Someone on Instagram recently commented on a comic strip I posted with the statement: “My dream… to make a living this way.”

I replied: “Mine, too.”

While I intended that comment to be funny and self-deprecating, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it means to “make a living” as an illustrator… and when I look at my life today, I think I am! I mean, I’m drawing every day and I’m alive… so…

How did I get here? Well, the full story involves a kindergarten teacher, art school, and living in about a dozen different places… so for this post I’ll just focus on the last few years.

Before I dig in, though, I have to acknowledge the privilege that factors into my experience: I’ve been fortunate to have had jobs that allowed me to put money into savings, I’ve found a home that’s especially affordable, and I’m relatively healthy (and eligible for Medicaid). I’ve got a car, and a computer, and I even have a web site that was expertly crafted by a friend… it’s all of these things and more that enable me the opportunity to take the risk of leaving the safety of steady income for the adventure of self-employment.

…and it’s definitely been an adventure.

Five years ago I made the decision to leave the stability of my full-time job to pursue self-employment as an illustrator. I’d been doing freelance work for YEARS (really, since high school) and it was something I was good at… and it was something I LOVED doing. I’d been considering making this change for awhile, and I felt like I was ready to take the plunge!

I was wrong.

I spent most of the first year scrambling to figure out what I was doing while trying to grab onto every opportunity I could find. I didn’t have a plan and it showed, and while I did have some creative growth during that time, I ultimately decided to go back to working outside the house in an effort to stabilize my finances and buy myself some time to put together a strategy.

It’s been a year and a half since I stepped out of full time employment again, but this time I have focus and I’ve learned a few lessons that give me a framework to build on:

  • Draw every day: I can tell when I haven’t drawn for a few days because I feel a little out-of-practice and it can take me awhile to warm up. Conversely, when I draw every day, I’m able to stop thinking about the mechanics of what I’m doing and instead I’m able to build on what I started the day before. Seriously, when I draw daily, I see my skills grow exponentially and it is the single greatest discipline I have found to make me my best.
  • Say “yes”: I have to admit that this is probably what I’m weakest at, and I’m always trying to do better. Every so often, an opportunity will present itself to do something artistically that I’ve never done before (or might not necessarily be interested in doing), but by making “yes” my default answer, it pushes me to try new things creatively and it provides opportunity for networking. Saying yes can be a risky proposition, but when you’re trying to grow creatively, saying no can be riskier. 
  • Take a walk (or a shower): It’s no exaggeration to say that 80% of my creative inspiration has come to me while walking (or showering or doing something else that doesn’t involve sitting in front of my drawing). There’s something about getting away from the drawing board and getting my body moving that stirs my brain up to think in new ways. When I’m able to, I take a walk first thing in the morning to get my juices flowing for the day and again in the evening to connect the dots on things I’d been working on earlier. In order to write this blog post, I’ve gone for a walk AND taken a shower… and there’s probably gonna be another walk before I’m done.
  • Define your own success: This brings us back to the response I made to the comment about “making a living” as an illustrator. I’m still not making enough money to cover my expenses, but I’m making more than I was last year at this time. I’m able to make time for walks when I need them, and I’m spending hours drawing every day. My skills are improving and I have a handful significant projects I’m actively working on… and for me, all of this adds up to success – with room to grow!

I’m not where I want to be yet, and that’s okay… it gives me a direction to move forward in. It’s also not where I was five years ago… or a year ago… and I’m definitely moving in the right direction.