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.

Examples of illustrations for art licensing (Art by Anya Kuvarzina)

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.

Sketching helps to develop an illustration style

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.

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