This is Part 1 of a four-part series about how to get an illustration agent. In this series, I detail my top 10 recommendations for illustrators looking to find an agent. Be sure to follow Illustration Age on Twitter to be notified when the next part drops.
One of the most frequent questions I get is about how I got an illustration agent. If you’re reading this, you are probably looking into or at least have considered getting one. If you want to know my thoughts on what agents can do for you and how they can help you as an illustrator, I wrote an entire article about that. In this article, I offer more direct advice about how to actually get an illustration agent.
While I am not an expert on agencies, I do have some sense of what agencies are looking for, and how you can best attract their attention. Below are ten tips that I hope will help set you up for success. I believe that, if you are a good illustrator and do your homework, you will not only become attractive to agencies, you will have a hard time choosing which offer to accept. Alright, let’s do this!
1. Study agencies to find the best fit.
This seems obvious, but many people overlook this step. As an illustrator with a unique voice and a unique taste, you want to align yourself with an agency that seems to match. Similarly, agencies typically have their own tastes in illustration, and they will be attracted to illustrators who would fit in and look good on their roster. But fit goes beyond taste and style: you also want to look at what kind of industries an agency works with. If an agency seems to represent lots of ad work on their website, but you want to be a kids’ book illustrator, for instance, you’re probably not going to be a good fit. Another dimension of fit is location. In which markets do you wish to be represented? Do you need a rep in your own part of the world, or do you want to extend your reach to work more internationally? Major markets are in Europe, the UK, and of course, the US, but these can be subdivided, such as the east and west coasts of the US. Think about your current reach and where you might like to extend it.
Agencies are the major leagues of illustration, and you need to prove to them that you can play with the big kids.
Your homework for this step is to spend a few weeks or months researching and collecting the names of agencies operating in the regions in which you want to be represented. Look for agencies that you are most attracted to. Be aspirational. Are you a fan of the work and illustrators they represent? Do you recognize any of the names on their roster? Would working for some of their clients be a dream for you? How do you think you could fit into their roster, and what unique perspective or style could you add?
As you perform your reconnaissance mission, be sure to follow your favourite agencies on social media and bookmark their websites. Become a fan, keep up with their work, and of course, be sure to like and comment (in a non-creepy, authentic way) here and there. You just never know who might be watching.
2. Have a full and balanced body of work.
Many beginning illustrators want to get an agent before they’ve proven themselves in their work. Agencies are not illustrator nurseries, looking to discover underdeveloped talent and raise it to greatness. They are for-profit businesses selling highly creative talent to top brands. Agencies are the major leagues of illustration, and you need to prove to them that you can play with the big kids.
So what does a full and balanced body of work look like? You should aim to have a minimum of 15-20 real world projects in your portfolio. I think it’s okay if some of your projects are self initiated or spec, but they need to have the same level of thought and execution as your client work. They should look legit. Your work should have an identifiable voice (see next section) but show a range of applications, subjects and formats across projects. Having an area of focus (such as editorial or kids’ books) is fine, but agencies typically want to hire illustrators who can work across genres and formats. Today’s best illustrators typically do work for everything: ads, picture books, murals, branding, editorial, and so on. It is tremendously helpful to see how your illustration style or approach works across different project types. Seeing a dynamic range of work demonstrates that you are a creative thinker and not just a one trick pony. It also further demonstrates your usefulness as part of a creative team, which is what an agency truly is.
3. Have a strong voice in your work.
It’s one thing to have lots of projects in your body of work, but it’s another thing to have a common thread running through it. Simply put, this common thread is your style. But I don’t want people to get hung up on this topic because I know it’s such a pain point for many. Rather, I want to help reframe the question of style in terms of your voice. I think voice is much more important than style.
Style is skin deep, but voice comes from deep within. Style is what you see in any given illustration, something that exists on the surface. You can say an illustration is “flat vector style” (which is super vague), or “collage style”, and you can sort of get a picture in your mind right away. Or you can compare one artist to another, like Olimpia Zangoli and Paul Rand, for instance. But neither of these two artists can be contained in a single notion of style. There is a whole other level that exists in their work, and this has more to do with something intrinsic to the artist, how they interpret the world around them.
Style is skin deep, but voice comes from deep within
The notion of style really points at how an image was made, not why. What drives the illustrator who made it? That’s where voice comes in. Voice is something that emanates from an artist’s body of work in a less tangible way. Sure, the colour choices, line quality, textures, and abstraction techniques play a role in voice, but it’s not so much how these are used, but how much they are used. You start to get a sense of an artist’s voice by the patterns that emerge from their total body of work. What symbols do they return to in their work? What is the tone — is it bright and cheerful, dark and macabre, and so on. In my own work, I tend to lighten things up (loosely speaking) as much as possible. Even when dealing with more weighty subjects, I try to bring a sense of buoyancy and joy to it. This is because, at a deeper level, I want to live in a world where there is more beauty, joy, and colour, and less darkness and depression. I say this not to get too personal but simply as an example of how my voice factors into my work beyond mere style, technique, and effects.
Ultimately, your illustration voice is not something you have total control over, just as you cannot change your literal voice. Sure, you can modulate it for different purposes (shouting, screaming, silly voices), but the way your vocal cords resonate is as unique as your fingerprints. Voice recognition is a thing. But just as a singer can train her voice to sound its most unique and best, you can control and refine how you present your visual voice. This is where you need patience. Over the course of months and years, you will be able to identify patterns in how you work, and then lean into these tendencies in your work as you go. You will get better at presenting this voice more strongly in your portfolio. Illustrators with strong voices can take on many different kinds of work and employ a diverse range of techniques, all the while having key aspects of their soul shine through. An example that comes to mind is Christoph Niemann.
To summarize, you should definitely have a strong through line in all your work. In the simplest sense, this is your style. But if the idea of having a strict, narrow style holds you back, think rather in terms of voice. There should be something clearly you throughout your work. It can be subtle or more overt, but this is something you can work at over time. Agents want to work with illustrators with a strong identity and a somewhat predictable product. The stronger your voice, the more attractive your product is to an agent.
To be continued …
I originally wrote all ten of my tips as a single article, but it turned out to be very long. So I am breaking this into 4 parts. Next week, I’ll go deep on how to present your work online to make the best impression to agents. Meanwhile, I’ll pass some questions over to you: Who is your dream illustration agent? How important is style in your own work? Do you feel you have a strong voice? Please leave your answers in the comments! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.