Advice for Art Students


I was recently sent an email from reader Lorraine, who teaches an illustration class at Sheridan College in Toronto. She asked me a few questions regarding the illustration industry today, and what advice I would give to her students who are about to enter the field. Here are her questions and my answers.

If you were instructing this class, what would you tell young artists about working in today’s market?

A lot of the print industry is suffering – less books being produced, magazines disappearing – because of a weak economy and lower demands. Competition is as stiff as ever. You have to create top-notch stuff to find work in these fields, while also finding new avenues for your art. You have to really love what you do and be innovative if you want to make it in this business.

Also, today’s market is increasingly dependent on technology. A lot of artists are handicapped by their lack of knowledge about software, digital manipulation, and computers in general. Even if you don’t paint digitally, you still have to know how to scan and adjust artwork, upload files, keep an email account, and manage an online portfolio – hard to do if you’re not up on today’s technologies.

How do you handle the growing competition from the Internet and stock illustration?

As an illustrator, there are certain advantages that can never be taken away from you. Your brain, sense of humor, etc.; if you can consistently create illustrations that tell a story, evoke an emotion, communicate strong ideas, or feature unique characters, you will always have a heads up over generic stock houses. That is always my goal when I create new artwork – creating images that people can connect with, and work that they will enjoy. It keeps the demand for my work up, and the jobs coming in.

What steps did you take in developing a cutting edge style?

My style has developed over time from lots and lots of drawing, practicing, learning, and experimenting. It continues to evolve every day. It is not really something you can force yourself to do or take shortcuts toward – it just takes lots of mileage. You also have to keep on top of current trends, while also studying the masters. Not to copy them – but to learn and develop your tastes, which will affect your work and give you a unique artistic view. (Read more of my thoughts on style here:

And lastly, would you do anything different if you were starting your career in 2008?

Well, my career started not that long ago – 2005. One of the biggest changes that has occurred since then is the growing popularity of blogs, podcasts, video, and social networking. They were just barely getting notice a few years ago, and now they’re all over the place. Now, even big businesses are trying to find ways to utilize these new tools. It is important for you to know them; before, you could get away with just a portfolio site, but now it is standard to have a blog and a strong web network also, just to keep up with all the other working artists around you.

You still have to do the traditional stuff like sending postcards and researching clients. I don’t think that will change anytime soon. But my own online presence has helped me greatly in promoting my work, connecting me with other artists, and giving me more credibility.

It’s exciting, really. There are so many tools available today that will give you an edge over your competition. Be creative and think of innovative ways to use them to your advantage.

In the end, though, what really matters is the quality of artwork you put out and the work you put into it. Create super work, then put it in front of as many eyes as you can. Make that your first and foremost goal. The rest will come eventually.

One Final Thought

This interview has made me think a lot about the steps I’ve taken in my career. I put a lot of emphasis on technology and web presence in my answers (I may be a bit biased, no?). The fact is, working as an illustrator involves sooo many more skills than just drawing and painting. Technology, business, and marketing are all part of the deal too. Always be learning and evolving (and create great artwork), and you just might be able stay a step ahead in this increasingly competitive industry.

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