The Grad’s Guide to breaking into Editorial Illustration – Features

7 ways to get more illustration work.

With lockdown easing and more shops opening up, illustration graduates would do well in checking the magazine racks down WHSmith.

After all, while we all know a handful of print mags like TIME and Wired, there are countless of other titles out there paying creators for illustration spots.

Indeed, editorial illustration for print and online titles is usually the first port of call for freelancing art grads, though it can be a hard nut to both crack into and make money from. To help you, this feature has sage advice from seasoned pros Geo Law, Sneha Shankar and Pete Reynolds. Read on for their seven magic tips to help you break into editorial illustration.

1. Suit the subject

“I find the best way to pitch to editorial and art directors is to demonstrate you have a distinct style that will suit such subject matter,” says Geo, who’s illustrated for the likes of Time Out and Newsweek.

“Depending on the types of articles coming from the publication you’re aiming for, it’s good to demonstrate you understand tone and how to utilise narrative to support the text or article in your work. Instead of summarising like-for-like with the text, art directors and editors like to see if you can visually hint at the article’s key point with artwork that complements it.”

Geo Law

2. Get conceptual

“Editorial illustrations mostly are conceptual so the art directors need to know that you can handle conceptual work,” Sneha adds (check out her glorious work here.) “Be sure to have work in your portfolio which demonstrates this. If you haven’t gotten any industry projects, just find a few interesting articles and illustrate for them to add to your portfolio.”

“It can be useful to mock up some artwork against an existing piece of editorial text that interested you and showing you can also illustrate that text,” Geo agrees. “Just always make sure you acknowledge that you created the mock-up as a text and don’t pretend you were commissioned for that work. It’s a small world and people will call you out for that kind of fibbing.”

Sneha Shankar

3. Show your speed

“They may also keep in mind the speed at which you work at,” Geo reminds. “Editorial illustration commissions tend to be a little last minute with deadlines on a knife edge. Depending on the time given for the job you’d need to show them you can work fast with your sketches, that you’re concise in your ideas and fluent in execution.

“If possible, set your self short deadlines to prepare yourself, to show you can sketch ideas quickly; two to three different ideas is a good number to work with and then distill the illustration into a final execution. If you can show that you are adept at this process then the right editors will come knocking or at least keep you on file until the right type of commission comes along.”

4. Know your scales

“Whether you’re asked to work on a cover, half page, full page or series of spot illustrations, it’s good to show you can work to these scales and adapt your compositions accordingly,” Geo tells me.

“Knowing when to pack detail in to a full page illustration and scaling back for half pages and spots is useful to pitch you are adaptable and know how you’d like to communicate through your artwork.”

5. Find potential avenues

“The magazine racks don’t provide many rich pickings for me,” admits Pete Reynolds, who we interviewed recently. “My interest as far as editorial work is concerned leans more towards current affairs, lifestyle and political articles but they are thin on the ground in the UK and don’t pay particularly well.

“One thing to do is to follow the illustrators you like on Instagram and see who they’re working for. They’re often generous enough to post the name of the art director you need to contact.”

Pete Reynolds photo of recent work for The Guardian

“Another way I’ve seen people utilise is buying contact sheets from the AOI,” adds Geo, “as you can buy them for ad agencies and for editorial and these will be lists of editors and publications you can contact.”

“I have an open list of companies/brands that I want to work with and I keep adding new ones to the list,” says Sneha. “I find a lot of interesting new work on Instagram by seeing who my peers are working for.”

Geo Law

“My choice of titles can’t be found in WHSmith but if that’s the kind of titles that an illustrator is aiming for then that should be a good start. I’ve found some new ones in more niche magazine shops (like magCulture) and then I stalk their Instagram and website to find out if they are working with artists or if they do have narratives that have existing visual aid or need illustrative aids.

“After that, all you need to do is find their contact and send a friendly email with your work.”

6. Reach out with care

“I find a lot of contacts on Linkedin and kind of figure out their email IDs by guesswork,” Sneha reveals. “Its a bit hit or miss but what’s there to lose? I suggest cold emailing to start with but please DO NOT cc/bcc all the art directors with one promo mail. Trust me, they know.

“Cater to the newspaper/magazine that you’re approaching by doing your research and figuring out the kind of artworks that they are commissioning and then sending something related.”

“I always make sure I have a small portfolio PDF to send over (with their permission first) of no more than, say, four pages/examples of work,” says Geo. “I still make stickers and postcards and ask permission to send these to them, as by asking they’ll at least be aware that something physical is arriving in the post for them.”

“I’ve also started to send out targeted mailshots by purchasing pre-folded cards from a paper merchant and printing them myself so I can target the image to the client,” writes Pete. “I add a personal, hand-written message on each.”

7. Speak to art magazines like Digital Arts

Finally, a bit of press coverage can never hurt. Platforms like Digital Arts are always looking for illustrators to interview, and having an article about your work can certainly improve your SEO. Interviews can be mini-portfolios in themselves, and when accompanied by words they sell your brand to an Art Director as much as the bio on your website, if not better. Indeed, some artists we’ve interviewed over the years have managed to find more work off the back of a feature. Why not get in touch?

Related: Our dedicated guide for 2020’s creative grads

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