Becoming an illustrator without an artsy background. Some piece of advice

Health issues have a silver lining: while forcing you in bed for days they also force you out of the working rush in which you’d been putting yourself for months. They come right in time – the body knows, they say – right when you started wondering whether you still had things under control, right when you started feeling bored and urged to recalibrate.

I was in bed reorganizing my hard disk, filling my new Behance profile (I read I should have one) and that was already feeling like playing Marie Kondo with this past year’s jobs life. Then came an e-mail: someone was asking me (me?) for advice. It was an email asking if I could share my experience – and, if I had, some advice – as an illustrator not coming from an artsy background.  

I’d never thought about it. My background – a bachelor in Italian Literature and a post-grad Journalism School, plus some years of experience as a freelance journalist in Italy (I’m telling you more about it here) – for some time has been something to set apart, not to mention but to hide shamefully like a past mistake you don’t really want to talk about. Then I made peace with it but still, I’d never thought it could be interesting.

This said I can assure you starting life as a professional illustrator wasn’t easy nor fast. I’m not even sure it fully started. There are still moments in which I wonder if I should take an extra part-time job to pay the bills when commissions are slow to come. It takes a long time to build an audience – meaning people who are interested in what you do, who even appreciate it and might want to collaborate with you eventually – and a lot of very hard work. Especially if you come from a different background.

For instance, I’m not someone who’s been drawing her whole life. I loved drawing when I was a kid. But as I started high school at 14 I dedicated less and less time to it. I drew during summer vacations, mostly copying others’ art or comics. Then I stopped for ten years, from 15 years old to 25, just a week before enrolling for the illustration school. So when I blame myself for not being good enough at what I do I also think that I’ve dedicated my whole self to this activity for only five years. Five years in which I had to learn everything – even how to hold a pencil.

Hence if I had to give a piece of advice to someone entering this field without any artsy background that would be: be indulgent. Don’t compare yourself to the others. Don’t compare your timing with others’ timing. If someone is already successful and mature at 21 or 22 it’s probably because he or she has a different story and 10 years of serious practice and research in the background.

Then I would say be honest with yourself. I remember when I’d just finished illustration school I was so eager to send my portfolio to publishers and newspapers. I spent days fixing my website, trying to look as professional as I could. I hadn’t realized what lacked professionalism wasn’t the website but its content. It took me some time to recalibrate my goals, looking for simpler jobs, privileging door-to-door promotion, studying potential customers.

Last but not least: keep going. Never stop drawing, creating, experimenting even when commissions don’t come, even when you feel invisible. It’s the only way to get more experience and self-confidence. Two things that will allow you, at some point, to go for more highly rated clients, to dream a bit farther.

This job needs a lot of time. A lot of patience. A lot of hard work. And I’m addressing this advice to myself as well.

P.s.: Talking about hard work and time, here’s Lady Gaga’s very inspiring speech at the Oscars. I liked it very much.