Are you interested in starting an illustration career but don’t know where to start? Check out “The Illustrator’s Market,” a guide by illustrator and author Chris Gall. Gall covers the different types of illustration jobs, the importance of developing your own illustration style, work ethics, promotion and marketing. Read an excerpt of the article below, or read the complete article here.
Keep creating and good luck!
The Illustrator’s Market: A Professional’s Insights Into the Illustration Industry by Chris Gall
Once limited to the role of accompanying text to aid in the sale of products, commercial illustration’s function has expanded to include providing editorial commentary, defining business identities, and accompanying text as an equally important partner in expressing ideas. Illustration has grown from being simply supportive to being a statement unto itself.
The decline of printed matter paired with the rise of the digital age and the proliferation of stock collections has put the illustration world in flux. Only a few years ago a large company’s annual report might have offered the opportunity for hundreds of illustrations. Today, that same report might exist only in digital form (and may include only stock photography). Similarly, fewer magazines and newspapers mean fewer print ads—and fewer opportunities again for illustration. Nevertheless, the profession endures, as does the need to effectively and creatively communicate ideas in the marketplace.
How does illustration differ from so-called fine art? Though the two worlds often overlap, for our purposes we can draw a line of distinction. While fine art usually exists as the sole expressive creation of an individual, perhaps with the hope of future sale, illustration is typically commissioned by others for commercial purposes. And therein lies the collaborative nature of the industry. An illustrator must be a good listener, problem solver, communicator, and artist. All of this is for the ultimate success of the client.
Illustration today can be found in magazines as complements to articles, in advertisements and associated materials like brochures and direct mail, on posters and billboards, and more. Here are the most encountered categories of illustration:
These are illustrations that accompany articles in magazines or newspapers. These assignments can be highly coveted because, despite lower pay, they usually offer much more creative freedom for the artist. These types of illustration also have the benefit of being seen, especially if the publication is of national distribution, and that’s a pretty handy way to promote yourself and your work. The art director at the publication typically assigns these editorial jobs.
This is a broad category encompassing ads in print, collateral materials, packaging, and any other media that helps sell a product. This category can be considered a “nuts and bolts” area for illustrators. Budgets are highest in advertising, but creative expression can often be the lowest, as the industry is understandably driven by marketing concerns. Advertising assignments are typically commissioned by an outside ad agency or a design firm. However, more than ever, cost-conscious companies are bringing many of these functions in house.
This category of illustration is usually a career unto itself. A book illustrator may be hired specifically to create art for a book that has already been written (as in picture books) or may contribute to a textbook. With picture books, the author and illustrator usually share in royalties and advances. Educational books, on the other hand, are often “works-for-hire,” where the illustrator is paid for his or her work, but forfeits the copyright to the publishing house.
Basically, any type of illustration once seen in print can conceivably have a role on the Internet. The industry has been slow to embrace illustration as a valuable part of web design, but the atmosphere is changing as photo-based website solutions lose their appeal. Illustrators aiming their work for the digital market should ideally have a good command of digitally created art. As in the advertising category, this kind of assignment may be hired by an agency, design firm, or even by an individual looking to start a business.
DEVELOPING YOUR STYLE
Fifty years ago there was little variation in illustration style. Convention and predictability ruled the day. Within the individual styles of today’s illustrators, one can find the roots of virtually every major art movement. The mediums in use reflect this diversity as well—oil, watercolor, pencil, digital, and even three-dimensional constructions—there seem to be no limitations. So how does one choose a style? Why would an illustrator even need one?
A style, simply put, is a consistency of medium, composition, and attitude. It is the “look” of your art that (hopefully) separates it from all others and identifies you as a unique artist. Art directors like consistency of style because they (and their clients) want to be able to predict what they will be getting from you. A portfolio comprised of a hodge-podge of styles and mediums will not be memorable to the eyes of a designer looking for the right illustrator for the job.
. . . .
As tempting as it might be to think of your life as an artist and all the devil-may-care eccentricities implied in that lifestyle, the reality is you are a professional, working with other professionals, and you will have expectations placed upon you. The road to success is paved with reliability.
The fact is, as a freelancing illustrator, you are in business for yourself. At the end of the day you will have only yourself to answer to. The illustration business is deadline-based. Repeat that to yourself ten more times. Procrastination and blown deadlines will not endear you to many of your clients.
. . . .
The life of a freelancer can be very isolating. Though many artists find studio space they can share with others, this can be an unnecessary expense. The tax benefits of a home office are very attractive as is the efficiency of being able to roll out of bed and go to work in your jammies while others are driving 45 minutes to work in the rain. Nevertheless, social contact is an important element of any successful career, and you will have to work extra hard to include it in your life.
Finally, as a small-business owner, your fiscal responsibilities are your own. Keeping an accurate ledger of billing and invoices is mandatory. Know what is a deductible business expense and what isn’t. Your financial conduct should be every bit as disciplined as your daily artistic work habits. Your income depends on it.
PROMOTIONS AND MARKETING
So now that you’re thinking more like a CEO, and less like an artist, it’s time to think about promoting your business, and that usually costs money. You ultimately have to reach the people who will hire you, but how to do it cost-effectively?
At the very least, clients have to be able to find you, and thanks to the wonderful world of the Internet, it has never been easier. You’ll need a website. Thankfully, website design is no longer a specialty that you have to pay for. There are many good computer programs on the market that are easy to use to help you design your own. Don’t get too flashy and overdesigned—simpler is usually better. Your main goal, of course, is to showcase your portfolio so that clients will know what they are hiring you for. Don’t make them work too hard to get it.
. . . .
Direct mail is a time-tested way of targeting potential clients. It can be quite expensive to print, address, and stamp several thousand promo mailers and then get them in the hands of the right people. However, a few selective mailers printed from your very own color printer, sent to the art directors of a few selective magazines, for example, and you just might land the fish you were looking for.
Social media, and all that it encompasses (blogs, Facebook, etc.) are great ways to let the world know about yourself and your work. How effective all this chatter can be in terms of actually landing jobs remains to be seen. However, the value of keeping up your name awareness in a highly competitive industry can’t be underemphasized.
Though their number has significantly dwindled in recent years, art reps still represent a significant percentage of successful illustrators. In exchange for the jobs they land for you, you’ll pay them anywhere from 20–30 percent of the gross billing. In theory, an art rep has connections you don’t have, or lives in a town that you don’t (like New York City). This can be all very beneficial if they in fact do get you work that you can’t get for yourself. One certain benefit of a good rep is their power to negotiate. Often artists have a hard time asking for the money they feel they deserve. Or perhaps the artist doesn’t even know what a particular job is worth. There can be thousands of dollars difference between a small spot in a magazine and a small logo used by a national soda company. A good rep will know what jobs are worth, and they won’t be shy about asking for it. Since competition is high for such representation, expect to have to audition via a portfolio review.
Though the industry has certainly seen brighter days, thankfully, the world still needs and appreciates art. The entrepreneurial illustrator is constantly seeking out new markets for his or her work. As long as the commercial world endeavors to sell products, there will remain a need for creative means of communication. And, fortunately, illustrators exist to solve those problems. Go to it!
Chris Gall is an illustrator and author who lives in Tucson, Arizona. He has received numerous awards from the Society of Illustrators and from Communication Arts magazine. Several of his books have received “Best Book of the Year” accolades from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.