(In a series of education themed blogs, Macworld looks at the hopes and challenges facing new and not so new talent across the creative industries.)
Illustration has long been the job of choice for many a young creative mind, a chance to draw, paint and create while getting paid to so something you love can seem like the ultimate dream job. But for those raw recruits, fresh from college, finding their feet while finding work, the reality of that dream job can seem more like a nightmare.
Essentially a solitary profession, often working from home or a small studio space, illustration is mostly a freelance pursuit. You may have a great agent but essentially you're out to seek as much employment as possible because, like actors, you rarely know when you will be next working or unfortunately "resting".
Seeking guidance and advice when you are just starting as an illustrator can appear daunting, not knowing who best to turn to, but help is at hand in the form of the Association of Illustrators (AOI). Established in 1973 to advance and protect illustrator’s rights and encourage professional standards, the AOI is a non-profit making trade association dedicated to its members’ professional interests and the promotion of illustration.
The AOI is the only body to represent illustrators and campaign for their rights in the UK.
Having built strong links with students and new illustrators, the AOI regularly holds seminars and events to provide practical support to those in the early stages of their career. The AOI will be on hand at this year’s New Designers event in Islington, North London, which for the last 24 years has brought together the very best in UK graduate work, including illustration. Macworld caught up with the AOI's Derek Brazell, himself a seasoned and renowned illustrator, to discover what makes the AOI so essential.
Q. The annual degree show season is upon us; the AOI traditionally offers advice to students and new graduates. Why?
Stepping out into the commercial world can be daunting, and aside from creating new work outside of the college environment, graduates need to be applying new business skills. Many colleges do not appear to properly arm their students with business knowledge and the AOI can assist members in this area.
We are media partners of the Visual Communications Zone at the New Designers event - 16-19 July - each year, and here we speak to a lot of graduates on our stand, and it’s good to be able to start pointing them in the right direction.
How to Survive as an Illustrator: A recent AOI event held at the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design.
Q. Talking to students and looking at portfolios, are graduates well prepared for a career in illustration?
They are in some areas, and some do have portfolios ready to present to clients, but fairly often a bit more work may be needed on the artwork and colleges are rarely informing them on the role of self promotion, how to approach clients, what copyright means, how to write an invoice even. The AOI can advise on these matters.
Q. Do you think the 'AOI Report - Illustration Fees and Standards of Pricing 2007' available on the AOI website is still a fairly accurate guide to pricing during the current economic climate?
Yes it is, as illustrator’s fees have not risen in line with inflation - unfortunately. The Report has quite large fee brackets for pricing, e.g. between £400-700, but the AOI can advise members more accurately regarding the fee structure for particular commissions.
Q. And what would you say to anyone who comes to you seeking advice whose been offered a job, similar to one they did a year ago, but for half the price?
Negotiate! It’s not like the fee last year was likely to have been that impressive. Ask the commissioner if they’ve recently accepted a pay cut. I think we all know the answer to that one.
The AOI Images selection promises the best of British contemporary illustration.
Q. And generally is this as good a time as any to be seeking work as an illustrator?
The AOI is still receiving lots of requests for pricing advice, so there is work out there, and we’re looking over plenty of contracts for members too. Some clients are tightening their belts, although they’re rather too keen that their creative suppliers should be tightening theirs too, but illustrators have always had to be prepared to be assertive to protect their interests, so it’s not too different.
Q. The first months, sometimes years, can be a challenge trying to make a living as an illustrator. How do you best persevere when you have bills to pay?
Accepting work for free just to be published can seem attractive, but it undermines the whole industry. So always ask for payment, even if you receive less than you wanted. Illustrators will need to keep promoting themselves throughout the recession.
Q. New illustration graduates seem to fall into two categories - those who want to freelance and those who want an agent straight from college. Is one better than the other?
Some agents will take illustrators straight on from college, but it’s good to get your own feeling for the industry by getting out on your own; meeting clients if you can, proving you can achieve set deadlines, being creative under pressure. And there’s no harm in dealing with the business side yourself – you are a self-employed business person now, take control.
Even if you end up with an agent, you want an understanding of what they are asking you to sign. You should always read your own contracts, and that includes ones from prospective agents. There are some dodgy ones out there, who will not necessarily have your best interests at heart!
The AOI helps several members each year extricate themselves from undesirable agency situations.
Having said that, there are many good agents, so feel free to approach them. But check how they like to see prospective illustrators first - don’t just turn up with a portfolio under your arm.
The AOI's Varoom magazine is devoted to exploring the world of illustration and image-making.
Q. Finally for anyone reading this just starting an illustration career, why should they join the AOI?
The AOI has been here for a long time supporting illustrators and promoting illustration. As well as offering invaluable advice in pricing of jobs and assisting members in understanding the contracts they are sent, we have great career support to offer, such as the annual Business Master Class series held in the autumn, ‘How to Survive as an Illustrator’ day long seminar recently held in Birmingham and also one-off events. Members receive discounts on all these as well as receiving the fantastic Varoom magazine free of charge.
We also work behind the scene supporting illustrators. I sit on the British Copyright Council board, and we are in direct contact with the Intellectual Property Office, presenting the views of creators to government.
We also set up the Pro-Action committee with the Society of Artists Agents to help tackle some of the bad practice aimed at illustrators from commissioners - pro-action.org.uk. We’re fighting our corner!
It’s bewildering world to step out into sometimes – but we can help you make the most of it. See theaoi.com for more info. And best of luck – work that talent hard.
(An introduction to the AOI can be found here, you can join the AOI here, New Designers information can be found here, an interview with AOI portfolio consultant Fig Taylor can be found here, AOI Images information can be found here).