Advice for New Illustrators and Art School Graduates

You just graduated from art school. Congratulations! Now what?

There is a lot of ambiguous advice out there like “get your name out there” and “create a portfolio” – but how exactly do you do it? Based on my experience, here are some essential and very specific things I think you should do.

Draw

1. Create at least five new portfolio pieces.

2. Keep going.

Start making new portfolio pieces right off the bat. No matter how good you think you are coming out of school, chances are you still need to go a bit further to reach pro level. New illustrators suffer from lack of experience and confidence in their art. The only way to get over it is mileage.

For my own portfolio, I had replaced it with almost entirely new work within my first year after graduation. Another year after that, I had done it again.

I haven’t rotated my portfolio as quickly in recent years as I’ve grown in confidence and skill, but I still consider personal projects and portfolio development one of my top priorities. As an illustrator, you will find that creating new work will always be a challenge. It is how you keep your art fresh and aim your future work in the direction you want it to go. It is especially crucial and important in the early stages of your career. Establish this habit now.

Make a website

1. Buy a domain name.

2. Buy hosting.

3. Design and launch your site.

Your website will be the cornerstone of all the marketing and networking you will do throughout the course of your career. It is the first thing a lot of art directors look for when they come across a piece of art that they like. It is the home of everything you make and do.

I recommend getting your own URL vs. having a blogspot/tumblr/wordpress/etc. address. You can use their services, but get your own name, at least for your main website. You are going to be using this domain throughout your career. Invest in something that is your own. Also, use your name, not some weird nickname or company name.

After you buy a name, you need a host. Think of the host as like the house your website resides, whereas the domain is just the address that directs you to it. You can either buy your own hosting space and upload your own site from scratch or use something like Blogspot or Tumblr that is already pre-made, and attach your domain to it.

Here’s some places you can buy domains and hosting:

Bluehost (what I use)

Dreamhost

Squarespace

Carbonmade

(You could also use GoDaddy which is popular, but I dislike their commercials and service so much that I’m going to tell you not to.)

Advertise

1. Research publishers.

2. Send a postcard.

Time to get your name out there! No one is going to know you exist unless you tell them. A postcard is the simplest and most common way to start.

Research publishers you would like to work for. Do not send a mass mailer to 200 people you don’t know. That won’t work very well, plus you are a new artist who is probably poor and can’t afford to waste money like that.

Come up with maybe 50 names or less. You do this by looking at books you like and finding the publisher name on the copyright page. You look up their website and submission policies. If you can’t find a specific name, “Art Director” usually works just fine.

Buy the simplest, standard 3.5″x5″ or 4″x6″ postcard (bigger and fancier things don’t necessarily mean more effective, so don’t waste the money). Put your best image on the front, contact info and website on the back. Send them out.

Some postcard printers:

PSPrint

Modern Postcard

Moo

Overnight Prints

For mailing, most printers also offer services where you can upload a mailing list and they will mail them for you. If you do it yourself, keep in mind that you can get postcard stamps that are cheaper than standard first-class rates, so don’t go wasting money using letter stamps.

Network

1. Join at least one social network.

2. Attend a conference or a con.

Besides direct advertising, the other way to get people to know about you and your work is to talk to them! The easiest way is to network online. Ask questions, make comments, and participate in discussions. Link to new work or show your process. Tell another artist that you like their work (yup, this works, and it makes the artist’s day!).

Talking to and meeting people in person is important too (gasp!). It forms a connection that no amount of online stuff can make up for. Plus there is the added bonus that most events have critiques and portfolio reviews built right into them. Because it can be expensive with registration fees, travel fare, and whatnot, I recommend that new illustrators start simple. Find one event you can go to. For children’s illustrators, a SCBWI conference is a good place to start. If you are a comic artist, you’ll want to go to a convention. Even if you don’t exhibit, at least go as a spectator to meet other artists and see how they do things.

Look for Work

1. Look.

2. Submit.

Work often won’t walk up to you and shake your hand. You have to search for it and catch it. Look at job postings. Keep an eye out for calls on Twitter. Assist another artist. Read your local ads. Work for friends. Make opportunities happen.

Other things that are a good idea

I tried to keep the above list to the bare essentials, but there are other things that are good to do to stay productive and get your name out there. Every little thing helps.

  • Start a blog
  • Participate in sketch challenges
  • Enter work in reputable contests and competitions
  • Submit to agents or reps
  • Join a critique group

If you ever get overwhelmed, just stick to the basics and keep going. Keep at it long enough, and you’ll have a career. This blog post just about sums up exactly how I got started, and it’s still how I do things today. This is a fun occupation to be in. The process may be difficult, but it’s pretty simple. Though a lot of people might view illustration, writing, and publishing as an “impossible” field of work to get into, it really does reward persistence and hard work most of the time. Best of luck to all you new artists out there!

12 thoughts on “Advice for New Illustrators and Art School Graduates

  1. Wilson Williams Jr

    Hey Dani! Great post! Do you mind if I share it on my blog at onceuponasketch.com? I think my readers would love to get this advice! We’ll definitely link back to you and feature your artwork prominently! Let me know!

    -Wilson W, Jr.

  2. Mark Harmon

    Solid advice Dani, as usual.

    Something that newly graduated artists need to know is that there is no secret formula. There is no a+b+c = steady work. Illustrators can get work from ANYWHERE! I’ve got some HUGE work by doing fan art for a webcomic. A publisher went to that artist’s site, saw my fan art and contacted me.

    So, you never know what will get you work. Make great stuff and put it out there. The more you’re out there, the easier you are to find. It’s almost that simple.

  3. linda

    Great tips – I think great for everyone wanting to get into illustration. I was wondering about your point – “Enter work in reputable contests and competitions” – do you know of reputable ones or perhaps a list somewhere? Sometimes it’s hard to tell what is reputable!

    1. Dani Post author

      Society of Illustrators, any SCBWI contest, Spectrum, Communication Arts, 3×3 are some ones off the top of my head.

  4. Jardley

    What’s still stumbling me and has me hesitating to take the plunge to send postcards as well as take on clients is I don’t know how much to charge them for and don’t know of a viable resource in 2013 to look from. The Graphic’s Guild Handbook, I expected would be updated by now and I don’t feel sure in parting with my money on a 3year old book. I know that there should be contracts, and that there are different rights, as well as I should put it in the ballpark as others on my level but I was hoping for a resource in the form of an updated website or a book that had set prices, talked about taxes and what was acceptable to charge per material or type of project like designing a t-shirt as opposed to a mural or a piece in a magazine.

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