How to become a professional illustrator

The Pen Company would like to introduce the first of hopefully many industry expert blogs.

The following post was kindly contributed by Sarah Jane Coleman . After 20 years as a professional illustrator Sarah shares some practical advice how to make it in this highly competitive industry.

I’ve been trying to write this article for a few weeks. I wanted to write something for the hundreds of students graduating this June, before they start emailing asking me the same questions I’m asked every year, on the same subject of ‘How To Become A Successful Illustrator‘. It just wasn’t coming. Couldn’t explain why.

At the same time, The Pen Company had asked me to write an article for them, co-incidentally titled ‘How to become a professional illustrator, by Sarah J. Coleman‘.

Now, the thing is, for years I’ve been invited to give talks, workshops and seminars on promotion, marketing, life with an agent (or without), getting the first job and so on. At each one my advice would alter a little, and at each one, particularly the early ones, I’d get a gentle, nagging sense of fraud, as if I didn’t really believe myself, or had no authority to suggest these things with any gumption. Who was I to advise?

But last week I celebrated the fact that, twenty years ago, I graduated. Two decades ago, I walked out of college and straight into work. I haven’t stopped working since. You might think this finally gives me the authority to issue one of those passive-aggressive caps-on-every-word ‘Ten Reasons Why You Are Failing To Become A Successful Freelancer’ blah blah bollocks. Well it doesn’t. You won’t get that from me. There is no set recipe. There isn’t a magic cast-iron formula, and anyone who accuses you of failing at anything because you haven’t done x, y and z is to be approached with caution – and a hearty sense of humour. Those people quite possibly mean well, but they can be, well – mean. And the last thing you need in your life is breathless panic.

It would take many seminars and lectures to pass on what I’ve learned. To be brutally frank, I could sell the information to you, if you bought enough of my time. Or you could buy any one of the many, varied books out there proffering such bullet-pointed advice. Perhaps mine, if I’d written one (I never did. Paul Arden wrote the best ones, if you’re to invest in any at all).

The thing is, I’ve realised after this length of time that it’s so undeniably organic. It’s a gentle, bumpy process which renders any advice changeable (As Sage Francis said, “the only thing that remains the same is change”), and it’s only ever one person’s experience anyway. And it can’t really be distilled that easily. I could tell you the actual physical steps to getting your first paid job, but you can and will work that out for yourself, and probably have already. I could warn you about the absolute importance of doing your OWN social networking, and using your own natural voice when you do so. (People know when you’re acting, and they’re wary). I could also drone on about the non-negotiable importance of correct grammar, spelling and punctuation in all communications, and manners and protocols when talking with clients.

Note that I said ‘talking with clients’ not ‘dealing with’. If there’s a second crucial thing to pass on it’s that every single aspect of your business will be about relationships.

For example:

– your relationship with your work
– the relationships you build with clients (they can mature and be enriched with time)
– the relationship you learn to have with your own strengths, weaknesses and foibles
– your relationship with risks and mistakes

– speaking of which.

I’ve just tried to take a sabbatical where I took a whole two weeks ‘off’ to focus on personal projects which had waited patiently for my attention for months.

It failed spectacularly.

This was because I’m still, 20 years on, taking 99% of all the jobs I’m offered, even when it means sacrificing my own personal development.
Also, because I was cripplingly näive to think 2 weeks was anything close to enough.
It wasn’t. Try two months Sarah. Or four.

You might by now, as a graduate reading this, think that this is not something I should not have to worry about anymore, that I can relax and pick and choose my jobs. But I can’t. OK, to a certain extent I can, and definitely should, but The Fear hasn’t gone away. Which is probably why I’m still working.

And you, fair stude, should certainly not be worrying about picking and choosing your jobs. Nope. Point three, I suppose. Providing it’s not going to put you in prison or a place of financial or moral bankruptcy, do it. Do as much as you can, have a go. Cock a few things up, make some nice mistakes (you’ll be able to laugh at them later…just, maybe in twenty years’ time), experiment but don’t get stressed about the word. Don’t bloody panic if you haven’t got an online shop. People don’t buy as many prints as you think they will. Graft. Practice and keep going. Stay up as late as you have to, but don’t be a hero about it. Don’t make a martyr of yourself to caffeine. No-one’s impressed, least of all the client. Look after your relationships (all of them). Have a few mardies (in private), feel slighted by feedback, bask in the glory of a met deadline and the misery of your first non-payer.

You’ll reach a folio of magnificent wonkiness and honesty but that, rather than any Top Ten of Tips, will get you further than anything.

It’s a philosophy of sorts, and it’ll have to do for now.

Meanwhile, I’m going to try and get that actual, meaningful sabbatical since I cocked the first one up; I really am doing some serious learning aren’t I?

I’m no expert. I’m just a bit further down the road from you. I can’t give you a cast-iron how-to, but I don’t mind leaving a trail of wobbily-painted stones to show you which way I came. Look! There’s a nice bright orange one. It’s got a bit of gold on it too.


Anna has been a lover of stationery since the age of three, when she got her first red spotted pencil case. Lucky enough to work part time for The Pen Company, she is surrounded by stationery; the dream of many a collector!