The Munchausen by proxy of advice to illustrators.
3 tips on how to stop giving tips.
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I started working as an illustrator 4 years ago. I had a BFA in printmaking and an MSc. in anthropology, so I didn’t have a great understanding of the illustration industry. I turned to the many media available to early career creatives like Creative Lives in Progress and Creative Boom, learning platforms like Skillshare and Domestika, and started listening to countless podcasts like The Illustration Department or The Creative Pep Talk. At first I was of course grateful for all the advice I was soaking up in those spaces. But after gaining some hands on experience of the industry, I started realizing some of these advice were often so mundane and cryptic they could hardly qualify as useful. From the life-coachy self-helpy kind of tip - ”Get inspired”, “center yourself” - to the most trivial injunction “watch tutorials online”, “work hard”, it seems illustrators’ lives are characterized only by personal crisis or professional hardship. And while the quality of such advice is questionable, the sheer amount of it is baffling.
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Yet, when I started meeting and hanging out with illustrators in real life though, the conversations I had were wildly different than what online pieces had prepare me for. I had exhilarating debates about the nature of our expertise, the legal and economic conditions in which we work or the social responsibility and cultural impact of our art. So how come in real life, the illustrators I know were intelligent, critical, committed adults, but online, we were being talked to as children in need of guidance ?
The internet had given me a list of tips to play a game whose rules I couldn’t possibly change. Meanwhile, connecting with my peers gave me the tools to imagine another future for the creative industry.
Tip 1. Think about the context of your tip
A lot of the advice I read/listen to online is crafted to develop our ability to get more work. This is often done at expensive economic and social cost, regardless of the current state of the industry, or how we’d like to shape its future. For example, when Tom Froese suggests to emerging illustrators that they should “think beyond the postcard” and literally invest money printing a zine, or a letterpress piece of printed matter to send to art directors, I have to disagree. Not only illustrators without much experience have to create a portfolio from scratch on their own time, but somehow they should also take the financial risk to get fancy printed material in order to get noticed (remember hope labour ?). To me this kind of advice is not only disconnected from the economic reality of current, early career illustrators but also promotes a future industry in which only the ones who can afford it will be able to promote themselves.
In general, the whole genre of “advice to illustrators” is structured through the lexical field of courtship. This frames the ways we come to understand our role in the industry in regard to others actors. We are meant to “impress art directors” or woo them through finding common interests, as Titus Smith suggests :
Whether you’ve met or not, it’s a smart thing to let a potential client know what you have in common. We met at [conference] or I heard you on [podcast] or I read your interview on [blog] — simple anecdotes can help distinguish you from everyone else. Make it short, though; unnecessary throat clearing is obnoxious (and gross). If you have something deeper in common, like a mutual friend or a shared interest in a sports team, then point that out.
This is completely unrealistic. I can send up to a hundred emails to art director the weeks I decide to do some promotional effort. Of course I personalize addressee and company’s names but I’m not gonna find something witty and personal to say every time I cold email an AD, I’m not hitting on them, this is not Tinder.
The subtext of these advice can also go as far as showing illustrators should demonstrate their eagerness to work no matter the conditions. Consider this example of email illustrators could send to an art director from an advice piece in Muddy Colors (my emphasis):
My name is (your name). I am an (illustrator, concept artist, photographer, etc.) who is a (student at X, recent graduate of X, breaking into the industry, a working professional). I really enjoy the (product) that (the company) produces. I would love to be considered for freelance assignments when you have commissions available. I am happy to do revisions as necessary, and pride myself on (keeping on schedule, working quickly, taking direction well, etc.). I think my artwork could be a good fit for your needs.
In this seemingly useful advice, I see a future for illustrators in which we apparently gave up on a limited number of revisions as stated in the contract and we are priding ourselves - i.e. competing with other of the basis of - on “keeping on schedule, working quickly, taking direction well”. I may be too much of a romantic but I’d rather pride myself on having a strong point of view and a kick ass stylistic voice.
The only thing these advice column are teaching illustrators is their place in the industry. And the worst part is, this is often not even reflective of anything art directors usually want. I never met an AD who requested to be wooed and got offended by my somewhat generic email, in the end we’re all busy professionals and we care most about the quality of the work.
Tip 2. Ask yourself : who needs the tip ?
Earlier this year, I went to a round table about editorial illustration editorial illustrator Sébastien Thibault and Édith Pelletier the art director of a Québec magazine, l’Actualité. The exchange between the AD and the illustrator, who were used to work together, was insightful and enlightening. At the end of the Q&A, the host of the discussion asked the AD what were some of the mistakes illustrators should avoid doing when working with an AD. After the AD answered (missing deadlines, not enough sketches, etc.), I - naively- expected the host to ask the same question to the illustrator, but he didn’t. To be fair, the goal of the event was mostly to introduce an audience of emerging illustrators to the world of editorial illustration, its functioning and how to gain access to it. But still, I couldn’t help but to ask myself, “How come do illustrators always seem to be in such dire need of advice on how to navigate and survive an industry that never seems to question itself?”.
Airbnb’s advice platform, Tyrus, has to be the worst example of this. I won’t even get into details how poor taste it is for a company to give advice to contractual workers. In their introduction, they explain :
We surveyed over 250 illustrators around the world to find out their pain points, which ranged from dealing with tricky feedback to managing client expectations. With Tyrus, we unpacked those challenges to create guides, templates, and tools so you can focus less on client management and more on creating your best work.
After 250 illustrators told you about their CLIENT issues, how do you reach the decision to make a guide for ILLUSTRATORS and not for CLIENTS ? Seriously. This is because when a company gives you advice, it’s not about making you better, it’s about individualizing the issues and putting the weight of the solutions on your shoulders instead of operating actual systemic change. And while illustrators pile up advice, no one else is forced to wonder if their practices are sustainable in the long run.
Giving advice to illustrators on how to navigate the industry in 2022 is like teaching New Yorkers to swim as a solution to sea level rising. We are often not the problem. We can’t keep giving advice to the most precarious individuals of our industry on how to cope, while the rest of it just keeps on doing the same thing. No one tells art directors to champion illustrators when budgets are sinking, or marketing folks on how to properly understand how licensing works, or designers how to respect moral rights and stop cropping my image without my consent.
This asymmetry, I believe, comes from the power asymmetry between illustrators and the rest of the industry. How could we take space criticizing or giving advice to the people who have the power to hire us ? In May 2021, illustrator Pete Ryan started two Twitter threads, one asking illustrators what were some of their pet peeves when taking a new job, another one with the same question to art directors. This was a great example, if only too rare, of how to do the “advice/mistake” genre symmetrically.
Tip 3. If you want to give a tip, take one too.
Starting work as an illustrator is stressful, and we do need guidance, but not from anyone and not in any form. These tips, mistakes to avoid, invitations to court and woo our potential clients or to compete against one another for scraps, are also as many ways to get us used to be docile and to think of illustrators as always in service of others. In a sort of Munchausen by proxy scenario, these seemingly caring advice are keeping us in a constant state of tameness, each pill convincing us we need more to survive. But surviving is not enough.
So no, I don’t believe illustrators need advice anymore. Instead, we need strong communities, proper training and a voice of our own. We need to claim the genre of advice giving for ourselves and have publications publish pieces on "how to champion illustrators in your company" or "5 things your first email should include when reaching out to an illustrator". We need to become, for once, the ones giving advice to others.
P.S. On Instagram I’ve conducted a quick poll with this question, resulting in an overwhelming 89% of Yes. I (if it wasn’t clear yet) still disagree, how about you ? For clarification, I’m mostly talking about these advice articles and podcasts I mentioned here, not peer to peer advice.
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And this is already happening, in Québec, Illustration Québec created a guide for clients (in French) on how to successfully contact and work with illustrators. And online, Litebox is doing amazing work as an oppositional force to represent illustrators as well as projects like Use It Or Lose It to educate both artists and clients on the importance of licensing.
J'adore ce texte. Merci Julien! La majeure partie de mon travail (agent d'illustrateur) consiste à aider les clients à bien travailler avec mes illustrateurs. Je n'appellerai pas ça des conseils mais je suis définitivement un guide pour les clients. Paradoxalement, ce sont les illustrateurs qui m'engagent mais dans le fond mon coaching s'adresse plus souvent qu'autrement aux clients. Je n'avais jamais réfléchi au fait qu'on a tellement de conseil pour les artistes comme s'ils étaient les éléments perturbateurs d'un système autrement parfait ;) ! Dans le fond, je devrais offrir mes services aux clients ! héhéhé
Interesting. Everything you discuss here can be applied to some many careers. Excellent article!