We usually think of “networking” within the context of offices and 9-to-5 jobs, but it’s just as essential for freelance artists.
“At the end of the day, illustration is a business, and you have to promote your services to others,” Edinburgh-based motion designer and illustrator Nuria Boj tells us. “If you want to be successful doing what you love, you need to give the same importance to building up both your creative skills and your networking skills.”
Interested in growing your own creative community and finding other networking illustrators? Wondering how to help people who are looking for your skills find illustrators? We asked illustration artists from around the globe to share their best tips for forging lasting connections.
1. Get Social
Illustrator Ayang Cempaka suggests using Instagram not only to showcase your work, but also to reach out to potential clients and fellow artists. “Put your works on display, engage with others, and use hashtags,” she says. “Be a ‘regular.’ Let people know about your work. Also, join professional illustrators’ communities like the AOI (Association of Illustrators), which is very useful for networking with other professionals. I wish I had joined earlier in my career.”
2. Join a Co-Working Space
Petra Eriksson, an illustrator based in Spain, says, “I started by attending smaller meet-ups and gatherings that had some kind of specified purpose or theme, as that it made it easier for me to prepare myself and to interact with people once I was there.”
For example, she says, “I went to a bunch of Ladies, Wine & Design gatherings when I first arrived in Barcelona. This initiative for women, non-binary, agender, and gender non-conforming creatives has chapters in 250 cities worldwide, and they do meet-ups, talks, and portfolio reviews. It was good for me because the gatherings were pretty small and intimate, and there was always some kind of presentation or a topic to get the conversation started.”
What she’s enjoyed the most—and what’s influenced her the most—has been working out of co-working spaces and studios. “Networking is easier there because you’re surrounded by people,” Eriksson continues. “You just gradually get to know them from chatting in the kitchen, eating lunch together, and seeing what other people are up to. My freelance life would have been very lonely without having a space to go to and work from.”
3. Reach Out to the Right People—Not as Many People as Possible
Yes, there are people and companies who are looking to find illustrators, but sometimes, finding potential clients yourself works just as well. Austrian illustrator Francesco Ciccolella explains that “when I started out, I went to bookshops and newsstands a lot to see what magazines and papers my work might fit in. I sent postcards with my illustrations and a link to my website on them. Instead of trying to target as many people as possible, I reached out to those art directors I really wanted to work with. I think that selective approach paid off. I got some of my first commissions through these postcards.”
4. Make It Personal
Illustrator Jag Nagra says, “I recently put together a polished mini-portfolio pamphlet, where I included detailed descriptions of a few projects I wanted to promote. I then did a big mailing to art directors I wanted to work with. I made sure to include a hand-written card with each one that was personalized. I find that helps create a warmer first impression.
“As we all know, social media these days comes with a whole array of algorithm problems that prevent our work from being seen by as many people as we would like,” Nagra explains, “so I find that personal and in-person connections hold more weight. A lot of my clients end up being repeat clients because of the mutual trust and relationship we’ve built.”
5. Attend Events, and Follow Up After You Leave
Andrea Sparacio, an illustrator based in Brooklyn, New York, explains that “when I was naive about networking, I thought you went to an event and you’d leave with connections. Sometimes that can happen, but in reality, it usually takes time. Connections require trust-building.” Sparacio suggests that networking illustrators “think of networking as just making friends, and let go of any expectations. Once I became active in going to creative conferences, I started to see the slow-build process of networking.
“At conferences, you meet a handful of people and then you go home, but you need to continue the connections over social media and beyond. I refer to networking as simply planting seeds; you never know what seeds will grow in the beginning. Keep watering, keep nurturing your relationships, and be patient as they grow.”
6. Learn to Talk About Your Work
Illustrator Kate Blairstone explains that “as illustrators, we’re not typically interviewing for jobs in a formal way, but the concept is the same. We’d all love for our work to speak for itself, but a lot of the time you meet a person first. When they ask what you do, can you talk about it in a way that a non-artist might understand and find interesting? Will they remember you and look you up later? Did you give them a business card?”
Blairstone suggests that those with networking illustrations they want to share “use social media to practice answering the same questions you see asked of other artists. How did you get your start? What drives your subject matter, your color choices, the types of clients you’re looking for?
“When you’re first starting out, it’s easy to see illustration from a very narrow point of view,” Blairstone states. “Like, ‘Illustrators get hired by people with the title of ‘Art Director.’’ Or, ‘The only way to make it is by exhibiting at licensing shows.’ Turns out, there are lots of other people and businesses that hire illustrators. They might not know how they can benefit from hiring one until they meet you, so introduce yourself.”
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7. Say “Yes” to Every Meeting
Freelance illustrator Monica Ahanonu says that one of her mentors, Bonnie Arnold, “has a quote that I love: ‘Meet everyone and don’t ever refuse a meeting.” I interpret this quote as, ‘Don’t feel like someone is not worth your time just because they aren’t in your industry or your direct path.’ Successful people always have something to offer you in some area of your life.
“Make sure you have friends of all ages, too,” Ahanonu suggests. “You can learn so much from older people who have gone through what you are going through, and from younger people who may be more knowledgeable about new technologies or trends taking off.”
8. Be Genuine
Grace Helmer, an illustrator based in London, says, “When I was first starting out, I thought of networking as a lot of cold-calling and trying to talk to important people at private views. I’m quite shy, so that seemed terrifying and like something I’d never be able to do comfortably.” But, as it turns out, Helmer explains, she was doing her own sort of networking without realizing it: creating networking illustrations. My friends and I were organizing mini-exhibitions, participating in zine fairs, putting our work online, and helping out with other people’s projects.
“I’ve discovered over the years that ‘networking’ can actually feel quite natural. If you are interested in what others are doing, putting yourself forward for events, and are looking to build genuine friendships as well as promote your work, then you can form a whole web of connections that stretch way further than random emails to art directors. If you only ever talk to people with the hope that they’ll hire you, you close yourself off to all the unexpected opportunities that can help you develop and grow.”
9. Remember Your “Why”
Illustrator Deborah Lee says, “Make sure you’re networking for the right reasons. A friend once told me about the distinction of using someone as a bridge versus a ladder. Are you reaching out to make more friends and to learn more about your field, or is it because they’re the only way to a job that you’ve been eyeing?”
10. Support Other Networking Illustrators, and They’ll Support You,
London-based illustrator Erin Aniker suggests that illustrators “always keep doors open for others, especially when you’re on your way up. Recommend your friends and peers for jobs. You have contacts that can be shared with other people, and vice versa. It’s important to be supportive and think of the industry and each other as a community instead of as competition,” Aniker says. “I’ve often taken on jobs through friends and people who have recommended me for them. I make sure to do the same whenever I can.”
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