Honest Illustrator: My Art Timeline

honest illustrator art timeline.jpg

There’s this thing with social media where you discover an artist, an artist with many followers who appears to be truly successful, and whether you intend it or not, it feels like that artist sprang into being right at that moment. You forget that the success you’re seeing was likely preceded by years of hustle and trial and error.

Seriously. I don’t know if this thing has an official science-y name or not, but it’s a real phenomenon and it’s ready to make us feel like crap about our own artist journeys.

Oh, look how easily that artist became successful! Well, I should be that successful that easily too and since I’m not, I must be worthless. No one likes me work and they never will. I’ll never have that! They’re just so lucky!

Sound familiar?

I know it does, believe me. I get caught in those loops myself, those moments of comparing my journey to someone who’s been at it far longer than I have, even when I realize that I’m being silly.

Because of that, I want to share my art timeline with you.

2006

Left my day job for the first time. I had absolutely no plan and wasn’t even making much money from my art yet. Thinking I could wing it lasted for about a year. When my savings ran out, I headed back to an office job. Whomp whomp.

2008

Left my day job for good. I spent the previous year working an office job and managing my thriving Etsy shop. It wasn’t fun working 40 hours a week at my day job then also working evenings and weekends on my Etsy shop, but when you’re trying to build an art biz, you do what you have to do. By August 2008, my Etsy shop earnings matched my day job earnings and that was good enough for me to quit my day job.

During 2007 and 2008, my entire art income was from my Etsy shop. I sold tiny watercolor paintings, art prints, and stationery, and maybe around $30K/year.

2009

My first freelance client, a clear stamp manufacturer, found me through my Etsy shop and was my first taste of diversifying my income. My Etsy shop would be so busy during the holidays and then barely busy the rest of the year, so having some freelance income helped to balance things out.

2010 – 2012

More illustration projects started coming my way because of my Etsy shop, because I was sharing my art consistently. Mudpuppy hired me to illustrate a fairy sticker book and it ended up being the first of several projects we worked on over the years. Repeat clients are the best, y’all! During this time, I also illustrated my first books, two personalized children’s books with Chronicle Books. Those were my first five-figure projects and I felt like I’d hit the big time!

2013 & 2014

Well, turns out, I didn’t hit the big time. Honestly, I thought those Chronicle Books projects would launch my career as a children’s book illustrator and they really didn’t. I felt disappointed and I was tired of running my Etsy shop and really didn’t know where to take my art career next. I was still getting freelance clients, doing personal commissions, dabbling in art licensing, and running my Etsy shop.

Stuck in the cycle of chasing money, these were not my best years.

Instead of discovering what I wanted to create and build, I would scurry along trying out what seemed to work for this artist and or that artist. Most of it didn’t work for me, probably because it didn’t call to me and because I made a half-hearted effort at those things I wasn’t truly invested in.

By the end of 2014, I started searching for a day job again.

But my husband convinced me to give it one more year. He gave up his art dreams for a corporate job and I think he wanted me to feel like I’d really given it my all before I quit my art business.

I took a week off from everything. I thought about what I wanted from my illustration career. I thought about what I didn’t want too. I felt the call of children’s book illustration, so that went to the top of my list. Right below it: art licensing. And a note that I didn’t want to run my Etsy shop anymore.

2015

This was a year of big changes and I started it out with some coaching to help me refocus my portfolio for children’s book illustration. Making cute art for an Etsy shop and making narrative art are certainly not the same thing and I needed a hard pivot for my portfolio.

January was spent working on my portfolio, rethinking my approach to marketing, and making a plan to find an agent.

As my self-imposed deadline for finding an agent loomed, I chickened out on submitting to my top pick, the Bright Agency, because I didn’t feel like my work was ready. Believe it or not, two days after I decided I wasn’t ready, Bright contacted me with an offer for representation! Is that serendipity or what?

(It’s also a perfect example of why you should go ahead and do the big thing that’s on your list. You’ll never REALLY feel ready and chances are, you are.)

So I got an agent and then I knew I’d finally made it big!

Yeah, I’m kidding and am absolutely convinced now that there is no big, defining ‘I’ve made it’ moment! But getting an agent made me feel confident and that was a beautiful thing.

2016 & 2017

After an initial bit of unsureness, I found my calling as a nature illustrator and started illustrating nonfiction children’s books. The pay wasn’t stellar, usually under $10K, and I worked long hours to earn around $40K. In 2017, I closed my Etsy shop for good and started thinking about other ways to diversify my income. Working long hours illustrating books couldn’t last for too long. I needed to find other income streams that I felt passionate about, preferably those that didn’t require long hours too.

2018

As my art skill has improved, the fees I’m offered for children’s book illustration have also improved. 2018 is the first year I can comfortably say ‘no’ to projects that don’t feel exciting or pay well. That’s a good feeling! This is also the year that I start focusing on teaching as a major income stream. Between children’s books, teaching, and designing greeting cards, I hit the $100K mark for the first time in my illustration career, and I feel how powerful diverse, scalable income sources are.

2019

I continue to be more selective about the projects I take on and sign a contract for my highest paying book project thus far.  I am happily in that sweet spot where the project fees are higher so I can pick and choose what I want to work on and give myself time to teach classes and build even more scalable income. In 2019, I make over $125K, with about half of that from illustrating books.

2020

It’s my best year yet. I took a big leap and launched Illustration Career Jumpstart, a class didn’t just help new illustrators find their path, but also helped lead me towards a career pivot that I’m currently leaning into. In 2020, I took on fewer book projects than ever before and because I have scalable income from the classes I teach and a few other things, I could take more time to get back into my sketchbooks, to figure out what kind of art I wanted to make now. Still working on that last bit, to be honest. In 2020, I made $200K in revenue from my art business and if you told 2008 Steph what the future held, she wouldn’t have believed it.

As I continue to share in this space, I’m going to talk more about the things that help me earn six figures and the things that really held me back from success when I started out.

For today,  I’m hoping that my art timeline gives you a bit of hope in return. My illustration path has been a slow and steady one. There is nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with someone finding success quite quickly either. We’re all different folks with different goals, different lives, and different obstacles to overcome.

If you’re feeling down today because you’re not where you think you should be, let that go. You might be in a tough spot right now, but it’s not forever. You’ll keep trying and maybe failing and then you’ll try again and again. One day you’re going to look back and be shocked at how far you’ve come.

You’re an illustrator. You can create your own future.


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  1. Liane says:

    Thank you Stephanie for your transparency ! It does reaaaally help going through my illustrator’s journey ^^ Well, it seems I just have to be patient…

  2. Catarina says:

    This was one of the best posts ever! So honest and wow you even share your earnings; such an emotional ride to read it, there are twists and turns, and one can relate with wanting to give up or not submitting to dream client/agent/whatever. Yes, this post makes me hopeful. Thank you

  3. a says:

    Thank you for your honestly and sharing your realistic views on expectations, this is what I needed to read right now to keep my motivation going, thank you x

  4. Cathy says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. It really helps me to hear the ups and downs. Of course I assume success travels in a straight upward direction. Thank you for giving me the encouragement that I needed today! Especially appreciate you sharing your earnings. It gives me some context and something to shoot for/wish for. Thanks, Stephanie!

  5. Jenn B says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I realize I haven’t been willing to do the hard work of vision/goal planning. Your recent posts have been so helpful in getting me thinking. Now I need to participate in the doing.

    • Having goals and making actual plans to achieve them made all the difference for me. I spent so many years just floating around chasing money here and there. It was so tiring! Then when I started setting goals and doing some real planning, I was able to hit my financial goals with ease and stop working myself half to death. Funny what writing a few things down on paper will do ?

  6. Natalia says:

    Thank you for being so honest with us. I’d does help a bit to keep going and hope it will work out.

  7. Emma Carpendale says:

    Brilliant post and very inspiring, thank you! x

  8. Mary Jane Muir says:

    Thank you for this post. You cheered me up today.

  9. Lisa Johnston Hancock says:

    This is awesome to read! Thank you Steph! About 4 years ago I joined SCBWI and made the pivot to "children’s book illustrator." I also have spent a lot of time developing my portfolio (your Picture Book group with Denise Holmes was such an inspiration), participating in critique groups and making connections. I recently got an agent and am looking forward to new projects. I’m also starting to write my own stories and feeling more confident. Although, I know that I still have a long way to go. Thank you for sharing your path! This is truly helpful.

  10. Anna says:

    Thank you for this post! To be honest, I wonder if the prices in UK are so much different from what you get as an illustrator in Germany? During my 15 years of illustrating carreer I have never ever met someone who made 100K or even 50K. Illustrating childrenbooks is a nice job, but it’s really hard to make ends meet. There are just too many good illustrators out there, why should publishers pay more, if they will always find someone who will accept their low prices?
    For me in personal, as a half-day-working mum, it’s extra hard to get even near anything of making ends meet. After I took 3 years off taking care of my child, I’m now starting at point zero. Maybe my timeline will take another 10 years from now on, to get to an acceptable financial level 😉 if not, I’m moving to UK!

    • Well, I live in the US and do work with mostly US publishers these days and yes, the fees are much higher here because it’s a much larger market, I think. But I still don’t make all my income just from children’s books. My highest year for only children’s book was about $75K and I worked ridiculous long hours to make that happen.

      If you haven’t checked it out yet, I hosted a children’s book illustrator survey a couple of months ago and compiled all the results here along with some of my thoughts on how children’s book illustrators can build sustainable careers: https://www.learnwithsfc.com/blog/childrens-illustrator-income

  11. Hannah says:

    Such an inspiring and motivating post, thanks Steph!

  12. Marjie Hill says:

    This post is great encouragement—thank you so much! It brings fresh perspective and a challenge—am I willing to focus, plan, and work with that long goal in mind? Time for me to stop wandering!

  13. fran says:

    I love this post because this is exactly how I feel and get so discouraged at my own timeline. Thank you!

  14. Patti says:

    Thank you so much for this post and for your story. I have a day job and it’s hard to put all the time in to my art career dreams. There are so many pieces! I started painting and drawing about 3 years ago and have been using Procreate primarily for about a year. Every time I sit down to create, I spend so much time deciding on the style and the colors. One of my main goals right now is to get clearer on my style and colors so this part is a little more automatic. I’ve also decided to get some passive income streams started with print on demand and maybe teaching on Skillshare. In the meantime I can build my portfolio and eventually get some licensing work. Your post helped me feel a little more normal and hopeful. But – I feel so bewildered most of the time.

  15. Elaine Duree says:

    Thank you, love this timeline share. I am a Mother of five. I want to become a children’s book illustrator. I have been following your nature art on Instagram, I resonate with your style. I would love to learn more from you and save myself some errors mothers of five can’t afford.
    What do you recommend I start with?
    Thank you!

  16. Monica says:

    This is inspiring. I lost focus of my passion, but I’m ready to take control and start again. I’m debating whether to pursue Art as a career or to hold on to what I have, and just create time and space to navigate that artistic path again. Subscribing to these resources was the best decision I’ve made. Thank you.

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