Posted 21 February 2020
Written by Erin Aniker

Ten key tips that will help you get ahead as an illustrator, by Erin Aniker

Following from Erin Aniker’s recent Creative Lives interview we asked her what she wished she’d known before becoming a freelance illustrator. Four years after graduating from Norwich University of the Arts, with clients like Nike, Apple and Tate under her belt, she passes on her most crucial learnings. As someone who doesn’t believe formal education is essential to an illustration career, experience and self-reliance have been crucial; “You can learn valuable lessons more efficiently starting out by yourself,” she says. From organising and presenting your portfolio, to pointers on what you should include in an email pitch – here are her top tips.

Build an online portfolio
Your portfolio will never be perfect or ‘finished’, but you can start by creating an online website with at least 10 to 12 strong images. I’ve only just made a physical portfolio book because my agent asked me to make one, but you can use whatever is your strongest work at the time. The idea is to update and refresh it as your work gets stronger.

Put your work out there
You can’t create work in a vacuum if you want to make a living from it. Be vulnerable and put your work online and out there. Instagram can act as an additional portfolio – I recommend using it in addition to your website – and take a look at other platforms like Tumblr and The Dots,.

Beyond promoting yourself online, look for exhibitions, illustration fairs and workshops that you could take part in. And make sure you ask the artists and illustrators leading the workshops about their practice and journey, too.

“You can’t create in a vacuum if you want to make a living. Be vulnerable and put your work online and out there.”

Support yourself with other work
There’s no harm or shame in having a creative or non-creative day job. It doesn’t make you less ‘successful’ or creative or any less of an illustrator. I’ve actually learnt some of my most useful skills from my ‘non-creative’ jobs from 16 onwards.

I developed my communication skills through waitressing, bar work, sales, charity fundraising jobs and working for small business owners whether that was a cafe or restaurant. These jobs all taught me invaluable skills about running my own business, which is so important as a freelancer. You might decide you want to have a part- or full-time creative job, or non-creative day job – just to give you that financial stability and a regular income. You might view this as a permanent solution or a temporary one, until you’re earning enough from your freelance work and have built up some savings in preparation.

Be patient; it will take some time for things to start moving, but stick with it and when things are quiet try and keep your personal projects going. You may even be able to use these projects as part of future commissions.

“Be patient; it will take some time for things to start moving but stick with it.”

Make time for personal projects
If you’re working on commission after commission your brain and flow of ideas can start to dry up. Youll often be asked to create work in a similar vein to previous projects youve worked on, but with a slight edit or tweak, which means creating the same type of work in repetition. While this might pay your rent or bills, it’s not always the most exciting.

Carving out some time each week or month for personal work is so important. If you do decide to share some of your personal work and projects on your website or online, you might also end up having people ask if they can use it for certain editorial articles, campaigns and projects. If so, then you can licence these images to them for a fee, without having to do any extra work. Image licensing is a great source of additional (or primary) income for a lot of illustrators.

However, money aside, its really important to create this personal work so you don’t lose sight of developing and enhancing your craft. It’s a little time for you to play and experiment.

Erin's editorial for SLOWE Magazine

“Instagram can act as a additional portfolio – I recommend using it as well as your website.”

Do your research
Research and read up on the business of illustration, how it works and the different types of illustration work that exist – such as editorial, advertising, publishing and fashion illustration, and so on. Try to learn more about the areas you’re most interested in.

Follow the agencies and illustrators whose work you like and learn about their journey and path to building their career. You’ll learn that it’s a different journey for everyone, but there may be some relevant advice that you can pick up along the way.

Join a collective
There’s strength in numbers! You can join The AOI [Association of Illustrators] and see if you can rent a shared studio space with friends. You could join an existing collective or even form your own, host or take part in workshops and talks to expand your network. It’s important to be part of a creative community to turn to for advice with jobs, rates, working habits or difficult clients.

Create a work space
Try and have a designated space where you create your work. It might start out as a table in your bedroom at the beginning. If it feels right and once you start getting more work in, think about having a separate studio space that’s not your bedroom. This could be a space in another shared living area of your home, or if this isn’t an option and you can afford to do so, outside of your living area.

There are also artist residencies you can look into, which offer free studio space in exchange for an end-of-year exhibition or similar. Do some research, weigh up your finances, work stream and options and think about what will work best for you.

Connect with people you admire
Build up a database spreadsheet of people you would like to work with. Keep an eye out for art directors, picture editors and email addresses, and then once you have your website ready you can pitch yourself to them.

In your email, include a short paragraph explaining why you would like to work with them, why you’d be a good fit, 10 of your strongest images in an attachment and a website link to your full portfolio. It will feel like you’re sending out a lot of fruitless emails at first – but you’ll start hearing back after a while.

“It will feel like you’re sending out a lot of fruitless emails, but you’ll start hearing back after a while.”

Community artwork for Don’t Sleep on Us

Recommend people
I know it feels like you need to say ‘yes!’ to every commission in the beginning, but once you start getting a more regular work, make an effort to recommend your friends and peers for jobs where appropriate. In turn, they’ll recommend you, so it’s beneficial for everyone. Try and add or refresh the list of people you recommend, so it includes emerging and less well-known artists and designers. Keep the doors that open for you open for others, too.

Learn how to say no
Once you’re a little bit more established and can afford to do so, learn how to say no to certain commissions that don’t feel right or you don’t have time for. You don’t want to burn out and take on everything that comes your way. You need to look after yourself physically and mentally, as well as creatively. You can always recommend someone who could take it on instead.

Physical, mental and creative health are all interlinked and burnout is very real – especially in the creative industries!


Cover image: Erin’s illustration for Mosaic Science

Don’t Burn Out, personal work

Introduction by Siham Ali
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Written by Erin Aniker