will terry

10 Skills Every Illustrator Must Have

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Most people think that in order to be a great illustrator you need to just be a great artist and storyteller, and that's true. However, there is a lot more that goes into being a stellar illustrator and a more well-rounded person. In this episode we'll go over 10 important skills that we all need to be developing, and we'll go over some of the reasons why they are all so important, and share some techniques and tips for improving your skills. "Art directors only want illustrators with great skills!"

Just a reminder that this class is sponsored by SVSLearn.com with a library of over 80-90 classes.

Here are some recommendations:

Lee’s Favorite: Visual Storytelling Techniques, it gives a why for all of the marks that you are putting down.

Will’s Favorite: Draw 50 Things, it’s hard but once you learn to swing a golf club then you can go forward knowing how to create images.

Jake’s Favorite: How to Draw Everything, Really proud of this one, it’s an intro to drawing, and it’s also great for experienced artists. It’s always a great thing to make sure that you are doing it right. It corrects drawing problems, and you learn a process by which you can draw anything you want!

SVSLearn.com is Netflix for art school. If you want to own a movie, you go buy it. If you want to have access to a library of movies you do Netflix. That’s how SVSLearn.com is set up, you can buy the class and own it indefinitely or you can subscribe to our growing library of great content.

Project Updates:

Will: Sequel to Bonnepart, still working on it and is on the second round of sketches.

Lee: Working on a new book with Simon and Schuster, it’s a doozy, because it’s based on a song and the song doesn’t have a strong narrative, and so he is trying to create a story through the images.

Great ideas come early in the morning. That’s when great ideas come. Working in the morning and then chilling at night, or some people like to work till late at night and that can be great too.

When you get into a focus mode, whether it is late at night or early in the morning, nobody is there to interrupt you.

Jake: Delivered all of the interior drawings for Littlest Snow Plow 2, and it ended up being 40 pages. Next up, is working on the Inktober Book with Chronicle: how to do Inktober, and how to ink, and Jake’s process.

The 10 Skills that Every Illustrator Must Have

1. Love Creating

You need to love creating art. Will has had students who he has determined don’t love art, people who would show up late, and talk to people, and take forever to get setup, and then they pack up and leave early. This is true for anything that you want to do. If you don’t love it then you won’t have the drive to push yourself and become great.

Art is great, it’s what kids get excited about in pre school, and we are so blessed to be able to “play” for our job.

Will had a friend who was admiring his iPad and asked about getting one, and then Will told his friend that he shouldn’t get one because he doesn’t love drawing. The friend hadn’t drawn really at all in the last decade, and was kind of offended at first, but then when Will explained why he said that, he understood that what Will said definitely had some truth to it. You’ve got to love it in order to excel.

Jake has 5 kids and all of them who like to draw. One of them loves drawing and is older, and has a younger brother who likes drawing but and is way more naturally gifted. Sometimes his older son gets jealous, however, the older one is way more passionate, and in the long run he will have the drive to grow and become an amazing artist.

You have to love it in order for it to be a career. It’s fine if it’s just a hobby and you only do it for a few hours a week, but if you are going to be creating for 40-50 hours a week, then you need to love it.

2. Unique Style

Too often people settle and just copy someone else’s work and they don’t develop their own unique style.

If you stick with it long enough, your style will emerge. You can be deliberate and coax your style out quicker with exercises such as collecting 5-10 illustrators that you really like, and then creating lists about the different things that make up their style.

If you want to get published you also need to develop a style that is relevant.

You need to be looking at what’s being published right now, and then you can push things, you need to be current. We’ll do an episode about this soon, because this is an episode in and of itself.

3. Communication

You have to talk good.

You have to be willing and bold enough to ask questions, and call your art director to clarify things. Back in the day everyone called people even when people didn’t see it coming. However, it makes sense that sometimes people are nervous and don’t want to look silly or incompetent to an art director, and therefore, are afraid to call and ask questions.

People are willing to help you. If they want to work with you then that means they value you and your art. You can be honest, “Honestly, this is my first time doing a job like this, and so what do you think would be a fair price?”, etc, people will find you and your humble honesty endearing and be there to help you.

4. Power of Persuasion/ People Skills

Sometimes we look at persuasion as a negative term, as manipulative. But it’s not, and those things are different. It’s kind of like you get more bees with honey. Let’s say you’re a beginning illustrator, and the client asks if you can take on a project, you say, “let me check my schedule and get back to you.” When maybe your schedule is wide open.

Sometimes it’s a little bit of a game, “What’s your rate?”, well, “What’s the budget?” That’s a vital question if you want to make illustration a career.

You need to make your client comfortable, they’re nervous working with you if you haven’t worked with them before, do all you can to clarify and show excitement and interest, so that they feel comfortable and good about hiring you.

Will wanted to get a Yorkie, and there were 100 people who were wanting it.

Will wanted to try and get the owner to let him buy it, so he tried to reverse engineer the person’s perspective.

Ask yourself, “What would I want to hear, if I were them? What would I not want to hear, if I were her?”

Assess the situation and look for how it can benefit you and the person you are working with. Think win-win!

Show that you are excited, be human. Don’t be afraid to be excited and to show it!

5. The 33% Rule

You have relationships that you need to maintain. There are executive relationships above you, peer relationships people who are next to you, and there are people who are “below you” (not in a condescending way) but they are maybe not as experienced at something.

Focusing on all of these relationships helps you see where you are at in your career and in your ability, acknowledge what you need to do to get better and enables you to help those who are further back on the path than you are.

As you help people who are further back, you learn and grow more. Your skills will increase as you have to teach people the process.

As you spend time with people ahead of you, they pull you up.

You’re the sum of the 5 people you spend most of your time with. That means you need to put people in your life who are better than you.

What to do if you are the best? If you are the rockstar of your group?

Jake was at an art studio, and eventually people above him had moved on and left, and one day he realized that he didn’t have anyone to look up to and to push him to be better, so immediately he started looking at higher up studios with artists light years ahead of him, and he ended up getting a job there and grew so much within just the first 6 months.

Healthy competition can help push you to be a better artist too.

6. Teach

You don’t have to. But if you can do it, it’s so rewarding. You give so much to your students, and they give you even more. Your students build a great circle around you, and it increases your quality of life.

Some people have different personality, and like being alone more.

Will’s case for why you should teach:

  1. When you have to break something down, and have to explain something, then you are creating different pathways in your brain and you have epiphanies as you are teaching.

  2. You are held to a higher standard: if you teach your students to do something then you are more accountable to try and apply what you teach in your own work.

  3. Most of the most successful illustrators that he knows of, all have done something to teach and share their knowledge and experience.

As a rule of thumb, you should be out of school for 5 years before going back to teach, and those years of experience will validate you. You’ll be a better teacher and have the students respect. Students smell blood in the water and they can tell if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Your art will get better if you teach. Jake took a teaching job and right away his work got so much better.

7. Personal Projects

Every successful illustrator that Jake knows of that has taken their career somewhere has done personal projects and more importantly finished them and put them out into the world.

Ship It. Check out our episode on this here: Ship Happens.

Not the continuous project on the side that never gets finished.

This is the only way to avoid burnout as a pro. Sometimes you just want to paint or draw something that’s just all entirely yours. Sometimes you do a personal project and it works its way into your professional work.

Personal projects and style are so interrelated. You can’t work on personal project without developing your style and artistic voice.

Sometimes they turn into bigger things.

Missile Mouse, a side project started in 9th grade, turned into graphic novel deals with Scholastic.

Little Bot and Sparrow, a 10 page story for a comic anthology became a children’s book.

Inktober was a personal improvement project, now it’s a world wide art challenge.

Will did Bonaparte Falls Apart, because Jake convinced him to do the fanart and his Little book style.

When you have a personal project you have to answer questions and solve problems that you don’t have to when working on a project for someone else.

From doing Kickstarters, having to work with printers, and having to prep files, it has helped Jake work better with clients.

8. Yearn to Constantly Improve

So many people get to a point where they wonder where else they need to go.

Simona Ceccarelli: a good example of continually learning. She made it a personal goal, that her portfolio would turn around and be a completely different portfolio by the next year.

“Eternal student.” She was a scientist for years, but she loved art and started studying it. Be an eternal student.

Will’s interview with her.

Will was impressed with one of his highly experienced teachers in school who would constantly take notes whenever a visiting artist came to campus. He was humble and always trying to learn. Take notes.

9. Have an Online Presence

You can have great art, but if no one can find it, then you won’t have any work.

Most illustrators that are doing really well have some sort of an online presence. You can find them easily, they have a website, they are present to one degree or another on social media.

Simona has gotten work from twitter and instagram. Not only can you find work but you can start to build your own personal fan base.

Personal projects can sustain you if you have an audience that wants to buy your work.

10. Think of Yourself as More Than an Illustrator.

When Will looks at some of the best illustrator many do more than just illustration.

Strive to combine an additional skill with your illustration: i.e. writing, programming for a game you’re making, maybe it’s a board game so you’re combining it with your creative ideas for making the game, etc.

Develop another skill that you combine with illustration. You combine things and can create something that is more than the sum of its parts.

Some artists transcend the idea of being a hired gun, or “just an illustrator.”

You’re never going to be paid as much as the creator rather than just the artist.

You have to stand out in some way, you have to be unique.

It’s important to create that mindset that you are a creator, even if it’s not illustration, even if it’s something completely different. Sometimes while working on other things you’ll receive insights and inspiration for your art.

It’s all about how you define yourself. “Illustration is one of the things that I do, but I’m able to do lots of things.” There is so much more to life than just illustration. Be more than just an illustrator.

Taking classes:

Jake reads books and learns from them, art and non art, Jake did a marketing class, and went to  a conference. Lee has this spark and wants to take some art classes, onsite.

John Love watercolor workshop Lee did it.

Will would like to get into Plein Air painting, has never done it, but wants to get into it.

Good luck, go work on getting sweet skills, ‘cause art directors only like artists with sweet skills! :)



Jake Parker: mrjakeparker.com. Instagram: @jakeparker, Youtube: JakeParker44

Will Terry: willterry.com. Instagram: @willterryart, Youtube: WillTerryArt

Lee White: leewhiteillustration.com. Instagram: @leewhiteillo

Alex Sugg: alexsugg.com

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