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Erika Meza's four tips for illustrators

These brilliant tips by Erika are rooted in some of the worries that all illustrators have felt at one point or another, and also touch on socialising with industry figures, doing your research and being yourself. Erika is represented by Claire Cartey of Holroyde Cartey.

1. Worry less about style, and more about who you are

When I was starting out I was, as everyone is, obsessed with “finding my style”. It is THE BIG ONE. And while it’s true that it is something immediately recognizable of any established illustrator, it is the one element that most people cannot find (or give!) good, concrete advice for. The reality is that this is something that comes with time and practise: it is a series of influences, muscular memory and shortcuts, as unique and distinctive to each person as our handwriting.

An illustration style is a visual manifestation of your personality. It is, ideally, not static, since one is forever learning, moving forward and improving – no matter what stage of our career we are at (more on that ahead!). So it is only natural that our style will gradually change with time: it grows and matures, just as one does.

When we are starting out, however, we are concerned not just with learning how to draw, how to handle composition, how to wield colour, how to figure out anatomy and character design and appeal, but also how to create our style. It’s enough to drive anyone mad, and to resort to copying the art we wish our work looked like in an effort to improve fast.

Instead, it's important to draw from life. A lot. Whatever we are attracted by, whatever it is we enjoy: people walking by, buildings, animals, streets, flowers, objects, coffee cups. Everything that pulls your eye, just draw it. Also draw everything that is scary: cars, bicycles, hands, horses. You may not get good at it, but you will develop shorthands for it and be less nervous when you need to handle them. And draw the things you are passionate about: study film frames, their colour palettes, their composition. If you love ballet, draw ballerinas in motion. If you love architecture, draw buildings.

Study the shapes, the negative spaces, the railings on the staircases. Study animal bones and skeletons, study cellular structures, musical instruments, microchips or body tissues – whatever it is that you love outside of art and illustration. My very first illustration teacher, Charles Glaubitz, said one is not an illustrator until a sketchbook becomes a permanent part of your every-day posessions.

It is quite obvious when an illustrator is simply copying someone else’s work. An illustrator who has developed a ‘style’ has essentially found unconscious ways to depict elements they’re familiar with. It has appeared slowly, through experimentation and a lot of dirty work – you may, for example, spill some ink on a drawing by clumsiness and quite like the smudge effect it gave to your crayon lines underneath when it dries, and turn it into a signature style. Style reflects the way an artist thinks, and the way they see and react to the world. So, instead of mimicking the style of the illustrators you admire, try to find the elements of your personality and your interests and passions that make you you. Experiment, find ways to incorporate them to your work, and, as a result, your art will become as unique as your self.

2. Don’t ever stop learning

As I said before, your artwork needs to forever be improving and evolving. If you draw something and you’re not fully satisfied with it, that is good news. It means you can detect room for improvement. Rather than letting it bring you down, embrace it: do you need to learn about colour? Is your perspective giving you issues? Is there a YouTube tutorial, a workshop, an online blog where you can get the information you are looking for?

Most illustrators (and artists in general) are happy to share tips of the trade. I learnt a lot when I was starting out from James Gurney’s blog, about not just the how-to’s but the art theory, art history and even art philosophy behind it. My work looks nothing like his, but I usually remember one or two lessons of his in each book that I work on. Everything you learn (not just about art, everything) will help you upgrade your work and give you new problems to tackle, which means you will never stop getting better.

Say, for example, that you can’t draw hands. Rather than hide them in your character’s pockets, apply yourself to conquering hand anatomy. Once you know how it works, you’ll be able to simplify the shapes and turn them into your own kind of hands, which will open a wide world of possibilities in terms of character design and appeal, and better poses to communicate with your characters. The information is easier to access than ever, and it is all out there: use Google as your asset!

3. Become a (good) nuisance

One thing you need to learn about this business is who the players are. Try to absorb as much information as you can – not just about the writers and illustrators out there, but about the publishing houses, the editors, the art directors. Most bookish people are on Twitter, and most tweet and retweet often. Knowing what they like, what they are after and what they gravitate towards means that your submissions will be better tailored to their taste and disposition.

Spamming isn’t useful at all. Sending your children’s illustrations portfolio to the New York Times will get you nowhere, because they are not after your kind of work – and I did make that mistake. Another mistake is spamming all agents at once hoping one of them takes you on, without any regards of what sort of work they’re after, or jumping at any agent that comes your way without first doing proper research on whether they will get you the jobs you are after. On the other hand, knowing fully well that an editor is obsessed with dogs and sending them your many charming dog illustrations probably ups your chances of one day getting a commission from them with a dog book they acquired: such is the importance of doing your proper research, and putting in the leg-work.

Put your work out there. Shout about it. Send postcards, have business cards ready. Allow your work to be easily discoverable. The first 6,378 posts may get you nowhere, but the more your work is seen, the easier it’ll be for people to remember it when something that is perfect for you comes their way.

4. Remember that you’re working with people.

Finally, when you’re out and about shouting about your work, remember that at the end of the day these are people with lives. They are human beings. There is a fine line between being devoted to your work, and being one of those nightmare encounters they need to get rid of.

Here’s a practical example, and one that I’ve seen happen more often than not: imagine you are at a book launch, and you suddenly find an editor from that dream publishing house you’ve forever hoped to work with. There they are, chatting with some authors and illustrators, agents and publicists and everyone who’s anyone in this business.

You may think this is your shining moment to finally pitch them your amazing idea for a book series, or show them your work and have them be amazed at your genius. But the reality is that these people are having a good time. They’re probably chatting about food, or politics, or gossip, or plotting evil plots or wondering what kind of kibble a pet piranha would have to eat.

With any other kind of people in any other kind of setting, you would understand that this is not the time for you to come in and talk about work. On the other hand, these are human beings. You’re a human being. You probably have something to say about piranha’s kibble, you may have the genius idea of feeding them gravy pouches. And once you do, maybe you can naturally make friends with them and eventually get a meeting where you can discuss business, show them your portfolio and wow them with your book series idea.

So remember that they’re humans. Relax. Behave like you would with any other human being – and this goes for work meetings, as well. Don’t be shy to ask for help, or to reach out to them if they’ve given you their contact information: they wouldn’t do so if they didn’t want to, and they’re not gods. They’re people with jobs. Thank them for taking a look at your work, or for the advice they’re sending your way. They’ll appreciate you more for it, and will remember you in a good way, as opposed to you accidentally becoming a pest, and someone they might even gossip about the next time they meet their pals over a drink.

Bonus tip: be yourself. It’s what makes you unique, and memorable, and special. Allow it to permeate everything about you: your work, your work ethics, your approach to this job. It’s the one thing nobody will ever be able to replicate. Embrace it!


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