Aspiring illustrators: Put yourself out there!

This week we are kicking off the weekend with a new blog post series about communication with Art Directors as a new/young artist. To begin with I have asked a young artist by the name of Jenna Kass for her input.

Jenna graduated within recent years from SVA in New York City and has been working hard to break into the industry. Being right out of school she has very fresh experiences with the scary situation of putting yourself out there on the market in this day and age, and trying to build a career for yourself while you still have a lot to learn.

I have been following Jenna’s progress for a little under a year since her graduation and already since then, her work has improved massively. Jenna has impressed me with her persistence to improve and willingness to seek out advice from people who have been in the business for many, many years. She also keeps an excellent blog where she posts on thoughts about her work and experiences. You will find a link to it on the bottom of this post.

For now, please share in some of the lessons Jenna has learned. Enjoy!


Jenna Kass at her Showcase Table during IlluXcon 5

Jenna Kass at her Showcase Table during IlluXcon 5

My name is Jenna Kass, and I have no idea what I’m doing.

Well, no. My name is Jenna Kass, and I’m an illustrator. I graduated from the School of Visual Arts last May with a BFA in Illustration, some half-formed ideas about oil painting, and my sights turned to fantasy book cover illustration. When I’m being facetious I tend to describe my work as ‘sad flowy ladies’; when I’m being serious, I have things I try to say about accessing quiet moments and personal emotion with beauty and light.

A Great Beauty © Jenna Kass, 2012

A Great Beauty © Jenna Kass, 2012

I am twenty-three and I swing wildly between confidence in my future as an artist, and knowing with certainty that I’m already a failure because I have yet to get any commission work or sell a single painting.

When I’m not too far into my own head to see it, I know that these seething doubts are part of what it means to be a young artist. Not only that: they are a large part of why it’s so hard for so many of us to get out there and put our work – or ourselves – in front of art directors. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by, well, everything it takes to become a Real Grownup Illustrator. But there are only really two things that I’ve found really matter in getting yourself out there: confidence, and putting yourself in the right place.
It’s easier to say than do, of course, but you can fake confidence and you can be smart about being in the right place, and everything comes from that.

It’s easier to say than do, of course, but you can fake confidence and you can be smart about being in the right place, and everything comes from that.

It’s my own experience that you can’t do one without the other. I’ve been attending Illuxcon for three years now, and from that show I’ve been able to meet four or five art directors face to face, and have real conversations about my art – but just being in the right place (a show dedicated to traditional, realistic fantasy art) wasn’t enough. The first year I attended, I had a portfolio review, I looked at a bunch of art, I went to a few panels… and I spoke to no one I didn’t already know, and I only showed my portfolio to my reviewer. My confidence, shall we say, lacking.

River Daughter © Jenna Kass, 2013

River Daughter © Jenna Kass, 2013

I could have slunk through the weekend with my tail between my legs, not talking to anyone for the second year in a row – but after doing that for a day, I got fed up with myself and did the exact opposite.

When I came back the next year, I had in my portfolio prints of such low quality I was nearly too ashamed to go to my reviews, despite being proud of the actual art itself. I could have slunk through the weekend with my tail between my legs, not talking to anyone for the second year in a row – but after doing that for a day, I got fed up with myself and did the exact opposite. I showed my portfolio to just about every artist tabling at the main show; I spoke to everyone; I asked art directors who weren’t my reviewers to look at my book; I even hung out in the hotel bar with Cool Artists – and none of this was ‘real’ confidence. Every single bit of what I did was a combination of faking it and being too angry at myself over the prints to back down.

By forcing myself forward, I made connections I still have today, and at this point I’ve been pretending to be confident for long enough that sometimes I forget that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.

Tristan and Isolde © Jenna Kass, 2012

Tristan and Isolde © Jenna Kass, 2012

Not all of this ‘right place’ stuff has to be in person, either. People can connect from anywhere now over the internet, in places like ArtOrder challenges and AwesomeHorse livestreams and Facebook pages and blogs – the important part is being there. The worst thing you can do as a young artist is convince yourself you’re not good enough yet, and that no one wants to talk to you. If you avoid those conventions, those Society of Illustrators events, those show openings and chatrooms and calls for entries, all you’re doing is hobbling yourself.

The worst thing you can do as a young artist is convince yourself you’re not good enough yet, and that no one wants to talk to you.

Art directors are people, too, and they’re members of one of the most supportive and friendly professional industries I’ve ever heard of. So many of them put themselves out there – giving portfolio reviews at conventions or moderating panels at the Society or judging internet contests – that it’s really up to each young artist to put themselves out there in kind.

So agonize over those two-line emails and how best to link your portfolio website; feel your mouth go dry as you approach those art directors with your card ready to go: as long as you do it, it doesn’t matter how long it took to write or work up the nerve to approach.


Jenna Kass

Jenna Kass

Jenna is a New York City-based illustrator and a long-time devotee of the fantasy genre. Rather than focusing on action-packed sword-and-sorcery illustrations, her interest lies in the personal drama and emotion of the stories she tells.

Links:
Jenna Kass’ Website
Jenna Kass’ on Tumblr
Jenna Kass’ Blog

Kiri Østergaard Leonard
kiri@kirileonard.com

Award winning Illustrator, Artist and Creator Kiri Østergaard Leonard happily shares her experiences making a living as an artist and pursuing a creative life. She grew up in a tiny village in Denmark, left her country behind to pursue art in the bustle of New York City and now resides in the delightful weirdness of Austin, Texas surrounded by sunshine and felines.

3 Comments

  • Kiri Østergaard Leonard

    12.02.2014 at 17:31 Reply

    You're welcome, I'm glad it was inspiring!

  • Nicolas Touris

    12.02.2014 at 02:59 Reply

    Really inspiring! Thanks!

  • Crystal

    08.02.2013 at 15:19 Reply

    Great advice Jenna. I went to and participated in my first convention last September. I was TERRIFIED!! the first day I sold nothing, and i was so discouraged, I almost didn’t go back the next day. But I did go back, and much like you, I decided to fake it. I also brought some original art the second day, which drew quite a few people to our table. i almost sold a piece, but it didn’t work out in the end. I learned a great deal that weekend, about the necessity to put yourself out there, and to actually talk to people you admire (most of them don’t bite). It’s also important to make sure you are showing your art at the right convention (children’s book work at APE was not necessarily a great choice). I can hardly wait to do it again!!

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