Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Once upon a time, long ago-ish, I was an Art Director working on automotive advertising in Detroit. And surprisingly, many things that I learned as an AD apply to my present career as a children’s book illustrator. Here are some of the parallels I gleaned from the experience. Perhaps you can benefit from them, too.

1. The best ads tell stories. The same is true of your illustration portfolio. At my mentorship review with Art Director Laurent Linn last summer, he said it best: “Do your illustrations show a particular moment, either right before something happens, or right after? Or are they stuck, with the character stagnant in the middle of the page and portrait-like?” There also should be an emotive quality to your work, a tug at your heart, in one direction or another. You should feel the moment. 

2. You gotta work quickly. You have seconds (if that) to capture someone’s attention and keep it, whether it’s a television ad, or a book mockup. It’s gotta be riveting from the get-go. And when it comes to creating, especially in the rough draft stage, your best work sometimes occurs when you’re going fast. It helps tune out that inner critic in the back of our heads. I took a workshop with illustrator Matt Faulkner, who suggested using an egg timer, to keep us moving, loose and nimble. It can do wonders to combat the blank page, or if you’re spending too much time in the polishing stage, noodling an illustration to death. 

3. “Deadlines are your friend,” is perhaps my favorite saying from Creative Director Ernie Perich. I came to appreciate the short deadlines in advertising, as crazy-making as they sometimes were. If there’s no deadline, there’s no urgency, no fire under your butt. 

During my pre-published years as an illustrator, I struggled with the lack of deadlines. It felt so hard to prioritize my illustration work if I wasn’t getting paid for it. So I used upcoming SCBWI conferences, paid critiques and applying for mentorships as carrots, which had built-in due dates for submitting work. I also joined a critique group that kept me accountable for future goals and projects. And I tracked my time creating each day, just like I would if it were a freelance project. Seeing the hours add up on a project made it feel more “real” somehow.

4. Fewer is better. An AD will always remember your weakest piece. So if there’s anything you’re lukewarm about, take it out. Never include more just to fluff out your portfolio. Choose 10-15 pieces max. A lot is riding on an Art Director’s decision to go with you, especially if you’re a new illustrator they haven’t worked with. Don’t give them a reason to say no. Lead off with your best piece, keep the pieces in between lean and stellar, then end on an equally strong piece.

5. Always take time to say thank you. If you have a personal meeting with an Art Director (truly a rarity these days), thank them. Chances are, they gave up time from something else to see you. The best illustrators and photographers I worked with sent actual snail mail thank you notes. Anything hand written in this day and age is special. And you will be remembered.

I am guilty of not sending enough. But I just signed up for “4 Out the Door,” a postcard challenge hosted by SCBWI Michigan for illustrators from any region. Email fouroutthedoor@gmail.com and you’ll receive info on mailing lists, postcard design, and recommended online printers. You’ll also learn when the most optimal times of the year for sending are.

Yes, it’s hard when you send out postcards, not knowing if they’ll be trashed or kept. But you never know when your card will strike a chord. Case in point—I had sent postcards to an Editor and months later, I had the unexpected opportunity to visit him. I saw what he called “The Great Wall:” a bulletin board filled with his favorite postcards. I was amazed to see two of mine were up there! 

Every time someone receives your card, it cements your presence in their head. Art Directors and Editors have so much to keep track of. Don’t make them have to remember you. They won’t. Unless you’re stellar. And you keep in touch.

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