Home > How to > How to become a successful Illustrator

How to become a successful Illustrator

Wouldn’t  it be great if there was one easy answer to this question?

I have read so many different answers out there that it can be all a bit confussing.

Here is my two cents worth.

First, I think to become a successful illustrator you have to first of all have talent.  To be totally honest, I receive lots and lots of emails from people who want to be illustrators and I can tell right off the back that their work is not good enough.  That might sound a bit brutal but its true.  No one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings but if you don’t have that initial talent then for sure you wont make it as an illustrator.

Providing that you do have the talent then the work can begin.

My suggestion is to take the time to perfect your style and don’t be in a hurry to put a portfolio or website together.  Even illustrators with talent tend to some times put less then their very best work up to show.  I only like to see the best work, even if that means having a few less images to show.

Once you are confident with your style and feel that you have a real signature to your work then its time to promote.

I believe that promotion is one of the main keys to being successful.  The way you market your work is crucial.  Even if you are hoping to land a successful rep or agent, you first have market your work to them.  Like I said earlier, I literally get hundreds of illustrators contacting me from around the world and most of the time I am not impressed.  But when I am, boy do I react  quickly.

The reason I say that I am not impressed is that today in our field it is really a buyers market.  There are hundred if not thousands of illustrators from around the world competing for work.  You have to really stand out and shine if you want to be noticed in today’s market and get work.  Clients at the click of their key board can hire the best of the best from around the world.  And trust me there is a lot of talent out there.

So how to get noticed? Well stay fresh, stay current and update as often as you can.  You would be surprised at all the sites that I see that never update with new work.  I have even heard of Rep websites that only update twice a year.  I could hardly believe that when I heard.  At AGM we update almost daily.  In today’s market you can afford to be stale.

There are also all of the social networks that I feel are a big part of promoting your work.  Its so easy and quick and a great way to spread the word.  Personal blogs are also a great idea to tell people what’s been going on.  Even if you are not busy, you need to look busy and be busy.  Everyone wants to work with a winner and no one wants to work with a loser.  Its just part of the game.

I also like to receive newsletters but not too often.   Or a simple email showing me new work.

I also still believe in printed promos if they are done well produced.  Post cards don’t seem to have the same effect they once did.  Printed promos are a great way to get creative and showcase your work.

You can also produce a small quantity with your printer and send them only to important prospects.

We at AGM invest many thousands of dollars in our printed promos and I can assure you that that has added to our success.

My view on source books has not changed in the 14 years I have been in business.  I think they are too expensive for what they are worth.  Also, personally I never look at books any more and would much rather take a few minutes and source the net.

Last and not least, I think that competitions are a really great way to get some great free promotion.  I suggest that you enter as many contests as you can.  Like I said earlier, everyone wants to work with a winner and if your work were to be selected in any of the annuals that come out that would be a  really great and valuable promotion for you.

So here are just a few of my personal opinions about becoming a successful illustrator. You can take it or leave it its totally up to you.

Best of luck! Its a great career if you can make it!

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  1. November 17, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    That’s a very good point of wiew,the same for me in Paris,and the same in all other the world.Merci Anna pour ces bonnes paroles et cette energie positive.
    Best regards. Michel

    • November 17, 2009 at 10:00 pm

      Hi Michel,
      How are you? Its been a while.
      Thanks for your comments.
      Hope all is well at 002.

      • November 18, 2009 at 7:51 pm

        Agent 002 is ten years old, in november.
        We have a new website since June and a new catalogue: “Bellaciao” which tell a story of a famous diamond in the 20 th Century.
        See you soon in Facebook or somewhere else, and have big success with your excellent team.

        • November 18, 2009 at 9:29 pm

          Well Happy Anniversary!
          AGM’s will be celebrating its 14th this February.
          How time every goes bye.
          A bien tot.
          Anna

  2. November 17, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Emerging artists are so lucky to be able to tap your brain like this! Pre-web if a young artist didn’t already have access to a rep via one of their school professors, etc. this type of information just was not available to them. By telling them like it really is out in the field you save many of today’s talents the suffering of spinning their wheels without understanding how to change.

  3. November 17, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    I concur with Dave. I started my career in illustration about the time the Internet was introduced. Before that, while in college, Art reps were a bit of a mystery to us all. Some claimed to have seen a few, but noone ever seemed to catch one in a net! So there was no way to get inside the mind of a rep, short of cold-calling one or being lucky enough to meet a pro artist that had a rep and could spill the beans about them. So, it’s great that you share as much about the biz as you do. It helps pros and students alike.

    Another point I’d like to add though is to check your ego at the door (if you have one). The world of illustration, while so global now, is really a small business in terms of people. If you get the reputation for being difficult to work with, ie never wanting to make changes to art or dismissing deadlines, then it won’t take long before you can’t find any serious clients to work for.

    Great stuff as usual Anna.

    • November 18, 2009 at 12:04 am

      Hi Jeff,
      That is a really good point about checking your ego at the door. No one wants to work with a someone who has a big ego no matter how good they are.
      I think that attitude is also big part of being professional. I am happy to help out as much as I can. I feel that the experience I have acquired over the years in the business, is there to be shared.
      There are a lot of people out there that know a lot more than me and have been in the industry longer. But if I can help then great!

  4. November 18, 2009 at 1:03 am

    Very interesting article. First time I’m reading about ‘art reps’ actually! Seems like a whole other world. The ego thing is certainly a huge point. I guess you should always keep in mind that opinions are subjective and there could be many reasons why you don’t get picked up as quick as you’d hoped. So perseverence definitely comes in there, too. Thanks for the read, Anna.

  5. November 18, 2009 at 1:57 am

    I agree with your comments, working as an illustrator is a difficult profession (like all), but the best advertisement is herself … it is very important to have a website or blog updated because customers will not have the patience to wait days to see your work by better than this is.
    The only difficulty that I found to work as an illustrator was the existence of illustrators who are preferred by Art Directors with little knowledge of esthetic art, that has caused many of the books or local editions (Peru) will have the aesthetics of the past 20 years without major change … Finally!, someday that will change, Congratulations Anna for the comment!

  6. November 18, 2009 at 3:48 am

    Some nice tips here Anna, thanks for sharing. I’d like to know more about your thoughts on social networking and promotion.

    At times I feel the social networking sites lead more to connecting with other artists rather than generating new work (which is in itself a great thing). How do you as a rep use social networking, and what sort of specific examples can you give to us illustrators out there as far as effectively promoting ourselves online?

    In regards to other types of promotion, it would be great to have some insight — again from your angle on the biz — as to how an illustrator can best go about this. Specific examples would be excellent.

    You mention “stay fresh, keep current, look busy, enter contests, etc.” however these are a bit vague. How do buyers and reps search for new illustrators? What sort of things attract — and repel — you from a certain artists work and/or promotional methods? What’s the percentage of illustrators you’ve found vs. the ones who’ve contacted you? What are some specific resources an illustrator should be using to get the word out?

    And when one is getting the word out, in your opinion what is the best method? You mention postcards don’t have the same effect they used to, but also say that printed promos are a great way to get the word out.

    Thanks again for sharing, and sorry for the barrage of questions :)

  7. November 18, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Hi Anna,

    Thanks for the great post, I also agree with Jeff about the ego, though I’ve found a lot of really great illustrators that I admire are wonderfully humble, especially my talented peers at MCAD.

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while and watching your agency and it’s really a wonderful example of what art reps should be like, I think. I too have been very surprised finding very ‘web 1.0′ sites out there that look like they haven’t been updated since 1994 from other agencies, even though the illustrators they represent are amazingly skilled.

    As a recent graduate of MCAD I know that I’ve been feeling rather lost about ‘how to become a successful illustrator’. There’s such great advice all over the web and even though the agents I’ve talked with have been interested, a lot say that the recession is really holding them back, which is unfortunate for myself and other new graduates out there. At the same time I’ve been getting odd jobs that require me to work in styles that I wouldn’t particularly put into my portfolio. I know that I would really like to hear your opinion on the balancing act of getting ‘odd jobs’ that require a predetermined or generic style versus a more personal and illustrative style fit for things like books and magazines.

  8. November 18, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Great suggestions, every illustrator and student should know that and sometimes nobody tells us . It’s good to know what agents are thinking of.

    I’m a little shock though to hear that you don’t see books anymore and that they’re expensive for what they are worth. wow . that will keep me thinking for a while…

    I’ll link the article if you don’t mind…

    thank u!

    m.

    • November 18, 2009 at 1:04 pm

      Hi Miguel,
      I think you misunderstood my comment about “books.” I was referring to “source books” NOT illustrators portfolios.
      I still love to see them and do whenever I can.
      Thanks for the comments.
      Regards,
      Anna

  9. November 18, 2009 at 9:13 am

    This is the reality of our profession. Thanks for show. It’s great for students like me…

  10. November 18, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Great tips Anna……. Time to start entering to those awards :)

  11. November 18, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    oh you’re right. didn’t read it well . Well… then i’m agree in everything. thanks for the good article

  12. November 18, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Thanks for including a healthy dose of brutal honesty in your post. I feel that a lot of Illustrators need a good balance of hope and reality in order to put their best foot forward. I’d be curious to know your take on this question:

    What percentage of portfolio websites that you look at impress you in one way or another?

    Thanks,
    Thomas

    • November 18, 2009 at 9:34 pm

      Hi Thomas,
      I hate to say it but not many impress me.
      Some of the websites themselves are terrible or too time consuming and take too long for me to get to see the actual images.
      That’s not to say that there’s not some great work out there. Its just in my opinion the exception and not the rule.
      Just go to any major illustration website and you will see that most of the work posted is very mediocre.

  13. November 18, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    It’s true that the competition in the illustration world is, well, huge…
    It’s great to have all this choice of styles, and it’s great to be inspired by all those ilustrators that come from accross the globe…

    But even if I’m a young (and not yet a professionnal) illustrator, I miss a little bit the way graphic design in general was made 10 or 20 years ago. I miss the direct communication between artists and clients, I miss to be able to have direct contact with people and to talk with them to share ideas and point of view about art, I miss the illustrator as an artist and not as a company manager. I think it’s very different to work with local or “next door” clients, and to have this different relation, kind of like a “craft” artist.

    • November 18, 2009 at 9:32 pm

      You should read my blog “Feeling Lonely? You are not alone”
      I totally agree with you and miss the human contact as well.
      Unfortunately this is not the way things are done today.
      Everyone is in too much of a hurry and no one has time to meet face to face.
      If ever you do get a meeting, most of the time its because the ad isn’t very busy.

  14. November 18, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Hi Ana.
    I love your frank tone of voice, so refreshing! I agree with you about postcard promos. I have worked in a few of the hottest agencies in toronto, and I can say for certain that 90% of the postcards sent end up in the trash having never really been looked at. However, your comment about other printed promos still having legs might need qualifying – you are right printed promos that are not postcards can stand out a bit more, but they can stand out in a bad way too – flooding agencies with mouse pad/stress ball/ strange box of curious is a truly bad idea.

    • November 18, 2009 at 9:28 pm

      Hi Kyra,
      Yes that is true that about sending out any kind of promo. Funny, I sent out mouse pads back in 1996 when we launched our website. Can’t believe people are still sending them out today. ;)

  15. November 19, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    One more ‘merci’ for a great article from an ‘emerging’ illustrator! One further question, though, concerning your preference for printed promos- what exactly do you mean by this? Something that is like a brochure or depliant, with several images and written info, or simply another form of one printed image that is NOT a postcard? I apologize if the answer to this is obvious to everyone else (remember I am ‘emerging’!) Thanks again!
    -Amanda

    • November 19, 2009 at 3:28 pm

      Hi Amanda,
      yes that is exactly right. a small brochure or depliant. something that can showcase more than one image.
      at AGM we produce some more elaborate printed promos but for an individual illustrator that’s not necessary.
      cheers,
      anna

  16. November 19, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    Excellent info. Anna!
    I would also add that perseverance is crucial. I agree that one has to be self-critical in determining if one has talent enough to be a professional illustrator but on the other hand you have to take any criticism with a grain of salt. As with anything in life-you can only try. The market will determine if you are to be a success.
    Money in the bank helps. There can be quite a lot of time between projects. Having a part-time job also helps when you are starting out.
    Finding the right type of promotion can be difficult. I did the sourcebook route for a few years and it did little for me. Postcards worked well for years. Now on-line is where it’s at. It’s inexpensive compared to the sourcebooks and postcards but it very crowded. Now more than ever you need to stand out. Stand out with your style, professionalism and customer service.
    Happy Anniversary AGM!

    • November 19, 2009 at 6:32 pm

      Hi Brian,
      That’s an excellent point and one that I overlooked. Perseverance is definitely and important factor in being successful.
      Thanks for the comments.
      Regards,
      A

  17. November 25, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    Excellent feedback and article. You’ve given me a fresh perspective on my own work and some hot fire under me to get my “portfolio/style” rework going! Thank you.
    I would say also that no matter how much talent you have you need to love the industry in order to stick with it. I’ve seen too many excellent students of mine give up before they gave themselves a chance because they couldn’t take the early years when they had no ground under their feet… I say it’s not over until you’re six feet under! :)

  18. June 15, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Anna

    Thanks for the very positive article and sharing your wisdom!

    Regards
    Kath (UK Illustrator)

    http://www.kathwalker-illustration.co.uk/

  19. July 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Great post – totally agree with you about source books!

  20. Lorelai Roark
    November 17, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    I believe this is a great post, though there are a few things I’d like to inject in regards to some of the advice and/or comments.

    In today’s market you can impress one agent but not the other. Your work can be fresh, exhilarating & astounding to one agent while being “mediocre” to the next. After all, isn’t that what art is? Creations left to interpretation? Opinions are a dime a dozen & while keeping a busy appearance up on the web is extremely important, I don’t believe “impressing” anyone should be. The simple fact of the matter is that you’re never going to impress everyone & besides, who wants that? As artists we should only want the truly genuine link to someone who views our work as “talent”. To say someone is “talented” nowadays is meaningless & the point is moot. Talent has & always will be in the eye of the beholder when it comes to art, illustration or any other type of creative industry. Looking for “talent” is not a well-versed or rounded approach when viewing art.

    What one agent views as “talent” another might view as “mediocre”. Agent Z wants to represent you & your “talents” now after all these years but all those others before him/her….agents A-Y didn’t want you because they believed you had no talent.

    In the creative industry from which we operate today, the best advice is to follow your heart. Sounds corny & is not a business-like agenda but it will never fail to feed the hunger you have inside you. Do what you love & the money (agents) will follow. It’s as simple & as complicated as that.

  21. Chlo
    December 11, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Yes you have a very good point. I think i will become a very successful illustrator. I’ve wanted to be an illustrator since i was like four so i know i have the talent, i am confident on my style of drawings and i’m sure i can make it. I am definitley going to take your advice but i’m going to start my career in a few years time though because i’m only 13 and yes i know what i’m doing but people probably won’t take me seriously. Thanks anyway. :)

  22. March 29, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Thank you everyone for the information it is very helpful! I have just embarked on the path to becoming an illustrator after taking time out after my degree to teach graphic design and the one thing I am finding really hard is having invested so much time in developing a ‘style’ but having no real clear idea if it is actually marketable! Now there is no real chance to bash on people’s doors to show your portfolio there is a distinct lack of clear feedback from Agents about what sells or why your work isn’t suitable for them. I have only just started contacting Agents but I feel completely in the dark as to whether or not I am working on the right track! I am a versatile illustrator and am so motivated to succeed that I will gladly develop a different way of working if necessary. I see a trend back towards more ‘handmade’ original illustration, do you think this will last? Is it worth me developing an alter ego with a different style?

    http://www.jessica-townsend.co.uk

  23. Betty Kiesling
    April 2, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Hello there, I have a question for all of you,

    I am not an illustrator or anything close, but I am a special education teacher who has a student with autism and a lot of talent. He loves drawing and making stories. He spends his free time drawing and improving his old drawings. I can see he needs to develop a lot his technique and I know that if he is provided with good guidance and education, he can become something amazing. He is close to graduate from High school and would like to continue his education. I would like to know what the options are for people with special needs in the area of illustration. I know that all depends on his talents and work to compete for a job, but we won’t know if we don’t give him a chance. What would you suggest for this young man who wants to follow his dreams?

    Thanks in advance for your attention to this post and I look forward to hear your thoughts,

    Sincerely, Betty Kiesling

    • chriswilsonart
      April 11, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      Hi Betty,

      I was in the Character Animation program at the Disney founded college, Cal Arts. One of my classmates was autistic and he earned his BFA in Character Animation. To learn more about him you can visit his site at taylorcrowe.com. I hope this helps!!

  24. Drained
    April 9, 2012 at 1:16 am

    Hmmm…maybe I’m just one of those people who isn’t talented enough. I’ve applied to places until I’m blue in the face, to no avail. I almost landed a position w/ a design firm and the art director wanted to speak w/ me, but when I called back the next day, the position had been filled. I’m really starting to believe I’m not allowed to become an illustrator. Its been 3 years since I’ve graduated and the only things I’ve snagged was a T-shirt design, x-actoing a stencil for someone, and doing a portrait. I’ve been told by old advertising war horses that I’m very warm, personable, and thorough, but if that’s true why can’t I break in? I’m trying very hard not be so sensitive, but I’m officially running on empty now. I feel like my core/default personality is just defunct.

  25. Connie
    July 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Hello! This advice is very helpful and truthful, i am still a student but i have my eyes set on becoming an illustrator ever since one of my teachers suggested it to me. I wasn’t sure what i had to do to become one besides being good at art, but your post really helped. Do you know what kind of qualifications i need?

  26. August 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    After reading all the comments, I’m glad to know that people out there feel the way I do about trying to be a professional freelance illustrator.

    Sometimes if you follow your heart you are worried that the heart isn’t what is appreciated of you. And yet like Miss Roark mentioned, it is the easiest and most complicated thing that we have to do.

    I have only graduated from art school three months earlier. I have had multiple interviews and contacts and have emailed and promoted myself in all of the ways I can think of.
    I (unfortunately) have a source book lying on my table, one of which that tells me I am not allowed to just mail my work out to people I want to mail out to. I have to get an artist agent. And yet because I have only just graduated and begun to learn that however much successful I was in school does not mean, nothing, I am currently reworking and working and working to get to the point where I feel I am successful.

    But how can you tell when its you against the world?
    At this point I pretty much know that the answer is you don’t.

    It isn’t just about illustrating for artists, it’s about an attitude.
    I once heard a professor say. However nice you are and however humane or whatever you are on the outside, deep down, you have to have the biggest ego in the whole universe.

    We’re all good. It’s life that gets in the way. And it shouldn’t.
    Cheers to all the illustrators out there thriving to become someone who gets paid to create who you are.

    Even if it takes 20 years and not the six months we are told at art school to give ourselves after graduating to promote ourselves to become a successful freelance illustrator,
    if we want it, I’m sure it’s going to be worth it.

  27. October 6, 2012 at 11:20 am

    Try to prioritise making work and marketing in my experience. http://www.myphilwong.com/ and always quality over quantity.

  28. January 13, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    It’s hard to find articles this in depth about becoming an illustrator. I’ve started writing in my blog about my goal of becoming a full-time, freelance illustrator in 6 months.

    http://chriswilsonstudio.com/becoming-an-illustrator-part-1

    Thanks Anna!

  29. March 15, 2013 at 1:58 am

    Hello my family member! I wish to say that this article is amazing, great written and include approximately all significant infos. I would like to look extra posts like this .

  30. Laima
    April 11, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Hi, All. Good job keeping up the hope! I just only started of thinking of becoming an illustrator again after 6 years of completely quiting art. It’s nice to hear different views on illustration world reality. Thanks for article. Helpful.

  31. May 21, 2013 at 7:32 am

    My my my, how lucky I am to come across you blog! I’m an aspiring wannabe illustrator, I’m still a graphic design student and kind of lost these days. Your blog really helps me out and show me really valuable advice. Really, thank you very much! Can’t say enough to express my gratitude! love,

  32. August 24, 2013 at 12:18 am

    yeaps.. totally agree with that, anyway, can I share my story a little bit?

    I’m an Illustrator myself, and have been working as one for more than 7 years now. I mostly work in fashion business, that I made lots of artwork for t shirt etc. I’ve tried to go into as many contest as I can and I’ve tried to work my career up even tho most people in my country never thought that Illustrator is a real job and if there’s some people who appreciate our work,s they’d only take it if it’s cheap.

    Then I try to go online, I do have a good response for a while, but then some peoples start to steal my works, or made an order but never paid for it. And it also happen again, that they would only use me, for a small cash.

    So, I started to realize, that I’m not really good at promoting myself. That I try to find a partner in crime. Finally I found some, but after a while, they bail on me.

    Then it comes to me, that the problem is not only about promotion, but it’s me. Though I know that being an Illustrator is not easy, I mean the process, however I do enjoy the process. But sometimes I need a heads up which is it can’t be done by myself.

    I find it’s difficult to have a real talk with another Illustrator, cause I’m not a good speaker and most of them are better than me. Realize that I have a low self-confident.

    So lately, I try to get any learning I could think of. For an instance, I sketch alot. Then I try to find some teachers but I can’t afford them. The latest way I’ve tried is, getting a scholarship, I want to learn more about fashion and Illustration outside of my country, meet new peoples, changing views. However, got no luck. But I’m still hoping for it.

    Okay, I think that’s all for now.

    my request to you, if I may, could you please visit my tumblr? it’s on http://www.souhlasodboha.tumblr.com
    and let me know what you think about it. Sorry to bother

    I really love the advice, I’ll try my best. Good Day

    Best Regards,
    Stanley

  33. September 8, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Thank you, this is really interesting… and I love the suggestion about printed promos!

  34. October 17, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    Good day Anna, these are a good advice you got there :3 I somehow feel inspired to take my step more carefully. In this opportunity, I want to show you some of my works, if it possible, could you give me an opinion about them. It’d totally awesome if you could :3 keep up the good advices flow, thank you.

    Sincerely yours,
    David Stanley

  35. April 6, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    Hi Anna, I was thankful to read the comments..Very,very helpful..I am just starting out and getting ready to start putting my first children’s book together. Please if you have time take a peek at my web-page and give me your opinion of my artwork.

    sincerely,
    Margie

  1. November 17, 2009 at 9:56 pm
  2. February 5, 2013 at 5:21 pm

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