What we wish we knew before we started out as artists?

Welcome back Once upon a Sketch and happy 2014! It’s been a long break but now it’s time to start a new chapter in OUaS’s history. We have a lot of great new voices that will be working on the site and I can’t wait to hear what they have to share with you. Since we have a lot of new voices we thought it would be good to ask everyone a common question. Everyone gave great answers so without further adieu here is our teams answer to the question “What we wish we knew before we started out as artists?”

Donald Wu
Hello everyone! I’m happy to be part of this group of talented illustrators. I’m looking forward to sharing and doing my part in ensuring that OUaS continues to thrive.


To answer the question; what I wish I had known when I first started out as an artist…Well, it would be the kind of mindset a true “professional” needs to succeed. Looking back at my days fresh out of art school, I wish I had used my time more wisely and had been more proactive. In this business, talent is not enough, it truly does take a lot of hard work and a real dedication to your craft if you want to be taken seriously. This means you should continuously find new things to learn so that you are constantly growing. If I had known then what I know now, I would have used my time to draw, to draw and draw like my livelihood depended on it…cause now I realize it DOES!

Jennifer Zivoin
One of the things I wish I had known when I was first starting out as an illustrator was how much I would need to personally connect with other artists. I think that many of us artists are introverts in some fashion. Creating artwork is a personal experience for us, even when we are illustrating for a living. It doesn’t make us unfriendly (I’ve never met an unfriendly children’s book illustrator!), but it does mean that we can unintentionally gravitate towards creating our artwork in solitude when we should be reaching out to our peers for feedback and perspective. Attending national and regional SCBWI conferences can be a great way to branch out of your creative comfort zone and connect with artists, art directors, agents and editors who can view your work with a fresh perspective and give you valuable feedback. However, you don’t need to travel the country to have an artistic community.


Luckily, with Facebook and other online social networks, you can create your own critique groups with artists whose work you admire and whose opinions you trust. My “artist friends” share techniques and exchange sketches and pieces in various stages of completion to identify strengths and opportunities for improvement so that our portfolios can truly reflect our best work. Connecting regularly with other artists and industry professionals has helped me to grow as an artist in ways that I could never attain from the quiet of my own studio.

Mary Reaves Uhles
Welcome back to the reincarnation of Once Upon A Sketch! Illustrators have to work even harder these days than ever before which makes finding time to kick back and talk shop with others in our field even more difficult. Online community fits into our work lives as we scribble away on screen and let the news scroll by behind the layers palette. Once Upon a Sketch still is a great place for community, talking shop, and kicking back with other illustrators. I’m flattered to have been asked to bring news and topics to OUaS. I hope I can do Wilson and Norm proud by keeping their community thriving. Cheers 2014! (clink)

As an opening post Norm asked us all to write about what we wished we’d known starting out in our career.

Wow, for days I was having a hard time coming up with an answer…. not because I think I’ve done everything right but because most obvious answers – draw a lot, work a set “real job” schedule, network – I already did (and still do.) When I started freelancing I was 24 years old and I had my butt in the chair 10 hours a day, I rigorously shopped my portfolio around. I mailed postcards incessantly. I drew all the time. I joined SCBWI and a local creative group to network and make friends in the industry. Every minute of every day I thought about my long term goals and I worked and connived to make them happen. Guess what? It worked. I’ve been making a healthy living at freelance for 15 years.mru_image

But somewhere along the way I started to notice something when I listened to awards speeches or read SCBWI profiles. I realized that the artists who were illustrating the projects I wanted to have – the projects I still hadn’t gotten – had been windsurfing while I was working my butt off.

Windsurfing, or hiking in South America, or running a beadshop, or any number of things OTHER than spending 10 hours a day building a career.

At first I felt kind of annoyed about this: “what do you mean you just happened to get a call about Project X after coming home from a 10 week backpacking trip across Sri Lanka? I CANT TAKE OFF A LONG WEEKEND LET ALONE 2 MONTHS because I’M WORKING HARD!!” (fume, huff, snort)

But then it began to dawn on me that maybe, just maybe, those extracurricular activities were actually doing something for those artists that all my hours of drawing and networking couldn’t do. It was giving them an interesting story to tell. Recently I listened to an interview with the novelist, Ann Patchett. As a young writer, she described how one of her best teachers encouraged her students to work in soup kitchens or be involved in political campaigns. The teacher went on to explain that she could teach them sentence structure, story arc and character development, but she couldn’t actually teach them to have something to say. She couldn’t give them stories.

I needed more than a great work ethic and a detailed contact roster… I needed a great story to tell. Out of great stories comes even greater art. If I had it to do over again would I take off two weeks to pilot an 18 foot bass boat across the English Channel? Probably not. But I would take my work blinders off from time to time to look around and maybe bump into a great story out on the sidewalk. I wouldn’t feel guilty about it either. So yes draw like your life depends on it, and network like you’re running for president but follow some of those other diversions too. It all leads back to great art.

Jannie Ho
Welcome back! I’m happy to be a contributor to the brand new Once Upon a Sketch and sharing my thoughts and ideas on one of the most amazing professions-a children’s book illustrator (if I should say so myself.) On the topic of “What I wish I knew when I started out in my career,” there are so many things that come to mind, but here are my top five:

1. No matter how far along you are in your career, creative slumps and self doubts never truly go away. One will have to learn to live with it.
2. Personal projects are not just for fun, but a necessity. I always find that they lead to amazing things, either to professional jobs, creative growth, or just plain old personal satisfaction.
3. Time management: Did you have that one assignment in art school where you waited till the night before to work on it, decided to make something “conceptual” and the professor thought it was brilliant? In the real world, that is not going to work so well. Especially big projects like picture books, breaking it up into smaller, more manageable pieces are essential. These jobs are not the type of jobs you can wait till the last minute.
jh_AADL_JannieHo4. Ask. You never know until you ask. Whether it is an extension on an impossible deadline, or a higher budget. Or just something in the job you don’t understand, and might not want to ask because you feel that might be a newbie question. It is better to have a clear understanding of the assignment before you begin.
5. There is more to life than work. The creative well needs to be filled by living life. Breaks are a good thing. Vacations will seem impossible to book but it is a necessity.
Wishing you all much creative growth and many projects in your inbox this year! Happy 2014! I’m very excited to be a part of the newly relaunched Once Upon a Sketch!
Chris Jones

One thing I wish I knew when first starting out as an illustrator? How important networking and self promotion are to success.

My path to freelancing was a bit long and winding –  I held myself back, mainly due to a lack of confidence in my work. For many years I held down a full time design job and spent my free time improving my illustration skills – working on personal projects and portfolio pieces, and next to no time networking or promoting myself.

cj_newcharactersAs a typical introverted creative type, I never really felt ready to jump into networking or promoting myself. I was always telling myself “After you finish this piece or that project, your skills will be where they need to be, thenyou can start networking and promoting.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. The truth is, for some, you will never really feel ready, or that your work is where you want it to be, but you just have to jump in with both feet and go for it. I only wish I had started working on my networking and promotion from the very beginning. The field of illustration is very competitive, and building and maintaining a strong network is essential. So is learning how to market yourself and your work. Both of these things require just as much attention as working on your craft if you want to be successful. And the earlier you start, the better off you’ll be. My advice – just dig in and start doing what you need to do now. Ignore the fear. Ignore the voice telling you you’re not ready. You’ll never be “ready”.

So, I guess you could say the “one thing I wish I knew” is how important networking and self promotion are, but it sort of ties in to the one thing I wish I had done differently – ignoring my fear and just going for it. I spent too many years with one foot in, before getting out of my own way and jumping in with both feet.

Kevin Cross
What I wish I had learned in art school was to think more like an entrepreneur as opposed to being a cog in a machine who works on someone else’s dreams while putting your own on the back burner. That’s something. I’ve had to work on through my years as an illustrator by making huge mistakes and falling on my face. But that’s life I guess anyway. Secondly, I wish school had taught more about creativity along with the heavy instruction on the technical aspects of the craft. I’m guessing that many of my contributions to OUaS will deal with these subjects.


Norm Grock
When I first began as an artist I wish I had known the benefits of sharing. Sharing your art and knowledge is one of the most important things an artist can do to build a following for themselves.

normgbestofusPutting your artwork up where others can see it and getting feedback is the best way to learn and grow as an artist. Likewise, writing blog posts about your process and sharing things you’ve learned is one of the fastest ways to build a good following. If I had only known this when I first started out, I wouldn’t be sitting on a mound of old drawings that no one has ever seen. These drawings have just been sitting around for the “right moment” and many have been sitting so long I don’t know when the right moment is or if it will ever come. I guess fear played a big part for me when I came up with this idea in my head. I would say to myself “someone might steal my artwork” or “I don’t want to give another artist an idea that they could use and get a job that I want.” Although this is a possibility, it would have been good to have someone to tell me that this is the wrong way of thinking about it. I’ve learned that good artwork and hard working artists normally make their way to the top in this profession. You do need to network and do all the other things that build your presence, but for me I found that sharing my wisdom is one of the fastest ways to earn respect and grow a following. When you’re first starting out your number one priority is getting better at your craft and sharing your work with a helpful community is the fastest way, I’ve found, to accomplish this. This is the great thing about the internet age. There is so much information out there and all you have to do is have the courage to ask and someone will help you. You might not get it on your first try, but keep trying.

When I first started working on this site I didn’t have any idea how important having a community of artists was, and then it was gone. This is why Once Upon a Sketch is back. I need an art Community around me to share drawings with and to learn from. I don’t want to turn into Gollum sitting around in my art cave holding onto my “precious” knowledge and art.


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  1. Cecilia Clark

    wow, thanks for advertising the blog on FB. I really appreciate all the tips and ideas and the visual feast of good art.

  2. christine tripp

    This was a great read guys, and just beautiful art work, to start my morning. Thank you all for getting back into the fray and posting! I’m looking forward to Mondays and Wednesdays more then usual now!:)

  3. Once Upon a Sketch is BAACK!!! | Dayne Sislen Illustration

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  4. Jan Watford

     Great blog and great subject.  I think one of the greatest ways of learning is by looking at other artist and illustrators works.  I will subscribe to your blog and check back for more information. 

  5. Deb Lund

    I love this post, because, if you look carefully, the “wishes” have to do with the creative process. a few word changes and it applies to anyone in the arts. As a writer who gets to work with amazing illustrators, it’s been fun for me to learn how what we do is so similar. And as a creativity coach, I love seeing creative people learn what they need to do to allow themselves to create and feel fulfilled in those creations. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your artwork. What a gift to anyone who wants to know more about this field—or the creative process in general. Best wishes on all your projects for this new year!

    • Norm

      Thanks Deb. It’s funny that you say that, my brother said the same thing to me when he read the post. He’s a web developer and he got inspiration from it as well.

  6. Benito

    I love the great personal attachments that everyone placed on the question.
    Me as an artist I wish i would have taking my craft and my self more seriously.
    When i was young my family saw that i was born to draw, and would always say to me “You need to do something with that, you need to go to art school.” The more they said it, the more I withdrew. Then finally it came to me that this is a gift from God, and i should honor him by doing something with it. So i started to pursue this as a career, i went to Art & Design, high school NY, looking to see what I’m truly good at, As soon as i started to take it seriously, everyone would say, “Artist starve! You’ll won’t make no money! You need to get a real job! That’s just a Hobby.” Undefined, and uncertain to who i was, these comments greatly depressed me, and motivated me, Now years later i have a publishing company called Mustard Seed Comics, 13 books on the market and more on the way, I love what i do! And all those who doubted and talked against me, are in debt, hate their jobs, and are living unhealthy and unhappy lives, Karma, lol!


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