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 become 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 work learning how to use techniques like watercolor 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 I spent a lot of nights without sleep to do my best in every single detail.
This passion for hard work existed because of an implicit agreement 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 better results.
This competition has been something that pushed us forward. It allowed us to learn and improve two to 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
It was 2009, and we were in our second year of 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 favorite illustrators and published useful articles and recommendations.
This period was crucial, but not in terms of developing a robust style or understanding how the 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 to this day.
I learned things like: how to program websites, developing good teamwork, 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 conceptual illustration and also added a professional approach. He had already worked on some assignments, and he had professional experience. (At this point, neither Miguel Montaner or I had any work expertise).
We redesigned the whole magazine. The only thing that didn’t change was the name, but everything else was re-imagined 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 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.
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.
We also featured our favorite illustrators. It had a calendar that you could subscribe to which featured 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 was totally worth it, and the end product was wonderful. It is 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 years after launching Crean, the amount of work to maintain the project alive was unsustainable. Especially because we were only three people, and we began to have our own illustration assignments. It was time to make a decision between our careers and Crean.
Besides that, Crean wasn’t generating any money, and we had invested nearly 4000€ in 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 learned almost everything I know about the illustration business.
But it also helped me to create and develop my own way of illustrating.
I would say that those projects were the best school I’ve attended. Without these experiences, I wouldn’t know the majority of things I needed to know to work in this business.
Developing a Solid Portfolio
The time I spent at the illustration school and working on 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.
Through 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 potential 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 it or not, I’m already working on a new version of my portfolio, even though I launched the last version just 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 an established illustrator. Believe that your illustrations deserve a great place to be shown.
Nowadays there are a lot of options that don’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
Once I understood how the illustration business works, and after having a solid portfolio presented on a professional website, I was ready to start working.
The only problem was that I didn’t have any assignments or clients. It was time to develop a strategy.
I decided I wanted to work for newspapers and magazines because I wanted to create editorial illustrations that allowed me to develop a conceptual approach.
My strategy was to contact art directors I wanted to work with directly.
I created a spreadsheet where I recorded 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 specific contact information.
It took me a couple of months, but in 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 would represent me and help me find work. 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 art directors individually. I sent literally hundreds of emails.
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 wrote this post with tips on how to contact art directors).
Getting Some Answers and My First Assignments
The response rate to my emails 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 that my strategy worked! 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 all over the world. Some of those assignments are provided by Anna. But some contact me directly, proving that my strategy of contacting art directors worked better than expected.
It took me a lot of time to understand the illustration business and to develop a solid portfolio. But after that, it was only a matter of months before I started receiving assignments.
I just needed to contact the right people in the right way and show my interest in working for them.
This article is based on my own experience, but I believe these steps are useful for anyone who wants to be an illustrator (or other kind of graphic artist).
Hope you find it useful!
PS: My online course Strategy & Business for Illustrators is now available for pre-order!