Learn from My Experience, or Get Your Own

There comes a time in life when one feels duty bound to pass on the benefit of one’s experience to the younger generation whether they like it or not. Then one can retire and collect Social Security so the younger generation can pass on part of their income in return. Whether this is an equitable trade is debatable. After reading said benefit of one’s experience and realizing how paltry one’s contribution is, one might conclude there’s no debate about it.

One might also realize calling oneself one or oneself sounds pretty stilted and stupid and one should cut it out forthwith. And never again say forthwith, either.

I was going to call this article, “Advice for…” but thought that might be doing the young illustrator 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 dumb things we’ve done. Wisdom is realizing afterward just how dumb they really were. I’ll try to stick to only the smart things. 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. Though in a way, if you’re good enough to be a professional illustrator you’ve already been lucky. You were born with artistic talent. So, consider your luck quotient filled for the time being and knuckle down to the work that must now be done. While luck is great to have, only a fool relies on it. Have you ever played the lottery? There you go.


They say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know that counts. Which is to say, nepotism and cronyism work pretty well. I recommend being related to someone who can hand you paying work on a silver platter. Or any type of platter, it’s the handing you part that’s key. 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.

It always helps to know people. However if your friends aren’t in the art biz it won’t help your career much. So let me amend that to it helps to know people in the biz. Which you likely won’t if you’re not already in the biz. Though once on the inside (Notice how I conveniently skipped over the how to get inside part) the thing to do is cultivate business relationships.

“Egads, relationship advice!” you say? Not that kind of relationship. It’s a generally acknowledged truism (meaning unprovable) that folks like working with people they like, so be likable like. Basically, don’t be a jerk. 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. A little friendly chit-chat is OK, but to be on the safe side keep it brief or just stick to business. Save your peculiar political opinions and philosophy for family gatherings where the kinfolk rather expect it. And it won’t cost you work if they never invite you back.

When you are just starting out and desperate to make your mark there may be some folks who offer you work with, “It’ll be good exposure.” Which means they want you to work for next to nothing. Or even nothing if they can get away with it. Thing is, people 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.


For the most part there isn’t a plethora of illustrator jobs just waiting to be snapped up by eager young illustrators. You know, a regular nine-to-five, picture-drawing gig with a steady pay­check. You’ll likely be freelance, self-employed. Or self-un-employed as the case too 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 “F*** Wall Street” 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 unappealing. 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.