Instead of waiting for jobs to appear on those freelance sites, find companies that you’d want to work for and send them samples – before they’re even looking for illustrators. Once they’ve seen your work, you have the opportunity to be top of mind when an appropriate project comes along. Freelance sites are great, but the downside is you’re one of many bidding for the same projects – and the fees offered on those sites are usually very low.
You can also poke around and see who’s commissioning work, and what kind. Don’t just send random samples to these companies – target your promos. If you illustrate flowers, don’t send samples to a place that commissions car illustrations. One of the busy art director’s biggest peeves is receiving samples not suited to his or her industry. Promote yourself vigorously and smartly by targeting companies where your work fits.
Here’s a personal example of how being proactive has worked for me. Whenever I see a new magazine that doesn’t use much illustration, but in my opinion would benefit from some, I send postcard samples to the art directors and editors when appropriate. I often follow up with an email asking if they’ve ever considered using illustration and how it might benefit their publication. This approach has turned into work for me more than once, including a regular monthly column. You should also promote to places that currently use illustration, of course, but sometimes a client might not have considered illustration until you approach them with the idea.
Postcard mailings, with a great image on front and your contact info on the back, are great for promoting illustration work. The larger the postcard, the bigger the splash; I’ve had much less success with 4.25 x 5.5 postcards than with 5.5 x 8.5 or 8.5 x 11 cards; smaller cards can easily be lost in the shuffle, and the impact value shrinks with the card’s size.
Start with three to four mailings a year to potential art directors, to start exposing your work to the right audience and driving traffic to your website. It’ll take a few postcards to the same contact before he or she becomes acclimated to your work – but if they like what they see, art directors will often hang onto your postcard for years, waiting for the perfect job for you. So don’t be discouraged, even if your mailings don’t generate an immediate response.
Emailing potential clients is another way to promote your work. Some illustrators prefer personalized emails directed at a certain client; others favor a formal, mass email marketing campaign – I lean toward personalized emails to specific people. I’ve heard art directors groan about how many unsolicited emails they get from illustrators, but the properly placed email newsletter can lead directly to work.
So can face-to-face portfolio reviews, a good way to introduce your work to potential clients or add a personal touch with existing ones. I’ve been making visits to New York City recently and have been pleasantly surprised by how accommodating art directors can be about scheduling visits. I’ve also been thrilled to see my postcards hanging in art director’s cubicles. A good idea is to reach out to people you’d like to visit – well in advance – and set up some appointments.
Another option is posting your portfolio on various paid websites. I’ve had decent results from posting on paid sites frequented by art directors. There are also plenty of free or basic-service portfolio sites where you can promote your work. The more places your work is shown, the better chance someone will see it.
An active social media campaign won’t hurt your exposure either. Creating a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account are good, informal ways to network with other illustrators and, of course, art directors. Some art directors don’t really want to mix business with pleasure, but most are passionate enough about their work to “friend” or “follow” talented contemporaries with equal passion.
Above all, remember that all art directors are different and each prefers to network and view illustrations a different way. So be flexible, and find the right combination of networking tactics for promoting your work!
Brian is an editorial and portrait illustrator. His clients include: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Billboard, Wired UK, The Washington Post, Fast Company, Games for Windows and The Boston Globe. He lives in the Washington DC area with his wife, two daughters and a dog named Bill. BTillustration.com
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