how to start out as illustrator

I've been repeatedly asked by illustrators how I started out. I'm sure much of this has been said before, but here are a few suggestions from me from my learnings.

Design what you love, not what you think the market needs. You’ll find a market for it when you have the portfolio. If you only do what the market wants it probably won't make you happy. Of course some design jobs may not inspire you creatively but pay the bills. We've all done those. My recommendation is that you don't lose sight of your passion. Life is too short.

Have fun in school! Use the school time to play in all kinds of media and techniques, keep an open mind, and go crazy! This is the time where you can find yourself and discover what you love doing. Going freelance isn't always easy - you will need to be passionate about what you do to make it through the tough times. So find your passion!

How do you find your style? This was a major riddle to me when I started my design studies. But I shouldn't have worried - I didn't have to find the style, the style found me. Just design what you love (and sometimes something you hate!), and the more you design, the more your work will become "your style".

Should you have one style or many? This is an ongoing controversy. I would say this depends on the needs of your target market, but also on your business model. I know of a successful illustrator who is extremely versatile and works in many different "looks". His clients are advertising agencies, and they love to hire him because he is so flexible and versatile (advertising agencies pay rather well too, by the way). I also work in different illustration techniques, but all of my work can be recognized as "my style". I love to work this way because I essentially always illustrate in a look that comes naturally to me and that I love - at the same time I can offer different illustration techniques to clients. This allows me to recommend a design technique to them that works best for their particular project and target audience.

On the other hand there are super successful illustrators out there like Jason Brooks who clearly have their signature style. Some of such illustrators are in the business of licensing, and became very famous and successful this way, and with their signature style. So there is no simple yes or no to the style question. You have to look at the big picture, and at you particular business.

To sketch or not to sketch. I am such a bad example for this. I have a million sketch books, but never really perused them much. BUT. And here comes the big "but": practice makes perfect. I started out with about a year of school and initial experience in drawing and painting from that time, which gave me some drawing experience to start out. After this, I have refined my skills with years of client projects, which have also helped shape "my style", and how my lines flow today.

When I work with clients, I definitely work with sketches. In my case they are all digital though (I work in Corel Painter). I involve clients in every step of the way. I find this is important to avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary corrections, and I want to make sure they are always happy, and on board with everything. Not everyone can visualize an idea in their head without seeing a sketch - submitting sketches is not only helpful but often required by clients.

Learn about business while you are in school. Unfortunately there are still schools out there who don't teach the business aspects of being an artist. Even if you are a fine artist, you will have to make a living, don't wait until you graduate to think how you will go about it. If you have in mind to become a commercial illustrator, take some business classes, start meeting people in your favorite industry, do internships, make friends in companies you'd love to work at, speak to other designers and so on. Finding clients and getting your name out there takes time. Don't wait until you graduate.

Is freelancing even for you? Starting your own business needs a lot of passion and energy. It comes with a lot of benefits and freedom, but also bears risks and uncertainties. Not everyone is cut out for it. Speak with other designers or read books about this topic to see if you want to try this path. I was employed for many years and never dreamed about going freelance. One day however, I stumbled across a class about opening my own business. I learned the basics of being on my own, made a business plan, weighed my risks and realized that I had a portfolio and not much to lose (financial security for about 4-6 months). So I dared to jump. I love it, and never looked back!

Think about who your dream customer is, your dream design projects, and what your dream-industry may be. Is there a niche that you absolutely love? What type of business may benefit of your art? The more you specialize, the more likely people will remember you as the specialist in (insert your specialty). "Be a big fish in a small pond", as the famous saying goes.

Write a business plan.
Every business owner who wrote a business plan is statistically much more likely to succeed. If you're serious about your career, do it.

How to get customers? Many companies will try to sell you advertising space. Not everything that is expensive however, will lead your dream clients to you. Targeted marketing is the key When I started out, I literally met magazine art directors personally with my portfolio. Today I either advertise on portfolio platforms like, or send out my portfolio as pdf upon request. For my new wedding illustration business I am submitting exclusive content to wedding blogs, which brides frequently peruse as inspiration. Where would your ideal customer look for your design service?

Never ever leave your house without a business card – you won’t believe how many business people I’ve met who don’t have a card on them. Too bad, I may have recommended them and brought them business otherwise...

Make a customizable portfolio that can be geared toward each individual customer (pages can be shuffled / taken out). Make it nice, make it count, only show your best work, and show only work that is interesting to the particular client you are about to meet. Always research your clients before you meet them, by the way! I learned this the hard way. Nothing more embarrassing than not being up to date on their magazine or business needs. The more you know about them, the better you can consult them on how you may help them.

Consider carrying a small portfolio with you at all times – I have mine in the form of business cards! The back of each business card shows another illustration. Other ideas are small laminated cards on a key-chain, fit into every purse. I’ve gotten jobs from this before – you never know who you meet at a coffee shop or in the train!

Have an online portfolio that is clean, user friendly, and up to date. If you don't have time or money to start a professional website, work with a portfolio site like or start a blog.

Make friends. Take every chance to meet people, tell everyone what you do – a lot of jobs come from people you know. Network with other artists, with business professionals, potential clients, friends, people on the train... everyone you feel comfortable talking to. I've gone to conferences before and it turned out the person next to me was the owner of a big corporation. You never know - the person next to you may actually need your services.

Read and learn. Marketing books, business books, design books, art and business magazines, podcasts, audio training tapes – there are learning opportunities everywhere, you can never learn too much. Some of the websites that I visit for general illustration inspiration are If you look for motivational business training, check out tapes from Brian Tracy or Jack Canfield. Sean Low writes regularly about The Business of Being Creative. Make sure to indulge in the industry or field that inspires you - in my case I've become obsessed with gorgeous wedding blogs!

If you want to grow, consider getting a mentor or a business coach. Be careful though, as far as I know the title "business coach" doesn't necessarily require a certification. Make sure your mentor or coach is an expert in the field you need guidance with.

Attend design conferences – stationery fairs etc. which pertain to your industry and the field you love.

Become part of business associations – have a look around, in almost every bigger city there are associations that help new businesses, many of which are free!

Believe in yourself
and reach for the moon and stars :-) One of my favorite quotes. Don't listen to negative voices. It's good to listen to feedback, but don't let it drag you down. Learn from it and move ahead. Stay around positive people, not negative people. Visit my blog every weekend to see the latest inspiration card that I posted!

These are just a few thoughts... there are many many tips out there. Further interesting articles are tips by illustrator Nate Williams or the blog living the creative dream More tips on how to market yourself as a designer on to just name a few.

Hope this helped! Wishing you fun and success in everything you do!


Dada's place said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. Your design is awesome, and your inspiration cards are wonderful! I'll come back for more inspiration...

Sandra Lucia said...

This has been an excellent post!! Thanks for the advice you have given to those starting out.. I really love your work!