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I have received a number of emails over the years from graduating illustrators and artists. Final year projects often require students to contact an illustrator and get advice before embarking on their artistic journey. I thought I would post some of my answers here. But first a little disclaimer!
I have written before about illustrating in the real world, and my opinions regarding it. As a freelancer, I often find myself somewhat isolated from the world of illustration. I have managed to make illustrating work for me, with a number of exhibitions under my belt, works published and sold, but I don’t really feel like I can give anything less than very specific me-oriented answers to questions on illustrating.
So artists and illustrators out there reading this, please gather more than one response to questions regarding freelancing or working in the illustration field. I believe every artist has his own experience, if you are interested in mine, read on…


In the beginning…

How did you start your career in illustration?
I studied Fine Art in South Africa, and discovered after dabbling in this and that, that drawing was my favourite. It does not always pay the bills, but it is what I do professionally. I began to really focus on my portfolio and finding freelancing work around 2009 after I left a teaching post in Japan.
How long have you been an illustrator? I have been freelancing for almost 3 years, but illustrating for about 4 before that.
Where did you go to school and what did you study? Did you teach your self ? I studied Fine Arts and have my honours from WITS university in Johannesburg South Africa.
How did you enter the field that you are working in? It took me awhile to finally realise that I wanted to do illustration. I studied a BAFA at WITS university, which actually is quite different even though they are both art degrees.
At my university the focus was more on conceptual analysis and critical learning rather than technical skills. You are expected to resolve problems in your own way while discovering new ways of using different mediums, to express your ideas. I enjoyed the courses, and certain things have stuck with me and I use them today in my illustration. I never formally studied illustration, perhaps someday I will do a post grad or masters course in it, who knows.
After university I teamed up with a good friend Alba Poretti and we created Missyucki, which merged our talents and created a platform for us to explore other mediums through story telling. I found that MissYucki really was a turning point for me. I really enjoyed the process of illustrating stories and ideas. I moved to Japan, however during my time there, I continued to experiment in illustration for MissYucki. I was exposed to photoshop and a wacom tablet, and this medium really changed things for me.
After Japan I moved to Spain and decided to pursue illustration full time, with no experience in the world of illustration besides MissYucki, it was a hard learning curve. I was only really able to manage with the help of my fiancé who supported me. I would recommend working in an a graphic design studio, or in animation or advertising before launching into illustration on its own. this will give you experience and you will create networks of people who know you and your work. In some ways I think I went about it backwards, but with perseverance you can make it out there on your own!


Regarding Clients & Work

Are your clients all in the same type of business? Not at all
What has been your favourite job lately? A book project I am working on at the moment. More info on that soon.
Are you satisfied with your income and do you find your job satisfying? I find my job very satisfying. Income is a tricky one, with freelancing – it can be great if there is a lot of work, and difficult when there is none! I usually have to supplement my income with a part time job, so I have regular pocket money.
What are the real conditions that you work under? Do you face any challenges? The real conditions are that it’s super competitive out there, I work mostly online, and this means I’m competing with pretty much every illustrator out there, which can be inspiring and disheartening at the same time. I guess my situation is a little different – as I did not study illustration, I wasn’t exposed to a network of peers or job opportunities that (I assume) you would be if you studied in that field. I also did not stay in a country where I knew the network. Moving from Japan to Barcelona means I am in a country where I don’t speak the language fluently. I have been lucky enough to make contacts with English magazines and have done a few children’s book illustrations as well as the odd commission and exhibition, but honestly networking is tricky for me here. It’s frustrating not being able to express my opinions on art as well as I would like in Spanish.
I basically taught myself the trade, built a website, looked for an agent, found clients, figured out how to run the business side of things from scratch in one year. It was tough, and it isn’t over yet. I learn new things everyday, so to answer your question, I think there is a different challenge everyday. You need a little bit of luck to survive!
What do mainly create illustrations for? I work in editorial and children’s illustration mainly. I also sell my personal fine art illustrations through exhibiting and online.
Who are your current and past clients? Mostly magazines, a few authors and I have worked for the government of South Africa, doing educational illustrations to name a few.
What have been your favourite projects that you have created? Do you have any least favourite? Many of my commissioned projects start out as my least favourite, but once I get into the style and focus, the challenge turns them into my best. It’s not always easy to capture someone’s vision, but as they challenge my skill base I enjoy the project even more, and it’s incredibly satisfying to produce something that I am proud of and that the client likes.


Illustrative Process

What is your process when working on a job? Do you sketch it out first or start from scratch at a computer? It depends on the project. I always usually sketch out a bunch of illustrations to send to the client, and then we pick one and go from there. Sometimes I work on paper first doodling ideas, then creating a pencil sketch which I scan and work on digitally. Sometimes I work directly on the computer from start to finish.
What type of programs do you use? Do you use any special equipment? Photoshop and a wacom tablet
How long does a typical illustration take? This really depends on the complexity of the illustration. It could be anywhere from 4 or 5 hours to a number of days!
What are consistent elements throughout your Illustrations? My work is usually colourful and I use lots of layers, working in paint or digitally.
Can you describe your job? What is a typical day like for you? I try to draw something new everyday, so even if I don’t have actual work I am keeping busy, my portfolio is growing. I have a couple of personal projects that I add to on a regular basis. I email people, send out my portfolio etc, update my blog and facebook. If I have a job, it takes precedence and I work on that. I also have a website and shop so I keep those updated, if I have sales, usually I am running around, printing and going to the post office. Other than that I have various chores and errands so my day is pretty full even if I am not illustrating all the time. It’s quite weird to freelance, as you can set up whatever time schedule works for you. Not all my days are typical 😀
What inspires new ideas for your work? Travel, dreams, animals, good conversations. I also enjoy browsing the internet, and sometimes an image or thought will spark an idea. I like using narrative in my art, and often an illustration will be a “window” into a world in my imagination.
I love how you draw figures – how did you develop your style? Practice I guess. I wouldn’t say that I really planned on developing a style. What appears on the paper or screen comes the most naturally, I draw what feels right to me, and I suppose this is my usual “style”. The various mediums I use often dictate how I illustrate, and my characters tend to fluctuate in style depending on whether I am painting in acrylics, or digitally. If I see work that inspires me, I try to emulate it to challenge myself, but other than that, I suppose that I have chosen to limit myself in some ways in terms of style, so that my clients can recognise my work. It’s a tricky subject for an illustrator – do you want to be a jack of all trades, or develop your own “signature”. Sometimes I am not sure which is better! But being fluent in any style takes practice. If you stop life figure drawing, and then take it up again 20 years later, even if you used to be excellent, you may find that it takes a while to get back into it. So practice is probably the biggest thing that would help develop a certain style, as well as going with your artistic instinct.
Who has influenced you as an illustrator? Oh wow so many. James Jean, Andrea Innocent, my other project missyucki.com has also been a huge influence.
In your opinion, do you think doodling is way to form expressions or is it just too general (meaning there’s no meaning behind every doodle)? Hard to say. I mean doodling in general is scribbling on a piece of paper, without really thinking, but often when you are doodling without thinking, things that are in your subconscious come out on the paper, like a dream, so for me it’s definitely a form of expression.


My two cents…

What advice would you give a student illustrator about to leave university?
Get a job or internship, make connections, get as much experience as you can, develop your portfolio, and sign up to the AOI or equivalent if you want to freelance.