Friday, March 13, 2009
Here's What I Did
After receiving a few emails from illustrators and friends asking what kind of things I did to get my recent assignments I've decided to make a blog post on the subject. I still find it very useful to read how other illustrators promote themselves or what steps they took to go from unknown to getting their foot in the door, so just thought I'd add my own story here from start to finish.
In the beginning I was terrible, and I knew it. I had been trained as a fine art painter and knew how to paint what was in front of me. Painting from the imagination is a whole different ball game. I also knew next to nothing about composition. It was just....ghastly.
So...I practiced---a lot! I have painted probably hundreds (thousands?) of paintings, many of which were done over and over to 'get it right' (and will never see the light of day). Looking back over my work, I have improved greatly - I just didn't have the chops at all when I started. And I was not a natural.
I went to the library constantly, checking out tons of books by my favorite illustrators for both inspiration and to learn from them. I accumulated some serious late fees (oops).
When I started sending my own stuff out, I got lots of rejections and only a couple notes saying they kept my work on file. This continued for a couple years more - --I didn't know that this is the norm and that I just had to hang in there and be patient. It's hard not to take rejection personally!
Finally, my illustrations started to improve. A kind illustrator friend of mine took me under her wing and told me about Cornell and McCarthy and how great an agent they were. I held my breath and sent my best pieces to them, all presented in a folder with matching cover letter etc. Weeks later, they accepted me! Hoorah! I was over the moon.
Almost another year went by and I still didn't get a whole lot of work, but this was expected. I was a new artist and there was also a slump for just about every illustrator I knew.
Finally, I began receiving a steady stream of educational work. It was an excellent way to get my foot in the door and get a feel for how the publishing world worked--and it was fun! Almost 90 percent of the projects I illustrated never got back to me in print which surprised me. I guess since edu publishers are working with so many artists at a time they would lose a lot of money sending everyone copies of their printed work. I often bought my own books if I was able to find them.
I started to set my sights on being a trade book illustrator and eventually, an author as well--but I put all my energy in the former trusting that the other would possibly follow if I was successful.
Many more years passed (for the most part, documented in this blog) of struggling to improve my art and find my style. Since I wanted trade books, I started adjusting my art to look more like trade book art and found that I was more comfortable with that direction and enjoyed it immensely. But I still needed to put in more practice. And I did--I was hard on myself, doing scenes over and over again and probably being overly critical. I kept posting to my blog on a regular basis and found the community of other blogging children's illustrators to be extremely supportive and encouraging. I would post something, see the responses, and it was sort of a ping-pong effect of bouncing ideas back and forth. I commented on other artist's work as well. We had all found a little nook away from the mostly solitary atmosphere of being an illustrator.
As my art started improving and reaching a level that I felt was 'ready' I started chomping at the bit to get my first trade book assignment. I began doing anything and everything that would get my art out there. Sure, I have an agent promoting me, and I can't begin to express how much Cornell and McCarthy have impacted my career, but you also have to do your part (I believe) and I started sending out extra postcards, updating my website often, and advertising on childrensillustrators.com (I have received many assignments through them, they are absolutely the best out there).
Argh! What was I to do? Then one day my agent offered to send out a Christmas card to everyone on their client list with my illustration on the front. This is something they do every year and each time, they pick an artist from their group for the job. I jumped at the chance! Coming up with a design was difficult - I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and you know how that goes. I couldn't come up with anything I liked - I filled a sketch book with ideas. Finally, with the suggestion from my very smart agents, I went back to my favorite subject--PIGS! The ideas finally flowed and I came up with the two designs in this post. The image of these two pigs was finally chosen.
After the card was sent out, it was a quiet holiday season, then boom! January/Feb hit. I started seeing some big publishing companies on my website stats, and .......they were googling my name to find me! Wowee! Even if I had not received any assignments, this in itself was something to celebrate! They had shown interest.
A few months following this initial reaction, I received three trade books in a row and most if not all said they had seen and liked the Christmas card. It just goes to show a couple things--draw what you enjoy drawing the most and your best work will no doubt come out, and two, you never know which sample will get the attention of art directors so keep sending them out.
In the end, you have to love what you do. It was a long road of five or six years before I came to this point in my career, and had I been wishy-washy about being an illustrator, and not put everything I had into this dream, I wouldn't have made it this far. The love for your craft gets you through the hard times and the rejection letters, and the months without work. Then one day, unexpectedly, things begin to finally fall in place (and they will if your heart is in it) and it's really quite a feeling when that happens. I still have lot of hard work, learning and practice ahead of me of course - and always will, because the art of the picture book is a complicated and beautiful thing.
So that's my story and I'm sticking to it. :0)