At conferences, schools, and through social media, I get this question a lot:
My answer has evolved over the years. I’ve managed to hone it down to this one sentence: The ability to consistently communicate a feeling and narrative through exceptional, personal image-making.
Yes, that is a lot easier to say than do. However, if you ask the same question to multiple art directors, I suspect you’ll get a variant of that sentence. Some art directors may throw in “problem-solver”, “dependable”, and “collaborator”. Those are good, too. But they don’t necessarily help illustrators who haven’t had a chance yet to show those qualities. I don’t really know how dependable you are until we’re working together, right? This post will cover typical ways in which I find and hire you.
IT STARTS WITH A NEED
I art direct 230 books a year. They vastly differ in complexity, format, and genre. They are illustrated in every major medium (acrylic, oil, digital, mixed-media, watercolor, pencil, pen, ink, and on). But I start them all with the same question: what feeling are we trying to convey? The answer could be any combination of: gross, funny, sweet, epic, eerie, mysterious, light, dark, friendly, accessible, etc.
Then, I identify what visual approach is needed (Not “style”. I hate that word. I explain how much I hate that word in this post.). Questions posed include: Who is the target audience? Are we looking for something soft and ethereal? Or direct and bold? Graphic? Representational? Will they also need to do black & white interiors? Once I gather as much information as possible, I begin to look for illustrators.
My guess is that at this point in the process, most art directors are saying, “Yeah, I start that way, too.” It’s at this point of the search where I imagine we all separate in our approach.
Each art director has a very personal definition of what constitutes “good” illustration. We’re educated differently. We have different tastes, influences, ideas and needs. In my case, I look for factors including, not limited to, and always evolving, like:
• Strong character design
• An understanding of color theory
• Compositional intelligence
• Ability to command the medium
Notice I didn’t say “amazing”. That’s another word I hate. It’s the perpetually moving goal post. As an illustrator, striving for “amazing” will most likely result in anxiety and a deadening of the creative process. I prefer “good”, “smart”, “well-executed”, and “interesting”. I also place a high premium on “personal”. Is your voice coming through in your work? Or are you just copying someone else?
Also notice that I haven’t said anything about how many awards you’ve won; what school you attended; or who your previous clients are. Most art directors will say that none of that matters. All that matters is the art. Of course awards and clients suggest affirmation and competency, and the school you attended will definitely inform your work. But, it always goes back to the art. That is the only constant.
WHERE ARE YOU?
I look for artists in myriad ways. Postcards, conferences, magazines, art shows, online artist collectives, blogs, and social media are all ways in which I find artists. Art directors can’t hire you if we don't know you exist. A combination of these should be employed when considering marketing. I receive hundreds of emails. Many of them go directly to Spam—meaning I probably won’t see them. So, diversify your outreach with postcards, social media, email blasts, etc.
Postcards are an excellent, affordable way to get your art in front of art buyers. Read more about my love for postcards here. For now, I’ll say that they simply need to be professionally printed (you can do that yourself); displaying your best work on one side, and your information on the other. Don’t waste space with a lot of text. Let your image do the talking. Also, send postcards two to four times a year, depending on what you can afford. They don’t have to be fancy, or elaborate.
I want to emphasize that in order to have a chance at a career as an illustrator, you must learn to market yourself. There are countless ways to do this. It’s only through research and trial & error that you’ll figure out what works best for you. It’s better to do a few of these things really well; as opposed to doing way too much poorly. For example, I use Twitter and Facebook. That’s about all I can handle. But I try to utilize them in many different ways.
At conferences, you don’t have to be the most gregarious person to network. Be yourself. Be courteous and respectful. Most of the people you approach are not “celebrities”. It’s ok to say a nice thing or two about them, but don’t gush. You are the talent. We should be gushing over what you do. Not the other way around.
The illustration community is a collaborative one. It’s important for illustrators to reach out to other illustrators. Team up to create mailing lists, critique groups, and online collectives. One of my favorite collectives to visit was a Legend of Zelda fan art site called fillupyourhearts. It’s no longer updated, but there are still plenty of good illustrators on display. Another collective was terribleyelloweyes. That site was an homage to Where the Wild Things Are.
What tends to happen is that one person’s blog or site will link to another and another and another. I can’t tell you how many new artists I’ve found just from the “Friends” links on many of your blogs.
During the search, I create contact sheets by pulling images from websites. I’m looking for someone with a visual handwriting that aligns with the tone of the story. Consequently, that means that any number of artists would be right for the project. It’s important to keep your site updated. I’d rather see eight to ten very strong pieces upon which you build, than twenty pieces of varying quality. If you don’t have a website, get on that right away. You don’t need a lot of money—or even that much art—to have a good one. I see building a website like gardening (this won’t be the last gardening metaphor you see on the #arttips blog, trust me). You clear out all the weeds; focusing on what is essential. You don’t need much for a great garden. Slowly, through care and time, you build the garden. You’ll prune. You’ll learn. Sometimes you’ll fail. But believe me, the rewards will far outweigh the effort.
A handful of contact sheets are presented to the editor and publisher. Totally absent from our discussion is any mention of your connections, schools, awards, or country of origin. We are just looking at the art. Once we all agree on the illustrator(s), I happily send an email brief to them. It starts: