5 top career tips for illustrators

Over the course of the last year Kiri Østergaard Leonard has interviewed illustrators and artists about their careers for her website. These interviews are not only a wealth of information but also a very honest look into what it takes to make it as an illustrator working in Fantastical Arts.

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Recently she decided to inspire and educate young artists following in the footsteps of these pros by putting together a series of printable, poster style images containing quotes from each illustrator. Following this, she kindly compiled the top five career tips from these very prominent artists…

01. Quality Above All

Fairy Rescue by Kiri Leonard

“I’ve always understood you don’t get a gig until you are better than those who are currently doing it.” – Winona Nelson

Winona Nelson has worked for Magic: the Gathering and Warhammer Black Library among other. She was one of the first illustrators I interviewed and she really hit the nail on the head with this one.

So many young illustrators wonder why they don’t get hired by companies. Here’s the plain truth: You HAVE TO BE BETTER than their current artists, otherwise there’s absolutely no reason for the art directors to take a chance on you, when they already have a great artist who they know will do the job well.

02. Trim Your Portfolio

“Early on, I was taught that ones portfolio is only as good as the weakest piece in it. An art director’s job hinges on trusting you to create a great piece (…) . If you’ve got a painting in your book featuring weak hands or awkward poses, etc. they’ll know there’s a good chance that it might happen with their job.” 
– Terese Nielsen

Terese Nielsen is well known for her stunning Magic the Gathering illustrations, she’s someone I greatly admire so I was thrilled to interview her.

She makes an essential point here. Especially students tend to put everything and anything in their portfolio. Don’t do this! Trim it down. You’ll be judged on the weakest piece, so your weakest piece better be really good to get hired.

03. Enjoy the Journey

Within the Mist – A Fishing Trip by Kiri Leonard

“Enjoy the journey and don’t get too hung up on end goals. If what you’re doing is dominated by frustration, then you’re doing something wrong.”- Lisa Hunt

Lisa Hunt is iconic in the tarot illustration realm. She has been in the industry for a very long time and knows what she’s talking about. Her advice really hits home; there is a lot of frustration involved in being an artist – making art is hard! But it shouldn’t make you miserable; if it does you need to change it up.

04. Learn to say “No”

“Finding who you are as an artist is being able to say no. I think one of my biggest obstacles is one a lot of young artists share: We want to do anything and everything. But that is deadly to progress. Whether it’s recognizing that the things you love aren’t necessarily the things you should do, or saying no to most paths in order to follow just one.

“The sooner you focus on that one thing, the sooner you will start building the sort of career that will give you the freedom to branch out to some of those other avenues. That being said, even though I understand the truth of this advice and have seen the proof, it’s still sometimes very hard to follow.”– Kristina Carroll

This is a bit of a mouthful but it is important. Kristina Carroll is the driving force behind the Month of Love drawing challenge and has done work for Wizards of the Coast among others. Saying no is perhaps one of the hardest things to do, but the sooner you find direction the better. It just helps all the little puzzle pieces fall into place.

05. Pick Yourself

The African Unicorn by Kiri Leonard

Rebecca Guay stressed at the Illustration Master Class that we all need to make art for us- even when it’s an assignment, find something you love about it, and paint with that in mind. It took years for that message to sink in with me, but it’s at the top of my advice-that-needs-taking list.” 
– Cynthia Sheppard

Cynthia Sheppard is not only an incredible illustrator; she was also recently hired as art director for Wizards of the Coast. I love this piece of advice. At the end of the day art is a personal thing and you have to find love in it to keep at it. When you can find that love and bring it into the work, it elevates your art and even better it feeds your soul.

Words: Kiri Østergaard Leonard

Kiri Østergaard Leonard is an illustrator with a flair for the quirky and whimsy. Her artwork reflects a passion for the world of fairies, a deep interest in fairy tales as well as an inherit fondness of Nordic myth and folklore.