Barry Crump (detail), by Trevor Dodd,
I needed someone to illustrate the ukulele book. Nothing fancy or artsy, just simple line drawings of ukuleles, fingering positions, accessories, and the like. I had a small budget and a tight deadline. As compensation, I was prepared to offer “Illustrated by” credit on the cover, and even one of those little “About the Illustrator” blurbs, where the artist could pose in a comical fashion and plug their website. To me it seemed like a great way to break into books and get a commercial portfolio. But I was flummoxed by some of the people I interviewed. Absolutely flummoxed. These were all folks who claimed they wanted to be professional illustrators, yet they made me want to run a mile. In the end I did find a couple of excellent people to work with, but it took weeks.
What was everybody else doing wrong? Consistently, the same things. So of course I started making a list, as a public service. This list is a little different from most of those offering advice to aspiring artists. When professional illustrators are interviewed about how to “break into the business”, they talk about which art school to attend, what sort of style to cultivate, how to stay creative, and so forth. But as a potential client, I. Don’t. Care about that. Here’s a counter-list of very, very simple, practical things an illustrator can do to get work, from a client’s point of view.
- Get a website. I can’t consider anyone who isn’t online. I’m sorry, that seems harsh, but I physically do not have time to spend an hour going to a coffee shop and shuffling through the portfolio of each of the dozens of illustrators I hear about. I need to see all your work in about 30 seconds, then move on to the next candidate.
- Sign up for a basic online space, for example at a commercial portfolio site like this one, or pay someone to design it for you. Even posting your portfolio to a blog like TypePad would be fine, and that’s dirt cheap. People who bother to register their own domain name of course get taken far more seriously.
- Make sure you get listed in some of the online artist directories. How do you find these? Google freelance illustrator [your home town], because that’s what your clients will be doing. Figure out what the top ten results have in common, and do that.
- Make sure all the text on your site is properly spelled and punctuated. I know, you won’t be hired for your writing skills. But it tells me you care about what I think.
- Don’t make implausible claims about the thousand things you can do, or list ten different “specialisations”. Less is more. I felt much more confident in people who did only three things, but did them well. Do, however, show me the full range of stuff you’re good at, not endless variations in the same style.
- What are your rates? I know, every drawing you do is a special snowflake, but show me some sample pieces and say how much they would cost. This is really important to those of us on limited budgets, but nobody (nobody!) does this. It drove me nuts.
- List all your contact details on your website. Insane, I know, but some people forget to add a mailing address or a cellphone, or use an email address that they never check “because it gets too much spam”, or give out their home address and number(!).
Fingering D7, by yours truly
- So that means having a working email address, preferably one that ends in your domain name, not gmail or xtra. If you just post it on your website, though, you’ll start getting spam, and potential clients might end up in your spam filter. There are plenty of ways to hide an email address from spammers: use one.
- Check your email every day, and respond to clients within 24 hours. Your competition does.
- Use capital letters and punctuation in your emails. I know, you’re an Artist and just too creative to use the shift key, blah blah blah. But clients tend not to hire 12-year-olds, so perhaps you should strive to resemble one as little as possible.
- In the signature of your email put your landline, your mobile number, and your web address. If you have a fax, excellent. (I like to mark up faxed copy and fax it back.)
- Don’t put a tiny graphic in your email signature; it means I can’t tell which of your emails have attachments or not. This becomes really important when we’re emailing versions back and forth.
- If you’re offered a chance to do a sample piece, do it within 24 hours if you possibly can, and supply nicely-packaged original art as well as emailing a low-resolution scan. Need I say first impressions count? Apparently I do.
- Email sketches and samples at screen resolution: 72 dpi and a few hundred pixels wide. Never, ever email me multi-megabyte unsolicited artwork.
- Make an effort. If someone wants you to draw (say) a ukulele, go out and find a real ukulele. You may have to borrow one, or actually shell out $30 and buy one. (Or find a photo of one–I hear you can do that without leaving the house these days.) Do a few sketches before the client asks, and you’ll get huge kudos for showing initiative.
- Reassure me that you can work with other people: that you always meet deadlines, that you’ve had work published before and it all went smoothly, that you have a professional invoicing and receipt setup, that you’re GST-registered (I don’t actually care either way, but this suggests that you’ve worked with corporate clients more than once).
Ukulele capo, by Helen Taylor,
helben [at] xtra.co.nz
- What’s your policy on sending preliminary sketches? What file formats do you supply copy in? How many corrections can I make to a completed work before I’m charged extra? What are your terms of payment? Who holds copyright? (Hint: who’s paying who?) Do you have to be cited when your work’s used? If you don’t know the answers to all of these, I’ll be thinking, “Oh no–am I your first-ever client?” To prevent this sinking feeling, summarise the answers for me on your website.
- The most important thing, and the rationale behind this list: convince me you are not a flake. Everyone knows the stereotype: unreliable, temperamental, disorganised, living in a dream world. This stereotype, I must reluctantly report, is based on fact. For a client, the nightmare would be an illustrator who doesn’t listen to your detailed brief, takes weeks to make changes, comes up with something completely unusable, and then disappears just as the deadline approaches. This is the secret fear your client is nursing, so your job is to assuage it by acting like a professional at all times.
- Finally, don’t take on a job you can’t do; it’s a waste of everybody’s time. If the client supplies a clear brief and examples of what they want, and you’re unable to produce art to that standard, don’t go invoicing them for the hours you spent trying. The client’s paying for finished art, not for your time. Learn to say no. If you take all these grumpy suggestions on board, and are halfway skilled as an artist, I predict you will get work. Because hardly anyone else is doing the stuff on this list, any illustrator who’s just a bit organised stands out like a beacon in the field. Good luck!