Do you have a personal project? Should you start one? Personal projects can be rewarding in a lot of ways, but for me the real benefit is skill building. You can spend all day reading books and watching videos of other people making art, but nothing builds real skills like actually doing the thing you want to learn.
When I graduated from college, I was hired as an in-house graphic designer. That doesn't sound too weird unless I tell you that I majored in Advertising and never learned how to use Photoshop. I'd played around with it some, but didn't find it to be very intuitive, so I never used it for any school portfolio projects. I had taken a one hour Photoshop lab where the instructor walked us through a project that he had created, but I never used it to make anything on my own. On my first day of work, when I was asked to make a marketing piece in Photoshop I said, "Sure. I can do that." Then I panicked. Online learning wasn't really a thing back then, so as soon as lunch rolled around, I ran out and bought a copy of Photoshop CS2 Classroom in a Book (did I mention this was a long time ago?).
By the end of the week I had the hang of it, and a few months later I could do just about anything you asked of me in Photoshop with my eyes closed and my right hand tied behind my back (you know, because I'm a lefty). Not really, but it wasn't long before I was helping my more senior co-workers troubleshoot some of their Photoshop issues. The point I'm trying to make is that I had lots of opportunities to learn Photoshop, but I didn't become an expert until I was put in a sink or swim situation and had to use it to make real work.
Act Like You've Already Been Hired
You're probably saying, well that's great. How am I supposed to get on-the-job experience if I haven't even landed the job? The answer, my friends, is personal projects!
What is it that you want to make? Graphic novels? Picture books? Animation? Book covers? Figure out what it is your passionate about making and then go make it. We get hired based on the work we've already made, so don't wait until someone has already hired you to start making stuff.
Show, Not Tell
"The only way to prove (as opposed to assert) that you are an indispensable linchpin – someone worth recruiting – is to show, not tell. Projects are the new resumes."
–Seth Godin, Linchpin
We've all heard as illustrators that we're supposed to show, not tell, but we can apply this same advice when it comes to attracting prospective clients. Examples of people who have put this philosophy into practice and reaped the rewards are all over the internet.
Wait, Rewards? What Rewards?
You might make money, you might get work, you might grow your following or help to build a community, you might even land a book deal ... or you might not. At the very least, if you give it your best effort, you are guaranteed to build your skills and if that's all you do, your project was successful.
Raina Telgemeier's popular graphic novel Smile began as a personal project: a serialized web comic about her childhood. Scholastic noticed and asked her to illustrate the Babysitters Club Graphic Novel series, which opened the door for her to write and illustrate other graphic novels in the same vein including Sisters, Drama and Ghosts.
Dani Jones is always telling us to make stuff and show it to people. She recently completed and self published a graphic novel based on Louisa May Alcott's book Little Women. She also wrote and illustrated a web comic called My Sister the Freak which she says was a major outlet for self-expression, improved her drawing skills and helped her land some of her more exciting client work. She says, "If you are trying to make a living as a creative person, find something you like to do and do it ... If you make things of value, people will notice it. There is no prerequisite of experience you need to get started. Try new things, experiment a lot, share your stuff with lots of people, and don’t be afraid to mess up."
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What are you passionate about that you could turn into a personal project? What does a personal project even look like? If you're still reading and I've convinced you to start a personal project, stay tuned. Next week I'll share some ideas.