How to Be a Successful Illustrator

This week I announced that I landed my first art agent. It’s an exciting and exhilarating time! In one month I will attending Blueprint in NYC to showcase my surface design and illustration portfolio to potential clients. I couldn’t be more thrilled! I was going to describe my journey in detail first, and then tell you why I think I am successful, but then I realized you might not want to hear it all. If you don’t, here’s the sort answer:

I went back to school.

Not art school. That’s expensive and unfeasible for me. I don’t have the time or money to sit in a desk for two + years. But I did start learning again. Online. I’ve spent countless hours learning.

Do you want to be successful at illustration? Get your butt in class.

Not sure where to start? Here’s a sample of what I’ve taken:

Skillshare – Where I started. Super inexpensive for what you get! You can find alll sorts of technical and business related courses here. My favorite teachers are Shannon McNab, Dylan M., Brooke Glaser, Ohn Mar Win, Juliet Meeks, Mel Armstrong, and Mary Kate McDevitt, just to name a few!

Lilla Rogers’ Make Art That Sells – A deep dive into making money with your art. Lilla is extremely encouraging and kind, and I’ve noticed a ton of very successful names on her class roster.

Victoria Johnson’s Create Explore Classes – she has a very distinctive style and really seems like she wants to help you get ahead in your career. Her classes are very affordable for the beginning illustrator.

Rise Shine and Design’s Folio Focus – Another affordable option that helps you focus on building your ever-important portfolio. One of my favorite perks of this class is the Facebook group you join to connect with other artists.

The Society of Visual Storytelling – This “society” has a children’s book illustration focus, but the technical drawing, painting, and composing tips are gold. They also have an art licensing class! Totally worth the monthly fee.

A beachy holiday house I made in Victoria’s Create Christmas class.

I also listen to lots of podcasts while I practice my art. Can you tell I’m a learning junkie?

I think a lot of us older learners fall into the mentality that we’ve learned enough, we don’t need to learn anymore. But when you stop learning, you stop growing. It inhibits your success.

What’s funny is that up until one year ago, I never thought I could become a professional illustrator. A hobbyist, sure. But professional? I reserved that title for members of my incredibly artistic family. I was scared to draw. And paint. It looked too hard.

But as a stay at home mom whose kids were getting older and attending school more frequently and consistently, I needed a creative outlet. Makers Gotta Make, am I right?! And the entrepreneur inside of me was itching to be successful at something. Because of my husband’s career we are financially comfortable, but that doesn’t ease the ache of me wanted to achieve something for myself, separate from family. And financial comfort can be fleeting. I wanted a back up plan.

It all started with Peggy Dean and handlettering. I got hooked on the hobby, painting pretty letters whenever my kids napped. Then I saw she taught classes on Skillshare. I watched them and explored others (I got two months free, why not?!). While watching I discovered that most of the teachers make money with their art. I wanted to do that to! I wanted to make pretty things and sell them. So I invested in an iPad, and instantly fell in love with Procreate.

Not long after that I discovered the world of surface pattern design and started submitting work to Spoonflower’s weekly pattern challenges. And I bombed them! I needed help. I circled back to learning.

Ever since taking the classes I mentioned above, my work has improved. I’ve landed in the top 30 out of 700+ entries on Spoonflower. I recently landed an agent. It obviously hasn’t been an overnight process. I’m not making tons of money yet. Let’s be realistic, that’s going to take some time.

But the best thing I’ve gained since beginning? Not the agent. It’s my confidence as an artist. I’m not afraid to draw. Now, in fact, I think I can draw anything.

And I am an artist. A successful one.

You can be one too.

Evolving Artistic Style

Do you as an artist worry that your style is recognizable? I always have.

When I decided to make illustration and surface pattern design my career, my artistic style was all over the place. I was so confused.

I knew I had traits that will help me succeed in this incredibly competitive field: I absolutely adore making art and my background is in marketing, design, and photography.

But I was still very unsure if I’d ever find my “signature style”.

It’s been nearly a year since I began, and just recently have I started to see stylistic trends in my work. It feels like my style is finally blooming; I’ve been receiving warm receptions for my newest work from my peers in the field, I feel much more confident in what I create, and my head is brimming with ideas.

My most recent pattern on Spoonflower.

So have faith. Keep working and try not to overthink what your style should be… it will come out when it’s ready. (And in the meantime, take Dylan M.’s class on Skillshare on this very topic!)

How to make a Repeat Pattern with Smart Objects in Photoshop

Start with a canvas size of 3000px x 3000px at 300 dpi.

Import your motifs or artwork; I typically use watercolor PNGs with transparent backgrounds. Place them on the artboard in an fashion you like.

Increase the size of the canvas to 9000px x 9000px.

Group your artwork into a folder.

Duplicate it and rename it however you wish. Hide the original artwork folder and don’t mess with it.

Convert the duplicated folder into a smart object.

Now duplicate the smart object and go to Filter->Offset. Add and subtract 3000 so that you fill the artboard with 8 copies of the smart object.

Double click the smart object. It will open up a new tab. Go to Image Size, and be sure that the file is 3000 x 3000 px. If it isn’t, resize it.

Now you can play with the placement of all of your artwork. When you’re ready, save the file and go back to the large canvas and see how your pattern has transformed!