I just graduated from art school. Now what? I want to break into illustration. What should I do?
I was overwhelmed with the prospect of finding work when I graduated art school in 1992. I soon realized I needed to polish my social networking skills and gain an understanding of business etiquette in the field of illustration. I contacted established illustrators and asked a lot of questions to those who would give me the time. From these conversations, I learned a lot. So, if you were to contact me, here are some basic points that I think may help a recent art school grad:
(Obviously, these suggestions are based on my experiences and may not apply to all. Consider them starting points for entering the field professionally.)
- Create What You Like: If you like to draw caricatures, and want to get work doing editorial illustration, don’t put your fantasy drawings in your submission portfolio. Have a focus of subject matter and illustration type.
This goes for mediums as well. If your desire is only to paint in oils, don’t put your pen & ink piece in your portfolio: chances are that’s the one style they’ll pick.
I remember a friend of mine who excelled at watercolors, but did a real nice pen & ink pointillism piece (for a school assignment) that took him forever to complete. Though he was happy with the results, they did not come easily or quickly to him. He added it to his portfolio anyway, and guess what his first professional job was…a pointillism piece.
So draw subjects that you like, and play up your strengths.
- Assembling Your Portfolio: I’d rather see 10 amazing pieces of art than 15 with some mediocre images in them.
Professional illustration jobs almost always involve intense deadlines, and a lot of input from the client’s creative team. With that kind of stress in mind, your submission portfolio is not always judged by the best piece (that you could have labored over for months and months), but by your weakest piece—what the client could possibly get as an end result. Make it look like everything you do is golden.
As for adding sketches to your portfolio, it’s a mixed bag: Some art directors like to see your thinking process, others may confuse them for unfinished pieces. If you really want to present them, your best bet is to do so as a separate section apart from your finished work.
- Leave the Goods: I don’t know if art directors even look at a physical portfolios anymore. They take up a lot of space and are a pain to pack-and-ship. My best advice nowadays would be to create a nice postcard or brochure pointing the art director to an online portfolio. Keep your website simple and easy to navigate while showcasing your artwork and a client list.
Back in the late-1990’s I created several portfolios that could be left with potential clients. If the portfolios came back, or were rejected, I sent them to the next potential clients. If they kept them, or I heard otherwise, I assumed they were filed. From there, I would periodically send updated images (prints, postcards, etc.) to keep my name fresh in their minds.
- Breaking into The Industry: Breaking into the field is the toughest part. Angela and I moved to New York City and I solicited my artwork for about a year before I was hired. Prior to that, I sent in numerous mailed submissions. But how did I figure out where and who to show my portfolio to?
I tried to keep my goals realistic. I knew I wasn’t going to get my own children’s book series fresh out of art school but I liked drawing fantasy stuff, so I submitted my work to TSR, the publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons.
Although I enjoyed working on Dungeons & Dragons, I really wanted to write and illustrate children’s books. While I worked for TSR, I continued to send samples to various children’s publishing houses. I visited bookstores to browse books and figure out where my artwork might fit in with a publisher’s aesthetic. With a stack of books in hand, I now had a list of places to submit my work.
Most publications list their address somewhere on their product. As for getting an art director’s name, you can try contacting the publisher directly to inquire about their submission guidelines.
For children’s publishing, there are also organizations that greatly benefit newcomers. The Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI for short) is a national organization with a great success rate. For artists, the student show at the Society of Illustrators offers another way to get exposure as well as illustration annuals you can enter like Spectrum: The Best in Fantastic Contemporary Art or Communication Arts. Many children’s magazines are usually more conducive to using new talent. All of this will help you get exposure and hopefully open more doors for you.
When I could, I tried to drop my portfolio off in person—even if that meant I had to travel to meet the client. When an art director meets a potential illustrator the director has to determine whether they want to enter a working relationship with the illustrator. Personal contact could provide a memorable moment (something in common for instance) that may have you stand out amongst the hundreds of other people they meet and interact with.
- Friendly Reminder or an Annoyance? A friendly reminder to an art director can quickly become annoying if done incorrectly. The art directors I know are always busy. They are handling multiple projects, with numerous deadlines, and are working with many people all at once. They have an intense job; therefore, dropping an email, or phoning repeatedly can sometimes damage your chances.
If you’ve submitted work and haven’t heard back in 30 days, there is a good chance that they haven’t even seen your portfolio yet. Most art directors get numerous submissions a day and up to hundreds in a week!
So, a friendly reminder can consist of a new postcard, a new tear sheet, or new personal piece, with a reminder that they can see more of your work online.
Back to FAQ
- How to contact a client: “Don’t call them, they’ll call you”; however, many art directors do have assistants or secretaries. I found that talking with them (many recent college grads, by the way) gave me inside information as to what to send and when to send it—all while leaving the busy art director alone. If you contact the publisher for submission guidelines, ask if you can get the art director’s assistant’s name as well. That could be your one chance in.
Lastly, don’t give up. I was rejected many times with my artwork and ideas. But with each rejection my resolve grew stronger, my portfolio expanded and I became more focused on my art and my career. If this is something you really want, keep at it—you’ll get there!