ShaunTan. Photo by Stefan Tell.

Advice for a New Illustrator by Shaun Tan

Illustration is a very diverse and scattered profession, a practice that takes many forms, sometimes even hard to define, and it’s very unlikely that the careers of any two illustrators are alike. It’s mostly freelance work where an illustrator moves from one opportunity to the next, often in an unpredictable way week to week and certainly unpredictable throughout a working lifetime. If nothing else, markets, technology, culture, personal skills, and interests will change and develop all the time. That’s the first thing to be aware of, especially when either giving or receiving specific advice—every artist’s experience and circumstance is different. The most I can do is reflect on general principles gleaned from my own successes and failures over the years, tips that might be relatively universal, useful and encouraging.

Challenge Yourself

Perhaps the first and most important tip is one that applies to all work: enjoy what you do, to the extent that it is a pleasure to go beyond the call of duty. Creating work that is more than sufficient, that exceeds expectations and even the demands of the client, has always been something that I’ve not only tried to do but learned to enjoy doing. I rarely consider any job “run-of-the-mill” or just “bread-and-butter” if I can help it. Given time and energy (admittedly not always available!) I like to treat every creative task as a unique experiment and don’t always go for the easiest solution, or the one most dependent on existing skills. Every piece of work should involve an element of innovation or novel difficulty. This is what I’ve come to understand as “doing your best.” It’s really about trying to do a little better than your best. I’ve always been surprised at the results, and that in turn has fed my self-confidence as an illustrator.

It also explains my success as a creator of picture books. When I first entered the genre, I was very interested in challenging both myself and this narrative form rather than executing good, safe and “appropriate” illustrations according to an agreed fee or royalty.

I was inspired by other artists and writers with similar intentions, creating artistic problems for themselves, and investing seemingly unnecessary hours for very little pay, sometimes reaching only a small audience, in a genre that’s often critically overlooked and sometimes disrespected (true also of SF illustration from a mainstream viewpoint). That didn’t matter: what most concerned me was the opportunity for some experimentation that may not have been possible at the bigger commercial end of the spectrum, where higher pay usually equals less creative freedom. For the same reason, I devoted most of my energy and passion early in my career to small-press science fiction, because it offered the best opportunity for artistic development, weird visual challenges, and ultimately came to be the place where I could fine-tune my practical and conceptual skills as an illustrator in the absence of formal training. Making almost no money, mind you, although it’s paid off in the long run. I’ve learned to be patient and stick with it!

So it’s very important to pursue personally challenging work, and small jobs can be just as significant as high-profile ones for that reason. Although people are often impressed by an association with high-profile projects (especially film) perhaps my most significant achievements are modest landscapes and portraits painted in my parents’ garage during my early twenties, work which remains unexhibited and unpublished. I still enjoy creating paintings that have no commercial concern or public dimension. I think it’s very important to have this stream of work alongside commercial practice, a separate stream—again, it’s all about strong personal development. A good artist is (I think) an eternal student, and even when most confident, never feels like a master. They are forever pottering in their backyard spaces, trying to explore their craft with modest integrity. That’s how unusual and original work emerges, not by chasing markets or fashionable movements or wanting to be conventionally successful.

Be Versatile

But speaking of chasing markets, for a practicing artist this remains, of course, an essential pursuit, if only to survive. It’s the other, parallel course of creative practice: economic sustainability, making money. I think this area is the most difficult to cover with simple advice because there are so many types of working environment: adult, young adult and children’s publishing, advertising, editorial and genre illustration, film design, animation, theatre, fine arts, games and other forms probably not yet invented. Most visual artists will cross over several of these, especially in a digital, multimedia environment. Therefore, versatility is paramount. That doesn’t just mean being adept at working in known styles and media, but also unknown ones—you need to be able to learn and adapt, to remain flexible, diverse, open-minded.

Be Professional

The principle of versatility also applies to working with people, since nearly all commercial work is collaborative. Even if you are writing and illustrating a book in uninterrupted solitude, it’s still a collaboration with an editor and other publishing staff. It’s important to be reliable and easy to work with, as much as with any other job. This is the main reason clients will continue to give you work, and almost all of my early assignments came to me through the recommendations of others. A lot of preceding illustration produced for little payment in small-press magazines and anthologies proved to be worthwhile, both as training and exposure, a demonstration of my willingness to follow a brief in a dependable and imaginative way. That’s also true of one of my very first “jobs” as a teenager, an illustration for the Writers of the Future anthology that needed to complement a story about a time traveler who kills kittens!

Be a Good Speaker

Communication is very important, even though so much time is spent working alone on what can otherwise seem an introverted profession. You need to be able to talk and write about everything you create in a clear and explanatory way to help others understand your ideas, especially when they are not immediately visible, especially to non-artists and the aesthetically blind. Empathy and patience almost always win the day, even in tough situations. You need to be open to discussion, revision and compromise, while at the same time maintaining your own artistic integrity—these are not necessarily incompatible, as so many people often believe.

Maintain a Broad Interest

Technical competence as an artist is, of course, essential, but this is only ever a tool for the realization of ideas; without a strong imagination, the display of skill is just that—and “style” is interesting only if backed up by content. Too much illustration looks great, but leaves little resonance in the mind; it’s brilliant in style yet thin on conceptual relevance to real-life concerns.

It helps to remain interested in all forms of art and have a good grasp of art history as well as some knowledge of art theory, both past and contemporary. Understand the relationship between art and life. My own background is quite academic, and although I initially worried that studying art criticism might have been a bad choice (having no real idea what I wanted to do as a career), it’s actually been very useful. A knowledge of history and theory, and interest in art beyond making attractive pictures: this can really boost your artistic thinking. Developing a visual sensibility and vocabulary, rather than just technical skills, means that you can be perspicacious enough to deal with many different projects and find original solutions.

Don’t Despair!

As long as you are doing something, even if it isn’t successful, you are not wasting your time. The greatest achievement of so much creative work is simply finding time and dedication to do it, especially when it seems difficult and less than enjoyable, particularly as almost every project seems to involve some kind of confidence-wounding “crisis.” Good ideas and talent aren’t worth much if they aren’t put through the wringer of actual hard work. Ideas are not really ideas until they are translated into labor. Failure is also an essential prerequisite for success.

Pay attention to criticism, and don’t pay attention to criticism! At the end of the day, you are the ultimate judge of your own work, so learn to be critical in an affirmative rather than negative way. All creators—if they are any good—suffer from periods of disappointment, even depression with their own achievements (or lack thereof); that’s perfectly normal! Just keep going, if you want to cross that threshold. You also never find out if you’ve really failed until you actually finish a piece of work. Each success, regardless of quality, will build confidence, and confidence is the key. You also need to protect that sphere of confidence from unwelcome opinions or minor setbacks.

Draw, Draw, Draw and Then Draw Some More

Finally, for anyone interested in being an effective artist, illustrator, designer, even a film director—you should really learn to draw well. It’s a valuable foundation, something you’ll always use, regardless of technology or genre. Drawing is more than just wielding a pencil with precision, it’s a way of seeing well, something that takes several thousand hours of practice, and even then, never entirely mastered. Good drawing is a timeless skill, infinitely adaptable, and will never become passé. My entire career rests on my ability to draw well, to think effectively using simple pencil marks. All other visual skills and techniques, from oil painting to CG animation, are elaborations of this fundamental skill.

Tips on Getting Published

Being a competent artist is one thing; getting published represents a rather different set of problems. The most important advice I can offer is this: please consider the publisher. What can you offer them with your work? Research the area you are interested in and know what a prospective editor might be looking for, what other work is out there. A picture book text might be as brilliant as its potential illustrator, but if it does not suit the list that a publisher is pursuing, both are quite likely to be rejected. Unfortunately, publishers do not exist to supply a canvas for free artistic self-expression—I wish!—they are primarily a commercial business. Many young artists don’t pay enough attention to this important fact.

Be aware too that there is a “culture” of illustration in any genre that you need to be familiar with (which can vary from country to country). One good way of finding out about this is to study recent works that have won major awards and think about what they have in common. Recognize trends, but don’t bend backward to imitate them, or try to be something you’re not. Rather, look for the point of intersection between your creative interests and the kinds of books that are being successfully published.

As a contemporary illustrator, you can accomplish a lot by having a very good website and a well-presented folio. I would keep both of these quite simple, showing only your best work; young artists always seem to err (as I did) on the side of excess. A good folio needs only about twelve pieces—be very selective. These should represent technical skill and diversity, color and monochrome, and especially anything featuring human figures, something editors usually look for. Where possible and appropriate, it is good to arrange a face-to-face meeting with a relevant editor or art director. I’ve personally found this very useful, to get to know each other as people rather than less memorable e-mail or web addresses. Success as an artist, especially in publishing, has much to do with warm relationships. But don’t believe anyone who says “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”—it’s what you know and who you know.

And, last of all, good luck, but don’t just wait around for it to happen: make your own!

This article was initially published in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 28


ShaunTan. Photo by Stefan Tell.

Shaun Tan

Shaun Tan grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia, and began drawing and painting images for science fiction and horror stories in small-press magazines as a teenager. He has since become best known for illustrated books that deal with social, political and historical subjects through surreal, dreamlike imagery, such as The Rabbits, The Red Tree, Tales from Outer Suburbia and the acclaimed wordless novel The Arrival that have been widely translated and enjoyed by readers of all ages. Shaun has also worked as a theatre designer, as a concept artist for the films Horton Hears a Who and Pixar’s WALL-E and directed the Academy Award-winning short film The Lost Thing. In 2011, he received the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, honoring his contribution to international children’s literature.

Shaun became a judge for Illustrators of the Future in 2011.

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