Graduating into an oversubscribed and shrinking profession: pursuing a career in the arts


I’ve heard the saying that nothing worthwhile is easy but in graduating into an oversubscribed and shrinking profession in the middle of a global recession, I really had to push the boundaries of this theory.

In the face of all the evidence and advice from tutors, visiting lecturers and industry professionals who forewarned me just how hard it would be, I went ahead with it; I chose to pursue a career in the arts.

Over the past year I have met a truly diverse cast of characters; heroes, villains and everyone in-between and have been offered all manner of advice both good and bad, most of it unsolicited, so I thought I'd throw in my penny’s worth. But what advice can I offer you and what have I learned from trying to 'make it'?

Well, the first thing you need to understand is that art school left me hopelessly unprepared for the ‘real world’. As a result, the past year has at times been lonely, stressful, terrifying, exhausting and dull beyond words. However hard I thought it would be, it was harder. There were times when I felt the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off, permanently.

But balanced against that, it has also been exhilarating, rewarding and sometimes, deeply fulfilling. When it is good it is possible to forget about the negatives and it all seems worthwhile.

Stubbornness and second jobs

So, how does one succeed? What is the secret? One word: stubbornness. Sheer bloody mindedness truly is the key. You could be forgiven for believing that talent is the most important factor in determining success but sadly I assure you this is not the case.

There are as many fabulously talented artists and illustrators working in other jobs as there are other jobs for them to be working in. They make your morning coffee, take your orders and assure you that "your call is important". Some are waiting for their 'big break' while others unfortunately have already given up. As for the ones who have succeeded, they are by no means the most talented illustrators around; they are simply the ones who refused to give up and insisted on being noticed.

The power of face to face

Put yourself in a position to be noticed and once you have done so, don't allow yourself to be forgotten. Blog, Tweet and Facebook about your work continuously, but most importantly go and see people because to ‘quote’ a famous illustrator of my acquaintance, "Facebook is faceless" and this could be said to apply to all forms of submission.

Publishers, agents and editors might receive hundreds of submissions each week so they need a reason to notice yours. Of course they may stumble across your work in their inbox but the chance is rather slim. Give them a reason to remember and like you, so that they want to work with you. Your talent alone is not enough to make you stand out, people deal with other people, that you are talented should be a given.

But and it is a big but (I freely acknowledge I appear to be contradicting myself here) you should still promote yourself across social media channels at all times. It allows you to feel as though you are still in control and still working even if the work has dried up or never got started in the first place. It offers the chance to be part of a creative community and engage with your peers even if you’re tapping away from your studio-cum-bedroom that you haven’t left for three weeks.

Don’t be precious about the work

Keep working in whatever way you can in the arts field. Even if you aren’t getting commissioned, it’ll show you are keen when you land that coveted interview. That said, I am not necessarily suggesting you should work for nothing. There are lots of unscrupulous people out there who will attempt to con you. Memorise the following phrases:

"I can't pay you now but I'll offer you a 50 per cent share of the profits"

“It's not paid but it's a great opportunity - it'll look great in your portfolio"

Remember that everything in this world has a price and this is your job. People who work get paid, that is how the world works so why should anyone expect you to work for free? Keep your wits about you. And if you’re going to donate your work for free then do it somewhere that is going to get you noticed, Mr "I'll give you a share of the profits" is not actually offering you anything. 50 per cent of nothing is, after all, nothing.

Don't be precious about your work, so you were only going to do picture books or editorial work? Better people than you or I have done less exalted work to make ends meet and any work is better than no work, it is a means to an end. And myself? I have waited tables, worked doors and still hold a second job.

Keep your records in check

Being an illustrator means you are also a salesman, secretary and debt collector. You need to find work for yourself and keep your records in check and chasing payment. You also need to keep all your receipts, train tickets and invoices so you can claim them back from the taxman. He isn’t, after all, your friend, and won’t do you any favours.

I worked out the other day that two thirds of my time is spent looking for work, talking about work and chasing people for payment while only a third is spent working. (That’s right, your clients will often do almost anything to avoid paying on time). It doesn’t sound very glamorous now, does it?

It will, however, get better. As time progresses, you get more efficient at the admin, people will start coming to you and you might find yourself in the position to employ an agent who will do some of the chasing for you.

As for me, I'm not there yet but I'm working on it, I've still got a second job but I've nearly finished my book and most important of all I'm working as an illustrator. That light at the end of the tunnel has been switched back on and it seems to be getting closer.

Ben Rothery is an illustrator and printmaker. Visit his website: or follow him on
 Twitter or Facebook

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