Sunday Mailbag: Do You Need Art School?

January 19th, 2014 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: My question is how does one get into freelance illustration without a formal art school education and when is it too late? Okay it’s a long winded two part question…

A little back story on myself. I always liked to draw as long as I can remember, and I was pretty good at it. I remember getting in trouble in middle school for not paying attention in class and doodling in my notebook. My guidance counselor looked through the pictures I drew told me he could offer me a scholarship to art school then and there if I would just do my real school work. Anyway long story short not only did I never go to art school, but the last actual art class I took was in 7th grade.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I’m married with a new daughter and I’m finding myself regretting not doing anything with my art. I walk around grocery stores and see displays that are just a cartoon of people bar-b-qing or watching the game and i think to myself “i could have done that”. Now I’m a little rusty, but when I can find the time I still draw and whenever i get the chance I’ll go down to my basement and bust out the old nib pen and india ink, but without an actual art school education and the fact I’m in my mid 30’s with a family and mortgage is there any real chance I could earn a living by illustrating?

A: That is impossible for me to answer specifically, but I would say anything is possible. It really depends on two factors:

Firstly, assess your work. You have to step back and honestly assess where your art is at, and how far you have to go to start doing professional level work. Forget about the fact that you didn’t go to art school. Going to art school and doing the kind of work art directors and clients would want to buy are mutually exclusive. Schooling can be a big benefit in helping develop your skills, but it isn’t necessary in the art world like it is if you want to be a doctor or lawyer or engineer. You can learn and develop your work without spending a dime on school. However that will take time… how much time depends on where you are at with your work. Honesty with yourself in that regard is pretty important, because you can have all the drive and determination in the world and still not go anywhere if your work isn’t going to appeal to art directors. It isn’t even really about being a world class painter, master portraitist or some other highly technically skilled artist, it’s about having a style that has appeal and has a real world application. I see many illustrators with cool, quirky, fun styles that get tons of work as long as they find a place where their style fits and works well. That’s the trick.

Second, since there are very few actual employment positions out there for illustrators (like a staff artist for a design firm… if that sort of thing even exists anymore) the only way to make a living is by freelancing. NOBODY just starts freelancing and earns a living at it right away. It is a long process to seek out work, get work, do work, seek out more work, build client relationships, etc, until you have a client base and get steady enough work that your income is at a level where you can pay your bills and buy the occasional pizza or two. You say you have a family and a mortgage… I assume then you have a day job that pays the bills. That actually puts you in an enviable position. You can certainly pursue freelance work on the side and do all that building of client bases while you keep the financial stability. You can afford to let your freelance career go where it may. You might never get it off the ground enough that you can quit the day job and draw for a living, but you can certainly have illustration be a part of your life. You may find a style that really takes off and you do drop the real job and freelance full time. Freelancing is not for the faint of heart, but if you can make it work it’s a great career.

So, how do you do it? Start by putting together a portfolio of your work. You’ll need a website for that, the days of schlepping a leather-bound portfolio of artwork about is long gone. Then print up some postcards with a sample(s) of your work and website URL on it. Then send that postcard out to potential clients. Start small with local businesses: print shops, restaurants, local papers, local publishers and ad agencies (if any), local government offices like city hall, malls, business centers. Keep your eye open for local businesses that have ads in print and send them your postcard. Better yet drop these postcards off and introduce yourself… local businesses like to use local resources and might not have even thought about using illustrations with their ads but might knowing there is a local illustrator about. It really depend on what kind of work you do as to who you approach looking for work. Try to think of what is a good fit for your style, and approach that. Another good resource is the local Rotary Club. Contact them and offer to speak at one of their meetings… it’s a great way to introduce yourself to a group of local business owners who might then think about using illustration for their ads or other projects. Advertise on Craigslist locally. You start there and work your way up the ladder.

It’s a long road, but the journey is longest as is never begun. Good luck.

Thanks to Joe Caratenuto for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. inkslingerz says:

    Excellent advice,Tom-
    Too many aspiring ‘artists’ don’t realize that being a free-lance anything means you have to think like, and become, a business person who will spend up to 80% of your time hustling for work in just the way you outlined. Mostly, you have to develop “people skills” and be willing to talk to and ask people things you normally wouldn’t.

  2. rob anthony says:

    Really good advice…again!! As someone trying to get into freelance work myself I find tom richmond so generous with his knowledge and experience.

  3. don says:

    honestly, as well, if they’re in your thirties and they never had the drive to pursue the arts, or whatever, as a career; the letter writer needs to honestly asses that. If they had never really had the drive before, whats so different now that they think they are ready to make that kind of career change, especially when their experience and skill is practically at nil? I get asked the same question a lot as well and my response is if you haven’t taken it on by now you probably never will. Probably a pessimistic view but the intention is to be constructive. Drawing can be great fun wether its a career or a hobby!


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