Why I’m not a professional illustrator

more drawings - cute is growing on me, though I wish I could be more edgy.

I can draw. You’ve seen me do it. I do it for friends, family, and the occasional client. Ever since I was young I remember people around me patting my head and telling me “Good job Amy!” whenever I handed them a doodle.

I love drawing. I love how a brush feels in my hand as I bring it around a sheet of paper. Most of the time, I draw quickly; I doodle for fun, and when I’m thinking of ideas, I have pauses that are punctuated by a little drawings in the nook of a note.

My name card has me pegged as an illustrator and a writer. But I still feel slightly uncomfortable whenever people ask me about my drawings. I even blush a little sometimes. It almost feels as though I don’t deserve the title although I’ve been commissioned a few times. The truth is, while I love drawing, I’m not able to see myself illustrating professionally. And when I say professionally, I mean I don’t see myself making money primarily from illustrating. I make ends meet through other means and right now I illustrate for fun, especially for friends or clients who know what to expect.

Some people (mostly relatives and well-meaning friends) don’t get this. They tell me “but you’re so good at it” (their words, not mine!) and gush about the fact that they themselves can’t draw to save their lives, so they don’t see the reason why I am not putting my skills to full use; i.e. profiting from it.

When it comes down to profiting from your skills, I think you need to be able to love the process as much too – and in this case, when you’re illustrating, it’s about loving the process of communicating with your client, as well as the revisions that will inevitably crop up during the process. Writing is like that too, but only for me, the process of writing feels a lot more effortless than illustrating (not drawing for fun, mind you.) Even when it came to revisions, if an editor told me to change words, phrases, etc – I’d do it in an instant. No hard feelings or emotions attached. When it comes to my illustrations, sometimes it feels like I’m holding a broken piece of glass between my fingers instead of a pencil when it was time to revise a drawing. Maybe because it feels more personal? Or maybe because pressing an undo button (or a backspace) seems a whole lot easier to me than erasing parts of my drawing and starting over.

So I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m better off concentrating on what I’m good at. Writing. Editing. Organizing super secret fun projects with other illustrators. Etc. Although I may not be a working illustrator, I can feel my heart skip a beat whenever I see the works of art of others; whether they’re displayed in books, on walls, or just about anywhere else. Illustrations light me up.

You guys light me up.

And right now, I feel more at home spreading that light around, instead of trying to shine as one.

And I’m starting to think that it’s not all that bad.

Happy Monday folks!

  advice, illustration, popular


33 thoughts on “Why I’m not a professional illustrator

  1. I think many people feel about being illustrators [artists in general] like you do. It is very strange how so many others can see one is good in something, but that particular person might never even realise it.
    I myself draw, paint, illustrate and even though I´ve gotten a nice comment or two about my work, I wouldn´t dare calling myself an artist or illustrator.
    But it does feel good taking a pencil and a piece of paper, forgetting about everything else around you and just enjoying doing what makes you happy :).

  2. You have obviously found the key to the whole thing yourself – doing what you love and what feels effortless. Doesn’t mean that its not work …but finding that point of least resistance is always the right way. You are already doing what you were meant to – and very well, indeed!

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! The Unicorn Free article you linked confirms what I have learned through attempting to pursue my passion over the past six years: I HATE SELLING. Not dislike… hate, loathe, and despise.

    It’s really painful and maybe even destructive to hear over and over that we should follow our passion only to fall on our faces because we hate everything else that come with doing it as a business. Wondering why you aren’t making it. Wondering why you aren’t happy. You have to love all the other aspects of business, too.

  4. Sometimes when we let go of something, we make room for a lot more! I think you’re already seeing room for amazing opportunities. I just told myself I’m no longer an embroiderer. While I made lots of money turning my illustrations into kits and patterns, it’s not what I want to be known for. Plus, I was tired of sticking myself with the needle. Hehe. I can’t wait to see what you post next!

  5. I so know how you feel…..thanks for this post. Sometimes when I’m online it seems like EVERYONE else is finding amazing success and confidence in their artistic careers and I have to pull myself off the computer to getting down on myself. It’s nice to hear once in a while from people that I admire, like yourself, that “success” is relative, personal, sometimes elusive and always changing.

    • You’re welcome Lori! I stop and ask myself the same thing from time to time – about what my definition of success would be. And it changes from year to year. I think I’ve just come to the realization that it’s not measured by anyone other than myself, which allowed me to go with the flow.

  6. Very well put, Amy. It reminds me of “be careful what you wish for.” That said, I like illustrating professionally and also drawing for fun. Every now and then these two things overlap and I pinch myself that I can get away with so much joy.

    • Katie, thanks so much for the link to Jillian’s article – I’m just starting to teach part-time at a local college and it’s the same thing I’m trying to explain to my students as well. I’ve stressed that illustration is a problem solving process; of creating stories where your vocabulary are images, instead of words. Even if they leave college not wanting to be a professional illustrator, at least they will (hopefully) gather skills that they’ll be able to apply through other creative endeavors.

  7. This is a very well-put explanation of the same reason I won’t be an illustrator or designer. I love the creative process, but I just don’t play well with others when it comes to critique and revisions. I’m a much happier gal now that I have realized that about myself, and it’s great to hear others coming to similar conclusions and finding a good spot for themselves in the creative world.

    • Thank you Cate! It feels good to have it out in the open. There’s so many ways to go about it that no one way is perfect for everyone. I think we all just need to realize it’s okay to feel and go about it differently. You are an inspiration! ;)

  8. I so appreciate and love how frank you are in your own evolution. This really is the best way for life to unfold, isn’t it: we evolve, take on stuff, let go of things that don’t suit us anymore…
    Realizing what really suits you, letting go of something and being able to be frank about it, that must give a sense of relief?
    You’re the best, Amy!

  9. I studied illustration in art school. When I got my first job the client was really controlling of my process, forcing me to do pencil sketches when I never did a pencil sketch in my life! I work more like a fine artist going straight to color and working the piece from that point. I quit the job halfway through and said this is NOT for me. I felt like the client was messing with a scared process…mine! I never turned back and have sold work as fine art instead and am very happy with my decision. I feel like art is the one place I can connect to something bigger and i wanted to keep that gift protected from ridgid clients who know nothing of the preciousness of youe work. For me it is so much better for art to keep me happily creating than to be a commodity.

  10. Thankyou so much for writing about this subject ! I’m currently studying my degree in illustration and feel so pressured to change the way I work. Being constantly told how to mass produce outcomes and appeal to large clients has caused me to rethink my future. I love illustration but I’m determinded not to be taken over by what’s ‘popular’ and will sell fast. I want to stick to creating peices that show my spirit and passion and reading this has made me feel so much better about that. It’s so refreshing to read you words :)

  11. Hi Amy,
    I really do understand because I feel the same. I draw-paint a lot and I love it. If I could’nt draw for a while I really miss it. Everybody sasy why don’t you do bla bla bla… But I am not a professional artist, I’m an enginneer. I’m afraid if someone doesn’t like my work. I’m stuck, I want to do this for rest of my life but how I don’t know…

    • Hi Asuaraz, there’s only one way to know if people like your work: SHOW IT OFF! While people liking your work is one thing, another thing is to just allow yourself time to grow as an artist. No one became an artist just by hoping to be one. So take classes, take on a mentor, be an intern or just try your hand at what you like. My advice is to keep the day job and figure out ways to dabble in your art so you’re more confident before you take the plunge!

  12. This was so well explained, Amy! (More proof you’re a great writer!) Great discussion in the comments here too. I don’t mind the changes usually as I have worked with people who have a great eye for improving my work. I would *LOVE* to know more about the “super secret illustration projects.” Link was not linked.

  13. I wish I could have read this years ago, instead of feeling like a failure at illustration! And it wasn’t because I couldn’t find jobs or didn’t do a good job. It was because the joy was gone and instead of drawing because that’s part of who I am, it was like nails scratching the chalk board when constantly pleasing everyone else but myself. I’m still in “recovery” from being a professional and only draw for my own eyes and my family’s. Thank you Amy for sharing your real feelings about things!

  14. A reall interesting piece Amy. I still feel quilty after all these years (I graduated from my Illustration degree at Camberwell over 20 yrs ago) for not “making it” as a professional illustrator, and not being able to support myself from this alone. I work in a gallery 4 days a week and have children, and then somehow find a little time to fit in my drawing/printmaking work. I’ve had regular commissions over the years and exhibited work and produced work, but it does on the whole tend to be for my own pleasure. The few moments of “me time” I do have I try to optimise to the max and I can work in a very focussed way. I’m constantly influenced by things and have lots of ideas on the go. Like you, I love and am naturally drawn to looking at and appreciating and internally digesting other people’s lovely illustrations. I think your website is fabulous and a much needed forum for discussions on illustration/the life of artist/how to sell your work etc etc. Thank you! :)

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