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Follow the Curiosity Thread!
Getting Noticed as an Illustrator
Each month members of the IlloGuild answer a question together and this month’s question is:
How do you become known as an illustrator?
In 2018, as I sat there with my hands on my baby belly and my daughter playing at my feet, I decided – TODAY is the day. I’ll take one little step in a new direction. I will take an illustration Make Art That Sells class to see where it goes…no harm in that. Right? I decided to finally pull that little curiosity thread.
5 years later…
I AM a working illustrator. I finished a children’s book earlier this year and I’m currently working on 3 NEW books! Wild huh!? I pulled one little string to see where it would go and it sure did lead to new places!
First, let me rewind a moment…
In 2018, we had recently purchased a home in my home town after spending several years away; traveling while my husband was in the military. I’m a graphic designer so I was able to take my skills with me wherever we went. I had worked for many companies and now I found myself freelancing part time. I remember sitting in my “office” that was slowly transforming into my 2nd child’s nursery. I wondered what the new baby would be like.
I remember staring at my computer with my hands on my large belly feeling uninterested in the design I was tinkering with. I looked around at the old art I had hung all over the walls. Things I had made throughout the years. My happy place. “Why don’t I draw or make more art?”, I thought. It makes me happy…like REALLY happy. And I’m kinda good at it. “What if there was a better fitting job for me? What if I had missed the mark a bit when I went to college? What if I was better suited for something else…something more hands on? More fulfilling to me than graphic design? A job where I get to draw everyday, all day.” And just like that, a familiar thread appeared out of thin air.
I proceeded to google “illustration career”.
A familiar link popped up… Make Art That Sells.
I had heard of it before. I couple years back, before we moved, I had tried entering a GLOBAL TALENT SEARCH CONTEST - with Lilla Rogers. I had randomly come across it and entered it on a whim. However, the timing was all wrong! I had a hard time putting something together because I was hardly drawing and I didn’t have a consistent process. There was so much intimidating talent in the entries, I was simultaneously discouraged and inspired. Maybe some day in the future I would be ready to participate.
Now if I’m completely honest with you… even before that…about 2012 when I was pregnant with my first child, I had felt this curiosity before. I had drawn an image that I felt really proud of (below) and it made me feel like I could do it more. I found Holli Conger’s blog all about “becoming an illustrator”. How she had pitched her work, found her style, and forged her path to illustration. I went so far as joining a mentorship with Holli. She sent me several emails reviewing my work (I had maybe 3 random things to show her) and she gave me advice where to start. First things first, join social media with an artist page - Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter. Make a website and start building a portfolio. Start a blog. Honestly, I did what she said, but again I wasn’t ready AT ALL. So I hardly did anything with those accounts. I was busy working full time, and becoming a new mom. I think she new that and was being polite.
Perhaps that was when the “illustration string” first appeared. If it did. I didn’t pull it. And if I really take you in the “way way back” machine… the string was always there in many forms. In my youth, in college, and practically every step of the way. It was just in reach and I NEVER pulled it.
Until, I did.
– – –
I mean, I still do some design work. I have return clients, a few new ones from word of mouth, and designs to do for my own marketing. Yet, I mostly illustrate now. My design background has come in handy when I draw for lots of reasons! When I illustrate I keep the design in mind. Where will the type go? What is the hierarchy and balance on the page? How do the illustrations elevate the content? How much bleed does it need? Is this for web or for print? So, even though I haven’t left design behind, drawing and illustration has definitely become my focus…and you know what? I was right…it is much more fulfilling for me! Yet, success didn’t come easily or quickly.
So, what does “Follow the Curiosity Thread” mean??
Here’s what it meant for me:
First 6 months – Dipped my Toe in
Baby steps my friend. I started taking classes that interested me. Children’s book. Editorial illustration. I started trying to keep a sketchbook. I started normalizing drawing for myself. That was the beginning. It true, I didn’t finish classes sometimes. A lot of times. I had my hands full with mom life, work, and accompanying excuses. I posted on social media once in a blue moon. It was a small tug on that string, but it was real. It fueled my hunger to know more. Do more. Pull that thread a bit more. You have to start somewhere!
End of Year One – Made a REAL Commitment
At this point I hit a fork in the road. I had to decide. Is this a hobby I’m dedicated to or is this a real pursuit to change my profession? What was my intention? What were my hopes and dreams? Where did I want it to go? I had to write it down and tell people. I had to manifest it into reality or else I didn’t need to take it so seriously and give it so much weight in my life – staying up late to finish drawings and taking more classes. I new this thread had been following me my whole life and because of that…I new it wasn’t just a hobby. It was my life’s calling. In that case I needed to treat it like my job. I needed to keep my personal deadlines like it was a real job (as if future me was cashing the checks I was earning now). I needed to market myself like I was a real business. I am not a stranger to deadlines. I’ve been a professional designer since 2004. Yet, it’s easy to put your own personal projects on the back burner when you have paying gigs to focus on.
Year Two – Found Community
In my pursuit to draw, to learn, and to find my path…I found illustration friends. They were the first to “notice” me. It happened organically. I met people in classes. I joined prompt communities. I joined critique groups. I direct messaged people I admired. I contacted people that felt like friends. And they wrote back. Smaller groups formed where I could be more vulnerable. For the first time, I found people that understood me. Understood my kind of artistry. Kindred Spirits. I felt heard and seen creatively. I felt encouraged. I write more about how important community is in another Substack: Find Your Community
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Year Three - Invested in Myself
I came to a place where I was starting to question my process. Working traditionally, there were things that felt clunky and took up too much space. I was frustrated. I had my eye on digital tools that I suspected would elevate my skills and art. How could I ever make illustration a realistic career if I didn’t have what I needed to succeed? If year Two was to make a commitment, then year Four was to prove it. I invested in myself. I bought an iPad Pro. FINALLY! And then I had to get comfortable with it. Luckily, I had a short learning curve since I was already familiar with most design programs.
Year Four – Curated My Portfolio
All this time, I was creating art and adding EVERYTHING I made to my website. I was still working as a freelance designer. All this time, I was taking classes and seeking critiques from friends. All this time, I was building a small social media presence. Family, friends and slowly people that were finding me via hashtags and algorithms. If you don’t share what you’re making then no one will see it and no one will find you! You have to share somewhere! Where ever it feels most comfortable. There is plenty of places. If Twitter is the best fit. So be it. If it’s Instagram. Okay. There are new platforms all the time and old ones too. Just be somewhere, preferable multiple places (just in case one brakes down). Yet, you don’t want to overwhelm yourself either. Pair those with some kind of Newsletter. Even if you only send a newsletter quarterly. This way you can always reach the people most interested in your work! You really are like your own little business. Your own little brand. If you don’t post for awhile, don’t beat yourself up. Just start posting again as soon as you can. Interact with other creatives. Make yourself available and relevant.
Phew! Lots more to think about then I ever realized, but this time I was ready.
The biggest issue was that EVERYTHING I had made the last 5 years (and even before that) was on my website. The best advice I got from professional and friendly portfolio critiques was: CURATE. CURATE. CURATE. Keep the best work and the work you want to get. Ditch the rest. The rest was just research… part of the fun getting there. It kinda hurt taking things out I had spent so many hours on! Things I had felt so proud of at that moment. Yet, I realized my portfolio itself needed to be cohesive. I needed to reflect a clear style and vision for possible clients. If not, how could they trust me to deliver consistent work?
Year Five – Believed and Accepted the Challenge
Now things were rolling. For the first time, I felt good about my style and skills. I felt good about my website. I was consistently making artwork. I felt like I could start reaching out to agents maybe. Then something unexpected happened. Since I had been sharing my work ALL this time… somehow work came to me! I was contacted through Instagram and commissioned for a sweet little book called: Proud Deaf Girl. It’s in print now and will be available end of July 2023. Check out KarenWellman.com for more info. I was also approached by Elva Resa Publishing for a 3 book deal. The series is called Operation Aviation and will be out next year. Visit ElvaResa.com/operation-aviation/ for more info. I do plan on getting an agent, but you just never know how projects will find you!
Look, it’s different for everyone. Some of these lessons overlapped over the years. You might relate to some of my story or none of my story. There are so many different life choices, circumstances, personalities, schooling, expectations, and life variables that can create wildly alternate paths, ruts, obstacles and twists for any one individual, but if you’re a creative like me – you have a similar string in you that I have and somehow it connects us. So, I understand your desire to make things and I think you should. You should always follow that curiosity thread and see where it takes you because it’s most likely where you belong. I wish that for you! If you desire to create, then it means it needs to be in the world. Someone out there needs it! Download your “Creative Bucket List” and “Align Your Stars” worksheet in one of my previous Substack: Align your Stars.
Please know that it can be a loooong road before you get noticed sometimes. There may be a rocky road of rejections to contend with. All getting you closer to a win.
I will always remember the moment I pivoted, but it wasn’t over night…it took years! And even now I can’t believe I’m a working illustrator. I’m not sure I’ve even truly allowed myself to celebrate. What if I wake up or something? Could you imagine if I could go back 6 years…stick my head through some portal and talk to the version of me hovering over that MAKE ART THAT SELLS class? Just buy it already! Not for what the class will give you, but for what it MEANS when you buy it – You believe in yourself! And that’s all it takes to succeed.
The only thing you need to do to get noticed, is pull that curiosity thread and keep pulling it! Don’t let go! Just keep pulling that string. No matter how much it feels like you’re getting no where, or that no one is watching… keep pulling. Keep working on your craft. Sharing your art. Learning. You’ll “get noticed” when you least expect it. On the flip side…no matter how skilled you become, no matter how far down a path of success you go, keep following your curiosity. It’s always there and it will never lead you wrong.
I truly believe that.
Each month members of the IlloGuild, an international group of illustrators, answer a question together. Head over to IlloGuild page to read ALL the other responses.
Here are a few awesome responses from my friends: