So you want to be an illustrator?

I got an email recently from a girl who’d bought one of my cards at the Charmed Lives exhibition at the British Museum.

An English literature undergrad, but with a love of art and drawing, she said she was interested in pursuing a career in illustration, but was worried about finances, lack of relevant qualifications and was generally at a loss as to where to start. She asked for advice or recommendations regarding foundation courses, art school and such like.

I thought it might be worth blogging my reply to her as perhaps other-would-be-illustrators might come across it.

First of all, what a wonderful thing to think there’ll be another illustrator in the world, rather than, for example, another lawyer or banker. The trouble is, as my 88 year old landlord and dog co-owner says, one still has to put cornflakes on the table.

I had only done art GCSE and although in my dreams I wanted to work in illustration or design, I went down a more academic path first and couldn’t envisage how to make the change.

During my 20s, I did amateur art stuff: at university I helped design the end of year ball and did graphic design posters for the music society; after graduating I did a short course at Central St Martins in Children’s Book Illustration. This helped me create a very modest – but very insufficient really – portfolio which I eventually took for my Masters interview.

In the meantime, I spent six years working in London as an educational consultant and Russian translator before I decided to bite the bullet and quit and pursue the Masters in Children’s Book Illustration.

I feel these weren’t wasted years however, as the time enabled me to save up the money to do the course; also, coming to the course at 29 meant I had some life experience, maturity, and drive behind me (I knew only too well the reality of sitting in an office and being told what to do all day).

I also wrote and illustrated my own fairytale /short story during this period which I handed in for the portfolio. It might not have been any good, but I taught myself the basics of Photoshop and Illustrator in the process and it got me thinking about character development, style consistency and style of materials to properly reflect and complement the text; which is so so key.

Illustrating Virginia Woolf’s Flush too, which was my Masters project, had come from a very personal and difficult period for me; the result of illustrating it if I was aged 22 and hadn’t had those experiences would have been totally different – and I think probably not as successful.

The main thing you need to do if you want to be an illustrator is lots of observational drawing. It’s the core of any degree and the basis of the best illustrations. From what I gather, few fine art degrees will teach the observational drawing side now; illustration courses seem to cover this more. You should also take evening classes in life drawing (which I always need to do more of!) if you feel you’re not self disciplined enough. You just need to keep your hand in. Draw everything all around you all the time. Always carry a sketch book. Don’t try to emulate a style. You and your “style” will be the authentic and constant “handwriting” of your observational drawing. It will be your personal visual language, if that makes sense. Likewise, projects and stories will evolve out of the things you most love drawing. I adore my dog and Greece and I think it’s no surprise that the books I’ve illustrated are about those subjects! Love breeds success.

It’s a balance at the end of the day, but I feel that the imaginative stuff can come later, initially you need to just draw draw draw the world around you: treat it as a world of wonderful free visual information.

Doing the Masters degree full time was a baptism of fire and incredibly hard: learning to draw properly, thinking in a new way, not always feeling like I had enough teaching time, not knowing if I’d made the right choice, and also failing a module at the end of my first year; I came bottom of my year. However, investing all the time and money made me concentrate and gave me license to draw and just really put my head down. It was a whole journey and I think I had to hit rock bottom before I could improve and rise up.  Nothing would have happened if I hadn’t committed and done the Masters. So I would say it’s worth investing in one.

It’s finally worth saying that it’s pretty hard work (for me at least!) even though I do consider myself quite an industrious person. So don’t be put off, but just be prepared and just sensibly set up another form of other income (like I do with translation work) to survive, and be incredibly tenacious!

Let me know if you have any specific questions and I’ll try to advise as best I can.

Thanks, Katyuli

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