You do you: finding your best work
Same same but different; authentic over original
For me, a large part of finding my ‘best work’ and developing an illustrative style is about simultaneously finding a unique voice and a common thread – we all want to know that we are unique, but above all else, we want to know that, somehow, we’re also the same. The creative work that I connect to most tends to be a combination of the familiar and surprising; something you’ve never seen before, but recognise. If you’re worried about whether or not your work is original (debatably, nothing is), try asking instead whether or not it feels authentic.
In many cases, finding your niche is more about developing a perspective from which to approach work rather than a consistent visual style – they say that being a creative is kind of like being yourself for a living; so get to know yourself. Your technical skills are just one of many assets that you have to offer up to potential clients. When it comes to the really good jobs (the ones where you can’t just be replaced by the next designer or illustrator on the contact list) people are really paying for the way you think, not just the way that your work looks.
“You made it from your heart, and it’s solid. You can stand on it, and it only gets stronger as you get older.” – Cheryl Dunn. The Great Discontent, episode #2
Self initiated work as a marketing tool
Particularly when starting out, the more that you can get done without asking anyone’s permission, the better. Creating self-initiated work and staying productive is a crucial step to honing your skills and has the added bonus of being an incredibly effective way for people to find you and take some of the pressure out of ‘marketing yourself’ – you can spend more of your time creating content and let others do some of the work of finding a way for you to get paid for doing what you do best.
It’s been said that ‘inspiration has to find you working’ – the same can almost also be said of paid creative work (although ‘work has to find you working’ isn’t quite as catchy). Whether or not you plan on selling or distributing your work yourself, by staying productive during quiet periods and making your work discoverable (thanks, Internet) you can position yourself as a ‘creative practitioner’ as opposed to ‘job seeker’, and making work certainly sounds and feels better than looking for work. You have to put yourself out there before people know who you are, and they have to know who you are before they can give you the work that you want.
Ideally, you want the projects that you take on to play to your strengths, and to come from people that recognise the value of your work. Since developing my own product line and distributing it online and in a range of stockists, I’ve found the commissioned projects that come my way are far better tailored to the way that I think – even my sense of humour - as well as the way that I draw and paint. As a result, I’m spending more and more time on projects (whether commissioned or self-initiated,) that I consider to be the ‘real’ authentic work; the stuff that most naturally comes out of my brain and my hands.