Being a freelance illustrator requires creativity, reliability, flexibility, critical thinking, and the list goes on.
But after more than twenty years of experience, I know that one attribute is crucial for success or failure in this dream job: efficiency.
The illustrator is not an artist. She is a creative service provider in a fast industry operating around the clock. An illustrator can create the most brilliant work. But if she can’t deliver it on time for the print deadline, it has failed in its function.
For young, motivated illustrators who dream of making a living from their drawings, I’d like to suggest three tips to increase efficiency dramatically.
Digital image editing programs – Whether it’s Photoshop, Affinity Designer, or Procreate. Here you can prepare all illustrations from the first sketch to the final print file. Even if you work analog with pen and paper, the programs help you to quickly fulfill change requests or offer the client several color variations, for example. Scan, adjust, and send.
Graphics tablets – Drawing and navigating the screen and programs becomes more effortless than using a mouse. It doesn’t have to be the largest and most expensive tablet. DIN A5 format is perfectly sufficient for starters. At first, it’s about getting a feeling for the new way of working. After all, it is unfamiliar to look at the screen while drawing. I still remember the first two days. I thought I would never be able to handle it. But then it went fast, and I’ve never used a mouse since. Wacom, for example, offers a great selection and excellent quality.
Shortcuts – The sooner you get used to shortcuts in programs, the better. The time we save with you is enormous—a real booster for our productivity.
In my work, creating an illustration usually consists of a rough sketch, a detailed drawing, outlining, coloring, and fine-tuning. When I receive a commission that requires the creation of several, sometimes dozens, illustrations in the same style, I notice the same phenomenon over and over again.
For some illustration steps, such as coloring, I’m on autopilot. By the third illustration, at the latest, it’s like assembly line work. All that’s needed here is my craft and consistency. It doesn’t require a “creative view” or a willingness to experiment. In this phase, I can relax and listen to music, or an episode of King of Queens on the iPad, or talk to friends on the phone.
But at some stage, I always get to the point where that’s no longer enough. It’s a moment when I have to look at the subject closely and match every stroke and detail, whether it’s a portrait, a product, or a scene. I’m sure it sounds corny, but I have to feel it somehow, look at it sensitively. I can’t describe it any other way yet.
I have learned that every work deserves a certain amount of individual attention. Be it just a few strokes or color adjustments. Then it’s music off, smartphone on flight mode, and just feel and react, feel, react, until there is nothing more to discover.
The market for illustrators is large and diverse. Books, magazines, movie posters, product packaging, t-shirts, vehicles, and websites are a few areas we can create illustrations for. Agencies can even build multi-million dollar advertising campaigns based on the works of a single illustrator.
Some areas, however, are more saturated. For example, this may apply to children’s books after reading articles and speaking to colleagues. But even that shouldn’t stop us from going all the way in if this is our passion. Apart from that, there are still other areas which we can enjoy.
Children’s book illustrators, for example, could also offer storyboards. They are skilled at freehand drawing and creating entire series of illustrations. They usually can visualize quickly. That skill is necessary for creating storyboards. Storyboards are a daily tool within the creative industry, whether for commercials, game apps, or movies. Speed is essential here. Advertising agencies might call in the morning and ask for a storyboard for a pitch at noon. A fast and reliable illustrator is precious.
PS: Personally, I’m not very comfortable with storyboarding. You can find a little anecdote about this in my last post.
“I’m really proud of how this illustration worked out.” I heard this phrase often from my fellow students when they had to present their latest work or designs to the professor and the class. It is a strange feeling to hear this phrase myself, ten years later, from students before I look at their work.
The sentence expresses pure self-protection. In reality, behind it lie the words, “Please don’t be too harsh with your criticism.” Especially as beginners, we identify particularly strongly with our work. I can relate to that. That is only natural. I remember the feeling when one of my drawings turned out particularly well. I would look at it days later and ask myself, “How did you do that?“
But over time, we realize that this attitude makes it difficult for us to grow. We start to understand that we’re not the star of the show. Our work is. The ego seeks validation, which inhibits creativity and productivity. Improving and optimizing it is all that matters.
Praise and recognition may feel good when we receive them, but we gain more if we seek constructive criticism. It makes a huge difference in our attitude whether we hope for positive feedback or specifically ask right away what we could have done better about our work.
The Japanese village Ogimi is called the “village of longevity” due to the high percentage of centenarians. (If you want to know more, I recommend the book Ikigai-The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García & Francesc Miralles).
“One hundred percent of the seniors we interviewed in Ogimi had a primary and a secondary occupation. Most of them kept a vegetable garden as a secondary job and sold their produce at the local market.”Ikigai by H. García & F. Miralles
As freelancers, these seniors can be our role models. As illustrator, for example, in addition to commissioned work, we can sell paintings and products, give local workshops, or offer online courses. There are plenty of opportunities, and who knows where and to whom the additional financial pillar will lead us?
Sometimes there is such a feeling of certainty. Like when we are searching for our keys, and we are sure that we haven’t lost them. They must be around here somewhere.
When I’m working on an idea for an illustration and start inspecting my rough sketches, I sometimes think: the solution is here somewhere. I don’t know what’s missing or what I need to connect to make it work, but the idea isn’t far away. Those are the moments when I need to keep digging.
There’s an opposite certainty as well. It feels like a roadblock. It just won’t go any further, even if I stare at the sketches all day. Then it’s essential to let go and head in a completely new direction.
Sketching and visual note-taking of ideas and emotions are visual blueprints of our thoughts. It is not the quality of the sketches that matters. It’s the quality of the content. No masterpiece can save a bad idea. On the other hand, a good idea can stand on a napkin with stick figures and simple shapes.
Capturing it pictorially forces us to organize our thoughts beforehand and target the topic’s core. When writing, we can quickly get lost in complex and incomprehensible sentences. When visualizing, our mind works in a more compressed way. The best thing about it is that we can share them immediately with others and thus achieve results more quickly.
When we talk about the profession of an illustrator, we usually think of drawings. But drawing talent is not necessarily required to create an illustration. A cursory doodle while talking on the phone, a photo collage, or a child’s drawing can be an illustration when used in the proper context.
In art, the artist usually tries to externalize his inner emotional world. On the other hand, an illustration always serves the viewer, the audience. The illustration is a call to action. It captures the reader’s attention in a magazine, encouraging him to read the article. In advertising, an illustration style can be distinctively associated with a product or service. In a medical book, the purpose of illustration is to simplify complex content.
As long as an image that is not a photograph conveys or supports a message, it can be considered an illustration.
Creating a portrait is a process full of ups and downs. Some parts of the face are always exciting to draw, while others drag on torturously.
The most exciting and crucial part is the eyes. The eyes never lie, they say, and this is just as true in portrait drawing. A perfectly drawn ear cannot save the work if the look is not on point.
It’s pretty different when drawing long, dark hair. I often put off this part as long as I can because it’s by far the most monotonous. For hours I draw one line over the other. In the process, I usually feel boredom at the beginning. Sometimes even frustration and the feeling that I am wasting my life. In the best case, a kind of meditation develops after a while, where my thoughts drift away and time flies.
But I know hair is also part of the finished portrait, just like the eyes. Knowing that this part also has its place and needs my full attention helps me deal with the monotony. Better yet, I can adjust to it. Often, that’s when I turn up the music loud, talk to friends on the phone, or run an episode of Breaking Bad on the iPad.
Every “dream job” has its small and large downsides. However, if we enjoy doing something and are passionate enough about it, we can counter these phases consciously and positively.
When people visit me in my home office or see my office via Calls, they are often surprised and sometimes even disappointed. At first glance, it hardly differs from the office of a tax consultant.
If we think of artists, the image is usually beautifully chaotic, in a studio with high ceilings, the walls, and the artist full of paint. Pens, brushes, and unfinished sketches are scattered everywhere.
It might look like this when I’m trying new techniques or need watercolor splotches for my illustration. But as a freelance illustrator, it’s all about one thing: efficiency. We serve with our skills to achieve the goals of others.
The clients are often magazines and agencies with strict deadlines. The goal is to achieve visible results in a short time. Any available means are okay for this, such as Photoshop. If the client’s feedback on a portrait is, “Could the person smile a little more?” it doesn’t mean I redraw the mouth completely. Deadlines often don’t even allow for that effort. Using the distortion tool in Photoshop, I pull up the corners of the mouth in a few seconds until it fits. If the client is satisfied with the result, my work is done.
By doing so, we are making a few promises to ourselves and the people we try to reach.
For weeks I wrestled back and forth. What do I want? Am I a graphic designer, a T-shirt designer, or a communication designer? What job title or description should I put under my name?
In and out of college, I developed many interests. To survive in the marketplace, I needed to serve a niche. That was clear to me from the start. As an all-rounder, it would be difficult for me to be successful and, above all, happy.
Sergio Ingravalle – Illustrator
When I called and recognized myself as an illustrator, my life became easier. Even though I had already done some illustration jobs by then, this step was precious.
An illustrator illustrates.
He doesn’t create corporate designs, program websites, or layout magazines. He creates images. He draws, paints, cuts, glues, doodles. And that’s what I did from then on until people who visited my homepage could clearly see what they could expect from me.
During my time as an artwork designer for T-shirts and other fashion graphics, I learned one thing about illustration: the effect of a black and white illustration can be enhanced by the proper use of color.
However, this does not work the other way around. An illustration that doesn’t work well in black and white can’t be salvaged via the use of color.
Our portfolio should only present the works that we like to repeat. Especially as beginners, we tend to show everything we have created. We should definitely resist this. Especially if the response to one of our works was strikingly positive, but we felt little ambition and passion about the work itself. Being good at something does not obligate us to do it for life.
Goethe says, “I can’t get rid of the spirits I called.” If we are not careful, we find ourselves doing years of work that do not fulfill us. Our hands may do it well, but our heart longs for something else. This will not make us happy.
There’s no right or wrong with sketchbooks, no rules, no restrictions. It’s all about us – and that’s the hard part.
Especially when we as illustrators are at the beginning and want to set foot in the market, we need attention to attract potential clients. There are some basic requirements to achieve awareness. We have a portfolio website, have found our style, and share our work regularly on social networks and platforms.
Another method of doing this is beneficial: We reach people when we make illustrative works on topics they already know. This can be movies, music, video games, sports, celebrities, politics, or the latest news. For example, a caricaturist gets more attention when she illustrates famous musicians instead of drawing her family members.
Reimagining the familiar builds a direct connection with viewers through the element of surprise, and there’s a greater chance they’ll forward the work to friends and family. Perhaps this type of connection is even more promising than the originality and quality of the illustration style.