Career

My First Steps in the Illustration Business

Written by Magoz
10 min read 19.5k views 23 comments

This article is the first post of the series Answers. These articles are based on questions that readers send me through the Ask me anything section.
You can send me your questions too. Don’t be shy!

Christian sent me the following question:
I would like to read about your first steps, that is the thing I’m struggling with right now.

In this article, I will tell you my story and the key steps that allowed me to be an illustrator and make a living from my illustrations.

My first steps in illustration

I went to a modest illustration school and after two intense years of hard working learning how to use techniques like watercolour or gouache, I was more lost than ever. I didn’t even know what being an illustrator meant or how the illustration business worked. But I learned something critical:
I learned the value of the effort, and I got used to it. I spent countless hours per project, and a lot of nights without sleeping to do my best in every single detail.

This passion for hard working existed because an implicit agreement I signed with Miguel Montaner – one of the best illustrators I know and one of my best friends. We went to the school together.

The deal was to establish a non-stop (friendly) competition to see who did the projects better, with smarter ideas and with better results.
This competition has been something that pushed us forward. It allowed us to learn and improve two or four times faster since we shared all the things we learned and all the discoveries we made. We were growing, improving, learning and evolving together, challenging each other in any single movement.

Understanding the illustration business

Pandemia Fanzine

It was 2009, and we were in our second year of the illustration school. Miguel and I decided to start our first project together: Pandemia Fanzine.
It was a monthly digital magazine in Spanish where we published our illustrations (and other illustrators’ work), interviewed our favourites illustrators and published useful articles and recommendations.

This period was crucial, but not in terms of developing a robust style or understanding how illustration business worked. It was very important because I learned thousands of things that surround the illustration world and that are very important for me nowadays. Things like learning how to program websites, developing a good teamwork, understanding the basics of creating, distributing and promoting an edition, and much more.

Pandemia fanzine 2

After two years and 18 issues, it was 2011 and Miguel Porlan joined us (he is also one the best illustrators I know and one of my best friends).
Having him on board was a revolution. He introduced us to the conceptual illustration and also added a professional approach. He had already worked on some assignments, and he had professional experience (at this point, not Miguel Montaner nor me had any work expertise).

We redesigned the whole magazine. The only thing that didn’t change was the name, but everything else was re-thought and created from scratch.
After three months of intense work, the new project was ready.
The second version of Pandemia was one of the best projects I’ve ever created and one of the most enriching experiences I’ve ever had.
For the very first time, I started to understand what being an illustrator meant and also how the illustration business worked.

After one year and 6 issues, our expectations and plans for the project grew, and we couldn’t find a place for the new ideas and projects inside Pandemia anymore.
We needed a bigger boat.

Crean

The idea was simple: we wanted to create the project of our dreams and the ultimate website for illustrators. Something that allowed us to develop our illustrations but help other illustrators at the same time.

It was May of 2012 and after 6 months of exhausting work, our new project was ready to be unveiled. It’s name was Crean (it’s a Spanish word that means to create but it also means to believe).

Crean had amazing features like a digital magazine where we wrote about theory, tools, news, interviews and featured our favourites illustrators. It also had a calendar you could subscribe featuring the most important events, contests and happenings in the illustration world. And finally it was also an independent publishing house, where we published Biombo, our first book. We did our best in every single detail, and it was a titanic effort, but it totally worth it and the product was wonderful. Probably the best project I’ve ever created.
We even received a Junceda Honour Award from APIC (the Professional Association of Illustrators of Catalonia).

One and a half year after launching Crean, the amount of work to maintain the project alive was unsustainable. Especially because we were only three people, and we started to have illustration assignments. It was time to make a decision between our illustrator’s careers and Crean.
Besides of that, Crean wasn’t generating any money, and we invested nearly 4000€ on it. But this is another story (I will write about it in other articles).
The decision was obvious, and we were forced to close the project.

Thanks to the nearly four years I spent working on those projects, I’ve learned almost everything I know about the illustration business. But it also helped me to create and develop my own way of illustrating. I could say, those projects were the best school I’ve ever gone to. Without these experiences, I wouldn’t know thousands of things you have to know to work on this business.

Developing a solid portfolio

The time I spent at the illustration school, working in Pandemia Fanzine and Crean helped me to experiment with different techniques and different ways of illustrating.
I truly believe in the trial and error strategy to learn and improve your work. You always end up working in the way that fits you. You end up finding your way.

In this process, and after a lot of illustrations, my work gained consistency, which in my opinion is one of the most important things in illustration.
Having a solid portfolio tells your possible clients your work is mature and you are able to work on a professional assignment. But it also gives you self confidence and familiarity with the process of producing new illustrations.

Creating a professional website and a professional email address

I’ve always been a bit obsessed with my website, trying to improve the usability and the way it looks. I think since I started, I’ve created more than 5 different websites featuring my work. And, believe or not, I’m already working in a new version of my portfolio, even I launched the last version 7 months ago.

You don’t need to be as crazy as I am, but you must have a professional website with your own domain and your own email address. It’s one of the most obvious things that differentiates a beginner from a stablished illustrator. You can also think that your illustrations deserve to have a great place to be showed.

Nowadays there are a lot of options that doesn’t require advanced knowledge, so there is no excuse for not having a professional website and a professional email address.

Building the potential client database

When I understood how the illustration business worked and after having a solid portfolio presented in a professional website, I was ready for start working. The only problem was that I didn’t have any assignments or clients, so it was time to develop a strategy.

For me it was clear I wanted to work for newspapers and magazines. I wanted to create editorial illustrations that allowed me to develop a conceptual approach.

My strategy was to contact directly the art directors I wanted to work with.
I created a spreadsheet where I wrote down the name of the art director, the media, and the email address. To find the email addresses, I used some email tools and also sent some emails to the media to ask for those specific email addresses.

It took me a couple of months, but at the end I had a huge database with hundreds of contacts of the art directors I wanted to work with. Additionally I started considering the option of having an agent who represented me and got some woks. I included a section inside the spreadsheet for the agents and agencies.

Contacting the art directors and agencies

When my contact list was ready, I started to contact them individually. I sent literally hundreds of emails and I used different approaches including different kind of messages, with and without attachments, experimenting with different days and times, testing different email subjects, etc.

I didn’t find any magic formula, but with the experience I found that some things work better than others. I will publish an article soon talking about what I learned and what worked the best for me.

Getting some answers and the first assignments

The % of response was very low, maybe 10%. But the important thing was that a few of those responses liked my work and offered me my first assignments.
This strategy allowed me to introduce my work to hundreds of potential clients.

I felt extremely happy, the strategy worked and I finally had some assignments to work on!

Being represented by an agent

One of the responses I got was from Anna Goodson, an illustration agency I contacted asking for representation. After a couple of meetings, we came to an agreement and we started to work together.

The day we announced our partnership I got 3 assignments and since then I’ve had regular assignments from clients from all over the world. Some of those assignments are provided by Anna. But some others contact me directly, proving that my strategy of contacting art directors worked better than expected.

Conclusions

It took me a lot of time to understand the illustration business and to develop a solid portfolio. But when I got there, was a matter of a couple of months to start having assignments. I just needed to contact the right people in the right way and show my interest on working for them.

This article is based in my own experience but I believe the different steps are common to anyone that want to be an illustrator (or other kind of graphic artist).

Now, as always, I would love to hear your stories. How did you manage to get your first assignments? Was it easy? Did you enjoy the process?
Let me know in the comments!

Magoz

Nomadic illustrator. Thinker. Seeker.

23 comments

  1. Magoz sos lo máximo, esta redacción me atrapó por lo clara y lo útil.
    También soy ilustradora freelance part-time y no tengo mucho para aportar sólo que un cliente satisfecho es la mejor manera de publicitar nuestro trabajo.

    Te agradezco mucho estos consejos y te comento una pavada: siempre abro tus mails para poder ver la animación del encabezado, de esa manera te confirmo que la meticulosidad que le pones a cada detalle suma muchísimo.

    Gracias de nuevo =)

    • Hola Seelvana,
      Muchas gracias por tus palabras y por tu comentario.
      Totalmente de acuerdo contigo, dejar contento a un cliente es la mejor manera de tener más encargos (del mismo cliente o de nuevos).

      Si te gustan las animaciones, prueba de poner el cursor encima de mi logo aquí en la web :-)

      Un saludo!!

  2. I always love reading how other illustrators got their start, thanks for posting that. Great tips for any illustrator just starting out.

    For me, my interest in illustration really developed halfway through my time in art school. I was a graphic design major, and often found my concepts needing illustration support. After a few years of various projects, I had a small portfolio building up, but ultimately stuck with graphic design as my major. One of my first jobs after graduation was at a magazine as an Associate Art Director. For 5 years I was on the opposite side of that equation that you outlined, and saw all sorts of ways illustrators promoted themselves. I saw what worked best for me, and what worked best for the other AD’s and our CD. Every month I worked with multiple illustrators and loved every minute of the process.

    Some moments popped up here and there that required a really quick illustration, so I started to create some for the magazine. This really got me hooked, and after a couple years that small portfolio started to build up to a larger one, and started to gain some more consistency in the style. Once I had enough work established, I knew I wanted to give this a shot, and created my website.

    Once my website was complete, I needed to market myself. I opted to subscribe to Agency Access, and gather my list of contacts that way, Considering my scenario, working full-time as a designer, I had limited free-time to dedicate to marketing myself and producing any work I would get. So finding ways to be as efficient as possible was essential for me, even including how I produce my work. Services like agency access will produce a list based on filters you apply. I wanted my list to be highly custom to magazines or agencies that would actually use my approach and style. So, I took a weekend, and combed through the automated list, clicking through to every single magazine, newspaper, agency website that it gave me, and saved the ones that applied to me, that I could see my work being published in. This step was crucial in targeting the right places for my work, and helped save money on my marketing as well.

    My first official marketing effort was a postcard mailer. For me as an AD at a magazine, postcards worked the best. I would hang up the ones I liked and reference them when new stories came in requiring illustration. That mailer landed my first assignment, which helped pay for the next mailer, which landed me another assignment. Pretty soon I started to do monthly emails in addition to sending postcards. That is when I saw the results of taking the time to tailor my list. I was getting a really high response rate. I don’t recall exact numbers, but in general I was seeing a 30-40% open rate, and about a 30% click-thru rate to my site.

    That was a bit long, but that is how I got my start. I still maintain both parts of my working life, I am an associate creative director and an illustrator. I love the mix and the balance that both of them bring to my working life.

    Love the blog Magoz, thanks for sharing all these great insights and tips!
    Dave

    • Hi Dave,
      Whoa, thank you very much for sharing your experience and adding value to the article.
      I find it extremely useful, since – as you said – you have been in the both sides.

      I may start doing postcards as well if they work so well.

      Thank you for your time!
      Hope to see you again in the Blog :-)

    • Hi, what do you mean did you make postcards to potential clients or receive cards and use them as reference

      • Hi Sal, I made some postcards as a promotional tool. I don’t have a business card, I only have postcards.

  3. C
    Cristian

    Thanks Magoz, this blog is being very useful for me!
    Just an idea for the blog: It would be great to see the text/images of the mails that you used to contact the potential clients. (without the names of the art directors ofc)

    • Thanks, Cristian. I’m very glad you find the Blog useful!
      That’s a good idea. I will write some articles about how I use and write emails in September.

      Enjoy the summer!

  4. M
    Marguerite

    Hi Magoz, love your work and the way you share the journey. I got back into illustration because I love to interpret dreams. I drew & interpreted 50+. Then started on some bible stories. I want to put them out there into the world but I think I need to do them in Photoshop. I also need to get thumbs up from my minister or a creative church. I am a bit stuck…..but people really love them. I love creating them.

  5. M
    Martina

    I just stumble upon your blog and I’m so happy I did! Thank you for sharing your professional experience, I bet I’m gonna spend the next days reading your post :) I follow your work since years and I love your illustrations! All the best, Martina

    • My Pleasure Martina!
      Hope you enjoy the upcoming posts after the summer break :-)
      Thanks for your support!
      All the best

  6. Ordem e Progresso, que dicen nuestros amigos del otro lado del charco.
    Un placer tanto el conocerte en persona el pasado Sábado en la mesa redonda organizada por A.P.I.M en el museo ABC como la lectura de tus artículos en el blog.

    Un saludo y hasta pronto.

  7. M
    María

    Genial Mágoz, llegué a tu blog haciendo research para el máster que estoy estudiando. ¡A qué buena hora! Ando investigando los primeros pasos para empezar un negocio en ilustración y estoy encontrando joyas en tu página.
    Gracias por compartir!!

    • Hola María,
      Me alegro mucho de que el Blog te esté sirviendo para tu máster, ¡es un placer!
      Llevo algo de tiempo sin poder publicar nuevos artículos porque estoy trabajando en un par de encargos muy exigentes que apenas me dejan tiempo libre, pero espero poder volver a la carga pronto.

      ¡Gracias a ti por comentar!
      Un abrazo

  8. Hola Magoz, he descubierto hace unos días tu blog y me encanta tu trabajo! muchas gracias por compartir tus artículos, son una guía muy útil para todos aquellos que estamos más perdidos que un erizo en un garaje :) :)

    • Hola Verónica, ¡muchas gracias por tus palabras!
      Comentarios como el tuyo me animan a seguir adelante :-)

      Por cierto, tienes un trabajo estupendo, ¡enhorabuena!
      Un abrazo

  9. Sí sí! yo te animo a que escribas más! siempre he echado en falta información o referentes que enseñen
    algún camino a seguir..
    Me hizo mucha gracia cuando leí que habías hecho varios portfolios..yo llevo también unos cuantos, estoy en un bucle total :) me alegra q te gusten mis dibujos!!
    Un abrazo

    • Hecho, entonces :-)
      Jejeje es que una de mis aficiones es programar webs y cada vez que tengo nuevas ideas no puedo evitar ponerlas en práctica. De hecho esta misma semana publicaré un nuevo rediseño. Si vuelves por aquí en unos días, lo notarás.

      ¡Un abrazo!

  10. A
    Arthur Ortega

    I’m a young illustrator trying to find my way and this article puts a lot of things in perspective for me, Magoz. Thank you!

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