Thursday 23 February 2012

Dipping a toe in the big pond of professional illustration

Over this past year I have been lucky enough to encounter many many exciting new illustrative talents.. all bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm for what they hope the illustrative world has to offer them... Many (if not ALL) of them have left art college and university positively brimming with creative juice yet feeling unprepared for the professional world ...

One of my most favourite maestros of the pen is gent of the shire of Bath Mr Ben Rothery.. here's his website as you can see he is masterful in his use of the pen to my utter admiration.(doths cap)
Ben and I put the world to rights over a plate of Gentleman's Relish sandwiches which lead to Ben writing this letter of advice to his former student self which he has kindly offered to share with  you.. I hope you enjoy it.

This article began as a personal reflection on how my life as an Illustrator has gone since I graduated a little over 8 months ago, the things which I know now and could really have done with knowing then. Somehow it ended up being a letter that I wish I were able to send to my former self but feel free to insert your name instead

Dearest Ben

So, you've done it, you've graduated, you're now a fully fledged Illustrationist, professional scribbler and crayonologist. In the face of all the evidence and advice to the contrary you've chosen to pursue a career in Illustration. In spite of the dire warnings of tutors, visiting lecturers and those professionals who came back to tell you just how hard it is, you knew that everything was going to be alright... Three years to be fully self supporting, five, never? Those problems were for someone else surely, You were going to be just fine... right?

You've heard the saying that nothing worthwhile is easy but in graduating into an oversubscribed and shrinking profession in the middle of a global recession you really have decided to push the boundaries of this theory haven't you...

Over the last eight months I have met a truly diverse cast of characters; heroes, villains and everyone in-between and have been offered all manner of advice both good and bad, most of it unsolicited so I thought I'd throw in my penny's worth. What advice can I offer you, what have I learned from my 8 and a bit months of working and trying to 'make it' ?

Well, the first thing that you need to understand is that Art school has left you hopelessly unprepared for 'The real world'. The last eight months have at times been lonely, stressful, terrifying, exhausting and dull beyond words, sometimes it's been all of the above as well as any other emotion you might think of. However hard you think it is going to be... it is harder.

There have been times when I have felt like the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off... permanently.

BUT balanced against that, it has also been exhilarating, rewarding, exciting and at times, deeply fulfilling... when it is good it is possible to forget all about the negatives and it all seems worthwhile.

So... How does one succeed? what is the secret? Stubbornness! Sheer bloody mindedness is the key to your future. You could be forgiven for believing that talent is the most important factor in determining success but I can assure you that this is not the case. There are as many fabulously talented Artists and Illustrators working in other jobs as there are other jobs for them to be working in... they make your morning coffee, take your orders and assure you that "your call is important" when you ring the bank. Some of them are waiting for their 'big break', others sadly have already given up on it ever happening. As for the ones who have succeeded, I am telling you now that by no means are they the most talented Illustrators around (some are but not all). They are the ones who just refused to give up, who insisted on being noticed!

You are also going to need to be lucky. Some people just are but you probably aren't one of them so you're going to need to make your own luck. Put yourself in a position to be noticed and once you've been noticed don't allow yourself to be forgotten.

Blog, Tweet and Facebook about your work constantly, but most importantly go and see people because to quote a famous Illustrator of my acquaintance "Facebook is faceless" and this could be said to apply to any and all forms of submission. Publishers, Agents and Editors might receive hundreds of submissions every week so they need a reason to notice yours, they might of course stumble across your submission in their inbox but do you really want to take that chance? The simplest solution would appear to be to give them a reason to remember and like YOU! so that they want to work with YOU, your talent is not enough to make you stand out, people deal with other people, that you are talented should be a given.

BUT and it is a big but (and before you say anything I freely acknowledge that I appear to be contradicting myself) You should still Blog, Tweet, Facebook all the time, just because using social media to get noticed is a bit hit and miss, doesn't mean that it can't or won't happen. Also it allows you to feel as though you are still in control and still working even if the work has dried up or never got started in the first place. It allows you to feel like you are still part of a creative community and are engaged with your peers even if you're tapping away from your studio cum bedroom which you haven't left for three weeks as you can't afford the price of a cup of coffee...

Keep working. Even if you aren't getting commissioned, this is your passion remember? Picture the scene if you will... you have finally managed to get that interview, that meeting and they ask you what you've been up to since you left uni and your answer is..? doesn't look good does it! But I am not suggesting that should you work for free! There are lots of unscrupulous people out there who will attempt to con you out of free work... Memorise the following phrases!

"I can't pay you now but I'll offer you a 50% share of the profits"

"It's not paid but it's a great opportunity"

"It'll look great in your portfolio"

Remember that everything in this world has a price and that this is your JOB. People who work get paid, that is how the world works so why should anyone expect you to work for free? Keep your wits about you. If you're going to donate your work for free then do it somewhere that is going to get you noticed, mr "I'll give you a share of the profits" is not actually offering you anything 50% of nothing, is nothing!

Don't be precious about your work, so you were only going to do picture books or editorial work? better people than you or I have done less exalted work to make ends meet, any work is better than no work, it is a means to an end!

You are not an Illustrator. I should probably qualify that statement, what I mean to say is that you are not JUST an Illustrator, you are also a Salesman, Secretary and Debt collector. You need to find work for yourself and you need to keep your records in order so that you know who owes you what and when they are supposed to pay you and you need to chase them to do so. You also need to keep all of your receipts, train tickets and invoices so that you can claim them back from the tax man. Please don't do what I did at first and diligently keep every scrap of paper... in a giant box and then have to spend a week of soul crushing tedium sorting through it all!

You also need your records to be in order so that you're able do your tax return. The tax man ain't your friend, he is not going to do you any favours and you don't want any nasty surprises, he does not care that you didn't know that you were meant to keep 'that' bit of paper etc.

I worked out the other day that two thirds of my time is spent looking for work, talking about work and chasing people for payment for work and only a third actually working. (Thats right, your clients will often do almost anything to avoid paying you on time... or even at all) It doesn't sound very glamorous Now, does it?

But, it will get better, you'll get more efficient at the admin stuff, people will start coming to you rather than you chasing them, maybe you'll get yourself an agent and they'll do some of the chasing for you. Things will start to move in the right direction and you'll have more good days than bad.

Don't be put off by anyone, including yours truly I am after all on your side. I have waited tables, worked doors and have made every one of the mistakes I am warning you about, some of them more than once! So keep at it, keep working, keep doing that second job for as long as it takes... You managed to get this far and if you manage to pull it off then you have the best job in the world, you get to draw pretty pictures for a living and if not, you've always got that other job...

As for me, I'm not there yet but I'm working on it, I've still got a second job but I've nearly finished that book I've been talking about and I'm working.

That light at the end of the tunnel has been switched back on... and it seems to be getting closer...


  1. Great advice, and yes... I wish I had heard this when I was a student.

  2. Thanks for the pep-talk. I will try my hardest not to feel guilty about creating and not yet bringing in an income for it. This is my job.

  3. What a great letter! Ben- thanks for taking the time to write to your past self... and letting us be inspired by your letter also!


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