Self-promotion is one of the most important areas of any freelancer’s business. Ben the Illustrator devotes some of his time to devising art purely to win over potential clients, and in this tutorial he takes you through the creation of a piece from what he calls his ‘seasonal billboard’: online self-promotional work depicting the four seasons.
Ben says that showing your portfolio of commissions when touting for new work doesn’t always cut the mustard. Creating something from scratch can be the clincher, selling you in a much more convincing way in what is a competitive environment.
Having worked through this Masterclass, you should gain an awareness of what makes a focused self-promotional piece.
Hopefully you will also learn a whole lot about colour, something Ben has strived to understand and exploit positively since he started his career 13 years ago.
Time to complete
Your self-promotional image should encapsulate your portfolio in one definitive image (or a small but consistent series of images). The illustration needs to capture, in a simple and clear way, your technical, creative and conceptual skills.
When considering the subject matter of your self-promotional illustration, think about who you are selling yourself to and what kind of commissions you would like. Here I’m illustrating a nature scene – hinting at travel, which could attract clients such as travel agents or tour operators.
It’s more than likely that if a new client commissions you, they will want something akin to the self-promotional illustration that grabbed their attention in the first place.
While deciding on the subject matter, consider whether there are special events or celebrations around the corner.
For example, with the Olympics in London this year, there will be a lot of people commissioning sports-related illustrations.
Having chosen to tackle nature’s seasons, here I’m playing with cherry blossom as an element of the composition.
This focus of this tutorial is not the technical process of creating an illustration – I recommend that you use your ‘usual’, tried-and-tested process. Go with your strengths and show potential clients what it is that you do. For me that involves drawing everything in pencil first, scanning it and then tracing the linework in Illustrator.
Once you’ve created the foundations of your work, showcasing the right subject matter for your target audience and your technical/drawing skills, you can start to think about colour. I always work in full, bold colours, and I focus on colour especially in self-promotional illustrations. I recommend you do, too: we want to catch the eye and be remembered by every potential client.
With colour palettes, you can start with a perfectly naturalistic palette, but if you want to stand out, don’t constrain yourself – go for a crazy alternative. If an object or scene has a dull or washed-out hue in reality, replace it with a full, saturated colour.
A colourful illustration needs a harmony to it to prevent it being overwhelming, and the colour wheel is a helpful tool in this regard. If you have a lot of one colour, balance it with its complementary colour – the colour opposite it on the wheel. This not only brings balance in a theoretical sense, but can also help elements of your illustration ‘pop’.
Another way to achieve harmony when using many bold colours is to use what are called ‘analogous’ colours. On a 12-section colour wheel, this would be any three colours that sit side by side. So if you have a lot of orange and yellow, add some lime green to create harmony.
Theory aside, throughout our history we have viewed certain colours sitting together in nature, so our eyes and brains recognise them as being mutually harmonious. If you’re experimenting with non-realistic colours, you can take one harmonious colour scheme and apply it to another subject entirely.
When it comes to your self-promotional illustration, you can exploit colour symbolism – choosing colours that say certain things about you, depending how you want to sell yourself. So for my striking sky I’m using orange, which (according to theorists) symbolises vitality, excitement and good health.
For the bottom half of my illustration I ended up using a balanced selection of greens for the grass patterns (see Step 13). Green is obviously associated with nature, and symbolizes growth, fertility and luck. Though your work’s viewers may not be aware of this symbolism, the colours can still evoke the feelings you would like them to.
Depending how you want to sell yourself, you could also consider yellow (the most attention-grabbing colour, and one signifying happiness and warmth), red (signifying love, danger and adventure) or blue (signifying serenity, trust and understanding, and a major player in the world of corporate design).
You also need to consider the distribution of colours within the illustration. In order to stand out, the main elements can be useful placed over something of a complementary or contrasting colour.
The most eye-catching colours should not be placed at the edges – the centre of an image is usually intended as the focus.
Our eyes naturally follow lines or directional flows within artwork, and this can be used to draw attention to your technical/creative strengths. In my illustration I have used the diagonal lines and the natural lines of the tree trunk and mountain to draw the eye to the lighter details in the fans and the blossom in and above the tree.
As a finishing touch, I recommend adding one ‘original’ feature – something an art director isn’t accustomed to seeing, that will spark the realisation that you’re a standout creative. As you can see, I’ve enlivened what had been a purely vector-based illustration by putting in a paper texture and a compositional twist.
Once your illustration is ready, be creative about its presentation to potential clients. You can output your work as a fold-out poster, interactive website, iPad app, T-shirt, cushion or even as a projection onto the side of a building.
Ben O’Brien – aka Ben the Illustrator – is a commercial artist and designer who has been commissioned by the likes of Smart cars, the BBC, Pixar and Nickelodeon. He also founded the Mighty Pencil, a website which showcases the work of talented new creatives. Contact