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Learn from My Experience, or Get Your Own

Initially I considered calling this article, “Advice for…” but thought that might be doing the young artist a disservice. Truth be told, I don’t know that I have any great pearls of wisdom to pass on. Or nuggets either, as wisdom comes packaged that way, too. Experience is the name we give to all the things we’ve done. Wisdom is realizing afterward just how dumb they were. I’ll try to stick to only the smart things I have done. Which explains why this article is not very long.


To begin with, it helps to have a bit of luck, which you can buy in Chinatown where every trinket and nicknack for sale means good luck. While luck is great to have, only a fool relies on it. Have you ever played the lottery? There you go.

Your best bit of luck would be to be born with artistic talent. Unfortunately this is as useful as advising you to be tall and good-looking. Which wouldn’t improve your drawing skills, but it wouldn’t hurt. Anyway, you can pick your nose but you can’t pick your parents. Though you inherit your nose from your parents, so maybe you can’t pick your nose after all.


When you are just starting out and eager to make your mark there may be folks who offer you work with, “It’ll be good exposure.” Which pretty much means they want you to work for next to nothing. Or even nothing if they can get away with it. Thing is, people often die from exposure. OK, that’s just a joke I couldn’t resist. Now some actual advice: Doing things for the exposure can help you get established. If it helps, think of it as free advertising. If that doesn’t help, think of it as practice. Or an opportunity. That’s the ticket, an opportunity to garner a business relationship that could pay off down the line. Seriously, it worked for me.

It’s a generally acknowledged truism (meaning unprovable) that folks like working with people they like, so be likable like. It’s OK to disagree with the client, but once you suggest your better idea and they still want it their own way, give it to them. It’s their project and their money. If you want it to become your money be a pro, not a prima dona. Once you’re an established genius in demand you can be “colorful,” until then you’re just a jerk.

For the most part there isn’t a plethora of illustrator jobs waiting to be snapped up by eager young artists. You know, a steady nine-to-five gig where you draw a pay­check. Ha. Draw a paycheck. Artist. Never mind. You’ll likely be freelance, self-employed. Or self-un-employed as the case often is. Some people like to say when you’re self-employed you’re your own boss. Those people are idiots. Every client is your boss. You have lots of bosses. What you won’t have is some underling you can pass the work off on at the last minute and call it a day. That’s what you are to the client.


As a freelancer you can set your own hours. Though you still have to meet deadlines, which are someone else’s hours. Remember, to the client deadlines are orders, not suggestions. Still, you work in your own space done up however you like. This space of your very own, expect to spend money of your very own for it. Still, you are free to dress in tattered jeans, wear an artsy-looking beret, and generally go all Bohemian if that’s your bent. Though for client meetings it’s usually best to leave the “I'm With Stupid” T-shirt at home. Yes, you can go on vacation any time you want. That’s an unpaid vacation, by the way.

Admittedly it’s not all a bed of roses. Still, you make a living (hopefully) at something you enjoy doing. Well, maybe. You can wind up drawing bits for ads and magazine articles that are, frankly, mind-numbingly dreadful and awful. All the same, it beats a real job. Other than paper cuts and maybe a careless slip with an X-acto knife it’s a pretty safe occupation. You’d have to be uncom­monly inept to lose an arm in a drawing board.

One nice thing about the art biz is you don’t need a license or a degree or a certificate or any of that sort of thing. In my entire career not one potential client has asked to see my art school diploma. Good thing, too, because I don’t have one. It’s your bag, your samples, your work that matters. What they see is what you got. For better or worse, your work speaks for itself. If I could only figure out a way to get the work to sell itself I’d be in gravy.


While you needn’t file forms with the government to ply your trade, there’s still some paperwork. You have to do billing, sign releases and agreements and whatnot. That’s no fun. But if you don’t you won’t be getting a check in the mail for finished work. A check in the mail is fun. Never getting a check in the mail for delivered work is the very opposite of fun. To prevent this unhappy event, if it’s not an established, reputable client, get paid on or before delivery whenever possible. But don’t spring such a proviso at the last minute. This type of surprise is no party and won’t foster a warm feeling for you the next time the client needs a bit of art for hire.

In the end, illustration work is work like any other work only with pictures. You can do it for the money, because you’re good at it, or because you have absolutely no other talent or skills anyone would cough up good money for. (Guess which fits me.) Or you could do it because it makes you happy. And a happy artist is just an unhappy artist that’s having fun.


That’s all I got, sorry. Granted it ain’t much, not exactly a roadmap to success or a guide to getting illustration work. Hopefully there are a few tidbits hidden between the snarky comments that might pass for good advice of a sort. Anyway, if you want to learn how to be a great success, ask someone who’s a great success, not me. I get by. And if a lazy, half-talent like me can get by maybe you can, too. Them’s some inspiring words to live by, “Yes, maybe I can get by!”

All of the above may be moot as soon as Silicon Valley propeller heads replace artists with draw-bots or some sort of algorithm or whatever. You never know. At least I never know. What’s an algorithm? I don’t know that either. But if they can get one to draw they’ll put them on servers in India or something and I’ll be retiring sooner than scheduled. So remember to pay your taxes, kids.