Friday, March 22, 2019

I want to do illustration. I don't know how to draw and I'm past my mid 20's. What should I do?

I answered this question for a Quora member yesterday. I'm posting it again here, as the response to my answer has been overwhelmingly positive.

First of all I would chuck aside ANY anxiety about being in your mid 20s. This is irrelevant. Professional colleagues of mine have started in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties; after a whole career; after two careers. This part doesn’t matter one bit. A client couldn’t care less how old you are - just whether your work fits what they’re looking for.
Secondly I would look hard at what being an illustrator means. In a nutshell, it means to Someone who makes images to help sell, embellish, explain, decorate, highlight or communicate an idea, a text, story, product, song or concept. You’ll be working as what used to be called ‘a commercial artist’ - that is, your work will first and foremost be ‘doing a job’. The job of your illustration might be to decorate an eyeshadow box or whisky bottle. It might be to sit on the front of a greetings card. It might to explain a difficult idea - one that photography wouldn’t work very well for, for example - in a scientific magazine. It might be to draw readers into a short story in a magazine. Or it might be on a book cover, to get people to pick up that book and buy it, while giving juicy clues about the novel inside.
While you will most probably always be doing personal work - that is to say, work that isn’t for a client, but for your own amusement or development, ‘off the clock’ if you like - as an illustrator you’ll be be spending the majority of your time working for someone, usually within a company. As a freelancer, this can be for many people at once (my record is 18 projects simultaneously - this means 18 different ‘bosses’!) or, if you want to be employed, for example within a greetings card company, you’ll have one boss, but you’ll still enjoy a variety and breadth of work. So it’s worth thinking about how you like to work. Are you reasonably well organised? Can you keep track of projects and meet deadlines? Are you OK with lots of communication happening at once?
What you’ll need to be good at is ideas, and visual problem solving. A good drawing is a good drawing, and a love for and knack for drawing is still, in my opinion, extremely important to an illustrator. But an illustration is usually much more than that; it exists to communicate an idea or a concept, or create a mood, or tell a story. For that reason, the ability to draw is important, but not an absolute dealbreaker. It goes without saying if you ‘can’t draw’ you may struggle to get the broad range of work you might otherwise get if you CAN draw, and it will certainly strength and inform your work - but the likes of David Shrigley and Paul Davis, extremely successful illustrators, may suggest otherwise. (Note that there is an art to looking like you can’t draw very well - the folk-art look or ‘na├»ve art’ vibe often belies some serious skill with pencil; think of Les Dawson, one of whose most famous TV gimmicks was playing the piano appallingly badly. He was in fact an extremely skilled pianist, and needed to be in order to mimic the bad playing with conviction. If you don’t know who Les Dawson is, he’s worth looking up!)
One of the very best ways ‘in’ is to go out and absorb as many examples of illustration ‘in the wild’ as you can. Get off Instagram and delve into the shelves of magazines - which of them is using illustration, and how are they using it? - look at book covers; study album covers, the classic illustrators; look at how the rows and rows of pretty wine bottles in the supermarket are using illustration, the chocolate boxes, notice whenever illustration’s being used on TV in adverts. Ask whether you can see yourself fitting into that world. If you’re building up work while you do this, you’re starting to sow the seeds of a portfolio, and you’ll need a really strong one of those before you can show potential clients. If it’s not client ready, it doesn’t matter - if it’s feedback you want, Instagram IS a good place to get this, as long as you’re OK with getting some frank replies, and you’re honest about where you are on your journey! Follow the illustrators you like on Insta - but don’t think you have to compare yourself to them. You’re not them, and they have probably had YEARS of practice leading up to the work you’re seeing now.
If it’s just learning to draw that you want to do, then Sharon (who was another contributor to the thread, who offered some pretty granular step-by-step tips on learning to draw) in her previous answer gives some excellent advice. But to become an illustrator, you’ll need to combine this with idea generation, problem-solving, tenacity and a competitive spirit - along with good business skills. None of this is easy, but it isn’t horribly difficult either - as Sharon says, all of it is practice, practice, practice.

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