18 things they never taught you at art school

We ask leading illustrators to tell us the most important things they’ve learned in their careers. What they say may surprise you.

Johanna Basford

“Master the art of writing. You may never need to pen another dissertation again, but you will need to write funding proposals and job applications. Don’t let an awkwardness with words get in the way of your creative talent and ambition.”

Mr Bingo

“Nobody told us about the business side of things. One of the hardest things for a newly graduated illustrator is how much to quote for a job. You’re spat out into the world like a newly born illustrator lamb, and suddenly people expect you to start talking about numbers. It’s terrifying.”

Kervin Brisseaux

“You’ve gotta ‘Network to Get-work’. This is definitely something I wish was further emphasised when I was still in school. Without knowing about how pertinent it is to establish contacts with other professionals in your field, it’s easy to take it for granted, and I definitely learned that the hard way. Especially in today’s economy, finding a job is easier said than done. It can be a total nightmare. You’ve gotta remember that sometimes it’s not just about showing off your talent, but also about the hustle.”

Marion Deuchars

“Try to follow what you think is cool, not what other people tell you is cool. You’ll only come back to [what you love] eventually. You’ll do all the things that are wrong, then eventually come back to what you should be doing. You’ll find it’s where you’ll be at your best strength. It’s where you’ll have the most chance of success.”

Melvin Galapon

“I made the mistake of getting seduced by a new agency, which made a lot of promises of big work that never happened. During this time my dream agent was interested in repping me, but I’d spent too long deciding what to do that that fell through. So do not jump into the first thing you get offered, as something better will come along, and when it does say yes as soon as you can.”

Adam Hancher

“A heads-up on negotiating fees, deadlines and quantity of work would have been useful. I’ve learned now that you can haggle a bit. Just don’t forget that real people exist outside the world of blogs and Twitter, and maybe take up Pilates, you don’t want swayback from all that sitting about.”

Minni Havas

“One of the main things I learned after school was that the client hires me to do the picture because of my style, and expects me to carry out the work with that. It sometimes made me nervous to start a new job because I wasn’t sure what they’d expect me to do, and I really tried to please them too much. Naturally, the confidence grows when your own style develops more and gets recognition. The key is finding the balance between the clients wishes and your own style.”

Tom Hovey

“Working alone as a freelance illustrator can make you feel a bit like Tom Hanks in Castaway. For those lucky enough to be in a shared studio, you won’t have these problems, but for the rest of us lonesome saps, it’s hard. Sitting alone at a desk for hours on end with only your pens, Star Wars toys and fruit with faces drawn on them to talk to (middle left), it can get lonely. Sometimes the only actual conversation you may have all day long might be with a banana with a face drawn on it.”

Rod Hunt

“There’s so much more than just drawing pictures to make a successful and sustainable career. Thank goodness for the Association of Illustrators’ invaluable advice and support.”

Linzie Hunter

“Finding your voice as an illustrator is an evolving journey that continues throughout your career, rather than a final arrival point at graduation. While it’s essential to take on commissioned work in order to survive financially, it’s equally important to set your own personal projects in order to keep your work fresh and your creative spirit afloat. You need to keep moving forward.”

Chris Martin

“Don’t expect every job to be amazing or fun, I’ve done plenty of work that won’t make my portfolio. It’s unbelievably competitive, so that means it’s hard work, but worth it, be prepared to sacrifice a lot of weekends if you want to get somewhere.”

Craig Minchington – aka Adora

“The main thing I’ve learnt since leaving uni is that [you need to remind yourself] why you love being a creative. [I’ve found that] the chance to collaborate with some of my favourite designers is what really makes me tick. I was lucky enough to win a remix of a Sara Blake piece recently, and the chance to work with beautiful illustration like that makes it all worth while.”

Anna Mullin – aka Sneaky Racoon

“[It’s important to learn how] to be a business person and how to make money from being creative. You can be the ‘next big thing’ or have bucket loads of talent, but if you can’t sell what you do properly, you’ll find yourself with empty pockets.”
Twitter: @sneakyraccoon

Mike Nicholson

“That everything they told you would still leave you only half-prepared. That the seemingly insignificant would gain the greatest weight of meaning. That you will need versatility, adaptability, the facility to re-invent yourself. That art schools would one day aspire to call themselves ‘universities’. That art students would one day call their art schools ‘uni’. That people would one day write articles about what they never told you at art school.”

Ben O’Brien – aka Ben The Illustrator

“Be humble, open to learning and understand that everyone you will ever meet in the design world knows something you don’t. If I could have my time again, I would have delayed the dreams of being a self-made superstar and worked my way up in a design studio, learning from others how the industry works; how to promote myself, how to secure clients, put together a portfolio, manage a business and not do it all alone.”

Serge Seidlitz

“I had a steep learning curve when I started working in the creative industry. I had to get used to meeting deadlines and working on multiple projects, being able to take a design job from concept through to final artwork stage and preparing it for print. I was taught none of this at art college, but then that’s not really what art school is for – it’s a great time to experiment with different media and find out about your creative self.”

Dave Williams

“One of my worries as I began work as a junior designer was that my colleagues would think I was stupid if I encountered things I couldn’t do. It took me a while to realise, but it’s impossible to know everything, asking people for help is okay. In fact, it’s more than okay, it’s a good thing. Also, use your spare time to do what you love. The exposure I’ve gained online through my personal work has led to paid freelance work.”


“One thing I learnt very quickly is that no one will take you seriously as a professional until you have a price on your head – when you are no longer being paid in ‘experience’ or ‘portfolio development’.”

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