Make it as a Full-Time Illustrator in the NYC / by Deanna First

make it as illustrator_deannafirst.jpg

I've received a lot of questions asking me how I got started in this career path and made a living in NYC being a full-time illustrator. It still feels pretty crazy and surreal to me as I sit here typing. Below I've outlined a few suggestions about transitioning into the industry as well as answers to questions from my followers but first I wanted to share my story.

I've wanted to be an artist since pre-school but when it came time to pick a career path I decided on Fashion Design (even though I never knew how to sew). When I met with the art department at my university they never emphasized the fact someone could become a professional artist, the professor focused on opportunities of becoming an art teacher or working at a museum and so on.

I ended up picking Technical Design which is mostly computer based since I already was pretty confident in my sketching abilities I wanted to challenge myself to learn something new.  Fashion Design just sort of felt right and I loved that I could still incorporate sketching and have the freedom to work with my hands. I've always been a visual person when it came to learning and the traditional school system never really fully benefited my learning style. 

While studying at Kent State University in Ohio I discovered what fashion illustration was. Previously I had no idea that this career path even existed! At this time it still didn't register that being a full-time illustrator was even an option so I continued with my studies.  

After graduating I worked in the corporate world a few years at Ralph Lauren, J.Crew and Elie Tahari. During the day I found myself working long hours and felt completely unmotivated to draw on my days off. I didn't even pick up my sketchbook the first year I moved to NYC! The corporate world didn't involve as much creative freedom or sketching as I had hoped.

Christies_mural deanna first.jpg

I was not inspired working in a traditional environment that wasn't utilizing my artistic talents. Freedom of making my own schedule (being a night owl wasn't really working) and fully using my creativity with zero rules was a huge deciding factor in changing the course of my life path. I had to follow my instincts or knew I would never be truly happy. 

I moved back to Ohio after being in NYC for a few years and started up a website and portfolio. Those few months were very difficult for me knowing that I was starting over in my then mid-twenties was a scary thought at the time. I come from a family of teachers so no one really could fully grasp what I was attempting to do at the time since it was against the traditional norm.  

When I moved back to New York I got a part-time job (3 days a wk) where I stayed at for 2 years (mind you I thought it would be 6 months) to save up and build a client list. Once I landed a few large clients my career started taking off and I quit that job to work on my passion full-time. I'm the happiest I've been in a very long. It is worth struggling for a few years to live the rest of your life feeling fulfilled. In my opinion talent and purpose go hand in hand and feel that part of my purpose is to reach people through my art. 

live sketch_deannafirst.jpg

1. Do you quit your day job to pursue your passion?

Before you quit your day job I recommend getting a part-time job a few days a week while building up your client list and creating a portfolio. If it could be in a similar industry that is even better so you could learn along the way.

Start by creating a few collections so that your website will look cohesive and professional. If you have enough money saved up already from a previous job you could quit but I don't recommend completely quitting a job unless you have a few repeat clients already.

2. How did you create your own style? What if I feel like I don't have my own?

This was one of my big "struggles" when I started out. I reached out to blogs and sites to feature my artwork by interviewing me. I had one person tell me they could not feature my website on their page because my art did not look cohesive and appeared like I didn't have a style. I remember being so discouraged and upset by the response.

This worked to my advantage though. I do think it is beneficial to have a set style. It easily identifies you as a brand and sets your work a part. However, my illustrations have evolved into a few easily recognizable styles. I have a quicker sketch style that is fun and not super realistic and I have a realistic style that I usually use 1-2 pops of color with. Because of my versatility I have gained clients with both style preferences!

It could take a few years to really develop a style that represents you. Whatever you do don't try and replicate someone else's sketches. Especially if it is someone that already is well established in the industry. In my opinion, you may think they might be flattered but how are you going to make an impact in the industry with someones ideas that aren't yours? It's ok to take a bit of inspiration here and there but not the entire sketch

3. How do you find clients?

In the beginning of my career I did do a lot of outreach and emailed tons of people and brands that did not know me. I also applied to a lot of illustration agencies once I launched my website.

What I learned from this is that agencies in most cases will not represent you unless you have worked with established brands and have experience. Think about it, it is like applying for college if you have not even started high school yet. Some small agencies may take a chance on you but the majority of reputable large agencies won't work with you unless you have proved yourself

Most people did not respond to me when I first started to promote my work. People are busy and aren't going to make an effort especially if they do not know you (most of the time). My advice is to go as many events as you can and be social! Don't be shy. I've introduced myself to many many people randomly at events and parties and little did I know it ended up leading to jobs years later. Even ask around to your friends are family you may be surprised who knows someone that works at one of your dream clients!

If there is a brand I love I will reach out directly but most of the time clients have found me via word of mouth, google or social media as my career has progressed. 

4. How do you sell your art?

There are tons of ways to sell your art and get noticed! I have an online shop linked directly to my website which has prints. Some people offer original works on their shop as well. A lot of artists also use Etsy, which I did until switching over to one linked to my site.

Most of my profits come from custom commissions that I have created for campaigns, brands or for personal use. Usage rights vary by how the artwork is being used so for instance so a book cover is going to be a higher rate than a picture framed in someones home. There are of course exceptions for everything.

5. Help, I don't know how to make a contract? 

There are actually websites out there that will help assist you in making a contract. I personally love Shake by LegalShield

You can pick what kind of craft you are involved with and it will walk you through the process and provide templates to assist you.

 Live Sketching for Saks Downtown

Live Sketching for Saks Downtown

Is there something I missed you would love to get answered? Comment or email me directly and I'll be sure to tackle the question in my next blog post. Don't give up! Persistence and hard work is key. It may take a few years to get rolling but trust me it will be worth the wait. :)