Friday, 9 January 2009

100 Top Tips for Illustrators

100 Top Tips for Illustrators

An article by Lawrence Zeegan for Computer Arts – Illustration Special/Issue 29 2002.

Lawrence Zeegen works as an illustrator and tutor. He set up the Heart agency in 1994, and he is a council member of the AOI And a member of the D&AD

Want to be a pro illustrator? Or already are, but fancy picking up on some tips that may just have passed you by. Well, here they are. In bite-sized nuggets, the 101 top tips that could just put you ahead of the field!

So, you think that you are an illustrator! You can use your application of choice and a fair few others to boot. You can create the kind of image that would fit well on any magazine page, book jacket or CD sleeve but have yet to really get out there and show the world what you are capable of. Or, you already work in illustration but would like advice on putting together that killer portfolio or some pearls of wisdom on how to get in to see that top art director or how to impress that illusive agent. Well, you’re in the right place – sit up straight, get your pencil and paper at the ready (illustrators don’t use PDAs) and get focussed on advice from illustrator, educator and ex-agent, Lawrence Zeegen, as he imparts the kind of industry-insider tips that will help smooth the roughest of journeys!

1. That Killer Portfolio

What makes that killer portfolio? Why will one type of presentation always win over another? How can the way you present your work affect the fees clients will be prepared to spend on your work? Should you show every piece of work that you have ever produced? Which format of portfolio will work best for your needs? Do illustrators still need old-fashioned binders or will a CD or on-line presence deliver the goods?

In this first section we investigate the dos and don’ts of your portfolio presentation. We look at how to present your work to its best advantage and which format is best for you and your potential clients. Important advice about selecting and pacing the work you show as well as tips on what to spend your money on …

1. Format. Depending on whom you plan to work for, you are likely to still need that old-fashioned leather portfolio with plastic sleeves. Clients like something printed in front of them. It works in meetings and doe not suffer from compatibility problems! Buy the best you can afford.

2. Spend wisely. Buy a leather portfolio. It will save you money in the long run. Leather will wear so much better than plastic. It says you take pride in your work and may help you command higher fees as it shows that you mean business!

3. You live and die by the quality of your portfolio. Your work may be up against work by other illustrators. Win the job. Make sure that your portfolio is well presented. Clean or change the plastic sleeves in your folder on a regular basis. Good presentation is a must!

4. Be clear about what your portfolio says. You may not be with your work every time it’s viewed. Keep it clear, concise and precise. Present a positive image. Choose your strongest work; work that you feel positive about. Don’t include anything that you may have to apologise for!

5. Who is it for? You need to show potential clients what you can do. Your clients, usually a designer or art director, may need to show it to their clients to get approval. Your portfolio must be able to speak to a whole range of different audiences. Remember this when you put it together.

6. Other tips for smart professional portfolios – get into the habit of regularly adding new printed work as you produce it, keeping your portfolio fresh and up-to-date. Make sure that the running order makes sense – group work together depending on the type of clients it was produced for.

7. Kick off your portfolio with your strongest image and end on an equally high note. These are the most important images in your book. Keep a list of exactly what is in your portfolio and the order it was in – a real headache to put back together without. Clients will rearrange it!

8. Create at least two, maybe three portfolios, if you are planning on being busy. Many designers and art directors simply don’t have time to meet all illustrators and want you to ‘drop off’. Keeping more than one portfolio circulating around means no dead time.

9. With more than one portfolio, you never run the risk of being called in for that lucrative advertising commission at very short notice and not having a folio to hand. It happens, be prepared and have one that sits next to the phone.

10. Web sites. Important, useful and a great compliment to that leather bound folio. A web site will greatly add to your client base. Directing clients to your site means that they can view your work whenever, wherever. Cut your courier bill by not having to ship your portfolio all over town and the globe!

11. Be creative with your site. Use it to showcase commissioned work, non commissioned work and even work-in-progress. Remember to update your site on a regular basis and let folks know that you have too.

12. The interactive CD-ROM. Another extra to your leather folio but not to be overlooked. Being able to leave this portfolio with clients is cool, so long as it works with their kit and is bug-free! Think about your audience, will they appreciate your extra costs in time, energy and materials?

13. Think carefully about the work you show. Don’t think that clients will want to see a couple of drawings from that iffy evening class you did over ten years ago! Make sure that the work all sits together well and does not cover too many ‘styles’. Be excellent at one way of working, not average at lots!

2. The Art of Self-Promotion

You are doing some great work, you know that you are. Your portfolio is starting to look real hot. You think that you have this caper all worked out – just sit tight and wait for the phone to ring. Alas, nobody yet knows who you are and what you do and, even, how to contact you. So how do you attract them, how do you lead them to your on-line presence and presents? Get yourself some self-promotional items and quick!

Should your promo take the form of printed matter or does it matter if you email your intended audience a selection of low-res images? For illustrators the art of self promotion is never over, start as you mean to go on by following this set of guiding lights …

14. The original format for illustrators promoting their work is the postcard. Full colour image on one size and one colour on reverse for contact details. Cheap, cheerful and quick to produce. They fit in the sleeve inside your portfolio too. Beat that!

15. The unit cost of a postcard goes down the more you have printed. Before you order 1000, though, think about whether you will use them all before you are sick and tired of the image. Look at costs of shorter runs using a digital press rather than off-set litho.

16. You could get together with other illustrators and take a whole sheet; postcards are either printed 16 or 32 up. It will work out cheaper but could be a hassle! If not, play the card printers off against each other to get the best price!

17. Postcards make sense but may seem boring. Think about other formats that you could adopt. Calendars have a one-year shelf life, if they are liked and used. Desk tidies are naff and should be left to Blue Peter!

18. Your final choice of self-promo should show an image, your name, contact details such as web address, email, address and phone number. Sounds straightforward but many illustrators concentrate on the image and forget the details!

19. Get your work in annuals. Art Buyers in advertising agencies swear by them. The pay-per-page illustration annuals like Contact and The Art Book are not cheap at between £600 - £1000 per page, but many illustrators claim they work better than anything else does.

20. Send out a press release to all design magazines and journals when you create high profile work. Send good large format transparencies as well as concise ‘story’ about the job. The design press have pages to fill and you can provide the content – hey presto – free publicity!

21. Enter your work into national and international competitions. Many of the big organisations produce thick glossy annuals of the best work and some run touring exhibitions too as well as web sites that feature the work. Check the design press for details.

22. From your web site sell limited edition, signed digital prints. Not all publicity material has to be given away. Encourage users to download free screen savers you have created. Imagine your work on the screen of a computer in a busy design studio.

23. Don’t spam! Nobody wants mail that they did not ask for. Once you have started to work for a client they may be happy to receive a regular email newsletter or set of low-res images but wait until they are clients!

24. Contact galleries. Have an exhibition of your work and invite clients and potential clients to a Private View. Once again, let the design and local press know well in advance. On the night, stay off the white wine and use the event to make contacts and meet new faces.

25. Avoid the tacky. Spending money on getting pens printed with your name on, sticks of rock with your email address running through or cheap diaries with your contact details across the front are not big or clever.

26. Don’t waste money on getting mouse mats made up with your work on, most designers (not all) use Macs and the Apple Pro Mouse killed off the mouse mat!

27. Keep folk up to date with what you are doing. Spend time and cash to create new publicity, showing how your work is evolving. Have a long-term plan for maintaining contact with your clients and creating new ones.

3. Identifying Clients and Making Contacts (and how to keep them)

You know have a portfolio itching to be seen and some publicity to die for. What you need now are some clients or at least some potential ones! No good going to see children’s book publishers with material more suited to the mags on the top shelves of your favourite newsagent. Very little point in showing work that features fantasy sci-fi space scenes to that design company specialising in annual reports for city clients! Get wise, don’t waste your time or others; target your work precisely. Be clear about what it is you do and whom you wish to work for. Follow this set of tips and get right on track …

28. Think about buying lists of ‘creatives’ from companies like File FX in London. For a reasonable fee you could have the name of all the art buyers and creative directors in the top two hundred advertising agencies in London. Think about how much time that could save you on the phone.

29. Spend time conducting some research. If you want to create illustrations for magazines, browse them over coffee in places like Borders. Target the right folks; try art editors and art directors rather than editors and writers.

30. Every time you see an interesting book jacket or CD sleeve, make it your mission to discover who created it and who commissioned it. Send the commissioning designer a copy of your publicity if you think your work fits. Follow it up with a phone call to make an appointment to show your portfolio.

31. Be polite on the telephone and keep a pen to hand to write notes. Make sure that you have sent samples/publicity in advance. Trying to explain what your work looks like over the telephone is not easy!

32. Invest in a good database and get used to updating it with new info on a regular basis. Enter a broad range of fields that include the obvious, like names, addresses and contact details as well as the type of company and the last time that you mailed publicity or made contact.

33. Whenever you visit a potential client with your portfolio arrive a few minutes early. This gives you a little time to sit in the reception area browsing their bound copies of recent publicity or current magazines they publish. A little knowledge can go a long way …

34. Be patient, explain your work carefully but do not outstay your welcome. Most designers, art buyers and art directors will be able to give you just 10-15 minutes. Make this time count, keep focussed on the work you want them to see and be ready to exit!

35. Take a notebook to every meeting with a client. Take notes if you need to and if they like your work ask them to recommend commissioning designers that you could visit at other companies. Word of mouth can be a real benefit.

36. Be prepared to “drop off” your portfolio rather than always meet person to person. If you would like them to leave comments, provide a piece of paper taped to the inside of your portfolio and remember to put fresh promo cards in too.

37. Keeping clients is a huge part of the job. If you are a pleasure to deal with, you are likely to get repeat business and recommendations. Nobody likes to work with a pain in the backside however talented you are!

4. The Commission, the Job, the Low-Down

It is all paying off; clients at your beck and call and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since you sent your mailer out! The work is starting to flood in and then you are asked to quote a fee. Find out how much to charge and how to ask for it. How to manage your time, meet deadlines and still have a life. What does bleed mean? What are first visuals? What does an Art Buyer do and why? You are now an illustrator and need to know how long a job should take, what format the artwork should take and how to get it to your client on time. This section gives you the low-down, the full break-down on how to handle that first commission or how to start handling those jobs if you are a hardened pro with bad habits!

38. It makes sense to join an organisation that can give you advice when you need it. The Association of Illustrators helps members with issues regarding
fees,payment problems and legal matters. Check them out at

39. Quoting fees on jobs is never easy. Try to get a budget from the art director commissioning you. Ask what they have paid for previous work of the same scale, duration and usage. They normally know what they want to pay!

40. If you need time to think about a fee say that you will get back to them. Use the time to call fellow illustrators or the AOI for some advice. Put your quote in writing and date it. Get the client to formally agree in writing to your quote or amended quote if you agree to adjust.

41. Remember, rates depend on a number of issues and it always makes sense to clarify exactly where your work will be used, at what size, the print run (if applicable) and the length of time the image is to be used for.

42. A general ‘rule of thumb’ is that advertising work sits at the top of the pile, fee wise, followed by work for design companies. Book publishers run next followed by magazines. You could create a small image for an advertising campaign that pays £1000 and the same size image for a mag that brings in £100!

43. With large jobs it is worth getting a contract sorted before you even start the work. Outline the fee breakdown – with agreed amounts for visuals as well as delivery of final artwork. Put in delivery dates that are realistic. If the client wants it all tomorrow, charge more!

44. Know your rights! If the client rejects your work at visual stage you can charge 25% of the full fee. If they reject on completion, through no fault of yours, go for the full fee. Be prepared to negotiate, though, you may only get 50%!

45. Educate your client. The visuals stage is just that. It gives you the chance to show the client what you are planning on doing for the final art work. It could show the general layout of the image as well as your ideas for how the work communicates. It is not the finished thing!

46. Learn some technical terms. Make sure that you understand the terminology used by your client. If you are not sure what ‘bleed’ is – ask! Don’t try and wing it. It will end in tears.

47. Make sure that you leave the briefing session with all of your questions answered. If not, call the client up when you get back to your studio. It is vital that you understand what you are being asked to do. Leave nothing vague!

48. Check what format they would like to receive the work in. EPS, JPEG; be sure they can open it! Check the resolution it is expected in too. Understand why newspapers are different from glossy publications. If in doubt, check it out!

49. Don’t trust the colours on your monitor, check chosen colours against print spec charts! Check how the job is being printed. Will all your chosen colours be easily achieved from the four-colour set? Avoid some oranges, they can go mucky.

50. If the job requires ‘specials’, colours printed using specially mixed colours, check the client has authorised this. Using silvers and metallic colours in your artwork will add to the print cost.

51. RGB or CMYK? Be sure that you format the artwork correctly. Is the image for screen or print? Set your application up properly before you start your job. It is very simple to forget and submit in the wrong format.

52. When you are commissioned to create an illustration, you sell the rights for its reproduction, unless otherwise agreed. The illustrator retains the ownership of the artwork itself as well as, more importantly with digital work, the copyright. Remember this!

53. You can charge 100% of the original fee for the sale of the copyright but then lose any rights to the work. Make sure you consider the pros and cons.

5. Studio/Office Tips

It all seems so easy being a professional artist, what could possibly go wrong? Get yourself organised early on and make sure that nothing does. Setting up a studio or office is not just about browsing the IKEA catalogue for trestle legs, you know. Keeping the Software Police and the Font Bureau happy as well as being street legal and paying tax on your earnings takes organisation. Keeping track of your invoices and making sure that your studio is insured, so visitors can’t sue when they trip on your portfolio are just basics. Being an artist and a business man/woman has to go hand in hand if you are going to avoid pitfalls. Many, often over-looked, issues and tips are covered in this vital section …

54. Get legal; register your business with your local tax office. You are likely to be classified as a ‘Sole Trader’ and will have to start paying tax on your profits. Get organised right away!

55. Employ an accountant. Best practice is to be recommended one that understands the job of the illustrator. They can then advise on tax deductible items to keep you tax liabilities down.

56. Invoice work as soon as it is completed. Make sure that your invoice includes all of the details of the work carried out and to whom you would like the cheque made out. And where you would like it sent, of course.

57. Legally, your invoice must carry an invoice number. You can start the running order at any number. You may wish to start at 00100 so that you can look to your clients like you’ve been trading longer!

58. It is likely that your invoice will sit on a couple of desks before it is finally paid. State your payment terms on your invoice and start chasing, on the phone, as soon as that period is up. Start with the accounts department and work your way up the food chain, if you get no luck.

59. Software should be street legal and legit and you should use only fonts that you own. The software police are watching you!

60. The life of the illustrator can be lonely. Are you the kind of person that enjoys working from your own in the back bedroom at home? If not consider a shared studio. Scan local newspapers for studio space. Shared facilities mean less financial outlay.

61. Get your studio equipped. You will need the following: phone, answer-phone, mobile phone, email (with ADSL or ISDN if you are sending artwork down the line), fax (if you produce visuals on paper), CD burner (archive your work as you go), good lighting and a very comfortable chair.

62. Get into a routine. Arrive at your studio, at home or elsewhere, at a regular time. Forget the world of day-time TV and get tuned into the reality of checking your email, reading your post, chasing unpaid invoices and all other associated tasks before you start actually illustrating.

63. Get insured. Get your studio insured. Get your portfolio insured. Insure yourself against injury, unlikely but may happen. Studio insurance covers you if a visitor falls and breaks a leg and having your portfolio insured means that if it goes missing (quite frequent an occurrence) you get some financial remuneration.

64. Think about the kind of computer you are going to be using. A desk top machine tied to your desk in your studio five miles from home may not be ideal if you would like to work late into the evening. You may wish to go portable and have the flexibility of working anywhere.

65. Read the design press on a regular basis for news about projects that design companies are involved in and news of new companies starting up. You don’t have to buy them all, get back to Borders or your local library.

66. If you move studio, make sure that people know. A change of address card is a good excuse to send out more promotional material. Obviously, if people don’t know how to get hold of you, they won’t.

6. Inspiration v Perspiration

You have followed the tips so far; you are a lean mean illustrating machine. You can hunt down clients, track down new business, quote to within a quid of the client’s true budget. You know shortcuts across Soho to get you to a briefing in less than five minutes and can call the art director of the latest top style mag by his Christian name and yet still something is missing! Remember you are an artist. You must feed your habit too. Stay inspired, stay motivated and stay busy even when the phone goes dead! Some top tips on how to stay an illustrator even when the chips are down…

67. Keep creative. Push your work by adding to your portfolio, with work that you want to do rather than just work you are paid to do! You can lead the type of work that you are offered by showing similar examples.

68. Visit exhibitions for inspiration. Look at the work of other illustrators as well as artists and photographers. Examine methods and techniques as well as the ideas in their work. It is a good idea to buy exhibition catalogues, or postcards if your budget is limited.

69. Read more fiction. As an illustrator you are expected to bring text/copy to life. If you read more and create thumbnail sketches of ideas in response to these texts, you’ll keep in practice.

70. Read more factual and non-fiction work. Illustrators need to get under the skin of a subject and understand the issues raised in a writer’s text. If you get to grips with the copy you stand a far greater chance of illustrating it well.

71. Go to the theatre and the cinema. Engage with dance or opera. Above all else, enjoy other art forms. You can take inspiration from all sorts of sources. It may be as simple as new combinations of colour that you see in a theatre costume or the framing of particular images in film. Be inspired!

72. Draw, draw and then draw some more. Take your sketchbook everywhere and use it in cafes, bars, on the bus and in the park. If your work does not rely on drawing but more on photographic imagery, keep your camera with you at all times.

73. Get yourself invited to exhibition private views and meet other artists and illustrators informally. Normally getting onto a mailing list for a gallery is as simple as phoning and asking!

74. Check out local groups run by the Association of Illustrators that meet on a regular basis. Many groups invite busy professional illustrators to give slide lectures about their work and experiences; learn from others.

75. If you are really short of work, offer to work as an assistant to a busy illustrator or illustration studio free of charge, for the experience and to pick up more tips. You’ll make coffee, mix paints, book couriers and hunt for reference materials.

76. Use dead time to produce work for competitions. Real dividends can be had from winning or being a finalist in illustration competitions. You can get your work recognised and seen by others and often an unknown illustrator will come to prominence through this route.

77. Meet other illustrators on a regular basis. Swap stories, contacts and advice. It is vital that you keep in touch with developments in the illustration world. It is good to have a shoulder to cry on and an audience for your positive stories too.

7. Agents – To Have or To Have Not

Tired of schlepping around town trying to meet and greet the young guns of the design, publishing and advertising worlds? Want some other bod to do it for you? For an average of 25-30% of each job that they get for you, some other bod will. Meet the illustrator agent! The dos and don’ts, the good, the bad and the ugly of the agent are revealed in this section. Lots of pros and cons to help assist you in making that choice and some tips that will help you stand out from the crowd if you decide that an agent is top of your must-have list. What should you expect, what should they expect and how will the relationship be as fruitful as possible?

78. Illustration agencies are businesses. To operate, they have to make a profit. This means that they must represent busy illustrators and plenty of them.
If you are not happy being part of this business go straight to the next section.

79. Still here? Want an agent? Investigate the agencies that are out there. They all have different areas of expertise. Hunt out the one you and your work are most suitable for. Be sure that they operate in the areas of illustration that you do.

80. Be prepared to give up 25%-30% of your income in commission but recognise that agents can command higher fees. This may well make up for the commission. If you are lucky enough to be taken on by an agent check what percentage they take first. Feel free to negotiate.

81. Just like clients, agents are very busy too. Don’t hassle but be polite. Offer to send samples and wait to hear back when they get the chance to call you. Offer to visit; they will want to meet you if they like your work.

82. Ask the agents that you meet about their techniques for getting artists work. Do they rely on just printed publicity? Do they have a web site? Do they go out and tread the streets with portfolios? Are they pro-active? You need to know this kind of information.

83. Agents charge (on top of commission) a percentage of the costs of advertising an artist. Make sure you understand how much this may cost you in your first year. Can you afford it? Do they want the cash up front or will they take it from fees owed to you? Check the details.

84. Ask about organised meetings for the illustrators represented by the agency. If they happen regularly, it means that they have happy artists and is a good sign. It is useful to have a meeting point to discuss issues with other illustrators.

85. Agents may expect to have sole representation of your work. They may want to handle your own clients too. Are you prepared to hand them over? Another point to discuss before making a final decision.

86. Think carefully about how you present your portfolio at any meeting. Agents will be interested in who you have worked for as well as how your work has developed. They will be thinking long term investment. Think the same thoughts!

87. Agents do not tolerate artists working for the agency’s clients without declaring it. Some clients are slippery. Don’t make the mistake of losing your agent because you have been working behind their back!

8. Getting That Full-time Job

The life of the freelance, self-employed individual appeared so care free didn’t it? Start work when you pleased, take as long for lunch as you wished or even a long weekend – never did Mondays! That was before the parents/landlord/building society (delete as necessary) started to demand the rent/mortgage payments (delete as necessary) and they bicycle/motorbike/car dealer (delete as necessary) needed a new tyre/MOT (delete as necessary). Suddenly the safety net of the world of PAYE seems far too enticing. You need a job in illustration and you need it fast. Get cracking before the few out there are snapped up! Follow these tips on securing that position and wait for your first monthly pay cheque to roll in …

88. More and more design companies are starting to employ illustrators or designers that can illustrate on permanent contracts. Check the design press for ads and be prepared to send samples and CV at short notice.

89. Approach publishing companies and greetings card companies if seeking full-time positions, they are still the most likely. Write a covering letter, introducing yourself and your experience and expertise and be prepared to follow it with a phone call.

90. If given an appointment or interview, be on time, be presentable and know as much as you can about the company. Ask intelligent questions and be keen. All fairly obvious tips but easily overlooked by some.

91. Offer to work on a temporary placement basis to gain experience. This is a must if you are a recent college graduate. In return for poor payment you will get good experience and hopefully a project or two you can add to your portfolio.

92. Once on a placement, demonstrate yourself to be so good they have to ask you to stay! Don’t complain about working long hours – it is the done thing in design and advertising. Get yourself noticed, ask questions and offer to help others out with presentations.

93. If you want to go into freelance illustration, but would like to understand the business in more detail first, try seeking a job at an illustration agency. You’ll meet lots of illustrators and clients and see projects through from conception to completion.

94. Other areas to try your luck at include studio management. Be the person responsible for keeping a design studio running. You could be involved in all aspects of the design process. One moment discussing projects with designers, illustrators and photographers and the next checking proofs on press at the printers.

95. Keep a record of all contacts whilst looking for work and after you get the job. These will start to prove invaluable. All designers and illustrators have favourite printers, repro houses and places to source reference, and the list will start to grow. Use your contacts and keep them in an organised fashion.

9. Good Habits

Some tips do not fall into neat little boxes so here are the best of the rest, the ones that nearly got away. Creating top illustrations, maintaining great promotional material, building a hot portfolio, running a studio and a business takes a lot of skills – make sure that you get into good habits early on. Take time to read this section and follow the instructions carefully. Some may sound obvious, some may appear plan dumb but, rest assured, they all work. Take daily and complete the whole course. Does exactly what it says on the can!

96. Make sure that your client is pleased with the work that you have produced. Many designers are simply too busy to call to let you know that they have received your artwork. Phone them to check that the work was ok, they’ll appreciate it.

97. Don’t ‘lift’, ‘copy’, ‘borrow’ or be too ‘influenced’ by the style of another illustrator. Forge your own look, it is the only way to create real lasting interest in your work. Be original.

98. Make sure that, where possible, you are given credit for the illustration you have created. If you have a web address, ask the designer to use it in the credit. It will add to the traffic to your site and may easily lead to further commissions.

99. Produce work to the deadline given, unless you have an agreed extension. If the deadline appears unworkable ask for more time before you take on the job. If you spot problems, resolve them early on.

100. Chase up copies of the work when it is in print. Do this as soon as the publication is out. The art director or designer should be happy to send you three or four copies free of charge. These ‘tear sheets’ are what will make up your portfolio.

101. Have fun, work hard, play hard and good luck!

Lawrence Zeegan is an illustrator, educator and ex-agent. He has produced commissions for numerous newspapers, magazines, design companies and advertising agencies in the UK, Europe and the USA. He is Academic Programme Leader for Communication and Media Arts at the University of Brighton. He was a founding partner of Heart, the London-based illustration agency. View Zeegen’s work at


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