TIPS OF THE TRADE: AMY IGNATOW ’02

  • 2015 Amy Ignatow
Major: Illustration

Amy Ignatow is the author and illustrator of the NYTimes reviewed Popularity Papers series. She graduated from Moore College of Art and Design in 2002 with a degree in illustration and her next series will debut in Fall of 2016. 


  • Don’t take a soul-sucking job. You probably won’t get a job working as an illustrator right out of college. That’s normal; it’s not like 9-5 illustration jobs are plentiful. For better or worse it’s a freelancer’s game, and until you’re in demand you’re going to have to find another way to make ends meet. I was a substitute teacher, an invitation designer, an air-brush face-and-body painter—I was taking whatever gigs could make rent. But I knew that I had to keep working on my art so I actively avoided looking for jobs that would sap me of my creative drive. Well-meaning friends tried to punch up my resume so I could work in an office, but I knew that sort of work would make me miserable. If you can’t make money doing what you love, then make it doing something tolerable so you have the energy to do what you love.
  • Never undersell your work. Sure, when you start out you’ll get a lot of people, often family members or friends of friends, trying to squeeze free work out of you. “Think of the experience! Think of the exposure! Think of how it will build your portfolio!” You tell those people to think about their jobs—would they practice law for free? Would they accept no pay to wait on tables to gain more experience? Of course not, that’s a terrible business model. You’ve worked thousands of hours to hone your skills; they are not free.
  • Don’t be a fool on social media. You’ve got your Instagram and your Facebook Fan Page and your Twitter Account and your Hooptifloop (I don’t know what will be hot by the time this comes out, I’m old, get off my lawn). And you’ve got so many opinions; opinions on art, opinions on politics, opinions on world events. But do we really need to hear all of them? Maybe? PROBABLY NOT. What we need is to be flooded by a barrage of gorgeous images. You are an illustrator. Your body of work represents your point of view. Anybody can blarf out an opinion. Not everybody can draw.
  • Know your strengths. Some people are good at drawing everything. Yay for those people! I am not one of them. I am good at drawing cute things, so that’s what I do. Can I draw scary things? Sure. Does it make me happy to do so? Not really, and it doesn’t represent my aesthetic. I owe my career success to playing to my strengths. That said…
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things.  It’s how we grow as artists and as people. If something frightens you, try doing it (NOT HEROIN OR MURDER, OKAY?) But you never know what kind of breakthrough you might have.
  • Surround yourself with creative people. This isn’t to say that you need to join an artist’s colony, but you should be able to break bread with another illustrator and talk about work and representation and how much you’re getting paid. Periodically hanging out with other artists can be inspiring and informative, so make the effort to stay in touch with people whose work you admire (and merely “liking” their work on Facebook doesn’t count). Bonus: very few other people have jobs where they’re free to meet up for breakfast.
  • You can’t do this alone. Sure, there are artists who do it all; they write, they illustrate, they publicize, they build their own websites, they pay for their own tables at festivals, they publish their own works that they’ve edited themselves… I’m exhausted just thinking about it. While it’s important to know how to do all of this stuff, it’s just as important to know that there are professional people out there who can probably do it better. I can’t think of any truly successful writer or illustrator that did it all by themselves without the help of an editor or an art director or an agent or a publicist. These people work so that you can concentrate on doing the best artwork possible, which brings us to…
  • Take criticism. If you’ve graduated from an art college then you should know that a well thought-out critique is not a personal slight or meant to shame your good name/family/county/whatever. And you should also know the difference between an art director asking you to make changes and some doofus on the street saying, “Ya know, it could use some glitter.” Listen to your art director—there’s a strong likelihood that they got to where they are in life by being really good at what they do. And take a beat to actually consider the advice of the doofus on the street before you decide to kick them in the shins and run away. You never know who might have insight.
  • Ignore the naysayers. There are going to be a lot of people who think that you’re a nutball for wanting to pursue a career in the arts, but I quite frankly think that most of those people are ding-dongs for spending most of their lives doing things that bring them absolutely no joy or satisfaction. Look, you already went to art college. Why give up on your training just become someone can’t understand that monetizing your talents and skills is actually possible?
  • Work. You’re a professional now. Have a designated work space, keep it relatively cleanish, and do the work. No one’s hiring you? Make them hire you. All of those terrible illustrations and designs that you see every day? Someone else got paid for them when you could have been that person. Find out who commissioned the work and send them your much better version. Write a story, illustrate it, and throw it up on your Hooptifloop account. Illustrate someone else’s story. Make schedules and do the work. Do the work. Do the work.
  • Be like Chumbawamba. Get knocked down. Get up again. No one’s ever going to keep you down. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google it, make it your anthem, but leave out all the parts about excessive drinking.
  • Look, this isn’t easy, but if you know that already. You’re going to get rejected again and again and again. You have to be brave enough to put your work out there to be judged, tough enough to take multiple hits, and crazy enough to get back up again and say, “NOT TO YOUR TASTE? FINE. THEN LOOK AT THIS WATERCOLOR OF A SLOTH BABY!” It is no fun to write an entire book and have it politely rejected by twenty different publishers. But you’ve got to get back up, consider why you were rejected, and make something even better, because when someone finally loves what you’ve done and pays you enough money to work in your pajamas all day, baby, it doesn’t get much better than that.
  • Don’t follow your dreams. Dreams are crazy. One time I dreamed that my own foot turned into cotton candy and then I ate it. Why on earth would I want to aspire to that in my waking life? A career in illustration isn’t a dream. It’s a real, doable job, where you get up every morning and drink some caffeine and go to your studio and work. It’s filing quarterly taxes and trips to the art supply store and collaborating with an editor. It’s spending four hours painting a monkey. It’s fun, it’s difficult, and when done well, it’s an extremely rewarding reality.
  • BONUS TIP: When you’re at a conference, don’t go all bonkers grabbing free stuff. Find a good freebie bag (canvas!) and be selective. Should you take that advanced reading copy of The History of Turpentine? Probably not. But it’s free! RESIST. How about that adorable tin of mints? Of course, always take adorable tins of mints.