How I Landed My First Commercial Illustration Project

and Tips for Reaching Out to Fellow Creatives
Bookbinding Japanese technique illustration

Soon after I started my career as a freelance illustrator (at the beginning of 2019), I landed some small gigs. Most of them where illustrations for friends and they were free or “pay what you can” projects.

Last December, I landed my first commercial illustration project! Karen, from Indigo Craft Room, reached out to me to help her create illustrations for a product idea. She makes beautiful books using bookbinding, marbling, and shibori techniques. And she is also the organizer of GirlBoss Make me Better, a group of women entrepreneurs here in Groningen.

I first met Karen at Zeldzaam Mooi Markt (Rare Beautiful Market) in 2018. This market happens a few times a year throughout the Netherlands. Karen had a stall with her handcrafted books and I was her neighbor at the market (I had Mexican clothing from my online shop Dressaraz). That time we got to know each other and our friendship has developed from that moment on.

Karen at Zeldzaam Mooi market in Groningen
Karen at Zeldzaam Mooi market in Groningen.
creative market Groningen Netherlands
My stall at Zeldzaam Mooi market, Groningen.

The project and process

The project consisted of a series of illustrations for two step-by-step manuals, which are part of Karen’s bookbinding kits: Japanese Book and Origami Pop-up Books.

Working with Karen was smooth because she knew exactly what she was looking for: minimalist illustrations in her branding colors: blue, yellow, and pink. Something that helped me get a sense of direction was a briefing she made with clear instructions and photo references. With this information, I was able to start working on the first sketches.

First sketches. All my drawings are made by hand.

Once Karen approved my sketches, I continued to paint them in Photoshop. Personally, I tend to work more with traditional mediums, such as watercolor and colored pencils. But going completely digital helped me get out of my comfort zone, and I learned new things during the process, like how to create shapes and clean lines using the pen tool in Photoshop.

illustration of tools for origami pop up books
Tools for origami pop up books.

Something I definitely struggled with was meeting deadlines. It’s not that I wasn’t committed to this project, but it was my first big project. I had to create a total of 26 illustrations and I underestimated the time it would take me to get them done. Some illustrations took me three hours to complete, while others took five to six hours from start to finish.

It might have taken a little longer, but in the end, we were both happy with the result! Also, this experience will help me set more accurate deadlines for future gigs.

illustrations marbled books
These are some of the final illustrations.

And this is how they look in print!

step by step manual for japanese book
Step by step bookbinding manual for Japanese book. Photo courtesy of Indigo Craft Room.
collaborating with fellow creatives
Step by step bookbinding manual for origami books. Photo courtesy of Indigo Craft Room.
reaching out to fellow creatives
DIY origami book tools. Photo courtesy of Indigo Craft Room.

If you would like to learn more about the DIY bookbinding kits, check out Karen’s website. She’s running an offer now and these products are on sale!

Some tips on how to reach out to fellow creatives

Below you’ll find five tips to help you connect with fellow creatives. I hope to encourage you to approach other creatives or potential clients with an open mind and a sense of friendship and connection. Quite often, the way to make collaborations is to be a friend first.

1. Join Facebook groups.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Facebook is such a powerful tool for us entrepreneurs. I’ve connected with a bunch of creatives and I’ve made loyal readers and customers through Facebook groups. These days there are Facebook groups for any topic you can imagine: watercolor painting, stitching, blogging, etc. You just have to type your interests on Facebook’s search bar + groups + location, and you’ll find some juicy groups.

These are some of my favorite groups for creatives:

2. Do your research.

Before reaching out to that illustrator you admire, ask the following questions. Is this person open for collaborations? Where is he/she more active (Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook)? Sending him a message on Instagram won’t help if he hasn’t been active on the platform in the past six months.

Also, make sure to understand the artist’s style or the concept of the project you wish to collaborate with. When Karen told me the illustrations were meant for step by step manuals, I kept in mind that the deliverables had to be as clear as possible for Karen’s customers/students to understand.

3. Level up your Instagram game.

You see, Instagram isn’t just about spamming people with your work or offers. It’s also about providing value, sharing quality content, and commenting on other people’s posts. Leave a kind comment or give feedback to a fellow creative. This will create a sense of community and can also lead to client work in the future. To be honest, it’s about scratching each other’s back.

4. Attend local events and creative markets.

While connecting with people on the Internet is a wonderful thing, I have found that nothing beats connecting with people face to face. So make sure to search for events happening in your neighborhood or city.

Here in Groningen, we have cooking clubs and writing groups (these are the ones I’m involved in, but there’s much more). I’ve made some great friendships and connections with fellow creatives and entrepreneurs — café owners, illustrators, ceramists, designers, and photographers. It can be very advantageous if you’re one of the few illustrators in your circle. And chances are high people will think of you when they need one.

You can find information on creative markets and events happening in the Netherlands in the following websites:

5. Ask.

I truly believe that most people are willing to help us if only we ask. You will never know if that shop owner is willing to sell your designs if you never ask! Let them know how they are qualified to collaborate in your particular project. However, don’t assume that the person in question is answering emails all day long. It might take some days (or weeks) before you hear back from them.

It all comes down to putting yourself out there and having the confidence to reach out to others.

And while it’s a good thing to put your work out there, don’t wait for the perfect client to reach out to you. You can always make the first move, or be the first one to say, “Hey, I’m been following your work and I’d love you to be part of…”

Once you land your first client, I can assure you things only get better from there. These days I’m receiving multiple art commissions and I’m also raising my prices every time because my work is getting better and better.

Let me know in the comments who was your first client and how did you meet? Or what are you doing to land your first gig?

Author: Jessica Araus

My name is Jessica. I’m a writer and illustrator living in the Netherlands. I write stories based on my life experiences and I also create colorful illustrations that entertain and inspire many. It’s my hope that this blog serves you as a simple reminder of the power you have to choose, create, and live a life that you love.

2 Replies to “How I Landed My First Commercial Illustration Project

  1. I love all the illos you did for Karen’s project! (Hands are so challenging to draw!!)

    I’m on the other side of this as a writer planning to work with illustrators on my next couple of indie book projects, and yet all of this advice still applies. <3

    1. Thank you! Hands are challenging indeed. But whatever we practice we will improve at. So after the first round of hand drawings, I got the hang of it. 🙂

      Glad to hear my tips resonated with you. Looking forward to hearing more about your next books!! <3

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