Whether you have a flash of inspiration or you have an idea that’s been in the back our your mind for a while, I’ve put together a few tips on how to get off on the right foot. Just a disclaimer, everyone works differently and this may not work for you. This is just a collection of advice that I’ve found really useful over the years and I hope if you haven’t already heard of these they can help someone else too.
1. Let your idea develop
Sometimes an idea can just pop up and you feel immediately motivated to start the project but it’s worth taking a step back and let it develop. Take time to investigate other artists who have done something similar, do you see an improvement that you can make or a piece of your personal style you can inject? How much time will this project take you, will the outcome be worth it?
Many times I’ve jumped right in and 9/10 when I do that I will lose momentum because I haven’t thought things through and visualised the end goal enough. The projects that get completed are usually the ones where you’ve thought through all the steps, always know what’s the next step and have a goal in mind.
2. Define your goal
Now, as a professional this question will always be accompanied by - will this make money? If this is a side hustle or a hobby you have the luxury of defining your goal based on different outcomes. However, one of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years is make sure you have a clear idea on what you can do with the finished outcome. I’ve taken on projects just for fun and been left with a giant canvas with nowhere to put it or a pile of small paintings with nowhere to display them.
Can you sell the outcome on Etsy? Can you enter it into a local show? Can you give it as a gift to friends?
These questions help separate the artists from the illustrators and if you really nail this it can help launch you into a professional career.
3. Remember to start small
Remember to sketch it out and practice. So many times I’ve taken the time to work on the composition and a more fully finished work has emerged. Also, I’ve jumped into a giant canvas and completely messed up what could have been a great piece when I realised I’ll run out of room or a colour really didn’t work next to another.
If you’re new to planning try scaling the design up and down a couple of times. For example, if you’re thinking of going for an A3 piece of work, build it in A5, A4 and maybe even A2 first if it’s intricate. Each time you redraw it you may find something else to add/ change and you’ll understand how it works at different scales to know what works best.
4. Make sure you’re passionate
If it’s not something you really believe in you may not run the full mile.
Again, as a professional you may not have this luxury. If you do then take the time to appreciate it and make sure you’re focusing on something that you love. If you’re working on a commission, it helps to find an angle that will help you get really involved in the work.
I was lucky enough to attended a talk by Jim Kay at the House of Illustration and he was so passionate about every detail and aspect in his books which really showed. There is a double page spread in a illustrated Harry Potter edition which he made of Diagon Alley where each shop has reference to the lore attached to the name and the page was filled with detail from research projects he’d conducted on the side.
5. Keep aware of your context
Are there others doing the same types of illustrations? If you put your work next to theirs how would it stand out? Can you learn anything from those you admire and those you do have a unique spin?
Think of your favourite golden age illustrator such as Arthur Rackham… now drop their work into Oh Comely - it just wouldn’t work unless it’s ironic.
Or if you really want to draw a silhouette of Super Mario then make sure you look at Olly Moss who has done it already - and well. Either think of something unique, do it better or evolve the idea.
6. Are you the right person for the job?
If Pollock had a great idea for a portrait of the queen or if Warhol was asked to illustrate a children’s book - it might result be very weird and wonderful outcome but it probably wouldn’t really suit their style.
You can choose to really push yourself sometimes - that’s not a bad thing but if it’s too far out then it may not be the right project for you. I would love to paint a portrait as a gift but realistically it will take me days, even months to get to the skill level of what is in my head. It’ll most likely end in frustration.
Instead, play to your strengths and learn new skills along the way. If you are determined to learn this new way of working that’s a completely new style then be realistic and give yourself enough time and goalposts.
If it is a masterpiece that must be realised then try to collaborate with another artist!
7. Get the right feedback
At university one of the best parts was getting feedback constantly. Not only from tutors but also like minded creative people on your course. Not only is it important to constantly get feedback - but the right feedback. It needs to come from someone you trust to give you the truth and ideally someone who is either the target audience or another creative with knowledge of the industry.
Feedback from friends and family is great for self esteem but it’ll point you in the wrong direction if they don’t fully understand all the other factors that will make a good piece.
The right feedback can challenge you to achieve great things so it’s important to find you’re wall to bounce off of whether that’s via a Facebook group / forum / artist group / portfolio review / contacts.
8. Balance Life
Previously, when I started a project it consumed me and many times while I was a student I would look up 6 hours later and I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything in that time - just painted. That way of working can run you into the ground and isolate you.
Set milestones so you know when to break.
When you sit down and plan remember to identify places where you may need to take a step back and refresh. Celebrate the milestones too, make sure you realise what you’ve accomplished so far and realise your progress - it could help you reach the end of the project.
Also, realise what you can and can’t sacrifice for this project. Can you skip the occasional coffee or let the dirty clothes pile up for a few more days? On the flip side, can you skip a partners birthday or a chance to catch up with your grandparents? Probably shouldn’t, so make sure to balance the important things in life with your passion.
9. Be open to new developments
You may fail, you may not be getting there as quickly or easily as you hoped. Is there something else you can do to make it easier? Can you change the way your working or change the outcome slightly which means you’ll be able to complete the project?
Or, do you need to rethink the project entirely?
Never be afraid to change the project - even when you’ve put so much time into it. If it’s not working and you’ve gone through feedback from others and it’s still not working then it may be time to step back and develop it a bit more.
Also, be open to positive developments - maybe half way through you discover a technique that will add a whole new dimension to the project. Keep your eyes open and always be open to influences.
10. Challenge yourself
Something to consider when starting something new, will this help me learn a new skill or will I be a better illustrator/ artist after this project?
If you can pick up something new then its a huge bonus - as long as it doesn’t slow you down too much.
Also, if it’s something you’ll be proud of at the end that can be a huge motivator to get you to the end.
Have any advice that’s worked for you? Feel free to get in touch and let me know what you find work’s best for your practice.