Being an illustrator might sound like a rather limited career choice. After all, what is illustration but drawings? Surely an illustrator could only ever find work in the world of advertising and children's books? Will most of these jobs soon be getting done by computers anyway? Well, no, not at all! Illustration certainly does include drawings and working within advertising and with children's book writers certainly is bang in the middle of the jobs an illustrator can do, but there is so much more to the field, in both physical and digital illustration. The actual definition of illustration of is 'decoration, interpretation or visual explanation of a text, concept, or process designed for integration in published media'. That is quite a lengthy and complex definition, but once it has been unpacked, it is easy to see how very wide and comprehensive the world of illustration can be.
Traffic signs and even the electric traffic signals are illustrations. Exit signs, those ubiquitous green running men that are instantly recognizable in every country in the world, are illustrations. Instruction manuals, very often, are reduced to a series of illustrations, demonstrating how to build and operate an item without the need to translate it into a series of languages. Advertising – whether on billboards, in magazines, on television, or those flyers that come through the mail – is often very strongly rooted in illustration. The illustration also comes into the retail world, with images and snappy slogans being put onto every kind of merchandise out there: cups and mugs, stationery, tee-shirts, and other clothing, lunch boxes and much more. Even tattoo artists are illustrators, in a way, creating images bursting with symbolism that is uniquely special to the person being tattooed. And, there are, of course, the traditional pathways followed by illustrators: book covers, comics, graphic novels, and children's books.
How Do I Start?
These days it is possible to take a degree in illustration, during which you will be guided through all the possible media and methods, as well as learning about all the industries in which illustration is employed. But if you are not yet in a position to go to university, you can begin your journey to illustrator straight away. All the experts say: draw. Draw often and every day. Draw people on the bus or train, draw people in the coffee shop, or walking past outside, draw buildings and animals and birds and trees and roads – draw everything! Do not only use one type of pencil or pen to create your drawings, experiment with paints, fiber-tips, crayons, and inks. Use different types of paper and canvas, drawing on plastic, on the glass, and on newsprint. Pay attention to the way the drawing interacts with the surface you have drawn it on and choose the looks that work the best for your style of art.
If you start today, drawing for an hour or more every day, within six months you will be able to see a dramatic improvement in your art, and you will have the beginnings of an impressive portfolio with which to impress potential tutors or employers.
Once you begin your course or degree, you will be offered the opportunity to learn how to use other illustration equipment: from cutting edge 3D printers to a host of printers and etching machines, all the way to old school lithography machines and old-fashioned silk-screens and printing presses. These methods are extremely useful to learn as one day you may need to achieve a certain effect in a particular illustration and just having the knowledge may be enough to swing a lucrative commission your way. Therefore, take every opportunity that comes your way: for internships, experience days and work shadowing to learn how industry professionals do their job – there is no such thing as wasted knowledge.
Ready to Go Out On Your Own?
While you work on attaining your degree or other illustration qualification, begin to accumulate the equipment you will need. High-quality illustration requires high-quality tools, from the surface on which the illustration will be placed to the pen and ink used in its creation. Rather than rushing out and buying a host of cheap products that might not work as desired, put your collection together in small increments, building it up until you have a nice range of very good quality items. As with your portfolio, start building your collection of tools, utensils, and stationery sooner rather than later.
Once you are ready, get your name out there quickly: do some speculative work and sell it to the people whose attention you want to get. Set up an online store featuring your unique designs. Whatever you do: do not work for free (internships and work experience are the exceptions here – if you are getting something out of the free work, then it is fine, but giving your best work to other people for no particular benefit: do not do it). Curate your image as carefully as you work on your illustrations and use your online presence to really sell your expertise. It will not be long before you are happily fielding more inquiries than you can handle.
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