18 Top Illustrators Tell Us Their Biggest Ideas on How to be Successful

Looking to those who have successfully found their way to where we are currently trying to navigate can provide an invaluable guide to avoiding the steep drops and dead ends that often come up to blindside us.

There is never one singular route or clearly-etched map to carving out a fulfilling career as a successful creative professional. With every additional artist you approach, words of wisdom become more complex, nuanced, and unexpected.

By putting together a series of thoughts and ideas from a group of top illustrators, we can see a wide range of approaches in one place, and we hope it inspires you.

We asked 18 currently active illustrators:

“What has contributed to your success as a freelance illustrator the most, other than hard work?”

Here are their responses…


Above illustration: Micah Lidberg

Micah Lidberg—

“I believe one of the biggest factors of my success as a freelancer was to join efforts with a community. For me, that was being a part of the creative agency, Hugo & Marie, early on in my career.

I don’t think being represented by an agency is always the answer, but being embedded in some kind of network will often have a significant impact.”



Above illustration: Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman—

“The most important reason would be that most of it evolved before computers had taken such a stranglehold on all we do…. Things were conducted more face to face and were discussed with an Art Director who often became a friend…

Wet ink and paint were and always will be a part of the process of making images—part accident and part experience and part curiosity.

Confronted by a white sheet of paper—everything is a possibility—directly in with the pen—no pencil work first! There are no mistakes—a ‘mistake’ is an opportunity to do something else…”



Above illustration: Magnus Voll Mathiassen (MVM)

Magnus Voll Mathiassen—

“As a freelancer, I’ve always looked at my practise as a regular business: accounting, planning, new biz, strategy, CEO, IT department, maintenance, blue collar, white collar, ups and downs, markets, user groups, products and the list goes on.

On top of that, you need to make the actual art—the reason why you are into this. But if you have a system, then you will free your time to do what you love. And I break the system once in a while to feel like a FREElancer.”



Above illustration: Keith Negley

Keith Negley—

“Serendipity. My career has taken so many twists and turns in ways I couldn’t have imagined and what success I have achieved has come about due to circumstances I couldn’t recreate if I tried.

Work ethic is crucial, but a big part of what we do also comes down to blind luck. Being in the right place at the right time. That might sound bleak, but the good news is the harder you work the luckier you’ll be.

“You never know where a project will take you. So set goals and make plans, but be ready to be flexible!”



Above illustration: Sam Weber (Instagram—@papercrake)

Sam Weber—

“Without a doubt, remaining curious and open minded. I’m most engaged with my work when I’m exploring a new problem, and it’s that engagement that is so essential when trying to make interesting work.

Being open to new things I’ve found is actually harder than it sounds, since it often involves abandoning or destroying things that are precious to us.

At some point however, I think every successful artist has had to listen to what their work is saying back to them and allow that to guide their process in some way.” 


Bratislav_Les Echos Weekend_RLC1200

Above illustration: Bratislav Milenkovic for ‘Les Echos Week-End’

Bratislav Milenkovic—

“Other than hard work, I think that one of the most important moves for me was when I recognized the battles that are worth fighting.

Once I departed from things that I didn’t wanted to do anymore, it allowed me to focus completely on my  illustration work and on global illustration game rather than on the local one. 

I also think that it wouldn’t be possible for me to maintain my freelance career easily without an additional effort coming from my agents at Synergy Art.”



Above illustration: Jean Jullien

Jean Jullien—

“I would say social media. Sharing my work on a daily base without having any pressure and for it to travel organically through sharing and blogging has been a fantastic help.

At school, I really valued the opportunity of being as creative as possible without having any pressure when failing and making mistakes.

The work I produce daily on social media allows that, it’s a creative playground where you give your best and that works as a personal gallery where clients can see what you can do and hopefully commission you.”



Above illustration: Sac Magique

Sac Magique—

“I don’t necessarily hold with the notion that originality is the key to success; there are an awful lot of people out there who achieve it simply by doing some recognizable style extremely well and that’s fine.

However, if like me you are either disinclined or incapable of taking this approach then you’ll need to develop your own voice.

This doesn’t have to be a very rigid and identifiable visual language, in fact it ideally shouldn’t be. Rather it can also be an approach or attitude, a certain way of looking at the world.

Visual styles can be copied easily but that attitude is more elusive and can make the difference between you and the next highly-talented illustrator.

This is what clients (especially ADs at agencies) will be looking for when they make a commission. That or the highly generic but beautifully executed approach, but hey, you can’t win them all.”



Above illustration: Olaf Hajek

Olaf Hajek—

“The believe in my personal vision and the aesthetic of my style and that I was always thinking global in art and the field of business.”



Above illustration: Hedof


“I think what helped me the most is the discovery of a way of working that really excited me. When I discovered printmaking, I wanted to become really, really good at it and I liked the technical aspect of color separation so much that I started applying this technique in all my work.

This resulted in a certain way of working that I really liked and a visual style that clients and other people really related too. It sparked my career and since then I try to make the fire bigger and bigger.

So my advice would be, find something you really enjoy doing 24/7 and work from there, things will turn out fine when you enjoy what you are doing.”



Above illustration: Mar Hernández

Mar Hernández—

“Something that really helped me was to stop being afraid of some challenges and trust in myself and in my potential. I stopped being afraid to get involved in new projects, even if I had to do things I never did before.

“Something important was also to continue my education in other fields of creation, it has made my job more flexible and allowed me to work in many fields.”



Above illustration: Magoz


“1. Finding and developing my way of illustrating.
2. Creating a solid website with a selection of my best work.
After those two things were completed (and not before), contacting as many art directors as I could and publishing my work on social networks regularly.”



Above illustration: Adam Avery

Adam Avery—

“Time—it’s a very broad statement, I know. However, it’s very rare that anyone leaving study will be able to dive headfirst into full time freelance.

The time it’s taken to establish myself and become known has given me a chance to assess my practice, understand the market and clients needs and awarded me with a greater sense of direction moving forward.

It’s never a bad position to be the underdog!”



Above illustration: Gary Taxali

Gary Taxali—

“The thing I credit most to my success is meditation.

I believe that creativity doesn’t come from the mind, but from someplace else—perhaps our essence. When I actively draw and paint without knowing where I’m going, the ideas just flow.

I don’t remember the last time I had a creative block, and I credit that to a daily meditation practice and present moment stillness.”



Above illustration: Dan Matutina

Dan Matutina—

“Properly managing my time has contributed to my success as an illustrator. 

It is also important to pace yourself in accepting new projects and scheduling deadlines, so the quality of your work doesn’t suffer.

One thing I learned from another designer/illustrator friend is to always leave space for unexpected but great opportunities, such as rush projects that pay high or collaborations that are too exciting to pass up.”



Above illustration: Verónica Grech

Verónica Grech—

“My final artworks are always vectors but I try to do all my previous sketches on paper with traditional media. I research different media like ink, collage or watercolours in my free time.

These facts significantly improved my skills and creativity. Try to find your own style not thinking about trends is always the best way.”



Above illustration: Janine Rewell

Janine Rewell—

“Having a good agent is invaluable.

It’s fantastic that someone else is doing all the things I dislike about my work; cost estimates, negotiations with clients, invoicing and contracts, not to mention the promotion work and building relations with art buyers and ad agencies. This way I get to fully concentrate on the creative side!”



Above illustration: Malika Favre

Malika Favre—

“I think a good business head is a must to making it in this industry.

The creative process is of course at the centre of it all but understanding when to negotiate hard, how to read people but also read between the lines, how to present your work to clients but also to the world, when to say no and when to go the extra mile for a client are all key to a successful career.”


Do share this post with others you know who like illustration, and don’t forget to sign up the Red Lemon Club newsletter to know when we share more roundups like these!


    • Which is hilarious cause his answer’s the only useless one in the list. Reminded me of political candidates talking around the question to ultimately not saying much comprehensible or related to the issue.

      • he said that building relationships with art directors has contributed to his success how is that useless?

        • That’s what you got from his answer?? Kudos, you must have great interpretative skills to decipher those ellipses!

          I sound vindictive but I’m really not, I actually didn’t know the dude! I just went “wait, what” after reading his answer and seeing your comment afterwards was quite funny. No offense meant to someone you look up to, some people just have a roundabout way of talking about things 🙂

  1. What a shame more women weren’t featured. And the ones that were, were all listed at the bottom? How about Jordan Sondler, Wendy MacNough, Leah Goren, Kate Pugsley, Gemma Correll, Bodil Jane?

    • A lot of this list was built up based on the responses we got from from people. Maybe many women didn’t return our emails? Maybe you want to start your own list? 😉

  2. Malika is my favorite, but I now discovered some other artists that are awesome thaks to this. So a big thanks from me 🙂

  3. Excellent group of entrepreneurs, thanks for sharing Alex. I myself have recently found new ways to put my illustration skills to good use. Outside of freelance illustration i have also been working on my own Childrens books and Art tutorials which is earning me a pretty decent living right now. Plus I’m living in Thailand away from my native USA allowing for even more savings and excitement as a traveling artist and blogger. Thanks for all that you do Alex keep up the good work.


    Brian Lee

    • Awesome Brian, great what you can do with a bit of ‘geoarbitrage’! I’ll be following what you’re up to and maybe meet up in SE Asia from July 2016. Alex

      • i will have just missed you as I’m back to LA in june and then off to Italy for the next Geoarbitrage appointment (I love Tim Ferris). i do hope to catch up with you someday and talk strategy. Thanks again for all the inspiration. will keep in touch.

  4. There are lots of benefits to building and nurturing a strong network of friends, family and professional peers. Not only do you have people who can provide you with feedback and valuable insights, but you also have the opportunity to do the same for them.

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