June 8th, 2010
How to Start as an Illustrator

(originally published in 2005)
So many people have written me asking for advice I decided to put this short list together. Some of these things may be stating the obvious but I wanted to start simply so that you don’t get too overwhelmed with an enormous load of things to do. Be gentle with yourself. The goal in the beginning it to just start, forward movement in any direction is good. It helps to just get that feeling of accomplishment, when you come back from the mail and feel really good about sending out some cards.

1. Go to a library or bookstore and look for publishers, magazines, etc. that use work like yours, (in a similar style.) Find names of art directors & addresses on the masthead, (usually by the contents page, the masthead lists everyone who puts the issue together.) For publishers you may have to do some digging, look in Writer’s Markets, web pages, etc. ALWAYS be on the lookout for places, restaurants, posters, greeting cards, advertising, murals, comic books, products…etc. that your work would be suitable for. It will become natural for you after a while. Research:
Graphic Artist’s Guild
The Business of Illustration by Steven Heller
List of Research Journals, Magazines,and, U.S. and World Newspapers
Canadian Magazine Publisher’s Association

2. Once you get a name and address (start with 10 names and go from there). Do not overwhelm yourself too much, just start with a few! Send them samples. It could be color copies (good quality) or a printed piece. The MOST important thing to remember is that the work and samples be appropriate to their publication. notes: If your work seems to focus mainly on animals try Children’s magazines, animal magazines, licensing for products, etc., look for companies that already publish stuff similar to yours. It would not be cost effective for you to market to Time Magazine. When mailing you will usually have at least a 2 percent response, (I’ve found it to be more like 10 percent).
Also try to stick to one style when targeting clients, they need to know what to hire your for, (you want them to think “Comic-like, oh I need to call…insert your name here”)

3. For further help I highly recommend: -read Seven Steps to getting Published for advice on how to go about the creative part. -research promotional mailers and marketing for designers. Some simple techniques in bookbinding can be very helpful in coming up with some unique promotional mailers. A good book for this is Making Memory Books and Journals by Hand by Kristina Feliciano, Jason Thompson, and Barbara Mauriello. -Read: my recommended reading business & money section and “How to Make a living doing what you love” -make a business plan, starting with short term goals that are do-able (it will all get done, take it slow!) -if you haven’t been already, the “Art Talk” section of TheIspot is an excellent place to pick up info from people who have been in the business for a long time.

-read designer Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto I particularly like, “Don’t enter competitions, Just don’t do it, it’s not good for you.” When I first read this I was stunned, all my teachers in art school always told us, “Enter every competition you can. It’s good promotion if you get in. It’s worth the cost.” In the beginning I did this. I wanted so badly to win these competitions that I tried to create “winning” artwork. It was usually contrived and not from the heart. I never got in. I think what Bruce Mau was talking about was when you put something into a competition you are putting your work up for judgement by a third party (in this case a large magazine or organization.), thus giving them the ability to deem your work ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When you do this is you are in effect putting other’s opinions ahead of your own. Now I know we must all face rejection at one time or another. (You have heard the saying, “if you are not being rejected you are not trying hard enough.”) But it seems strange to me to PAY someone to judge your work, these competitions are quite expensive. I’m sure I will get some flack for this opinion by some who truly believe in entering competitions. After several years I started to get into many of the major awards annuals (without trying), and in my experience I have not yet gotten a job from it, so I do question the promotion incentive. If you are producing work that moves you, over time you WILL be recognized by others, but a) competitions should not be a motive for creating and b) putting other’s opinions over your own puts us onto a subjective scale, (“I must not be living up to the rest”). Create your own rules.

Jun 8 2010
7:29 pm
Drummbellina writes:

Thanks for this! I’m considering illustrating as a part of my career so this is helpful. I recently did an illustrated tutorial for making knickers on my blog and enjoyed it so much that I want to get really good at it now! I’m practicing daily in my sketchbook :)

Ps. Your site is looking great! I haven’t been here for a long while but I’m glad I stumbled on it again.

Jul 30 2010
5:38 pm
Jane Marshall writes:

OMG I love what you wrote about regarding competitions! I’ve let stupid competitions derail me for years after college and even once finally “healed” from those traumas..I did it again recently with the same annoying result! Pay to be passed over? Ridiculous especially when awarded work looks so “popular” yet trite. Basically if you are doing something different, you won’t win till you already “win” out in the real world by selling yo stuff! Kudos to Keri!


Jan 3 2011
4:39 am
MYEONG EUN writes:

Hello! I have a lot of things to say to you..but I can’t express this in English.. cuz I’m Korean.
Plz understand my poor English. T^T
I visited here a year ago. My life was so busy for University entrance exam, finally it’s done. Today I visit here again. Seeing this again.,it’s still impressed!!
I love your artistic style. KERI SMITH STYLE!
ONE DAY .. i was searching for illustration that can totally impressed me..and that was yours!
I’ll visit here more often. Your ART makes me feel at ease! I’m happy to say about my thinks although what i say is all Greek to you. I just wanna express my idea in short.. oh now it’s long kkk

Jan 3 2011
4:51 am
MYEONG EUN writes:

Oh..I missing something..
I said you I’m Korean,huh? so long distance..but your fame is in here too i think kk cuz…
I find your ART in Korea’s favorite restaurant, and I recognize this at a look!! How lovely yours are!
Global fame KERI SMITH..i wish you good luck!!

Jan 7 2011
6:08 pm
Illustrating Rain writes:

Just what was needed and a clear sense of direction when at times it can feel like walking into an abyss, many thanks for sharing:)

May 6 2011
1:56 am
haemin hong writes:

KERI SMITH = amazing illustrator :)
i love your work! will continue to stop by now and then.
thank you! keep up the awesome-ness :D

May 10 2011
8:45 pm
Shirley Crowell writes:

What really good advice! Thank you so much!

Jun 22 2011
12:52 pm
Christian writes:

Keri, The open, from the heart, informative content and playful liveliness in your words and works are an inspiration. Much Thanks

Jul 15 2011
12:16 pm
adn montalvo estrada writes:

Hi there Keri. Your post is a great advice for young illustrators. I would like to translate and publish it in the blog our organization, with all your credits of course. Please tell me if it is possible.




Jul 29 2011
1:01 am
Perla Vzla writes:

Thank you so much for this post, I’ve been really stressed out trying to find more than just encouraging words about becoming a paid freelance illustrator. You present wonderful solutions and possibilities. Thank you!

Aug 15 2011
5:01 pm
moira ladd writes:

thanks for the info it always seems like a closed shop. i know illustrators that seem successfull or busy but they never seem to be able to give me any words of wisdom. I have wanted to be an illustrator for many years. I just participated in the local art trail, and lots of people said with my style i would make a really good illustrator, maybe book jackets even. it is very different. like the childrens books I read myself.
take a look and see what you think. I think we are all hoping someone will discover us. haha
many thanks moira

Nov 20 2011
5:58 pm
Kennedy writes:

Hi am Ken.thanks for your informative article..am just trying to discover my ‘style’ as a budding illustrator so i would very much appreciate some advice to do that!

Jan 4 2012
12:30 am
siobhan writes:

Thanks for the good advice. Thank you for affirming in me, what I know to be truth.I feel so lost but I feel am on the right path. I want to follow my passion. I want to develope my talent and express it through illustration. ..peace. siobhan

Jan 12 2012
9:08 am
April writes:

Avoid competitions and create your own rules… this makes a lot of sense to me actually. I’m going to take that away with me and give it some more thought. Thank you!

May 29 2012
3:53 pm
Inge writes:

This helps a lot, thanks!
Originally, I am a documentary photographer. I recently started making illustrations, it’s so great – especially for a documentary photographer – to escape in something completely imaginary every once in a while :) I have all these images in my head but often they simply can’t be photographed. So I tried illustrating and I am hooked ever since :) I have a basic portfolio now which I am hoping to enhance. It’s a great tip to look at publishers and magazines in the library that fit your work. Thanks!

Aug 9 2012
9:44 pm
Laura K Aiken writes:

Thank you Keri. Very good advice that I will use. Enjoy your website very much.

Oct 5 2012
8:07 am
Phil writes:

Great site – cheers for the advice

Nov 5 2012
12:29 pm
Austin Brooks writes:

I’m a 35 year old self taught artist endlessly seeking real employment using my talent & this looks very helpful, my work can be seen at http://optic-al.deviantart.com/. Please take a look, welcome & thank you.

Jan 5 2013
8:13 pm
Carolinna writes:

Thank you for all the great advice!
Being an illustrator has been my dream since childhood, I finally believe there is a way to actually make it come true thanks to reading some practical advice and most importantly the encouraging about working from the heart!
Finally after spending 3 years in a fine art degree course, I am recovering my faith in creating real art from the heart again followed by some real plan of action.

Jan 13 2013
6:09 pm
Chris Wilson writes:

It’s nice to read about what has and hasn’t worked for other illustrators. Thanks for posting your experiences. I started posting about my journey of becoming a full-time, freelance illustrator in 6 months:


Thanks again Keri!

May 28 2014
1:13 am
Caro writes:

I’m starting in this world and these advices are sooo helpful! Thanks for sharing :)

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