How to become an illustrator without experience?

Illustrator/visual artist/designer/author (for the past 23 years) Marloes De Vries answers questions about illustration, being an artist or creative life in general. Ask a question here.

Dear Ms De Vries,

I recently made a decision to leave a career in policy research to follow my dream of becoming a visual storyteller. I love using words and sketches to tell stories, and want to find a way to channel this into a career as a creative artist and illustrator. I am excited about this new adventure but at the same time, I feel slightly nervous and worried, for I am still very much a “rookie” at art. I’m scared that I will not succeed in achieving my dream as I have not much experience nor a creative background. Please could you share some tips and advice on how to get started and hone my skills?

Kind regards,

Dear Su,

I remember when I quit my job and decided to go freelance. So, I want to congratulate you on making that decision, as I know it can be quite scary to dive into the deep end without knowing if you can swim. I’d like to start by saying that every path is different and I can only share my personal experiences with you. Your path will surely be different from my path. There’s no wrong or right way to go about in following your creative dreams.

To get better at using your creative abilities you need to practice and build a visual library in your brain. When I started out as an illustrator over 12 years ago I couldn’t even draw that well, but after a decade I dare to say I can draw pretty well. I can even draw horses and bicycles now! Who could have guessed that? Life drawing classes are immensely useful to understand human anatomy and this is needed even when you need to draw cartoons or children’s books. Go to a train station, sit on a bench with your sketchbook and draw the people you see walking by. Go into the city and nature, draw buildings and trees and observe the sea. Enrich the visual library in your brain: draw all the things you can possibly draw, so your brain knows how to draw things next time you need it. Being a visual storyteller mainly means you are a good observer. Practice observing, by looking at people, listening to them and translate that onto paper. Make a daily practice of your visual storytelling. Keep a visual journal and write every day about you’ve learned and experienced. Some of us are born as storytellers but if we don’t learn how to write or draw, we can never share those stories with others.

Feeling the urge to be creative and seeing the world in your unique way is your talent. The medium you choose the bring that into the world, like drawing and writing, is a skill. A skill is not something we’re born with but a result of practice. I was not born a good drawer (spoiler: no one is). I taught myself to draw and honed my artistic abilities over the past 30-some years.

When I started out I didn’t get the kind of jobs I was hoping for, it took work and many years to get on the right path. Whether you want to work for clients, or create a body of work for yourself is up to you but the approaches are quite different. If you want clients, you need to build a portfolio. To build a portfolio you need clients. This sounds like a ‘what came first: the egg or the chicken’-kind of story but it’s simple: come up with portfolio work yourself. We call this ‘self-initiated work’. If you want to design book covers, pick a few of your favourite books and design your own book cover for it. Clients want to see what you can do for them and it doesn’t matter that the work isn’t published. Good work is good work. A good art director will see through that.

Talk to people that are already in the creative field. Go the gatherings where there are other creatives. If you’re an introvert like me, I know that’s nerve-wracking, but you will learn so much from peers. You will learn THE MOST from peers. Ask them what you need to set up your business and ask for advice in general. What are their biggest lessons? Knowing how to go about this new career might make you feel less nervous and worried, so take the pressure off by preparing for the job.

I’ve written a two-part blog post about how to get started as an illustrator, which might help you further.
But most of all, enjoy the roller-coaster ride that is a creative career. It will be bumpy, it will have big ups and big downs, but it’s amazing if your heart is in it. And if it doesn’t work out, it’s not the end but you will have had a great experience. We don’t have just one purpose in life.

Best wishes,

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