Self-Promotion in Illustration
Did you know that there’s a career where you have to be a businessperson, lawyer, agent, artist, and boss, all at the same time? It’s called being an illustrator, and it can be a tough nut to crack. Illustration as an industry is facing a turning point where it could either resurface as a whole or fall by the wayside (also in relation to the money illustrators are bringing in), and where it will go depends on the inconstancy that the field has faced up to now (Arisman and Heller, Illustration as a Business). Illustrators must approach illustration as their personal business, because ultimately that’s what it is (Hively, 2010). A large part of that business is self-promotion – an integral part of any successful illustrator’s career.
In order to begin your career in illustration, you must determinedly promote yourself and your work. There are a number of ways you can go about doing this. You can begin building a resume while you are in school, or before you start self-promoting. You can try to get work published, or enter competitions, exhibitions and shows. You can make postcards to send to art directors and potential clients, or email and call them often enough for them to remember who you are. All of these are ways through which you can potentially start to bring in work, and all on your own – without the (paid) assistance of an agent.
The majority of beginning illustrators do not need to hire an agent. Also, many agents will not be willing to work with someone with little to nothing in the way of professional experience. However, some will, and can provide you with knowledge and expertise that you most likely wouldn’t have at this stage of your career; they can help you to build your profile and advise you on which jobs will be best to take and which would be best to skip. Agents can virtually take over a lot of the business negotiation side of your career, something that could certainly be beneficial to a starting free-lancer (Rees, 2008). Many fresh-on-the-scene (and fresh out of school) wannabe illustrators feel that they need to hire an agent right off the bat. This is partly due to the fact that being self-employed and finding work on your own is daunting, and having an agent lends itself to a false sense of security. However, most beginning illustrators simply do not have room in their budget to hire an agent. A large part of what an agent does it to promote your work strategically; however, this is something that you, as an illustrator, are capable of doing on your own (Rees, 2008).
I cannot stress enough the importance of repeated self-promotion. You may be discouraged about your portfolio, starting out on your own, or frightened by the prospect of sending communication to prospective clients, because it feels like you’re going out on a limb (Artist Survey Results)…but it is better to try (a lot) than not at all. If you don’t get job offers right away, do not get discouraged. You are at least getting your name out there, and perhaps after enough consistent contact from you, an art director will begin to associate your name with your work (or at the very least, remember your work when they need to hire someone for a project). “…you’ll need to be seen at least three times before you’ve made the slightest impression. That could mean mailing three postcards or three email blasts over a short period of time. But definitely one shot is not enough to make any impression; if it does then it’s rare” (Hively, 2010). Many successful illustrators wait months or even years to land their first big project. “For three years after graduating, I dropped my portfolio anywhere I could think of and I visited anyone who would give me the time of day” (Viktor Koen in an interview in The Business of Illustration). Promoting yourself is important, and you can’t promote yourself just once! Constantly sending your work out is important if you want to stick in anyone’s memory and get job offers. Many artists who may not even have the most talent or the best work get jobs merely because they are aggressive about promoting themselves and contacting clients. “By promoting yourself you look successful”, and if you want to be successful, it’s best to act like you already are – be a professional (Hively 2010).
One thing all successful, professional illustrators have in common is that they have published work. You can begin adding published works to your list of accomplishments while still in school, or before you consider your career to have truly begun. Start small – find local publications that need visuals to accompany their text, and reach out to your community. You might end up with a small job (it will be up to you to determine whether it is worth the time), which is something you could add to your resume when you’re just starting out. Another, perhaps better, way to get your work out there is to enter art competitions and gallery shows. Work for these types of events is juried in, which has multiple benefits. Not only does that look better for you as an artist, but many of the judges for well-known competitions, shows and exhibitions are the very same people that will be commissioning you. Many art competitions publish winning entries in either their magazine, or on their website. Art directors browse these pages in anticipation of finding a new illustrator to work with – that person could be you! If entering a competition or show isn’t something you feel that you’re ready for, consider having a solo or group exhibition (Rees, 2008). Having your work on display through any of these events is a good way to be “discovered” and raise your reputation. In addition to having a good reputation with the people you want to work for, and locally, every wannabe successful illustrator needs to have a personal website (and no, I don’t mean a blog).
Websites are a vital tool to invest in if you want to be a successful freelancer. You may think your blog cuts it but (as much as I love blogs) it doesn’t. This is especially true if you want to go above and beyond those Internet commissions and get some published work. Why aren’t blogs just as good as websites? Put simply, they do not seem as professional as a well-designed personal website. I know this may seem like an opinion, but art directors don’t want to have to scroll through your blog (or even browse archives) to decide whether or not they want to hire you. In most cases, a blog will not necessarily show your best work first, or the type of work that caters to the big-name clients you’re trying to cater to. Process work, doodles and personal sketches (as well as finished pieces) are largely the content of artist’s blogs. Usually, if you’re trying to land a well-respected job or commission, these aren’t the sorts of images you want to be showing your client. Blogs are often used to communicate with a certain group of people, not potential clients. This isn’t to say that you can’t invite your clients and art directors to see your blog, but it is best to save that for after you have established a relationship with them, and not to be used as a first impression. These are just a few of the reasons you should make room in your budget (and calendar) to keep an active website (Hively, 2010).
Your goal in a website should be to make it as easy as possible for the potential client to view your best work (work that is geared toward the type of work you want to be doing for them), as well as contact you. Your website should be direct, efficient, and quick-to-load; don’t get hung up on Flash-y pages – it only serves to slow down your site’s loading time, and that amount of time could be the difference in gaining and losing a client. Always keep in mind that art directors are busy people, and you want to make it easy for them to get a quick impression of you as an artist. Think of your illustration as a business. Your website is one of the best ways clients can access your business, and you want to be sure they get there. Advertise your website on business cards, promotional postcards, emails, and your blog (it’s a good idea to have a link to your website on your blog, but not vice-versa). You want your ‘business’ or ‘brand’ to reflect your name, again in the hopes that art directors will start to associate your name and work. Your site could either be your real name, or a unique name you have come up with for your business. Your email address should match your site and should also include your name. Essentially, you are marketing yourself and your work in a convenient, easy-to-remember way. Just as important as maintaining your image as an artist, are the actual images you create. (Hively, 2010)
Your website functions as a portfolio and calling card. Quality is more important than quantity. Your work should cater to the types of clients you want to attract (this is also true of contacting clients – target those specific art directors you are truly interested in working with). Choose your pieces carefully; having a few great pieces is better than having many that are varied in style, subject, medium or quality. Don’t rely solely on your family, friends or significant other for advice on which pieces to include in your portfolio. Ask a professional. They will have a more objective opinion and expertise on what art directors are looking for. Don’t just choose your favorites; choose pieces that cater to the type of work you want to land. Don’t feel compelled to put everything you’ve ever done on your site. It is good to choose pieces that have a fairly consistent style and choice of media, so that potential clients have a good idea of what they will be getting from you.
Another aspect of self-promotion has less to do with getting jobs quickly, and more to do with building your image as an artist over time. “General profile-raising” is “not immediately quantifiable in terms of success rate versus time, energy, and money spent. You are not looking to this kind of promotion to bring you calls from clients or work directly. It’s the more oblique approach, which can enhance your reputation and also raise your stock” (Rees, 2008). As I stated previously, you should consider yourself a brand; people should know your brand by its name, look and work created. It is possible to raise your reputation in many ways, including getting work published or displayed. You can post updates on your website when you get work published, or when you work on new projects. Set aside time to update your website. It is important to keep your website as active as possible; “A neglected site may send the wrong message, while you may be too busy to update your site it actually will come off as you’re not busy at all” (Hively, 2010). On that note, do not confuse your website and blog. Your website is still for professional work, not personal. In short, maintain your web presence! It isn’t appealing when you go to a business’ website and it hasn’t been updated in years, has little to no information that you’re looking for, and isn’t attractive, you may be less likely to make a purchase from their business.
It is important to treat your illustration as a business. Aggressive self-promotion is vital to jump-start your career; contact those art directors that you actually want to work for. Agents are not always necessary for a beginning illustrator to hire. Having published work not only shows your professionalism, it has the potential to bring you work. Maintaining a presence in the field of illustration and on the web can help your career too. Websites are extremely important. They are the home for your work and yourself as an artist. They should make it simple for a potential client to view your best, most marketable work, and contact you if they are interested in offering you a job. If you treat your illustration as a successful business and aggressively promote yourself and your work, it will have more potential to become a successful business for you.
Heller, S. (2004). Inside the business of illustration. New York, NY: Allworth Press.
Hively, C. (2010). Nuts & bolts. New York, New York: 3×3 The Magazine of Contemporary Illustration.
Rees, D. (2008). How to be an illustrator. London, England: Laurence King Publishers.