As my illustration business turned one year older recently I was thinking about all the things that have happened since I started, all the opportunities I’ve had so far, all the things I want to achieve still and all the ways I have grown. This includes the mistakes that I made. I’m sure there will be a few more along the way and I’m not suggesting that what happened to me would necessarily happen to you – everybody’s experience is unique after all – but I decided that I’d share my mistakes in the hope that maybe you can avoid some of the traps that I fell into. Here are my five biggest mistakes to date. Some of them are really cringe-worthy. (You’ve been warned!)
1 # Paying to be ‘featured in a magazine’
I am a self-taught illustrator and when I started out I didn’t have any knowledge of the industry at all. I didn’t what was normal and what wasn’t, and I certainly was very eager (some would say naive). So when I got a phone call one day where the person on the other end started praising my work and offered me a feature in their magazine I was ecstatic. “It will cost £xxx,” the lady on the phone said matter-of-factly. “Oh, I hadn’t realised I had to pay to be in the magazine,” I replied. “That’s a little bit too expensive for me, sorry.” She quickly suggested a smaller, cheaper type of feature saying that she was doing me a favour and that I had to make my mind now or the offer wouldn’t stand anymore. “I could be in a magazine…,” I thought to myself. And just like that I accepted the offer.
Guys, there are so many things that were wrong about that phone exchange and unsurprisingly, this “feature” didn’t do anything for me or my career in terms of exposure.
What I know now: A legit magazine would never ask you to pay to be featured in it. Actually, quite the opposite.
2 # Working with a self-published children’s book author with no experience
When you’ve told somebody that you are an illustrator have you ever had an excited response along the lines of “Oh, that’s awesome! I’ve got that really cool idea for a story and I would love you to illustrate my book!”? Anyone? I have.
Once again, I was VERY eager when I started working as an illustrator – not that I’m not excited anymore, but I’m just… ‘wiser’ now – so the first time someone told me that they would love for me to work with them on their book, I said yes. Boy, I had no clue what I was getting myself into!
Making a picture book is a lot of work when you work with people who know what they’re doing. Making a picture book with people who don’t have the slightest clue is even more work. So when you start working on a children’s book project you want to make sure that your client has what it takes to be in it with you.
Long story short, that particular client was inexperienced when it came to the whole book writing, book making and book publishing business and so I had to do a lot of guidance work as well as project management work as well as the actual illustration work itself. The project ended up dragging on for a bit: the story got re-written a couple of times after I had started the illustration work and I had to redo some of them, and the budget wasn’t very big so I also had to work on other projects on the side to be able to pay rent and bills. I’m not very proud of it but I ended up feeling a bit bitter about the whole thing at the time. Finally I completed the project and moved on.
What I know now: I’m not saying that you should never work with a self-published author but I strongly recommend that if you decide to take on a project like this you think carefully about what work you will actually be doing and that you consider whether your potential client has got any experience of the process because the less experience you client have the more work you will have to do. Again, not a bad thing if that’s your kind of jam. Just make sure you quote accordingly.
3 # Getting ‘too influenced’ by another artist’s artwork
The Internet is a great source of inspiration and sometimes I just fall in love so bad with somebody else’s work that I look at everything they produce up to the tiniest details and await for their next Instagram post with impatience.
Once I fell in love just like that with another artist’s work and without meaning any harm (honest!) I started imitating her style every now and then in my free time as a way to experiment. I posted images of those pieces on my blog and my Instagram feed. And because my intention was never to work professionally (a.k.a. for clients) in that style and because to me those pieces where just for fun, I didn’t even think about crediting my source of inspiration. Guys, in case you’re wondering: that’s bad, and you should ALWAYS give credit where it is due.
One day I got a message from that artist. She was understandably unhappy. I was honest with her. I explained that I would never have copied her style for a client and that what she saw were just illustrations made for fun in my spare time. And I apologised. In fact deep inside I was mortified with my lack of good judgement and for having angered somebody I admired so much. I deleted my Instagram posts that were too similar to her style (and therefore confusing) and credited her as my inspiration source for the particular pieces I posted on my blog. And the issue was resolved.
What I know now: It is natural to be inspired by other artists but make sure that you don’t copy. I feel that the #DrawThisInYourStyle challenges that are currently quite popular on Instagram are good for interpreting somebody else’s work in your own style. Just make sure you always credit the original artist whether you interpret the work in your style or copy for practice, or for fun.
Also, don’t get all of your inspiration from contemporary artists. Look at artwork from different eras and also look at different industries.
4 # Waiting for my portfolio to be ‘ready’ before I contacted potential clients
Weirdly enough, when I started working as an illustrator I didn’t wait to have the perfect portfolio to contact potential clients. One of the bright sides of being so eager and naive is that everything seemed possible, and being self-taught I hadn’t yet seen as much great illustration work as I have seen now, so I was confident that I too could get there with what I had.
Then I started to take courses to hone my skills further. Despite all the good those courses did, they also put in front of my eyes what is only a fraction of all the great and talented artists that are out there in the world. All of a sudden I lost my innocence like Adam and Eve lost theirs as they realised that they were naked just before being kicked out of the garden of Eden (pardon the religious metaphor but it felt appropriate here), I felt that my art wasn’t good enough ‘yet’ and I let doubt creep in.
I used those courses as an excuse. “I’m getting better,” I told myself, “and I will have much more of a chance with potential clients once I’m better at x.” As I was getting better I was also getting more worried that I needed a lot more portfolio pieces to show potential clients and as a result I didn’t contact anybody for a whole year because I was just too afraid that my work wasn’t actually good enough yet or that I didn’t have enough to show. The thing is: if you don’t tell people you’re here and available for work, they won’t necessarily realise that you are. And although there is no guarantee that I would have had more work that year had I contacted potential clients, by not contacting anybody I made sure that my opportunities were limited. As you can imagine, that year was rough financially.
What I know now: A portfolio is a work in progress. It will never be perfect or completely finished as you and your art constantly grow. Ideally you would find a balance between taking courses and/or producing personal work, and contacting potential clients and doing client work.
5 # Not charging enough
This is a common trap to fall into. I fell into it too. More than once.
You might not be charging your clients enough because you might feel that “you have to start somewhere, right?”, that (for some reason) you don’t deserve it, or that your lower rate will get you more projects by the same client. It might be that you don’t know how much you should actually charge for the work, that the client is a relative or a friend, or that you’ve grown up to believe things like “getting money is a real struggle”.
As far as I’m concerned it’s a little bit of all of the above plus a pinch of “what if I am too expensive for that client and I don’t get the project altogether?” and a zest of getting used to lower budgets and therefore starting to genuinely believe that I’m just asking for too much and that my work isn’t worth more. I spent years feeling guilty for increasing my rates as I was getting more experienced, or for quoting a fair price for a specific project.
Until one day I received a project offer to draw three ‘complex’ illustrations for a book (and by ‘complex’ I mean: illustrations with backgrounds and quite a lot of detail, in colour – of course!) for £75. For the three of them. And it was a big and respectable publishing company – which I won’t name – who was making the offer.
I read the email again. And then again. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to feel offended.
Obviously, I didn’t accept the project but I guess somebody eventually did. I had never gone as low as that for similar jobs price-wise but that email really made me question the way I was pricing my work, the perception it was sending clients, and just where I had put my self-respect (which seemed to reappear with this email, fortunately). I realised that if I didn’t show that I valued and respected my work, why should a client?
What I know now: Showing that I value and respect my work and my time tends to transfer to the client. Also, prices can be negotiated. They may be negotiated down but prices will rarely be negotiated up so make sure that you ask for a little bit more to start with and that you are clear on your bottom line (i.e. the amount past which you are not willing to accept the project).
I hope you enjoyed this post. If you’d like to share your own mistakes and the lessons you’ve learnt on your illustration journey I’d love to hear about them in the comments!