When I just started out as an illustrator, I loved reading blogs by other illustrators about their illustration careers. Sometimes I asked them questions directly via Instagram. It's been very helpful to me. Now I'm at a point in my career where other illustrators ask me about my career and my life as an illustrator. So here's a Q&A with the most frequently asked questions! I hope it's helpful. If you have any other questions after reading this, feel free to leave a comment or send me an instagram DM!
Did I go to the Art Academy?
No, I didn't, I’m a self-taught illustrator. But the urge to draw has always been there. I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil. I did follow a few courses along the way. For example a model drawing course which really improved my skills in drawing the human body.
How did I start my career?
I decided to study law, which I really enjoyed. It wasn't my plan to pursue a career as an illustrator at that point in my life. A few years after graduating, I started posting some fashion illustrations on Instagram and I got my first commission through that platform. My first ever commission was to draw an invite to the Amsterdam Fashion Week show of the brand Tailor&Elbaz (now called Maria Tailor). Back then in 2015, I had just started dreaming about selling my artwork or somehow getting an income from it. I was very surprised to get such a high profile job as my first commission. But let me say this: I didn’t get paid for it (I didn’t ask for that either, because it was all so new to me) and it wasn’t a break-through moment. Still it was a very important moment because it gave me the confidence I needed to really start pursuing illustration as a career. And that year I registered myself at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce.
How did I get to my current portfolio and style?
Drawing fashion was my starting point. I’ve always loved fashion, mainly historical fashion. So I started out in that area. I did a few portfolio reviews with people from the illustration industry and they recommended me to expand my portfolio to other subjects. One of them called it ‘the feminine lifestyle’ which I think is a great description for what I draw now. What she meant is that I should add beauty, food and urban sketching illustrations to my portfolio which would still fit my style. It was one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. Drawing only fashion is too narrow a subject for most of us if you want to make a living out of it (although there are exceptions of course).
My style developed along the way. Mainly by just creating a lot! Really, just drawing all the time is the best practice and the best way to develop your work. I’ve looked at work from other illustrators (past and present, Renée Gruau is a favourite) as well. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you don’t copy someones style exactly. But you can take elements from their drawing style which you like and incorporate that into your own style.
How did I get my first clients?
Let’s go back to 2015. As I mentioned, my first commission did give confidence, but it wasn’t a break-through moment. It did however leed to another commission: my first live-drawing gig. When I shared that on my website and instagram, more live-illustration events started to come in. First mainly in regional boutiques and clothing stores in the Netherlands, but soon also for bigger brands. In 2016, Ted Baker asked me to draw live on tote-bags in the Bijenkorf department store in The Hague! How they found me? I’m not sure, but I think via google. They hired me from their head-office in London so they googled in English. Although I’m Dutch, my website is in English. And good SEO is everything!
How did I get the clients I currently work for?
I currently work for companies like Prada, Louis Vuitton and Dior. Sometimes I still have to pinch myself! How I got to this point? It all grew little by little over the years. Some clients come by word-of-mouth. But many still find me via google, Instagram and LinkedIn. Don’t underestimate the power of the internet. When you post on Instagram, you never know who’s watching. I once did a live-illustration event for Tudor Watch in Paris where I got to draw David Beckham. How they found me? They looked at the #liveillustration on Instagram…
So my main strategy is being easy to find in multiple places. Website, social media…etc. And I’m also a member of the Association of Illustrators and the Directory of Illustration. Both memberships come with a portfolio on their sites as well.
How do I determine my prices?
It can feel scary to ask a price that you consider as ‘high’. Believe me, I’ve been there. I started out with much lower prices than I currently ask. But I soon realised this wasn’t going to be sustainable if I actually wanted to make it my fulltime career. Now I have a good monthly income from it. I’ve decided to only do brand/company work and no personal commissions. Mainly because I enjoy the type of work more, but also party because the budgets in that area are just much higher.
You have to be realistic if you want to do illustration as a career. You won’t just be a creative, you’ll also be an entrepreneur. So you’ll have to think like one. Give this a thought: What kind of work makes you happy AND helps you to pay the bills?
During the first years of freelancing I’ve kept a job on the side, so I knew I wasn’t completely depending on my illustration work financially. This gave me a bit more freedom and I would recommend it. 2019 was my fist year being completely freelance. I realised that if I wanted to make a living out of this, I had to raise my prices. The Association of Illustrators as a pricing tool which can help you to determine a suitable price. For live-illustration at location, I work with an hourly rate. For all other commissions I work with a flat rate which is based on time and the license for usage of the artwork by the client.
How do I arrange my finances?
I have an accountant. Hiring one was one of the best business decisions I ever made. If you just start out, you can do taxes yourself. But as soon as you can afford it, get an accountant! When I started my illustration career, I made sure to understand general Dutch taxes and how VAT works. Since a few years I also have a business bank account. It’s not mandatory in The Netherlands, but it helps to keep an overview of my finances and to keep money for my company separated from personal finances. The business account is split in 3 sub accounts: In number 1, the payments come in. I transfer the VAT to sub account 2 and the part I want to keep for business costs to sub account 3. The rest I use to pay myself an income and I transfer it to my personal bank account. I use a 1/3 vs 2/3 devision for the business costs (1/3 of every invoice) and my own income (2/3). I came up with that devision my self by the way, there’s no right or wrong here.
What were and are my struggles along the way?
Quite some to be honest… I think it’s not possible to have your own company without stumbling and falling from time to time. But it’s how you get up again that matters! That’s how you learn. When I just started out, I took on commissions that weren’t a good fit, my prices were much too low and so on. One of the most important things I’ve learnt in this regard is that your own expectations of a commission and those of the client might not be the same. So good communication and contracts are a necessity. And I’ve learnt to listen to my gut better. When I’m not sure if I should take on a commission because it doesn’t feel like the right fit, I won’t. This approach also helped me to build a portfolio with the kind of work that I really enjoy doing and to attract the right clients.
What are my recommendations for books, blogs and videos?
How to be an illustrator by Darrel Rees and Nicholas Belchman
Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon
In Dutch: Wat een baas by Marthe Walter
Kendyll Hillegas , especially her videos on freelance illustration and on artist problems
Fran Meneses, a nice peek into the life of an illustrator living in Brooklyn
Mimimoo illustration, great for tips & advice for starting illustrators
Everything by illustrator Marloes de Vries on freelance advice
All ‘Money Talks’ blogs by illustrator Niki Groom