Jillian Tamaki

Student Questions

Feb 24th, 2012

This week I had my students submit written questions. The question could be about anything: promotion, business, whatever. Some of the questions were pretty good! I’ve decided to share the answers here on my blog.


If I have many different styles, how should I promote them?

This is a question I hear often. I suppose it’s because my own portfolio contains a variety of “styles”. I should say that putting together a portfolio is more of an art than a science. My thought is, however, that your portfolio should be more consistent when you are a starting illustrator. But consistency can be more nuanced than “all 12 portfolio pieces should be identical”… consistency across a body of work can be more about a consistent tone, flavour, or conceptual style. Not just aesthetics. But back to the question: I think you should tailor your promotional materials, sending images that are most appropriate for the potential client. But at the same time being open-minded about what is and isn’t appropriate. For example, the NYT Op-Ed runs dioramas, children’s book-style art, photo-illustration, etc. Not just black and white, metaphor-heavy line-art. You can only gauge your portfolio’s effectiveness after probably 6 months of earnest promotion.

Will a variety of styles make my portfolio seem diverse or unfocussed?

It depends, and this is largely a matter of taste. Art, not Science, as I mentioned above. There are two common scenarios: the student is too emotionally attached to certain pieces and is unwilling to cut them from the portfolio (the rendered oil painting of a still-life or whatnot). Or, the student who thinks a piece is WILDLY different from their typical work that is most definitely NOT. So you may have to confer with outside people and get their opinion as to whether a portfolio is diverse or unfocussed. Again, there are things apart from aesthetics and “technique” that can link a body of work.

In a studio, is salary based on years of experience or quality of portfolio?

If you are applying for an entry-level job, you will likely start at the base-starting salary, regardless if your portfolio is “great” or “supergreat”.

How do I determine how much to charge for an illustration?

It is my experience that most illustration jobs come with a budget. So, you don’t really have too much of a say, especially with editorial and publishing jobs. The rate is the rate, roughly. The best-known guide for these things is the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. I haven’t used it myself, but it is oft cited and at least can give you a place to start (not only for pricing guidelines but invoice templates and familiarizing yourself with contracts). Of course, a spot in an alternative weekly is not going to pay the same rate as a spot in a national magazine. At some point you will have to use your good judgment: weigh how much time/effort/pain it will take, whether it will be a good portfolio piece, etc. Never do things for free (without good reason) or on-spec, of course. Here is the thing: there is no fixed price for ANY of this, and you will often confer with peers and colleagues to determine if a price is fair. But do NOT email professionals asking about this stuff, OK?

How do I determine how much to charge for a piece of original artwork?

That’s entirely up to you, darlin’. What you feel is fair and how badly you need to pay the bills. It may be $25 or $2500.

How do I approach art directors of children’s books?

I have little experience in the kids book realm, so I asked someone who does. John Hendrix, author/illustrator of A Boy Called Dickens and John Brown, is going to help out with the next few questions.

John sez: The following advice is from my limited experience doing 4 picture books, so it is from a single vantage point and probably not universal by any means. That said, from my experience, children’s book art directors are just like editorial art directors, they like finding new artists and love a good promo postcard as much as anyone. While it is wrong to completely reinvent the problem of promoting yourself to a kids book marketplace, it is also wrong to assume that getting hired for a kids book is exactly like getting hired for an editorial spot illustration. Clearly, the stakes are much much higher, for a 36 page kids book, as opposed to a 3″ high black and white illustration that will run one day in The New York Times. So, for that reason, you have to show them more than just pretty pictures. Most art directors will not hire you from postcards for a picture book… you should show them that you can create content. And show them some of your process as well.

Me again: There is some legwork involved in compiling contacts for any facet of the industry. This legwork is not hard or mysterious, but does require some effort. This is called HUSTLING, and if you are unwilling to hustle, well, god help you.

I would start with direct mailers. Make a small little sampler of work (a mini-porfolio) and send to Art Directors via mail with a polite, brief introductory letter. But how to find those names? Annuals, industry-group newsletters, internet research. That’s a start. HUSTLE.

Again, a small piece of advice. Diversify your options. You may not get a children’s book right out of the gate, but maybe you could get some illustrations in the myriad children’s/preteen magazines that are out there. Hm, but what are the names of those magazines? HUSTLE.

Lastly, become involved in the community. If kid’s books are what you want to do, you should be going to book and library conferences and getting involved with the SCBWI. The Internet (and, if you’re a student, your school) is full of people who want to help and share knowledge. Use it.

How do I pitch a children’s book story?

Here’s John again: Pitching a story is super easy: it just involves writing an amazing story, creating some memorable characters, rendering vivid dialogue and personalities and then designing some great comps of how the book will look. Ok, that isn’t easy at all.

From my experience, never send in a book with complete final art in it. It is rare (read: IMPOSSIBLE) to have a book printed as is from the one you labored over in your mom’s basement. Have the manuscript completely finished, and then comp the entire book out… just as if you were going to do a sketch dummy. Design the page breaks, and arrange where the text would go. Then rough out some sketches for the book. Perhaps you do a full character study of the main players, or in a few spreads go with some super tight roughs and then one piece of finished art to show your chops. Bind it together so it look professional. Professional doesn’t mean corporate, by the way. It can be quirky or handmade… just needs to look like the person who made it can be taken seriously. Track down an art director you admire (hint: Look at the list of art directors who show at Society of Illustrators Original Art Show) and give them a call. I’ll admit, not easy, but completely do-able.

Do I need a literary agent?

John: No, you don’t need one. But, they really really help. I did my first two books without an agent, and I read my own contracts and negotiated all on my own. It was fine, but it got so much better when I signed with Writer’s House. My philosophy with agents is let them come to you. Approaching people before you are a proven quantity puts you in the disadvantage. Most book agents take much less of your earnings than a typical advertising or editorial rep might. Agents are like marriages, and you have to talk and get on the same page with things, and you have to trust each other. So, go into a relationship with an agent with a healthy understanding of who they are what their goals are for you.

Jillian: I think having a book agent is very helpful, in terms of helping you penetrate the market and dealing with the contracts, etc. But as John says, it’s likely a matter of having agents approach you. Not the other way around.

When do I send an invoice?

After you have completed the job and the Art Director replies, “We got it! I LOVE IT. My editors LOVE it. You are an unparalleled GENIUS!” I like to send it after you’re given the all-clear and all changes have been made.

Are pieces of original art a good idea for a promo?

Generally I would say don’t bother but it’s up to you. Put your time into improving your work, not making fancy-dancy mailers.

How long does it take for a response from an Art Director after I have sent my portfolio?

The concept of “sending a portfolio” is a bit antiquated. Art Directors are almost looking exclusively at your online portfolio (hence why it must be effective and half-decent). You are more likely to be sending promos to ADs, directing them to an online portfolio, and are not owed a response. You may get a job a few days after a promo is mailed, or a few months. If you get no response from your promo in 4 or 5 months, take a look at your work.

How many of your schoolmates are working creatives right now?

Oy! What a question. Well, two of my classmates were Sam Weber and Thomas Porostocky, so I think we did OK. Let me preface my response by saying my programme was half graphic design, half illustration, so many of my classmates got design jobs which, of course, are more plentiful than illustration jobs. So while I’d guess maybe 80% of them are currently “creatives” in some capacity, of the 15 or so students who did the Illustration focus, only 3 or 4 are working illustrators/cartoonists. Did the others lack talent? No. But I think many were temperamentally unsuited to the business of illustration.


So those are the questions for this year. As a new grad you will never be fully prepared for every scenario and there are many ways to skin a cat. (Do not skin cats.) Remember the bit about the hustling and use your your brain, peers, and the resources available to you. I am only speaking from my own experience and what has worked for me.

Special thanks to John Hendrix… visit him! Follow him!