How to survive as an illustrator: advice for a student

IMG_0613Once or twice a year I get an email from an illustration student. They usually have an assignment to write, which requires them to ask a  professional illustrator about their work. I got one of these emails last week, asking me for advice on how I got started, how I survive in the industry and how I self-promote. This is my reply.

“Dear [name of student],

I specialise in children’s book illustration. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time; I left high school in 1999 and got my first book contract in 2009. I had sent work samples to publishers earlier than that, between 1999-2003, but I wasn’t competent or confident enough yet.

I ended up breaking in to book illustration via contacts I made in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. We have a strong chapter here in WA, and through SCBWI events I was able to start learning a lot more about the industry and see how high the bar was set. I also met many professional writers and illustrators and received feedback and encouragement. One particular author, Norman Jorgensen, liked the work in my portfolio and suggested we try to work on a book together. His publisher Fremantle Press liked what we were working on, and I got my first contract.

My second contract came out of meeting the managing director of Walker Books, again through SCBWI. My third contract was the sequel to the first book. My fourth was with Walker Books again …

The basic pattern here is that if you do good work and you’re easy to work with, you will get more work. Neil Gaiman said this in a speech, and it’s true- when you’re a freelancer, ideally you need to be easy to work with, you need to make good work, and you need to make it on time. But if you can do at least 2 of these 3 things you should be fine.

Despite my initial success with illustrating books, the vast majority of my income comes from talks, workshops and community art projects. Every illustrator has a different skill set to play with; illustrating quickly isn’t one of my strengths, but teaching is, and I enjoy it. Most of my teaching and community gigs happen via word of mouth, based on contacts I’ve made and a reputation I’ve developed over many years. I try to make sure every talk and workshop I do is as good as it can be, so that my client feels they’re getting value for money. This makes it more likely they will have me back or recommend me to colleagues.

The other good thing about doing school talks and community workshops is that self-promotion is built in.

I also do self promotion via facebook, Twitter, Instagram, a website/blog and an email newsletter, as well as local media (newspapers, radio) when I’ve got a new book out or I’ve been involved in a community event. But I think the main ways my work and name get out there is via my talks/workshops and also word-of-mouth.

Another point- I did have a day job for about 6 years as well, which paid my bills while I developed my skills, contacts and reputation. It was part-time and flexible too; I was lucky that I had an understanding boss. Eventually my art stuff was taking off and I couldn’t keep the balance anymore; I had to quit the day job. So I’ve been doing this full time for 18 months now and it’s working out. It can take a while to establish yourself, so start now. Join a professional association and make contacts. Give each job your full attention. Treat everyone with respect. Hopefully your business will grow organically from there.

This one is very important- value your work. Charge what is realistic and reasonable; don’t overcharge and definitely don’t undercharge. If anyone asks you to do something for exposure, don’t, unless it’s something you’re really passionate about. No one would ever ask a plumber to work in exchange for exposure. Anyone can be a plumber! But it takes years and years of dedicated work to become an illustrator. People who will only offer you exposure usually have no respect for your skill set, expertise, or time. They will infuriate you, use you, and give you nothing in return. If you work with them you will lose time, energy and self-respect. You lose nothing by telling them ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

Final piece of advice- you never ‘make it’. There is no finish line. Certainly you can reach milestones and thresholds; you can have successes; but you can never rest on your laurels, or take your audience or clients for granted. If you do, things will fall apart. It’s a continuous journey and it’s a journey worth taking!

In summary- work hard. Value your work. Do good work. Be easy to work with. Be on time. The rest should take care of itself.

Good luck!”


If this was useful for you, you might also like to read my post of Tips for Aspiring Writers and Illustrators.

Author: James Foley

James Foley makes children’s books for children who read books. If you’re a child and you’re eating his books, you’re doing it wrong. His books include Brobot, Dungzilla, Gastronauts, Chickensaurus, Toffle Towers, My Dead Bunny and There's Something Weird About Lena. James lives in Perth with his wife, 2 kids, and a labrador. He is a massive Marvel movie nerd and comes from a long line of queuing enthusiasts. Follow him on FB/twitter/insta/youtube @jamesfoleybooks, or at .

9 thoughts on “How to survive as an illustrator: advice for a student”

  1. Such a great post about how to carve out any dream you have. Same could apply to any artists or entrepreneur. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Hi James. I wholeheartedly agree with your advice on not working for ‘exposure’. I have been asked to do this many times and have always declined. Working for no pay undermines the value of your art and the ability of all illustrators/authors to forge a sustainable career.

  3. Hi im alyza and i love writing and illustrating books. You came to my school yesterday ( great southern grammer) and i was the one on a chair next to the boy with a broken foot. I love your book. I cant stand books with no pictures. Thanks for reading and Alyza out

      1. I ❤ piture books and comics
        Ps did you ever go to the melvile libary
        Cause i went there with my old school (palmyra) but u talked about the story the amity kids 3 the kidnap and you drew the kidnapers i was the one that held out the paper book like what Hayden did when u came to grammer

      2. Hi Alyza! Glad to hear you love picture books. Are you a reader or are you also a writer/illustrator? I’ve done quite a few talks at Melville libraries in the past; this would have been at A.H. Bracks on Stock Rd? Thanks for getting in touch, and happy reading 😀


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