new ways: with your left hand, with a thread dipped into PVA, with both hands at the same time, and even with your eyes closed. They brought real ducks to the class so that we would draw them in motion and they wrapped models into rolls of kitchen towels creating weird and wonderful body shapes. It made me feel like I was part of an underground art school. I was still nervous about drawing, but I loved this rebellious approach. Those drawing sessions were like acts of performance. They taught me that learning to draw is just as much about a process as the result.
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.
The nature of freelance work means that there will surely be moments when you find yourself in between projects, looking to make money with illustration but with no potential gigs. That is the time when all your perseverance skills will be put to the test, as you try to fight off the demons of desperation and low self-esteem while pondering on the possibility of getting a full-time job. Although not having paid employment brings money pressure and stress, with the right frame of mind it can be transformed into an opportunity to find new platforms and creative revenue streams. Having a break in between commissions is normal for freelancers, and doesn’t reflect on you being a bad artist. Remember, every successful freelancer has experienced what you are going through right now, and don’t be hard on yourself.
My main recipe for dealing with dry periods is to keep creating work regularly. Working on anything creative is better than doing nothing, as you will keep your creative juices flowing while gaining experience and honing your personal style. To get through the dry period easily and effectively, treat it as a portfolio building exercise. While our end goal is getting paid work from the big fish commissioners: design agencies and traditional publishers, developing such relationships can take some time. Meanwhile, there are other side projects that you can be doing with a little bit of laptop research and ambition.
Here are my 10 ideas of hustling as an illustrator, earning some money and staying creative while doing it.
Image stocks are platforms where designers go to find ready-made imagery to use for their projects. My prefered stock platforms are Adobe Stock and Shutterstock. Selling your art on stocks can bring passive income while essentially making you a digital shopkeeper. It can also take the pressure out of illustration, as you can decide what, how and when you want to illustrate. My observation is that vector images do better on stocks. In terms of images to post, I would first do research on what the audience is actually searching for. A good way to find out what is in demand is to check out the category images on the home page of stock sites or filter results by most popular. For instance, in Adobe Stock, go to search, and leave it blank, but select “images” as a category. Then filter your results by popularity and you will get the idea of which images are popular on that platform. Tagging your images with right keywords is essential, as you need to anticipate what phrases the users will search for and tag your image assets appropriately.
Opening an Etsy shop is a great way of getting exposure and selling your ready-made artwork. For example, you can sell greeting cards, prints and apparel with your illustrations. You can either print them out at home if you have a good printer or get them professionally made. Etsy already has a huge audience of craft-loving customers and it can help you learn which of your designs are more popular. Another cool thing you can sell on Etsy is digital downloads. Selling digital files of your illustrations means you won’t need to deal with the extra hassle and cost of postage. You can also offer personalisation, where customers can request a custom message or image on products, which you can sell for a higher price.
Another platform where you can sell your illustration assets is Creative Market. Creative Market has higher entry levels than stocks and a high emphasis is put on presentation and being on-trend. Look at this link to get the idea of what sells well on there. Selling on Creative Market will suit someone who has knowledge of graphic design and branding, as you will need to put together effective presentations of your illustrations. You also need to demonstrate a solid professional web presence in order to get accepted to sell on the platform. If you like the style popular on Creative Market and are comfortable with branding, then you can enjoy benefits like keeping 70% of your earnings from your passive income stream.
Fiverr is a platform for freelancers, other similar sites include Upwork, People per Hour, etc. Word of warning: the competition is fierce on these sites and getting commissions often means working for less. However, if you are working on developing your portfolio, I see nothing wrong with getting a few gigs with clients through platforms like these. Even if you don’t get work out of it, it is helpful to learn how to deal with clients and you will probably grow some thick skin too! Extra exposure is always good, as it can lead you to a potential well-paid illustration project.
Friends and family
If you are sitting there complaining that you don’t have any illustration work, get out your phone out now and text or call the first 5 contacts that come to mind. Ask if they know anyone who needs illustration services and ask them to share this with their friends. I guarantee you that there are definitely a few people in your network who know your prospective clients or can use your services. And although it might not be the coolest commission you will ever get, it can lead to some serious projects or job offers. Plus, you will gain more work for your portfolio, a win-win!
Twitter is excellent for finding freelance jobs, both from serious agencies and casual clients. Type in “looking for illustrator” or “need illustrator” or something of such nature into twitter search and voila. There will be plenty of people that you can leave a reply to or get in touch with via direct message. Make sure that your Twitter profile is up to date and reflects your illustration services effectively, as that is where your prospective clients will look first.
Community, charity and student projects.
I’m getting into dangerous territory with this one, as there is a huge debate in the illustration community on whether you should ever do any work for free. What I’m talking about here, is getting involved with a small, local charity group and offering to do a small illustration job for them. Word of mouth can work like magic in your favour. Also, universities and MA students often run interesting collaborative projects where they want to get illustrators involved. In return, you will get exposure and make new connections. One of the projects I am involved with right now is a campaign run by MA students, called Another100. If you are passionate about equal rights for women and want to get involved, follow this link.
Social media challenges and competitions.
Social media challenges and competitions can do wonders in getting you organised and motivated. Essentially, they are mini briefs that you can do in your own time. It is also a nice way to connect with a community of creatives working on the same project as you. You can find examples of such challenges on Instagram and Twitter, here are just a few ideas:#the100dayproject, #100daysofanimals, #100daysoffaces. Also, Illustration Friday offers a weekly illustration theme that you can respond to. Although these challenges do not offer any monetary benefits, they act as mini portfolio boot camps, helping you hone your creative style and giving structure to your creative process. Eventually, it will lead to well-paid commissions.
Along the lines of the previous point, if you are looking for a mini brief to help you channel your efforts, Talenthouse lets you submit artwork for competitions set by brands and agencies. This can work well for you if you are just out of the university and miss the structure of a brief, or if you want to get experience working to set guidelines. The community aspect of sharing your work and following other users is also beneficial. Potentially, winning the competition can give you exposure and (woo-hoo) a money prize.
Taking part in exhibitions.
As well as using the virtual portfolio platforms, let’s not discard the opportunities provided by exhibiting work in the physical space. Exhibitions can help you connect with local art admirers, which can potentially lead to a sale or a commission. Getting an art exhibition is not as hard as you think, and there are many opportunities to do it with little or no money. Ask in the local cafes and local restaurants if you can get your work shown there. They are usually open to supporting local artists if the artwork fits within their interior. Also, check out your local libraries and community centres. You can connect with other local artists and do a group show together, or take part in a local DIY market. Meeting people face to face is rewarding and can help you make friends and find potential clients.
This is it for today’s 10 tips for staying active while in-between commissions.
Hopefully, I gave you some ideas to get you out of procrastination coma and start working on some projects. When you are freelancing you just need to start the ball rolling. Eventually, it will snowball into something BIG.
What are your thoughts on these 10 tips? Reach out and leave me a comment below.