January 30, 2015

Four tips for the successful illustrator’s year

It’s still early enough in the year to discuss some good practices for the illustrator. Here are four chores that every illustrator should be doing. Some will like the structure this gives them, others will crave the structure this will give them. The bottom line is that everyone is looking to improve and grow and the year easily becomes a blur of time and actions if there aren’t moments to stop and reflect, to redirect and to reset.

1. Review your short term plan

I audited an illustration class over at FIT a while ago and the first assignment was to compose a five-year plan. This five year plan was a list of the goals you would like achieved in five years and where you would like to find yourself in your career. It’s a simple task and usually a brief list. There is something that occurs when you commit these ideas to paper that causes you to begin stepping towards these goals. Initially, you are obviously aware of your goals but, as time goes on and the memory of the task fades and somehow you continue towards these goals.

TIP: It is important to revisit this list at the onset of each year to remind yourself of your goals, see if you have achieved any of them already and amend your plan with new targets. We plan our career’s path like a careful drawing in pencil—capable of alteration and revision, but executed with boldness and determination, as if it were ink. Think of it as doing your taxes. Set an annual date to do this. For example, the second Friday of the new year.

2. Enter Annuals

Did you miss it the recent submission period to Spectrum? That’s ok. You’re on time to start fresh. Annuals like Spectrum, Communication Arts Illustration, Society of Illustrators, 3×3 Magazine, etc. adhere us to strive for personal professional success with piece we create, be it a real job or a personal piece. Entering most of these competitions has a nominal fee. Figure out which annuals you would like to enter, guess at the amount of pieces you might enter and calculate your budget for the year. While having a piece selected for these annuals is a nice honor and provides exposure, just making the decision to enter will automatically keep you on your game so you are always producing the best work.

TIP:Start the year off with the submission dates recorded in your calendar. Put it in your phones, your wall calendar, your desk calendars. Don’t use a calendar? You probably should, if only for something like this. Set a six-month reminder for when each submission period begins to remind you that you should have something completed by then. Add visual reminders to your workspace. Get fancy and print our their logos and tape them to your easel, or don’t and just scribble them on a scrap of paper taped to your easel. Digital artist? Make a wallpaper of logos that you see whenever you sit at your computer.

3. Portfolio curation

Weed out the weaker pieces from your portfolio and replace them with newer, better work at least on a yearly basis. Make sure your portfolio identifies you clearly. Display the work that you want to be doing, even if it means conveying that desire with personal pieces. You should consider “Your Portfolio” to be the never-ending project on your plate.

TIP: Be honest based on your own feelings and the comments of others as to which is the weakest piece in your portfolio. Don’t stay attached to everything. Keep a list of your work from best to worst to make weeding out easier. When you complete a new piece, compare it to the ones on your list to see where it falls and if it warrants dropping a weak piece.

4. Portfolio reviews

Sign up for portfolio reviews. Vary the reviewers. Prepare yourself to ask for an unscheduled review if you encounter an Art Director at a lecture, a convention, a workshop, etc. (There is a skill to be learned about asking someone for an unscheduled review. Remember Public Speaking 101? Signing up is the easy way, for both the illustrator and the Art Director.)

TIP: When you have your review, LISTEN. Don’t take over the review. Take notes. I mean, really take notes, like on paper with a pen. Usually these encounters take place in the most visually stimulating settings. It’s a convention bustling with a lot of activity and things to see. You will be meeting lots of people and it will be easy to forget and miss the constructive criticism you receive. It also will be almost impossible to compare the advice of your reviewers in order to see your work in a different perspective and grow. Then, after the meeting and in the quiet of your studio review your notes, compare the advice and learn to see things from this new perspective which you sought out and then formulate your plan (see step 1 and begin the process again).

What annual chores do you do to further your career? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Michael C

    Regarding goals, I find that writing out your yearly goals every single day before you plan your day is a great way to stay on track. It shouldn’t take longer than a minute or two and if it does then you likely have too many goals.

    I picked up that technique from Thr Miracle of Self Discipline. It looks cheesy but it’s very effective if you follow his advice.

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