This is how I got my first major illustration job.
It was the fall after my graduation from college. I had just spent my entire summer building my website, creating new pieces, and sending out postcards. I was anxious to start showing my work to some publishers, so I started planning my first major trip to New York City.
At the last second, about a week before I was due to leave, I had an idea for an addition to my portfolio – a book of sketches that told the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
I had little time left to work with, but I spent the next several days putting the story together. I had grand visions of creating an entire book dummy, but ultimately I decided on something smaller. I ended up with an 8-page booklet, filled with the best quality sketches that I could muster. I was pretty pleased with the result. I made several copies and figured it would make a cute sample for the publishers to keep in their files.
Fast-forward a few days later, and I am sitting at my last appointment in the office of an art director of a major children’s book publisher. She flips through my work casually and gives me some encouraging advice. I can tell she likes my work and is very polite, but also lets me know that it is “not what we are looking for at this time.”
When she reaches the end of my portfolio, she spots the booklet, tucked away in one of the leather pockets. She takes it out and carefully flips through the pages. After a minute or so, she gets up from her chair. “Excuse me,” she says and exits the office, leaving me with only my nervous self.
It turned out she had gone to fetch one of her colleagues at another imprint, but couldn’t find her. I was very pleased that she wanted to share my work, and utterly disappointed that I didn’t get to meet another art director. The best I could do was leave a few samples, say my thank-you’s and goodbyes, and prepare for the long drive home.
The next day, I got a call…
From that moment on, I’ve been able to make a living as a working illustrator. Not that it is not still difficult, but it is work I love doing. It was a big moment for me.
This experience taught me several important lessons, which I hope you have also gained by reading this story:
Create work that is relevant to field you want to work in.
One of the comments that this art director gave me was that she gets TONS of samples from many different artists, but very FEW of them actually show her that they can handle a picture book. So, I can see now that when I walked in with a familiar children’s story, presented in book format, and accompanied by good artwork, why I caught her attention that day.
It’s not enough to simply create great images – you have to show exactly how you would approach the kinds of jobs you want to get. You make the art director’s job so much easier, and in my case, she actually went out of her way to FIND a job for me.
It pays to go the extra mile.
The booklet idea was a last-minute decision. I still had plenty of things to do to prepare for the trip, and not a lot of time to do it in. But I stuck with it because I knew it would make my portfolio better. In the end, my instincts paid off.
Sometimes, it’s all about good timing and little bit of luck.
I happened to get an appointment with an art director who happened to know somebody else who happened to be working on a certain job that needed an illustrator at the current time. I’ll always be grateful that the stars were aligned that day. But it was just as important that I was sufficiently prepared when the moment came. Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if I never made that booklet, didn’t print enough samples, or didn’t have an extra portfolio to leave for the other art director. Work hard, be prepared, and you’ll be ready when the magic moment comes for you too.