For many illustrators, 2013 is about creative satisfaction over financial reward.

When creating work for clients, compromise is often necessary to fulfil a brief, but if you have to compromise your ethics or practice, you’ll often produce sub-par work that won’t make it into your portfolio. Many illustrators we’ve spoken to say that the financial pressures of ‘austerity Britain’ led to them doing this in 2012 – but this year, even as tough times continue, some standards need to be maintained.

“Last year, I ended up greenwashing one of the world’s biggest oil companies. Just for a new kitchen” recalls Finnish illustrator Janine Rewell. “As soon as the brief rolled in, I knew I should turn it down.” Worse still, the end result was disappointing; ”It’s on my conscience even now, regardless of all the good clients I’ve had since.” 


Janine Rewell’s animation (left) was projected on to Helsinki’s cathedral (right)as part of the city’s 2012 New Year’s Eve celebrations

Self-initiated projects that reflect what you want to do pay off. Janine’s porcelain set led to her commission from Crate & Barrel (below)

Adopting the right attitude doesn’t mean being overly picky about projects – as that way lies a life of Tesco Value Beans. Comic artist and illustrator Kristyna Baczynski says she, “takes on most work that comes my way and absolutely make the most of it” 

Having taken the leap to go freelance full-time a little over a year ago, Kristyna has rarely been without paid work, and she equates that to her passionate work ethic. “I want all my work to add something to my portfolio, whether I’m creating a new colour palette, texture or motif,” she argues. “With every project I take on, I either love doing the work, or get paid well – ideally both.” 

Changing your perception of ‘time well spent’ is also a valuable lesson. As Kristyna enthuses: “Make work all the time. Identify the places where you would like your work to be seen and contact them. Magazines, papers, websites, shops – get in touch and offer your skills. You need to have something to show – don’t wait for a brief before you do any work”. 

Her self-published mini comic Nine Lives is now in its second print run, proving that even smaller self-initiated work can be successful financially.


Nine Lives is a self-published mini comic by Kristyna Baczynski. Now in its second run, it generates part of her income

Illustrator, Simon Peplow also advises vigilance when taking on projects that require more than you’re able, or willing, to deliver. Seduced by a hefty paycheck, he soon discovered the pitfalls of working with some international clients.

“The job came from the States, and I was getting hounded at unsociable hours,” he explains. “The whole project was a nightmare because of the budget, expectations and number of people involved in the process.”

The quick turnaround and added stress resulted in work he was less than happy with. “I’d really think hard before I took something similar on in the future,” he says.

Simon finds smaller projects with smaller budgets more satisfying; “I’ve produced my best work, and had the most fun on smaller projects.” Citing his work for Anorak magazine, he adds: “My early illustration career has become synonymous with their publication, and I’m truly grateful for their repeat business.” 

While regular clients are the mainstay of many illustrators, working with new clients is often the best way to push your work in different directions – and the extra effort you inevitably put in to impress a new client means that your first work for them will be more likely to be a ‘straight into the portfolio’ piece. Attracting them and winning them over is where many illustrators fall down – but there are some key strategies to success here.


Simon Peplow produced this illustration for Word of Mouth magazine

The best advocates for your work are your current clients, graphic designer and illustrator Jeffrey Bowman points out. “Your clients are the people with the best voice for your promotion,” he says. “Clients who sing your praises are the people who will be really effective in helping your quest for more work”.

With nearly a decade of industry experience behind him – including clients such as Element Skateboards, Howies, Converse and Urban Outfitters – Jeffery is well-versed in the business of attaining new clients, but the self-promotion never stops; “My approach is being tweaked constantly, there is a real investment of time that goes into getting your name out there.”

Having an online presence is a no-brainer – as is using social media to promote your work – but to succeed you have to offer more than a simple portfolio of images to show potential clients. Tell the story around your projects – what are you illustrating, what was the brief, what was the thinking behind your work.

You need to show that you can interpret what a client wants in the way that they want it – and by engaging them with a broad overview of your creative process for each project, they’re more likely to want to work with you.

“It’s all about directing [people] to interesting content,” explains Jeffrey.

If writing’s not your strong suit, engage a local copywriter to do it for you. If funds are tight, offer some of your illustrations or design work in exchange.

Jeffrey Bowman’s temporary tattoos also act as a promotional tool for his illustration


Jolby & Friends was approached by Hopworks to create a new brand for its line of Belgian beers

One way to stand out to clients, both new and old, is to offer a unique proposition by mixing skills in different disciplines. Josh Kenyon and Colby Nichols combine their talents as art directors, designers and illustrators at Jolby & Friends; a collaborative design and illustration studio based in Portland, Oregon. They’ve recently expanded into fabric design.

“For us, it’s been the best way to learn how to do something new and the pressure of getting it right keeps us motivated and gives us a deadline,” explains Josh. “99 per cent of our illustration is done by Colby and I. We had to bring this into creating a single pattern, but also capture the collaborative nature of our creative process”. 

The result is a collection of patterned fabrics that reflects their playful nature, as Josh reflects: “Whilst these projects don’t necessarily make the most money, they give us the time to have fun, be creative and try something new.”

While they are both open to the idea of working with a homeware company in the future, Josh and Colby’s philosophy is resolute: with Josh saying that “no matter what each year brings financially, we will always make time to do something that will help us grow.”


One of the projects Jeffrey Bowman has undertaken for the School of Life

Illustrator Kristyna agrees: “The stand-off between client-based work and personal work is a common dilemma; you’ll know if there’s a good reason, other than financial, to work on a project.”

Exploring your own ideas and taking the time to learn from client projects will help you grow. As Bowman reflects: “Everything is a lesson; each job is experience and learning for the future. You are responsible for your own path – you have to remain motivated.”

Staying proactive, adopting a positive attitude and determined work ethic is key. At the heart of being a professional creative is perhaps best summed up by Kristyna.

“Strive to keep learning and moving forward; make something for yourself, make it because you love making it. Stay engaged with what you love doing,” she urges. 

Create what you'd like to be commmissioned for

Building a portfolio of work that epitomises the type of work you want to be doing can lead to unexpected opportunities, as Finnish illustrator & graphic designer Janine Rewell discovered last year. One of 12 illustrators to be selected by Crate & Barrel to illustrate a teapot for its 50th Anniversary, Rewell caught the company’s eye with a self-initiated project.

Janine’s porcelain set (below, top) led to her commission from Crate & Barrel (sketches below, sketch middle and final product bottom)

“I’ve learned over the last five years that art directors often commission you for what you have done before,” explains Rewell, who captured the imagination of C&B with a hand-painted porcelain set featured on her website. She adds: “I’ve wanted to illustrate kitchenware for a long time now, and by designing my own pieces I had something that fitted into their concept”

Based on the narrative of an otter living in a cold, icy land, her teapot design sold out in 24 hours. She advocates making promotional projects often; “By using your work in new ways, you are planting the seed of an idea for clients.”