Dear students: Create your own opportunities

Dear students,

Time and again I hear about your laments; accompanied by the hand-wringing and wails of despair – “how will I ever survive out there in the real world? How can I ever compete? I don’t know where to start, or where to go. I’ll be eaten alive and spat out by the system within the year and whatever love I had for art/illustration will wither and shrink up like tomatoes left out in the sun for too long”. [okay, the tomatoes were my words, not theirs].

I’m used to being a little on the edge. Heck it’s been almost 5 years since I last had a proper desk job where I get a stable paycheck at the end of each month. If I had a penny each time someone comes up to me and said “it must be nice being your own boss,” I’d be filthy rich by now. Like those out there like me, who are freelancers, we know that we have to work at it, everyday. Most of the time, we have to work harder than those who have a check waiting for them at the end of each month, because if we don’t go out there and hustle, there’s not going to be anything waiting for us except a cool glass of water (no offense to those who work on regular full-time work!)

People do this for many reasons – perhaps they make more money this way. Or they’re happier. Or they want to change the world. Or perhaps they’re looking for flexibility in their schedule that wasn’t available to them before. Whatever your reasons, if you want to have a proper go at having a meaningful career, you have to hustle and create your own opportunities.

So here’s a list of what you can do when you get out of university. For those who are driven, do all these before you get out and get a head start:

Take on a less demanding job while you hustle. If you like the idea of getting your work out there, get a second job to survive and work on your craft during whatever time you have left over. If I hear moans of not having time, my reflex automatically veers towards giving you a good smack up the head. Because that’s an excuse for being lazy. And laziness won’t get you anywhere.

Have a web presence. Create an online portfolio. Use services like Behance or Cargo to get your site running in less than a week. Don’t know how to go about it? Google is your best friend. Again, don’t be lazy.

Don’t mope, moan or complain. Just do it. If you’re forever frozen because you’re scared of what bad things might happen – you’ll never get anything done.

Turn off the computer. Unplug. Get some fresh air. Information overload can cause serious I-can’t-do-it-itis because you’re just consuming instead of creating.

Don’t limit yourself by thinking local. Think global. The internet has opened up so many opportunities to show your work out there. And so many people are using this opportunity. Remember that it’s merely a tool; a portal if you will – you’ll still need to work up your courage to step through it. And then show them the best of what you have. Read this timely article by Derek Sivers about choosing to be local, or going global.

Create your own opportunities. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, like what Johanna Basford has done here (see video above). Some people say that you shouldn’t do the work before being commissioned and with a piece of paper in your hands. Bullshit. Be generous – show what you can do first, especially people are unsure about your capabilities or when you have nothing to show but a bunch of student work (which you think could be better). Be smart about it though – show that you can solve problems, not just make pretty things that can be recreated by an intern. If you’re good, there’s plenty more where that came from, so don’t be afraid to open up.

Change the world. Have something to say. Be an active participant in life, and be the change you want to see in the world [Mahatma Gandhi]. Blaze your own trail – don’t be afraid to create works that speak of your passion for a better future.

If only you can see yourself as how I see you. There’s so much potential in each of you that I am thrilled to watch you grow. But right now all I can do is to make you believe in yourself and to let you see what you’re capable of – the rest is up to you.

{Video: The Starbucks (inky) Red Cup from Johanna Basford on Vimeo.}


Every week, I teach about the creative process of illustration at a local college. And when I come home, I realize that I’ve forgotten to point this out, or to remind them about something. Dear Students serves as my own personal compilation of thoughts, and is a series dedicated to students around the world who might find my musings useful. 

Jillian Tamaki: The difference between drawing and illustration

Jillian Tamaki

Jillian Tamaki

[quote]I actually think that most people don’t realize or think about the difference between Drawing and Illustration. They think they’re the same. They’re not. Drawing is an act, whereas Illustration (as I define it) is a profession. Illustration *can* involve drawing (it can expand beyond drawing too, obviously), but it’s actually the act of thinking and problem solving. [/quote]

Love this quote by Jillian Tamaki, and it’s what I’ve been trying to explain to my students.

Thank you Katie!

Image: Jillian Tamaki

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!

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