How to Make It As An Artist

I am extremely lucky to do what I do every day.

That being said, becoming an illustrator is not a big game of chance. I’m a firm believer that success as a working artist is just a splash of luck, a little bit of talent, and a lot of hard work and persistence.

“Making it” is a matter of PRACTICE and TIME. Lots of people say that the odds are slim you can make a living as an artist, but that’s only because most people are lacking one of those two elements. Do both, and your odds go up greatly. Granted, some people might have to practice harder, and others may need more time, but I believe most people can do it if they have enough drive.

Artists go through different stages. How you succeed depends on how you move from one stage to the next.

Stages of an Illustrator:

The Beginner

Symptoms: Your work is probably not very good. You have little or no training and lack basic drawing and color skills.

This is where everyone starts. Most people stay here because they are too self-conscious, unconfident, or uninterested to try. But if you have a knack for art at all, it’s not too hard to move ahead.

Cure: Go to school, or take side classes. Study other artists and how they work. Find artist friends and learn from each other. Draw like crazy.

Not Quite There

Symptoms: You have potential. You were probably the “art kid” in school and you like to doodle. You have a passing knowledge of art supplies and mediums, but maybe don’t have a grip on how to use them yet. You like to experiment. Your art is all over the place. You might be good in one area, but have obvious gaps elsewhere (e.g. you’re great at drawing but can’t color, or you can draw a human character but have trouble illustrating it in different settings or situations)

If you set out to find work at this stage, you will probably receive rejection after rejection, or no response at all.

This describes just about any art student, a lot of new graduates, and many artists just starting out who have little working experience in this industry. It can be very discouraging for those who set out to be illustrators, and then can’t find any work.

It is very easy to get stuck in this stage. I would say this is what happened to a lot of those failed artists you hear about. I think this is because lots of people put themselves through rigorous training, go to college, take classes, or attend workshops. They think they are ready and they think they’re art is up to snuff, when in reality they need a little more polish.

Cure: Build a portfolio of finished work. Create about 10-15 images that you can be proud of (and I don’t mean make 10-15 images; I mean make more like 20-30 images or more until you’ve made about 10 really good ones). What do you do when you’ve done that? Do it AGAIN, replacing the entire portfolio you had before. Keep repeating that until you are out of this stage.

When I got out of school, I probably went through 3-4 complete overhauls until I was happy. I may not update my portfolio as often these days, but I am still working to make it better piece by piece. On the other hand, I see artists out there who have work on their websites that was obviously made for a class. You will NOT get very far this way.


Symptoms: You have competent skills as an artist, but your style may be weak, generic, or unoriginal. You have trouble staying consistent; one or two of your images might be fantastic, others really bad, and a lot somewhere in between. You receive an occasional illustration job but not nearly enough to make a suitable living, or you get consistent work but it is low-paying unexciting work.

Congrats! If you are hireable, then you’ve convinced at least a few people to pay you to draw. You’ve crossed the divide between wannabe illustrator to actual working artist.

A lot of artists are living in this stage. The main struggle these artists are probably having is STYLE. You might have a passable “look” to your work, but it’s not really strong enough to stamp your name to it. Or maybe you can’t decide on a direction to take your work, and your style is inconsistent or weak.

Cure: There is no other way out of this stage but to DRAW LIKE CRAZY. Keep rebuilding that portfolio. Also, experiment with mediums, study other artists’ work, and absorb everything you can.

Pretty Okay

Symptoms: You receive regular work. You are pretty comfortable with your style, but there’s room for growth. Most people can look at your work and can tell that you made it. Most of the images you create don’t come out horrible because you are confident in your process and know how to fix mistakes. However, though you’re getting a lot of work, it might not be very exciting. Your style might become too automatic and generic, which causes you to fall into ruts.

Most artists who are making a full-time living making art are probably here. A lot of good artists stay in this stage throughout their careers.

However, when you get into making regular client work, you have to be careful with repetition, fast deadlines, stress, and time. You might wake up one day and find that months have passed since you’ve made a painting you were proud of or excited about. When drawing is your work, it can be difficult to remember that drawing can be FUN!

Cure: MAKE time to draw/paint for yourself. Draw things you enjoy. Make your own projects and share them. If your portfolio doesn’t show the type of work you want to do, rebuild it.


Symptoms: Receives regular work, most of it exciting. You can’t wait to start working in the morning. You have a strong, stellar style. You might even get lots of awards.

Cautions: Don’t let it go to your head. Draw and paint and create every day. Work to keep your portfolio growing. Keep making stuff that you love.

I think we all can dream of reaching this goal.

I do a lot of work because it pays the bills, and most of it is not that exciting. I try to make up for it by doing things like webcomics and sketch challenges. I fill my portfolio with the kinds of images I like painting, not just anything that looks good. Things like these might not give you scads of great work right away, but it will move you in the right direction. For example, a few months after starting my sci-fi webcomic, I got hired to draw a story because it had an alien in it. It still wasn’t a very exciting job, but the subject matter was an improvement.

It doesn’t matter what stage you think you are in – you can always work your way out of it. Just give it enough time and practice.

And don’t rest on your laurels once you reach your goal. You can weave in and out of the stages in any direction, progressing forward one minute while getting thrown backwards in the next.

If you feel you aren’t making it as an artist, re-evaluate yourself and where you stand. Are you as far as you think you are? Are you putting in the work and the time?