Will this be harder to break into than we think?

  • A few years ago I tried breaking into fabrication, and went to school to learn it. Obviously it is a very different career path, but you wouldn’t think it would be hard to get it, but it really was. I graduated top of my class, with the most certifications to my name and the higestt recommendations from my teachers, only to walk into a feild that demanded ten years of experience. I tried forever to establish myself, and took jobs that paid minimum wage just to get experience under my belt to actually make money that could support my family. Well obviously I am here and so you can all assume how that worked out.

    The last couple of months have been pretty good for me art wise. I have gotten some online notoriety, and have been contacted by some pretty good literary agents hoping I would be interested in submitting to them. However, what they want from me is a cover letter with all of my professional experience, which is none. I have also read at SCBWI that for people like me who is trying to get my foot into the door, is to fully illustrate a classic story for my portfolio to show I can handle it. Both situations are very demanding, and leaves me wondering that I might be looking at a very tall order to fill just to get started.

    I am now thinking it might be wise to illustrate a self published book, so that I am getting paid for my time as well as adding that to my portfolio for professional agents.

    I will update this thread if I do end up signing with someone soon, as I am sending my submissions this week to those who inquired.

  • This is what keeps me up at night. I feel like I've been working on "break in" for 10 years. Experiences is a big factor. I've worked with a few self publishers and very small press magazines, but that was so many years ago, I am embarrassed to show my art from them to anyone. I shudder to think of using that as "experience" for an agent or editor.

    But I think, I've realized, that for me, I've really have to work on the writing side. Good illustrators and writers are very in demand. And I think that having completed book dummies to show that you are capable of illustrating a story and completing a project is very important. They want to see that you can do the job.

  • @stringfellowart well you work is looking really good, so I can imagine you will be able to to this pretty soon.

  • Your work is solid, Eric, and the turning point may be just behind the corner. I know how it feels to hustle and hustle and seem not to move a inch from the spot. It´s difficult to keep „trusting the process“ (that´s a sentence from Lee, I think). I think every creator really has a different experience and it´s not possible to extract any generalization, but here is my story, for what it’s worth.
    I graduated in May 2016 and started freelancing seriously around summer...and nothing happened. No work, no contacts, no traction.
    I signed up with an agent in December 2016 (that was a stroke of luck, I admit - she is a senior professional who had just gone back to being an agent after having worked as editor for 10 years - and she was scouting social media to build her list from scratch. Sometimes the stars have to align!).
    Yet nothing continued to happen for a whole year....I got two small contracts with an educational publisher, but nothing that can support a career. I started doubting everything, of course. My skills, my agent, my choices and the whole ethics of the publishing industry sometimes.
    I do have some illustration experience outside of publishing, but nobody ever cared about that. My agent also often suggested I illustrate a whole book just to show I can (never did it). She always advised against working with self-publishing authors...and that´s something I can understand - you can sense danger already from the first interaction sometimes...
    However, long story short - all of a sudden things started to move really fast. Within a few weeks between end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 my agent lined up five really cool contracts for me: three in advertisement, one in packaging, one in trade book publishing. I am now booked until well into 2019 and toying with the idea of leaving my day job. We call each other and just start out the call laughing hysterically - partly because it´s really scary to have such big project on your lifeline all of a sudden! And enquiries keep coming...we just turned one down yesterday.
    So what happened? I honestly don`t know...but my agent says this is very typical. You go through famine and you go through plenty and when things happen they happen all at once (her words). Some factors that I think are relevant:

    • I kept working on my portfolio and brought out a couple of pieces I am really proud of.
    • I started working in series of three to five pieces on a theme - that´s something my agent prompted too and it’s a good showcase of your consistency skills;
    • I changed my social media strategy - which led to a massive increase in following and leads from social media (my first solid contract came from Behance)
    • My agent had pitched me a number of times during the year, it turns out, but the publishing industry is very slow, and it took months for some of those pitches to turn into offers.

    None of this has to do with publishing experience, and I honestly don’t think it plays a role. I believe trust is the magic word here - ADs have to trust that you`ll be able to do the job they want. Almost all these contracts originated from one or more pieces in my portfolio that were content-wise and style-wise what the AD was looking for. It really drove home the importance of „diversification“. Trying to tackle as much different subjects as possible: landscapes, forests, spaceships, animals, children of all ages and ethnicities, school scenes, playgrounds, night scenes.... Will has a course here on SVS about „what to put into your portfolio“ and says exactly this and it´s so true! Believe it or not, one of the jobs I am working on right now, (that turned into a three book series now), was prompted by the way I drew an electricity pole in the background of a scene. The client is a technology company and they were intrigued by the combination of painterly style and accurate technical details....how can you foresee that???!!

    Anyway, this is turning out to be a stream-of-consciousness, as usual. If there is a take home message is that, while it seems nothing happens for a long time, things can change in a heartbeat...and you don’t really know why and how. So the only strategy seems to be to keep hustling and to keep working. If you want to do a book, do one. You don’t need to submit yourself to the whims of an author for this, you can invent a story or take one of the classics and be your own AD (with certainly more experience than any self-publishing author). You can do the whole book or just a few illustrations that seem like you`ve done the whole book. You don’t even need to write the story for that. Try to tackle as many different subjects as you can. And keep trusting the process!!
    Ah - and getting an agent doesn’t actually exempt you from any of this....

  • @eric-castleman I might be reading this wrong but it sounds positive to me as you have been approached by agents. They see value in your work so that sounds great to me. :)

  • In my current job as a professional chef (which is a lot like being an artist due to the high volume of people entering the profession). I went from being the head chef of a couple of tiny places to being the executive chef of an international company and running a huge operation in the Caribbean. This all happened for me because a couple of the right people ate where I worked and then called me up and offered me the job. You just need to make sure your work is getting in front of the right people. I also think we have all heard Will Terry talk about lying to get his work in front of the right people, the point being that sometimes your need to be more assertive to make it happen.

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    The short (and hard to hear) answer is yes, it will be harder than you think to break in. We are always filled with the idea of the rags to riches story and it sort of distorts our expectations. We hear about the person who was working hard and then all of the sudden, they get picked out of the blue and they are now in demand and don't have to worry about anything any more. This is how Amercian Idol sort of works and it's a fascinating and very intoxicating idea. Note, this actually does happen to some people, but not most.

    For most people, an art career is a long list of very small steps in the right direction. And even when it's all working out and you have experience, it's still a hard road to go down. Even now after doing almost 30 books I still work as hard as the day I got out of school. You have to balance all sorts of things and the idea that I just illustrate in my studio for a living is a far cry from the reality. Sometimes I think the actual illustrating is the thing I do the least of. I teach and lecture all over the place, I film videos and and do art shows often cramming some art in between all this stuff. I am almost jealous of full time students because so much is focused on the art. Many pros feel this way. Jake and Will are still working very hard to keep it all going.

    But ultimately it's worth it in the end I think and the big take away is to try and enjoy where you are at and what you are creating. Because I'm not sure there is any "there" to actually get to. for many people the idea of being a "professional artist" is the goal, but they idealize what that actually means and how it feels. We are all in the race and hopefully the work you are doing is rewarding enough to keep at it. Don't get frustrated when on this path, just keep putting the things in place to be ready for when opportunity arises. Because it will. And it will come fast and you have to be ready for it. Like Simona says, it can happen sort of "out of the blue". But prepping for that "out of the blue" opportunity can take years. And there will be many "out of the blue" moments that you think are your "big break", which is awesome. But really it will just be another small step in your career. And you keep taking those steps and moving along making the best work you can.

    I hope you read this as motivating.You are on the same path that we are all on and it's confusing at times. Keep good friends close and keep doing inspiring work!

  • Thanks everyone for the great input. I submitted to my first agent, and I am glad it is now behind me. I hope to make it a much more common thing just to get passed all of the head games I put myself through.

    I am glad to hear that my intuitions aren't off. I think knowing the obstacles we all are going to face only helps us more than not knowing at all. Like I mentioned above about my previous career pursuits, I was very much unaware of how hard it was going to be in that industry, and having people give me a false picture only ruined any chance I had of continuing to pursue it in the future. I think almost everyone from my classes back then is doing something different now, and I that might be due to a false honeymoon scenario which led us all to fail. One of the things I loved about SVS when I first came was the honesty, and not being told that it was a dream job, and life becomes perfect once I get an agent, or even that I might never be able to get one. It prepared me much better than other pursuits, and it is interesting how reading what @Lee-White had to say doesn't feel like a negative, but somewhat of a relief. I definitely want to be as prepared as I can be for the work load, as well as any other things that are required of me to make this work. I have already come to grips with the idea that if I can make something of myself in this industry that I might just scrape by forever, and I am totally fine with that. I love the craft, and just want to be a part of it in some way.

    @smceccarelli I think seeing you post here for the last couple of years and hearing about your experiences has helped me prepare for this to be different than I might have imagined it to be. I have heard that the publishing world is a tight group of people, and the last thing I would want is to start off on the wrong foot a gain a bad reputation, so knowing about your experience and guarding myself a bit for the future only helps me prepare to be someone worth working with. I want to make sure I am a responsible client for agents, and that I can fulfill any job I take. I love your perspective on continuing to feed my portfolio. I think much of my aim has been to craft the perfect portfolio that represents me, but that is somewhat of a fools errand it seems and that makes sense. I think the idea of working on a series of images is a very good one. I will shift to that shortly.

    @Jason-Bowen I take it as a positive for sure. I tend to overthink everything, and allow opportunities to overwhelm me. I fear saying the wrong things, or that I might make a misstep and ruin what might be my only opportunity, or at least I think that in my mind. I also want to make sure that whatever happens to me that I am open with everyone here about it. I want to help everyone keep on their toes a bit, because I see us as a team, and that I want all of us to have success in what we are pursuing, so revealing my fears about the process is somewhat part of it I guess ;-)

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