What’s it like being a professional illustrator?

Nov 25, 2019

How awesome is the artwork above! This was created by David Follett who is an illustrator, a cartoonist… His job is to draw! He is paid to follow his passion. Dave is also part of our extended family. I love being a part of an arty, creative family! Artists get so much pleasure from producing their artworks. Then, as viewers, the delight and joy is shared. Win, win!

Because many of you may have children who love drawing characters, I thought I’d ask Dave about becoming a professional illustrator and some of the achievements/highlights of his career so far.

Drawing for a living

I became an illustrator probably more because of my lifelong attraction to comic strips and books and dynamic action-packed storytelling. I could tell that these ‘low brow’ interests of mine weren’t going to do me much good in the 'fine art’ arena such as in an art gallery, so in late high school I searched for other options to use my drawing ambitions.

Doing an illustration degree at university helped me figure out that, yes, I could create art for money, by helping other people tell their stories. A pencil for hire, if you like.

Dave is a Senior Illustrator and Character Builder for Watermark Creative and is on Instagram @davefollettdraws

Knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to be an illustrator 

* having a strong grasp of what the client's message is to be behind the art and what imagery you can use
* knowing the target audience
* understanding the best styles that enhance the message and how to make it resonate with people

In many ways illustrators are visual translators. Usually we have to adapt our styles to fit what the client is after, but sometimes if we already have strong styles, then clients come to us wanting to ‘wear’ our style for their project.

Working on your art skills

* learning the programs on your computer
* learning to draw people
* always improving technique
* practise, practise…

Illustration is all about visual communication, so having a strong grasp of visual symbols is pretty important. And then there’s human anatomy, characters, expressions, even ‘camera angles’ for composition and layouts, depending on what the illustration is about and for.

Your attitude and approach can make a huge difference 

* Be the person people want to work with again.
* Be friendly, easy to work with, help people solve their problems, make other people’s jobs easier because ultimately that’s what they come to you for.
* Deliver the artwork on time, or if you can’t then you need to manage the client’s expectations at every stage to keep them happy and ‘on board’.
* Be responsible: deliver the goods when you said you would, be friendly and professional and chances are you’ve got a client who will think of you first when they need another illustration.

Drawing for a client

For nearly all jobs, there’s the pencil sketch stage, which gets client feedback and direction, after which I do any revisions. Then once the pencils are approved by the client I work on final art (all digital these days). There may be room for amends but hopefully all problems have been ironed out in the pencils stage so there shouldn’t be many.

For some clients and certain jobs, it’s great to get in early and be a major contributor of ideas and a collaborator to the whole creation of the work, rather than a mere hand-for-hire. If the client’s after a certain style, then I refer to whatever reference they supply me with. Often they come with a brief that has a lot for me to go from. Then delivery of final art to the client!

Hardest challenges?

Learning how much my time and talent is worth for certain jobs. Thankfully there are published industry ’standards’ for rates of pay, but still, feeling worthy of charging certain amounts is a hurdle I had to overcome. That said, each job is different, so I have to tailor what I charge. 

Best achievements? 

Hard to say. There have been many along the way that meant a lot at the time. The first big one was winning a drawing competition in High School designing a Skin Cancer awareness poster. It got me a trip to Singapore, just for doing my homework!

Years later getting a Bill Mitchell award from the Australian Cartoonists Association was another achievement that my dad got to gloat about. Getting my first graphic novel published by Dark Horse Comics in the US was a huge achievement. And recently, storyboarding for kids cartoons, teaching storyboarding at CDW Studios, and this year storyboarding for a major motion picture!

These are ‘moments’ but looking back the best achievement of all is making a living and helping to support my family with my talent. Being able to pay bills, in other words! 

So much to know!

The thing is, we’re all surrounded by so much visual stimuli these days that we almost subconsciously know all this stuff already, much like knowing how to speak your native tongue. But understanding the why, how, what etc of it all is the tricky part. It takes practice, but it’s worth it.

A fun activity for children would be to go through the links in this blog and see how many products they recognise. Perhaps they can come up with their own character that might represent a favourite food.

Dave talked about different types of illustrations that their team may be asked to create. I’ve included some links below to show examples of what he is talking about: some by Dave, some by his colleagues.

 Categories for illustration

Advertising is to promote a commercial product or service.
- Illustrating a slogan ‘Don’t get fleeced
Return of waffles

Packaging is closely related to Advertising, and this often has some branding character that’s iconic to a product.
Cadbury furry friends
Peters ice-cream Snot and Guts
Coles fruit lunch box characters
Coles confectionery line
Coles instore characters

Styles of illustration for these two can be heavily art directed to the smallest detail as the client can be quite aware of public perception and response. Illustrators have to be flexible for these jobs as they can be very demanding and have a really short turnover. The money is always better though.

Editorial is what you might see in magazines and serialised publications. The brief from the client is usually looser and the illustrator has greater control and input into the finished art.

Publishing is more book illustrations, like children’s books. This is the most romanticised outlet of illustration, but probably the worst paying funnily enough - unless you create a best seller and have a favourable contract.

Educational App - starts with an advertisement for a dog food company but was developed into an app that teaches children about dog safety.

If you’d like to see further examples of the sort of work illustrators do, this website shares portfolios: Illustrators Australia. There is a list at the bottom of the first page that gives you an idea of the sorts of areas illustrators can be involved in.

Thank you to Dave for sharing his experiences as a professional illustrator. Maybe his work will inspire others to follow a similar path. In this world dominated by visual communication, there are many opportunities for budding cartoonists!

- Erica Shadiac, Educator in primary schools for over 40 years