On Being an Independent Illustrator

thinkersm.jpg

I love working as an independent illustrator.

It’s pretty much like being an entrepreneur, except your start up company is your illustration work, and you are the only employee.

  • You set your own schedule.

  • You decide where you want to live.

  • You decide how much vacation time you get to take.

  • You decide what projects you want to work on and what you get to say no to.

  • You decide what people you want to work with.

  • You have to pay entirely for your own health insurance.

  • You bill people, and then are in charge of following up with them.

  • You do all your own promotion.

The more creative, and smart you are in these areas the more successful as an illustrator you will be.

Many illustrators work with reps or agents. These people take 15%-30% of every deal they negotiate for you. But if they are good at their job, you'll make enough money for it to be worth it.

The most successful illustrators I know needed 5-10 years to get their careers going strong enough to start making a comfortable living.

In that time they either relied on their spouses income, they worked a day job while growing their illustration career on nights and weekends (me), or they just lived a bohemian lifestyle with zero dependents.

They needed that time to build their network, master their craft, grow their audience, and wait for everything to click.

Many independent illustrators, myself included, rely on multiple revenue streams to make their living.

So far this year I've gotten an advance payment for a children's book, a couple royalty checks for books I've done in the past, sales from my online shop, sales from online classes I've sold, sales from live workshops I'm doing, money from a convention I attended, money from youtube videos, money from amazon affiliate links, and money from a speaking engagement.

There were a few months there where very little money was coming in, and then in May I made $40K. So you need to be good at managing your money. Don't expect a steady paycheck.

I guess whether or not being an independent illustrator is a good fit for you depends on your personality. If you need financial stability, are risk averse, and not very entrepreneurial minded then I would pursue a career in animation, video games, or entertainment. You'll get a steady paycheck, good health benefits. You just show up, do your work, go to a few meetings, and then you don't have to think about it at all until you arrive to work the next day.

However, if you are constantly coming up with ideas for making money with your art, are willing to bet on yourself, don't like people above you calling the shots for you, and are willing to fall on your face frequently, then there are ways to make an illustration career work for you.

Sometimes I feel like I’m way in over my head and the work load is too much. But each challenge has refined me and made me stronger and better equipped to handle the next project I take on. This wasn't always the job I wanted, nor could do, but I'm very happy where I am right now.


Note:

This post was taken from a response I wrote to an email I received from a student at BYU named Conor Searing. Conor had a bunch of questions about choosing illustration for a career as apposed to entering the animation industry. I answered him privately and with his permission I posted our correspondence here to hopefully help others in the same situation as him. Here’s what he asked:

I was wondering if I could ask you what you do as an illustrator? Has money been a huge stress for you? Do you feel you have enough time to commit to being a good artist as well as spend with your family? If you had any doubts about making a career of illustration how did you over come that?

Thanks for the questions Conor!

My new assistant

One of the perks of working from home is you get to know your kids a lot better. While working the other morning, my daughter and I had a long discussion about saving up money, and ways that kids can earn money. She told me that I forget what it's like being a kid and how hard it is to earn money. Then she asked for a loan to get a mermaid tail and she'd pay me back when she got the cash. I told her I only loan out money for education and real estate. Then I offered to train her to scan my sketchbooks and paid her to do mine. Took her an hour, but she earned $7.

penny.png

Style vs Technology in Feature Animation

Just wanted to note that Sleeping Beauty was released 21 years after Snow White was released.

Sleeping Beauty, 1959

Sleeping Beauty, 1959

Snow White, 1938

Snow White, 1938

Sleeping Beauty, 1959

Sleeping Beauty, 1959

Snow White, 1938

Snow White, 1938

The same amount of time had passed in between Toy Story and Finding Dory:

Finding Dory, 2016

Finding Dory, 2016

Toy Story, 1995

Toy Story, 1995

Finding Dory, 2016

Finding Dory, 2016

Toy Story, 1995

Toy Story, 1995

I’m guessing in the first 20 years of Disney animated films the artists were more concerned with advancing style than they were technology. Once they figured out the techniques of 2D animation, style and artistry became the focus.

In the first 20+ years of CG animation the focus has been technology over artistry. “Look how realistic we can make: plastic/wood, grass, fur, water, lighting, different water, wet fur, clothing, wet clothing, explosions, humans...”

In the last 5 years pretty much every CG technological mountain has been conquered. Right? When the artists no longer have limits to what they can create in CG, they can completely focus on style. Spiderverse is the perfect example:

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018

I think Spiderverse was just scratching the surface of what CG artists can do stylistically and it makes me really excited for the future of CG animation.

-Jake

I Took Over RhinoShield's Instagram Account

Part of the partnership I have with them is to sell some cases with my art on them included me promoting the collaboration online a bunch of different ways. One of the ideas we had was for me to take over their Instagram account and do a story on there.

For the story I did a look at my studio, the books I've made over the years, and a quick drawing demo. They've left it up and you can still watch it here:
My RhinoShield Instagram Story

And here's the drawing I made for them:

-Jake

The gravitational pull of your work

warofart.jpg

Currently Reading the War of Art by Steven Pressfield

I always like to have one foot in a book about creativity, or creating, or how to improve your life. I can't read these kinds books for more than a few pages at a time because they give me so much to think about and process. I can't recommend this book enough. I'm about 3/4ths through it and there's so much I can relate to and apply.

One idea he stresses is that of resistance and how real it is. He spends plenty of time defining it, casting all kinds of light on it so that you can identify it easily in your work. But then he goes the next step and shares ways to fight it, to stab a sword into it and kill it dead...for a day. It always comes back the next day.

The latter half of the book is about the muse, and how we can tap into creative energy and use it.

I'll leave you with one thing I've been thinking about a lot: The gravitational pull of your work.

On page 108 Pressfield says, “When we sit down each day to do our work, power concentrates around us.” It costs us energy to produce something, but when you show up to do it (and by that I mean actually putting pen to paper) the gods of creativity lend their hand and help. At the end of the day you have a small mass of creative matter that's managed to hold itself together. The more you work on it, the more creative mass your project builds, until it has enough pull to get you out of bed each morning and suck you into it every day. However, leave it alone for a day, or a week, or a month, and that energy dissipates. It starts to lose mass and as a consequence has less pull. If you let go of an idea it floats away instead of falling towards the center of the mass.

All this to say, get up and do your creative work and be consistent. It's the only way you'll ever finish a thing.

-Jake

Also reading:

Batman: White Knight: What if the Joker was a good guy? Really good story and art. Like REALLY GOOD.
DUNE: To much going on to explain... but I'll try: a inter-galacti-political storyline with giant sand worms. I read the first half last year, but didn't finish before I left Greenport. Picking it up where I left off. 
All-New X-Men Vol 3: The X-Men from the 60s are sent to the future to stop their present day selves from making a mess. I've been reading X-Men off and on since the early 90s and it's a huge convoluted mess, but man I love it.

Why I Make videos

After 5 months, I finally made another YouTube video.

The reason I haven’t put a ton of love into my channel this year is because I’ve been really busy with projects, and at the end of the day I don’t want to be a YouTuber who draws. I’d rather be an artist who makes YouTube videos.

As an independent artist you are always on the look out for ways to make money and support yourself with your art.

The ideal project is something that:

  1. Uses existing artwork that you’ve already created

  2. Puts something cool and/or useful into the world

So, when Rhinoshield contacted me about making phone cases with my artwork it was a no brainer for me.

  1. I get to use art that I’ve already created

  2. They make sturdy, sleek cases that legitimately protect your phone, and look cool. A useful tool for us phone wielding sapiens.

Part of the deal with them was, they would prep my artwork for the phone cases, manufacture the phone cases, run the website, process orders, and package up and ship the phone cases out to people.

In turn, all I would have to do is some social media posts about the cases. They also specifically asked for a Youtube video.

I’m trying to be as transparent as possible with my Youtube channel. I told my audience that I’d never make a video just becasue I needed to upload a video that week in order to stick to some sort of posting schedule. I don’t want to be a part of the problem of time wasting videos on YouTube.

Also, to just make a video that was all about “BUY MY PHONECASES” seemed a little disingenuous and spammy. So,for this video I did something that I rarely do on my channel: I showed step-by-step how I made the art that ended up on one of the cases Rhinoshield is selling.

I usually charge for tutorials like this, but when I’m already getting paid to do a video, I figured I would give away my knowledge for “free.”

-Jake

Click here to check out my RhinoShield Phone Cases


I Moved to Arizona!

Vermillioncliffs.jpg

I’m starting to settle in, but I can’t believe I just moved my family down to Arizona.

We've been living in Utah for 9+ years, and I've grown to love the beehivet state with its amazing people, beautiful canyons, and hiking trails everywhere you go. If you haven't visited Utah, you have to make a trip out there some time before you die. It is that great. There's a lot of reasons for this move, and I won't really go into them here other than our family needed a change in climate.

I grew up in Arizona, but I haven't lived there since 2001. It's changed a little bit every time I've gone back to visit to the point that some parts are barely recognizable. I kind of feel like I moved to an entirely new state!

Are you from AZ? If so tell me one cool thing you love about it here. Is there a restaurant I should try? A trail I should hike? A gallery I should visit? I'd love to know more about the area.

About that image up there. I was thinking a lot about the vermillion cliffs in northern Arizona and took some time one day and just tried painting a landscape for fun. I wanted to try something a little different from what I normally do and just experiment with color, value and composition. I hope you like it.

Here’s my temporary studio set up in the apartment we are renting while we house hunt. I still need to get work done and this stripped down set up will do the trick.

tempstudiosetup.jpeg

Been here almost a week and it’s been so good to see some friends, hang with family, and explore a new area. I think I’m going to like it here.

-Jake

Advice for Recent Graduates...or anyone walking the creative path

“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So...get on your way!” - Dr Seuss

“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So...get on your way!” - Dr Seuss

In the last few weeks I’ve been visited by a handful of high school kids and college underclassmen asking for advice on what they should do to prepare to get a job in the art world. In response to that, I asked a bunch of my artist friends at Emerald City Comic Con what was once piece of advice they had for someone graduating high school who wants to be an artist for a living. I made a video of their responses.

Lacking from that video was my advice. I have some things to say to people who have chosen to walk the creative path. If that’s you, then settle in. If it’s not you, please share this with a person you know who’s going to art school, or recently graduated. You can read it too, or course. This advice is universal and it just might help you no matter what stage in life you’re at.

A Career in art is possible

By now you’ve probably figured out that it is possible to have a career in art. Some art careers make more money than others. Some are more stable than others. But for anyone who has the skill, the drive to improve, a healthy work ethic, and isn’t afraid of the unknown it’s possible to get to the point where you can support yourself and a family with a career in art.

I want to share with you five things you can do to help you get there. This is stuff I’ve learned over the years that has helped me succeed, and I wish this was advice that was given to me as a high school kid. I remember graduating, having no idea what to do, or where to go, but just knowing that I loved to draw and really wasn't qualified to do anything else. If someone had sat me down and told me these things as a high school kid it would’ve saved me years of spinning my wheels.

1 - Focus on one path.

“Find out who you are and do it on purpose. “ - Dolly Parton

You need to be a heat seeking missile focused one thing. A heat seeking missile works by finding a heat target and then ignoring any heat signal that doesn’t come from that target. That’s why heat seeking missiles don’t just fly straight towards the sun when they’re launched.

Picking one thing to do does not mean that’s the thing you’re going to do forever. In fact, it’s very rare to be ONE THING you’re whole life. Steven Pressfield tells us of this truth in his book The War of Art:

“As artists we serve the Muse, and the Muse may have more than one job for us over our lifetime”

That said, you have to start somewhere, knowing how to do something. So pick something and learn what you need to master in order to get a job in that discipline. Learn how other artists got their job. Study the art of people who work where you want to work. That’s the bar that you need to reach. Visit the studios, meet up with the artists, acquaint yourself with recruiters. Do internships. Insert yourself into that ecosystem. Make it so that when you finally apply for that job, it’s a no brainer for whoever is hiring, to hire YOU.

The side benefit to doing this is that whether you want to go into animation, illustration, video games, film, comics, or children’s books the skills you learn to do one of these jobs has applications for other jobs. If you get into it and realize it’s not quite for you, transitioning to another job isn’t going to be an impossible feat.



2 - Learn your craft.

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.” -Archilochus

It’ll take you about 4 years to learn the fundamentals of art and a lifetime to master it. So learn how to learn, because the most successful artists I know are continually pushing the limits of their abilities. They understand that the levels that can unfold in art are inexhaustible.

Draw things you’re not comfortable drawing. If you’re bad at drawing people, draw people. If you’re bad at drawing environments, draw environments.

Read books on the subject. There’s an amazing amount of information stored in these relics.

Find a good school that can teach you these fundamentals. You’ll know it’s good if the work coming out of the school is good. If not the school, then find a teacher who knows her stuff. Your focus at school isn’t grades or a degree, it’s skill, portfolio, and friends. Those are the three things that matter and are going to stay with you as you leave the school.

Learn from your peers. It’s not who you know, it’s who you help, so look for ways you can help others succeed, and in return you’ll be made better for it as well.

Find a mentor. A mentor doesn’t have to be someone older than you, just someone more experienced than you. Again, see how you can help them, become a linchpin in their system, so that they need you as much as you need them.

3 - Get a life.

“It’s more important that you go off and learn what to make movies about, than how to make movies.” - Advice given to JJ Abrams from his father.

If the goal of mastering your craft is to be able to show the world your vision, then the goal of every artist is to have a vision that’s worth showing. In order to do that you need to live life and have experiences worth building off of and sharing.

Cut the fat, and live deliberately. Live less online, and more in life. Make friends. Date people. Get married. Go places. Whether it’s exploring the south side of town or the southern hemisphere, there’s something to be gained from every excursion outside of your home.

The purpose of this is to fill your creative bank account with enough creative capital that you can barely contain it.

4 - Do one personal project a year.

“You make your place in the world by making part of it.” - Art & Fear

Take all your pent up creativity and use it by putting out a finished product at least once a year. Something tangible. Something you can point to and say, look, I made this thing.

Pump all your experiences, the craft you’ve attained so far, and your passion into this project.

This is going to give you a benchmark for yourself. This will give you something to aspire to beat with your next project. This will also be a calling card and something that other people can point to and say “look, this person made THIS.”

You only become known for your projects you make, not for the craft you’re privately learning. No one will know the experiences your privately having unless you share them through your projects.

5 - Share your work.

“An artists job is not to be perfect, but to be creating.” - Jeff Goins

The students I’ve talked to are a little afraid to share their amateur work. If that’s how you feel, quit thinking of social media as an art gallery with wall space reserved for your best work. Instead, think of social media as a peek into your studio. Invite them in, give them a glass of water and a comfy chair, and show them what you’ve been working on. No pressure there. Use twitter, facebook, or instagram as a way to document your progress online. Think of it as a public journal of your development as an artist.

Tell people who you are and what you’re about. Tell them what you’re going to be someday, and invite them to watch your journey.

What will happen is your audience will grow as you grow. They will be your online cheerleaders sharing your work with others, and first in line to buy whatever you make.

Lastly, I just want to share this quote from Bob Dylan:

“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night, and in between does what he wants to do.”

Remember, life is too short to be stuck doing something you don’t want to do, and it’s also too short to waste time doing something that isn’t working for you. I hope these five things give you a head start down that path of doing what you want to do in life. As the good doctor once said, “Your mountain is waiting. So...get on your way!”

-Jake


Order a “Your Mountain is Wating” Print here.

How To Find A Mentor

mentor.jpg

One of the best ways to find success in any career is to learn from people who are successful. You need mentors! Having a good set of mentors is essential for your growth as a professional artist.

I’ve had a few mentors over the years and they’ve all been indispensable to my success as an illustrator. Some have been decades ahead of me and some my age or younger. Some were actively mentoring me, and others had no idea they were my mentor. In every case, I learned massive amounts of information on how to make a career out of being an artist.

I'd like to take a minute and give a little direction on how to go about finding a mentor. Finding the right mentors is a lot of work, but if you go about finding them in the right way you can form a beautiful and long lasting relationship with someone.

First off, this quote Jeff Goins sums it all up: "It’s not who you know, it’s who you help." (btw, if you haven't read Goins' book Real Artists Don't Starve, you need to before the year is over) You must go into this thinking about how you can help people. Not only will you be an asset to those who mentor you, but you'll grow as you learn to solve problems and find solutions that will also help you in your own career at some point.

I’ve read a bit on the subject, I’ve mentored a bunch of people, and I’ve been a student to my own mentors. And while there’s no slam dunk way to get a mentor every time, I think there’s some best practices you could follow that lead to good results. So, from all of my experience, and the advice of others, I’ve put together a list of three steps to having the perfect mentorship. Here they are:

1) Do your homework

Before you can help someone, you need to become as familiar as you possibly can with what they are doing. 

This means you need to do your homework on what they already offer as a mentor.

    • Watch all of their Youtube videos

    • Read all of their blog posts

    • Listen to all the podcast interviews they've done

    • Read any books they've written or created

    • If they offer workshops, try and attend one.

    • If they offer online classes, sign up for them

Asking them to give you something for nothing if they make part of their living from formalized mentoring is not a good move. They are more likely to help you if you show you have done your homework and participated in what they already offer.


2) Offer them a win/win proposition

Offer to do something for them. Don’t just say you’re available if they need anything. That puts the pressure back on them to think of something for you. Instead do the James Altucher method and give them a list of 5-10 things that they could hand off to you, or things that they could be doing better and how you could do it for them. 

Here's an example I'm just going to throw out there,

"Hi Pro Artist, I'm a huge fan and love your work. I've noticed you only post on Instagram twice a week and the instagram algorithm favors accounts that post daily. I think you could grow your instagram account a ton if you posted every day. I see you have a backlog of portfolio work on your site that hasn't been posted on Instagram. Would it be helpful if I downloaded that art and cropped it for instagram so you could have more content to post? I'd be happy to help you out."

After you've helped them you can approach them about a problem you're having. Don’t just ask “I have a question/problem/project, can you help me?” 

Instead ask the question, then provide 3 solutions and ask them to pick. This eases the burden on them, and also shows your own creativity, it shows you’re proactive, and that you’ve already exhausted your own ideas.

So you might say, "I need help with my senior thesis. I have X problem, and here's three solutions I've come up with to solve it. Which one would you pick? Or is there another solution you would have that I haven't thought of.

3) Follow through, then follow up

If your mentor decides to help you, don’t be a disappointment. This is a huge opportunity. For you to disregard or abandon their advice is the best way to never have this mentor help you again.

Report back and tell them the results.

Thank them! Thank them right away, then in six months, then in a year. It show's you've really internalized their advice and help.

You're way more likely to get help going about it this way. If you repeat this cycle, (you help them, then ask for advice, then deliver) you've essentially created a mentorship for yourself without having to ask someone to be your mentor and built what could be a relationship that outlasts your initial problems you need help with.

Ok, real quick again:

1) Do your homework
2) Offer them a win/win proposition
3) Follow through, then follow up

I hope that helps. Do you have a method that has worked for you? Comment below and let me know your secret!

-Jake