Fear & Loathing in Art School: Answering Questions of an Emerging Illustrator

Contributed by Melissa Kojima

An illustration student recently contacted me to ask some questions and express a few concerns she has about starting a career as an illustrator. She stated that she is "confused and paranoid about a lot of things". I think her sentiments and worries are like many who are thinking about a career in illustration. I definitely could relate to her about this anxiety. Here are a few of her questions and my responses. Maybe, they will inspire and help other emerging illustrators.

Back in college did you feel an atmosphere of competition among the best students around the department?

At the Art Center (in Pasadena, CA), it was very competitive. There were students who outshone everyone else, however, following their various careers after graduation, they weren't necessarily the ones who have had successful careers. It was the ones who kept working at it and believing in him/herself that made them find their niche. Perseverance and self-belief go a much longer way than simple talent and innate ability.

A lot of students feel depressed at this time of their lives because they have not approached what they want with their style or don't feel they are good enough, have you felt this way and if so how did you manage to overcome it?

Oh yes, I've felt this way. It's called being impatient. Of course, you want to run before you can walk, but that's not the way it works. Little by little is the way it goes. Mastery does not happen over night and not even in a few years. I read a book called, "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell that said to gain mastery of anything takes 10,000 hours. This translates into 20 hours a week over 10 years or 40 hours a week over 5 years. In other words, when in doubt, just keep doing art. Just do it and do it and do it again. You will make it with perseverance. Impatience will make you mess up many things, do not succumb to its worrying whispers. It is like the siren songs which lure men to their deaths on the jagged shores of the sea in the book "The Odyssey" by Homer. I know that's melodramatic, but just know that worries and doubts will arise, but you can ignore them and rest comfortably when you do art each day.

Most illustrations students are aware that making a living as an illustrator can be a very difficult task, but in your case do you think your art gives you economical balance, in terms of payments and living?

As I have written previously, I am still establishing myself. I think the more you do it, the more jobs you get. You start to get more and more credibility and experience, so more clients trust you with more work. Yes it is a hard career path, but if you want something easier, you should try something else.

I had a teacher who said to imagine what you would do if you were independently wealthy. He asked what you would do with the money. If the answer would be that you still would be making art, then you are on the right path. If it is not, then you have something else to pursue.

This is also where your community comes in handy. You will need help. You will need support. The above mentioned teacher also said to live at home as long as you can. In other words, find someone in your community or circle of friends and family who is willing to help you in your career path like with free rent or lower rent. This could also be a loving partner, or boyfriend. I've known many women whose husbands have helped them in their careers by just being the one who held down the full time job. It has also worked the other way around where the wife or partner believed in the husband's or man's art and supported him until he became established as an artist.

I am not saying to take advantage of others, or to put yourself in an unsafe situation where you could be taken advantage of. Use your wisdom and find good people who you can trust and who believe in your art.


  1. Thanks, this is a great article. I think a lot of us feel the same way!

  2. This is an excellent article, Melissa. It's really helpful for other students to know that they're not alone with these concerns. Even as professionals there are times when we doubt our capabilities or become discouraged. I think you make an excellent point that it's important to keep working at your craft. And also market yourself. I had an illustration teacher in college that told us you can be the most talented illustrator out there but it won't matter much if no one can find you.

  3. Thanks, Lou. Glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, and keep marketing!

  4. Thank you Melissa, this is a great article. I plan to share this with my friends.


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