Bulletproof Yourself from Feast or Famine

Bulletproof Yourself from Feast or Famine

A career in Illustration is often portrayed as a risky journey rife with highs and lows. There is a path that will help you revel in feasts rather than endure a life of famine. Become a chameleon.

Chameleons get work. As an illustrator for entertainment advertising, I am required to switch styles on a dime (often multiple times in one day). This ability keeps me busy even when client needs vary widely. Being able to work efficiently in a variety of styles and mediums may come at the price of being an all-star in one particular method. But, your drawing muscles will be well developed, your mind will be sharp, you’ll discover new ways of problem-solving (which increases speed), and you’ll be working. Developing mastery of one style has its own merits, and you’ll always be stronger in one or two naturally. If you’ve targeted a particular industry, medium, or even company as your holy grail, then by all means go for broke. If your primary goal is to develop into the strongest, fastest, most employed illustrator you can, read on.

Collect Books & Stay Inspired

Great artists have come before us, and our contemporaries are generating impressive content at an incredible pace. Bring their work home with you. Stay abreast of what is out there both traditionally and currently. Keep a Pinterest collection of your favorite illustration work, and several folders of reference. Learn from observation. Why do you love this work? Is this digital color laid over pencil sketches? How many heads tall are the characters in this children’s book? What would you have done differently as the artist?

Every so often, stop by a second-hand bookstore to load up an arm full of illustrated material that you find inspirational. Maintain a personal library of cherished books. At any moment, you may walk the shelf and be re-engaged by a comic, concept art, or a picture book that you haven’t glanced at in a year. Flip through, and it will tell you old tells in a new way. Your mind will absorb a portion of the technique without picking up a pencil (or stylus).

Study Anatomy & Build an Écorché

If you are serious about working as an illustrator full-time, a solid understanding of the human form is a must. Human faces and anthropomorphic characters grace nearly every advertisement, film, and animated feature. Constructing an écorché model from clay over a wire base (or drawing the bones, muscles, then surface detail of the human form) will significantly improve your understanding of human anatomy. When you are assigned to draw several figures at various angles with little reference in a hurry, the task won’t be as staggering. You will better understand how muscle connects to the bone, where to plot boney protrusions, the angle of the wrist. If a leg is hidden in the reference but you must draw it for the assignment, you will have the mental power to invent the mystery leg.

Attend Figure Drawing Sessions

Photographs will only get you so far when it comes to learning how a real person moves, breaths, and exists in natural light. Nothing beats a live figure drawing session. Zoom figure drawing is valuable too. Whenever possible, attend drawing sessions that feature models of every gender, height, weight, ethnicity, and age that you can. Humans are diverse, and that is a beautiful thing. Immortalize all types of people on the page. You’ll be rewarded with artwork that is relatable, believable, and stronger. The more figure drawings you produce, the larger your mental library will become, and the more accurate and graceful your strokes will be.

Practice Drawing in Several Styles

Now that you’ve assembled a treasure trove of beloved style samples, and built your mental library of human (and maybe even animal) anatomy, it is time to experiment. Try everything from realism to extremely stylized animated characters. Flexible artists get work. One week you may be sketching black and white storyboard panels for a vehicle AD spot, the next you will be painting a vintage pin-up style character for a wine label, then the following week you’ll be asked to design a cute Twitter emoji of an animated sloth, and so on. Yes, there are artists who maintain one signature style that lands them tons of lucrative projects. But, when you are starting out and building your reputation as an illustrator who shows up and produces great work on time, you may not yet enjoy the luxuries of being a sought-out all-star yet. By having the ability to switch gears multiple times a week, even multiple times a day, you’ll not only work — you’ll discover what you really love to draw, and what styles you excel at. Think of it like a style buffet (with a paycheck)!

Now that I’ve mentioned money, never work for free. Let me repeat that, never work for free! Developing art muscles that can spring effortlessly from one style to the next, is a valuable skill. Your time, and the years you spent learning leading up to this gig, are precious. Get paid. Get paid fairly, and if you aren’t sure what to charge, ask another artist. Check out a guide book, forums, do your research. The health of our industry relies on it. Future you, will be oh so glad that you did! Now that you’re networking regarding rates…

Stay Connected

Other illustrators are your most valuable resource. Seek out mentors and friends within the industry for guidance and support. Your first gigs will likely come from a more experienced artist who has an overflow of work, or who knows of a project (or company) that you’d be a great fit for. Join groups and collectives such as Girls Drawin’ Girls, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, or Freelancers Union. Take small boutique classes with industry professionals, in which you’ll get to actively speak with the teacher.

Most importantly, make actual friends. Some of your best memories will likely come from figure drawing with other artists, attending museums and shows, collaborating on projects, or even surviving intense deadlines together. Share your knowledge freely with others, and listen when your fellow illustrators have advice for you. Cutthroat competitiveness isn’t a good look, it isn’t pleasant, and it won’t get you far anyway. Skip it. Build a community. You chose drawing as a career path because it is fun. Enjoy being an illustrator!

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