Don't Say 'No' and Try New Things
I’ve learned that you should never say no to a project until you find out as much info as you can even if that means spending some time conversing back and forth just to figure out if you can work something out with the client. Sometimes the people who start out wanting you to work for free or for a split profit situation is the one who ends up paying you the most if you only take the time to talk with them and be honest about your pricing. It can also be instinct to say no if they want something done sooner than you could provide it. Always ask them if they are willing to wait a few months if you already have a project going as you’ll be surprised how many will wait. Sometimes the initial gig may be too small or not of interest to you but I’ve had logos turn into more work and I had a CD cover that lead to my first book. I think in a way it’s best to start out a bit ignorant as you will have less fear to try new stuff. I’ve done a bunch of random contests and illustration work for individual clients in between books to stay in business. Everything from sign painting, logos, pet portraits, architectural renderings, Point of purchase display illustration, landscape painting etc. etc. Some things you’ll enjoy and some you’ll never do again. I did some portrait paintings and quickly learned that wasn’t my best skill but then discovered a particular style of caricature that was more in my comfort zone. The one place I would advise to say no for sure is if they want you to work for free or for some sort of split the profit scheme and won't budge on that. don’t do work for free unless it's a competition or you are getting compensated with something comparable to the worth of your work. Children's illustration for example is filled with self publishing authors who want you to work for split profit scheme but who may never even figure out how to get their books published in the first place.
Get a Website and Build a Portfolio
The number one thing I can suggest is to build a website or at least a blog to post your art. No one will hire you if they can’t see your work samples. Every single illustration gig I ever received started with me sending a link to my illustration portfolio for potential clients to view. Most potential clients are looking amongst tons of illustrators at once and most illustrators already have websites and such so if you don’t have one, the other illustrator’s will beat you every time. I built an easy website on freewebs.com now called webs.com . If you don’t have time to worry about designing your own website then get on blogger.com and post some pics onto a blog to send potential clients to. There are of course large illustration portfolio websites but you want your own little nook on the web to send people to where they wont be tempted by the work of thousands of talented illustrators.
Do your best in college or in your current state to make the best art you can, so that when you branch out into illustration as full time career and build a website, you will already have some great pieces to show to potential clients and not just some paintings of fruit and nudes. I wish I could show you my very first website and the images I launched on it so you could see how far I’ve come over the past few years. Post what you have and just keep working at it and make more and more new and better stuff to replace the old stuff. When you start looking back on the old stuff , and can see all of the flaws , you’ll know you’re making progress.
Even most art competitions are debatable as many are just out to get your money. For the first few years of my career, winning competitions kept me in business but I did my research and tried to only enter competitions I felt I had a chance to win where the judges would be interested in my style of art.
Learn the Major Illustration Digital Software
If I had to say one program to learn, Adobe Photoshop would have to be the one. Adobe Photoshop elements is a smaller version that basically does everything I need it to do and is much cheaper. I got a free copy with a cheap digital camera and more recently got a copy with a new drawing tablet. You can also get free photo editing software online like Gimp. That will let you re-size and crop art for the web as well as a ton of other stuff I’ve come to rely on it for. In the past few years I made the switch to digital art using photoshop to create final art. The majority of publishers are only interested in digital art in my experience as its easier for them to request changes, it's faster and they don't have to worry about scanning/digitizing the original art. More recently I started working with vector art software called Inkscape which is basically a free version of Adobe Illustrator. That software is great for logos and images that will need to be scalable for banners, truck decals etc. and of course many artists use it for more graphic styles of illustration or for creating smooth line drawings.
Constantly Promote Your Work
I would also say it’s important to constantly promote yourself and search for your next gig while working on your current gig so you won’t be out of work for two months in between each project. In college we were told that it wasn't the most talented who would succeed but rather the most persistent and those with the best contacts. Artists tend to be a very quiet folk who keep to themselves. In order to break into illustration you really need to be able to self promote constantly and almost have to overcome your own desire to sit in a corner and draw, without others seeing your art. No matter how good you become as an artist you simply won't get the jobs unless you let people know who you are.
You could start with something as easy as doing marketing e-mails about your progress. I used to send them out once a month but these days it’s getting to be more like a couple of times a year. That basically lists art competitions I’ve entered, galleries, book reading events coming up, new blog posts, projects I’m working on and sometimes helpful websites and advice for my art friends on the list. I include friends, family, past clients etc. as a way of keeping me and my art on people’s minds and hopefully generate more work. It’s also been a great way to hear back from old friends about what’s going on in their lives.
During your senior year you are asked to create mailer postcard illustrations. At first it can be tempting to think those won't amount to much but My first real publishing gig with a brick and mortar publisher came as result of those mailers I did my senior year. That client has now hired me three times.
Another way I've started to get recognition for my work in my hometown is by attending various craft fairs and having gallery shows of my work. I generally don't make a ton of money at the actual events but I do often meet people at those events who become good clients asking me to work on small projects every now and then. Give out tons of business cards and chat with the other artists at the events to learn from them. I've had people buy stuff on my etsy store who I met in person at a craft fair, one guy has commissioned me for about $500 worth of work over the years, A lady from one gallery book reading event later contacted me to do a book reading at a local school which paid $200 plus sale of any books.
You'll find many ways to promote. Just do your best to post your work all over the web on sites like artwanted.com, deviantart.com, craig's list ads, facebook, linkedin, children's illustrators.com, zazzle, etsy, tophatter etc. etc.