The cult section of the literary world

Alan M. Clark’s Advice for Aspiring Illustrators, Part 1

This is the first of a series of articles I’ll offer on Bizarro Central on advice for finding illustration work. The advice I’ll offer is largely based on advice given to me that worked. I’m not an authority. I am talking about my experience. Everyone’s experience is going to be different. I’ve been a freelance illustrator for almost thirty years now. These articles will include the sort of advice I’d give myself if I had a time machine and could go back and talk to the Alan Clark who was just starting out thirty years ago. Since then the landscape of the illustration field has changed a lot, but I will talk a bit about what I believe still works.

My education is in fine art, so to learn about the illustration business, I went to science fiction, fantasy, and horror conventions and spoke to the professional illustrators who were guests of the conventions. Illustrators are generally very generous with information about the business. I learned how to prepare a portfolio, who to try to see and how to approach them. I learned of work that was being assigned and how artists were chosen for the assignments. I learned about the difficulties of getting work without having had work—artists are notoriously flaky so art directors have all been bitten more than twice. I learned how to be the sort of artist an art director might take a chance on. I learned how illustrators made sure art directors and editor knew about them, their availability and dependability, and how to maintain a presence to avoid being forgotten. These days an art director might be a publisher, editor or even the author of a book.

There’s a lot of good advice out there for building a portfolio. But here I’ll give somewhat unusual but valuable advice given to me about preparing a portfolio:

1) Don’t include samples of anything that you won’t want to be hired regularly to do.
2) Six to ten examples of your art should do the trick. This few signals confidence in your ability to get your skills across to someone. Make sure the pieces you choose do this.
3) Make sure that the work chosen suits the format of the work you’re going after, that it’s tailored to the market you are showing the work to. If you are wanting book cover work, produce samples that look like book covers, ones that are the right shape and have a low contrast area where text might be placed. Don’t put text on the images. The low contrast area should not be one of no interest, but instead an area where text would look comfortable and where whatever was underneath the text would not look awkward.
4) If you produce work that is generic in nature, it might be purchase by an art directorto be used on something for which it is appropriate. For instance, in science fiction novels that include space ships, the ships are often not describe vividly, so a painting with a space ship in it would make a good cover. A novel with Vampires in it could use a generic vampire image. A fantasy with a dragon could use a dragon image and so on. Don’t put lots of extra subject matter in these pieces or they will begin to tell stories that might argue with the novel for which they might be purchased. Although these pieces are generic, they should be produced with distinctive style, strong compositions and incredible color. With tear sheets from these sales, a portfolio looks like it belongs to an artist an art director trusted with an assignment, getting you past the problem of not being able to get work unless you’ve had work. Art directors seeing the work in the portfolio do not know that the work wasn’t done on assignment. This is how I got in the door.

The image with this post is my first paperback book cover, a generic space ship piece bought from my portfolio by Tor Books for Le. E. Modesitt’s The Silent Warrior. I had been working full time in illustration for three years when the book came out, but had had little success in getting work with any consistency until after this. I got the advice for doing generic covers from David Hartwell.

Artwork: “Trilobite Returns to Helvoran” copyright © 1986 Alan M. Clark

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

4 responses

  1. kcb

    Excellent idea for a series, thanks

    March 25, 2013 at 11:26 am

    • alanmclark

      You’re welcome.

      March 25, 2013 at 11:37 am

  2. Lots of great information Alan, looking forward to more!
    I do have a question about something you mention later in the article, what did you mean by “tear sheets from these sales”?
    Great painting, love the abstract landscapes!

    March 25, 2013 at 11:39 am

    • alanmclark

      Tear sheet means covers or interior illustrations cut from books or magazines to be included in a portfolio. The sale in this case is in reference to making a sale of a generic piece.

      March 25, 2013 at 11:48 am

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