Congratulations! You have an ounce of artistic talent and you want to take it to the next level. I was there too not too long ago with a head full of ideas but no actual sense of how to make it happen. How do you move beyond the clichés of being an artist (a sun-filled studio with oversized windows, watercolor stained shirt sleeves, champagne ambitions & lentil budgets) and into the pragmatic building blocks of a creative career? Working for oneself never really grants concrete moments of introspection or a boss to ask how it’s going. But on the occasion of publishing my second book stateside Paris in Stride: An Insider’s Walking Guide (Rizzoli March 27th), I compiled a list of a few pointers that helped me build a successful career as an illustrator, but these can easily be applied to writing, painting, photography, you name it. This isn’t a proven method as I still waste most of the day staring out the window and counting down the minutes to lunchtime. But these are some tips I hold close to my heart and still remind myself of from time to time….
Draw everyday. If you want to be an illustrator, then do everything in your power to create the time and space to do that. This is classic, art school bang-your-head-on-the-wall advice, but improvement only comes from daily practice.
Where do I start? Just look around you. When I moved to Paris indefinitely, I already knew how to draw more or less but was still stumped about what to draw. But being vulnerable in a new surrounding meant I was constantly drafting stories in my head about being an expat (hello, phone book of paperwork!), finding my place in an often bizarre country (why was the cheese platter the only thing that spoke to me at French house parties?) and adopting daily French customs into my daily life (French breakfast, American waistline). Putting a story with a visual was the ultimate catalyst for creating engaging illustrations and a selling point when contacting art directors.
Understand the market. Look at your work on screens big and small. Can it be understood on an Instagram feed? Does it stand out in a sea of fleeting attention spans? Since we are all saturated with photos 24/7, think about what can’t be photographed and start drawing that. Additionally a few years back, I noticed news sites incorporating gifs on their home pages. I started developing my own technique and it’s become a vital asset in my portfolio.
Let’s be honest. Most artists may never make a living doing what they love to do. After 6 years of working as a freelance illustrator and food stylist (my side hustle), I’m finally making a living just as an illustrator alone. Food styling taught me a lot about time management, building a composition, meeting client expectations in a microscopic work environment and jump started my creative professional network. All La Vie Bohème fantasies aside, a living must be made. Find another professional activity that allows you the time and resources to improve your craft and the backup stability during the unstable early days of freelancing.
Publish often. Having trouble creating everyday? Give yourself a deadline of how often you want to share work and stick with the schedule. Write a little bit about it and the process in making it. It helps connect yourself to other creative people and is a good exercise in talking about your work before professional appointments. Still stuck finding inspiration? Be your own art director and assign yourself a dream project (say, a fig scarf for Hermès. I’m still working on that one). It puts into perspective client demands, brand identity, developing your own artistic angle and communicates with the world the kind of work you would like to make.
Go out. I’m not trying to make myself seem special here, but not everyone “gets” what it’s like being an artist. No, it’s not about the occasional cheese cube & champagne flute proud moments of an opening or book launch. But it’s the nitty-gritty of working through instability, daily rejection and all the little things that make this a mostly impossible career choice. But being surrounded by other creative people gives you the nourishment, validation and brainstorming face time to push ideas forward. It’s no coincidence that artistic movements happen in big cities when artists are sitting around in cafés and avoiding the work they should be doing.
Be a master in your domain. Immerse yourself in your passions even if they aren’t directly related to your artistic practice. Love food? Take cooking classes and learn how to write recipes. It improves your understanding of the subject and can open up opportunities in the future for maybe writing your own cookbook and being the sole author of a project.
Be nice. My best metaphor for being a freelance artist is blowing up a bunch of balloons and trying to keep them all in the air at the same time. Sometimes one will fall to the ground, but hopefully there’s a steady rhythm of keeping them all afloat while also having the foresight to blow up a few ones along the way. It can be an exhausting process being an artist, but it’s also crazily dynamic and the pay-off is ultimately up to you. But it’s essential to be kind to yourself and others, know your limits, carve out time to feed that creative spirit and just be patient.
Tip speed round: always keep a stock of postcards, thank you cards and business cards on hand (sometimes an old-fashioned method has the greatest impact for getting seen), don’t spend too much time looking at the work of others, hire an accountant when you have the means, be frugal, trust your gut when working with new people, buy this book, don’t work for free, reach out to artists you admire on social media (you never know how they can help you out and vice-versa) and be generous with young artists.
Good luck, my friend! It’s a long, meandering road to becoming an illustrator or pursuing anything beyond the realm of the 9-5. But if you’ve found that creative light switch, that borderline spiritual urge to take an idea to its fruition, then do a little everyday and see for yourself. -jkw
Have a specific question? Tweet me at @thefrancofly.
Preorder my forthcoming book Paris in Stride here.