How to get started as an illustrator

Joining us as guest blogger today is illustrator Clare Mackie, who shares her experience of how she broke into the world of illustrating – it’s a competitive career, but it can be done! You’ll find some of her book illustrations, among others, in her online portfolio. For more inspiration, read on…

I often get asked about how to start out – or about how I started out – so I’m dedicating my first post to that topic. Illustration is a good career, but it can be a battle to get your foot in the door. This is a brief story of how I started out and I hope it’ll be of use to you.

After art school in Edinburgh I booked lots of portfolio interviews with art directors from design and advertising agencies. Unfortunately, a lot of them didn’t turn up to the meetings, and it was all very disheartening until one art director (who did turn up) suggested I move to London, Germany or New York, as my style of work wasn’t going to earn me much of a living in Scotland, though there is certainly work there too.

I made a month-long preparatory trip to London, booking in loads of meetings – none of which was cancelled. All those meetings resulted in only two magazine commissions, but as someone kindly said: ‘See every meeting as sowing a seed – you never know which or when they’re going to grow.’ After plucking up courage I moved down to London in 1990, and have been here ever since.

Slowly the odd illustration job trickled in, between which I carried on making portfolio interviews. Whenever I met an art director, I’d ask if they’d recommend another to me, so I always had new people to see. I was often given advice – some very disheartening and damning – and I listened and tried so hard to learn. Publishers would say my work was too sophisticated for children and to go to magazines or design studios, and those art directors would say my work was too child-like and to go to children’s publishers.

It was a very tedious Catch 22 until I eventually had some printed work in both camps to show art directors. That gave them the confidence to commission me further. Being shy at that time didn’t help, but I persevered as truly I hadn’t a clue what else to do if I couldn’t illustrate.

It took a couple of years but commissions started to arrive and, before I knew it, the sown seeds began to grow and didn’t stop! Fear kept me working extremely hard, but it was interesting and, thankfully, no two illustration jobs are alike, so it keeps your mind active and stretches you. You can’t say that about every career.

Best wishes, Clare



Filed under Art and Illustration

2 responses to “How to get started as an illustrator

  1. viktoryian

    Hey! Cool article! I´m not thinking of becoming an illustrator, but my dream career is a photographer. But basically it´s the same: you have to work hard to make your dreams come true!
    Congratulations! You love what you do! Not many people are that lucky.. 🙂

  2. larissa

    I just had a quick peek at your portfolio and I have to say I love your style especially your animal illustrations. They are gorgeous!
    I’m glad everything has worked out for you in London. Best of luck and keep the art coming.