There are two pieces of advice every illustrator has heard, but should never heed: “Do what you love, and the money will follow” and “Only accept projects if you connect with the text”.
They’re both cut from the same cloth: let your emotions inform your decisions. For some illustrators, this is possible to do while still maintaining a successful career. Good on them for putting in the time and effort to be in that position. But for the other 99% of us, it isn’t always the case—especially when we’re starting out. It’s to that illustrator that I’m (mostly) directing this post.
Everyone’s heard some variation of the above phrases. Illustrators hear it a lot at conferences and schools. At best, the sentiment is romantic yet naive. At worst, it’s misleading. But mostly it’s just trite. In order to be remotely helpful, a litany of caveats need to follow:
- Provided you already have full-time employment to pay bills.
- Provided you are financially supported by a loved one or trust fund.
- Provided what you love is commercially viable.
- Provided you fully equip yourself with the education and tools to do what you love at a high level.
- Provided you are prepared to do something else you love because you stink at the first thing you love.
- Provided you first do everything else for a few decades, hopefully building to what you love.
When do we decide what we love? High school? College? Middle age? If I stuck with doing what I “loved” in college, I’d be an out-of-work oil painter listening to the Dave Matthews Band. I didn’t know what I loved (children’s book designer) until I had already been doing it for half a decade.
The money will follow. From whom? How much? Can I buy a house in a good school district? Or is it just enough to pay rent? I know what the point is, but what happens if the money doesn’t follow? Plus, many of us can’t just up and do what we love. We don’t have someone to support us; and, many of us have dependents. Young illustrators learn very quickly that love and connection don’t pay bills.
I will say that “Do what you love . . .” has some merit. I can see a counterargument in its favor. But “Only accept projects if you connect with the text” has no redeeming quality. Where illustrators are concerned, it assumes one has the luxury to say “No thanks. There’s no connection”. If you ever hear this bit of advice at a conference, respectfully respond with:
If I could do that, this conference would be paying me.
Not the other way around.
I’m half-joking about all of this to make a larger, more serious point: Illustrators shouldn’t limit their career to doing only the things they think they “love”. Maintain a wider view. Approach work without preconceptions. Whether a project is an info-graphic for suppositories or a coveted hardcover picture book, bring the utmost level of professionalism, respect (for the client & reader), and skill.
I often liken illustrators to plumbers. Few plumbers get to wait for that big client. Until they establish themselves, they do all sorts of jobs. And they have to do it well, or their career sinks before it even begins (see what I did there).
This isn’t the most inspirational point of view, but I think it’s the most realistic: Illustration is a client-based service industry. And despite our ivy league-level student debt, we’re plumbers with a paintbrush.
ART AND CONSTRUCTION
I worked in construction through the latter half of my teen years (hence the plumbing reference). And I don’t mean holding up a flag on the street. I worked with my uncle’s business laying down sidewalks, driveways, basements, foundations, brick walls, and yes, doing some plumbing. I woke up at six, knew my way around jack hammers and their compressors, and I managed cement trucks. I have a scar above my right eye that serves as a reminder of my days as a cement and plaster-coated teen.
I bring his up because I learned a very valuable lesson: no matter how small the job, we always brought our A-game. My uncle was asked about “wasting time” on small repair jobs (like patches on cement steps or installing sump-pumps) for out-of-the-way clients or clients in dangerous parts of Baltimore city. His response was, “It doesn’t matter who they are, we need to show respect for the job and the client. If we do that, who do you think they’ll call again for a bigger job like a driveway or basement. And who do you think they’ll remember when their friends need work done?”
It’s the same with illustration, especially post-internet. I don’t think it’s realistic anymore to decide early on to just be a “children’s book” illustrator, or an “editorial” illustrator. To be successful—for a longer period of time—all avenues need to be explored: big or small, books or magazines, greeting cards or board games, connection or no connection.
NO SMALL PARTS
When discussing this topic with my wife, she said it better (and in fewer words) than I ever could, “It’s like saying ‘I’m holding out for Lear’.” She went on to quote, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Exactly.
That’s the kind of illustrator I’m looking for. Someone who brings absolute professionalism and integrity and respect and talent to ANY job. Love and connection notwithstanding.