10 Things to do after you graduate from art school

Something that most people deal with after they graduate is deciding what to do next. A lot of people feel very isolated and unsure of their skills, and find their University community unhelpful in deciding their career trajectory. You may even feel as if you have absolutely no clue what you should be doing with your life.

So, based on my experience, I’ve made a little list of things that have helped me gain some traction in the past year, or at the very least made me feel productive and allowed me to continue making work. I’ve written this mostly to apply to visual artists, but I think that the general categories apply to people seeking most any creative career. 

All illustrations are borrowed from an earlier series of mine, Fever Dream.

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1) Take some time to consider what you REALLY like to do.

What should I do with my life? You’ve probably been asking yourself this since before you even started art school. This one can be a tough egg to crack.

The simple answer, in my opinion, is that you should try to figure out what you enjoy doing (and are good at), and do that. This will help you develop goals for the next period of your life. If you want to do something that you aren’t especially good at yet, this gives you room to skill build or pursue further education. If you’d like to switch occupations entirely, you can begin making steps to do this. 

This might seem like a big, difficult question. But in reality, you’ve done lot of things. Some things you’ve liked, other things you haven’t liked. You’ve been great at some things, and completely failed at others. This is life. Try to distill your interests and separate things that will remain hobbies with things that you’re willing to put the time and effort into making financially or socially viable. Sometimes the best work can come from combinations of both.

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2) Do your research about your industry!

Obviously knowing that you love to draw but having no idea how you can make a living doing it is a bad place to be. Way too many promising artists get stumped at this point, waiting for someone to tell them what to do, or for an opportunity to land on their doorstep. The truth is that you MUST do you own research. This is super important. There are SO many resources online that have clearly outlined what you need to make a living at any variety of things, from freelance illustration, to photography and everything in between. The information is waiting for you, but you need to take the initiative to actually read and act upon it.

Check out professional organizations for the career path you’re investigating. They will likely have a lot of helpful resources available. Look at the portfolio websites of successful and new artists, and try to learn from them. Figure out how taxes for freelance income work. Research jobs in your city, and in other cities. Figure out where you can sell your work. Go the whole nine yards. Really, the more research you do, the more likely you are to stumble upon something that really clicks with you

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3) Make a PROFESSIONAL online portfolio. 

Unlike in the past, you do not have to have a lot of money or expertise to make a clean, professional online portfolio. There really is very little excuse for not taking this step reasonably soon after entering the job market for design, illustration, fine arts, or film. It is okay to consciously choose to limit your online presence, but you should be aware of how much this can limit your reach, especially in the commercial arts. This may not be as necessary for the fine arts, but I still highly recommend it.

Not only does this allow potential employers or clients to see that you are serious, it also allows people to follow your work more closely. There is a lot of competition in the arts, and having a portfolio is the least that you can do to present yourself professionally. Carefully selecting work also suggests that you are self-aware of your career trajectory, and continually working to improve.

While this is a pretty complex topic, here some tips on how to painlessly and professionally present yourself online:

  • Use your real name.
  • Take consistently lit, high quality photos of your work.
  • If your work is 2D, have it scanned in high quality. It will look much better than a cellphone photo.
  • If you have the money, get a photography studio to document larger work.
  • Use a service like Weebly or Squarespace to create a site, avoid hiring developers or other unnecessary expense. Simpler is better. 
  • Use a professional domain ie: www.yourname.com
  • You are only as good as the worst work in your portfolio, so include only your best work.
  • Curate your social media, differentiate your business and personal life.
  • Get an email address that is your actual name. Gmail works well. 
  • ​Limit the number of works that you use, less is more in most cases. 
  • Try to not use only school assignments, create new work to show that you are self-motivated. 
  • If you are pursuing a career in illustration, animation, concept art or comics, always include a selection of high-quality sketches in your portfolio.
  • ​All rules are made to be broken, but remember your goals throughout the portfolio-making process. 
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4) Make a financial plan

This might seem obvious, but a lot of new graduates get strapped for cash and end up taking a job that will not help them accomplish their goals. While this happens to everyone from time to time, you are better off preparing yourself financially in a way that will allow you to pursue your goals. How big of a goal is money for you? Are you willing to live cheaply for an extended period of time while focusing on your art? How long can you go without working? will a part time job be able to cover your expenses? Also consider grants and alternative forms of income while planning the coming months. 

These concerns are especially major if you want to make a living selling work or freelancing. There is no worse feeling than having to take a job that eats up most of your time, not being able to focus on your work, and watching your skills dull over time. You have to choose to make your work a priority as much as possible. Don’t starve, or amass huge amount of debt, but avoid unexpected problems by planning for them as best you can. 

5) Practically assess your skills, make a plan to skill build.

It is very important to keep actively improving once you finish school. There are many ways to do this, but it can be a real struggle, especially in the months and years immediately after graduating. It is super important to form positive habits and to learn to be self-motivated. These habits will carry you all throughout your life, and it completely up to you to learn them.

No one will fail you if your personal project sits on hold for months. This freedom can be very tempting, but I think that you should consider this as a time to prove yourself. Work HARDER than you did in school. Make more ambitious projects, and learn new skills. Not only will this set you apart to potential employers, it will make you a more appealing collaborator for your peers.

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6) Attend industry events, network, reach out, apply for grants. 

While you are in school, you typically develop a strong network of peers. It is easy to completely leave this behind when you are no longer seeing those people everyday, but this is a mistake. Keep in touch, attend openings, do collaborative projects. You never know when you will want to work with those peers in the future. You should also begin making contacts in whatever specific industry you’d like to go into. Go to comic conventions, talk to creators. Send your portfolio to animation companies, try to find an illustration agency. But also, don’t be weird about it!

​A lot of new grads expect that somehow they are outsmarting talent scouts and industry people by attending events. Even the highest-up executives are people, and the best way to make good connections is to be a nice person. Be friendly, ask questions, don’t talk about money. Be eager, but not annoying. Show that you would be a good person to work with. The common advice is to show people that you “make good work, and are good to work with”. Most connections will not ‘pay off’ immediately, or at all, but will help you in unexpected ways through their greater wisdom and insight into whatever world you’re trying to enter. 

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7) Make realistic goals for the next few years. 

It is always good to aim for the Sun and land among the stars, but making overly lofty goals in your time immediately after school can be discouraging. It can be especially discouraging to look at the internet and see vastly successful artists who are younger than you. Something that it took me a long time to figure out, is that the talent pool on the internet is not from your city, or even your country, but the entire world. Those people are not your competition, so it is important to keep in perspective how ‘good’ you actually need to be to be successful in your immediate surroundings. 

Also, keep in mind that the sense of urgency that you probably felt in school is not reflective of real life, at least in the beginning, and depending upon the path that you choose. There are no assignments in personal development. There is no timeline for the rest of your life, if you don’t want there to be. This can be very unsettling if you are used to having your goals pre-determined. If you are the sort of person who need structure to your life, it is important to lay out achievable goals.

So, going back to what you want to do and how you need to develop your skills, make goals based upon this. Attend a life drawing class, email 40 prospective employers, get your portfolio site out, sell at 3 conventions. These are all little steps that will not only help you grow confidence about work work, but also teach you the self-discipline necessary to pursue a sometimes very stressful career path. As your goals change throughout the months, you will begin to get a better sense of what your priorities truly are

As an aside, I highly recommend Bullet Point Journaling as a way to keep lists and keep track of your thoughts. Obviously, not everyone is a compulsive list writer, but for me, a very scatterbrained person, it helps me to keep my priorities straight. Here is a great post on how to do it.

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8) Understand that you CAN do this! Lots of people do.

Unfortunately, it is way easier to chock your unproductiveness up to ‘ laziness’ or not being good enough, than to do something to change that. Putting yourself down really won’t get you anywhere. Not in art, nor in any career path. While I’m not suggesting that you be arrogant about your own skill, you must be consciously working to improve your skill (or professionalism, or whatever) while also taking credit for your current accomplishments.

People make their living doing all kinds of ridiculous things. Art is important, design is important, people do care about and pay for these services in a wide variety of ways. The key is to figure out what you truly enjoy and are good at, and to find a way to make that a part of your overall lifestyle.

Also, perhaps most importantly, you must WORK HARD! There is no substitute for hard work, no matter your goals. If you feel like you are working your hardest to improve, even the smallest victory can be so much more satisfying. Similarly, if you are working hard, failures may not seem as significant because you’ll be trying so many things. Work hard, plow through failure, be adaptable and don’t worry about your skill level relative to every artist in the entire world. You’ll figure it out eventually, even if ‘it’ isn’t what you had originally intended. 

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9) DRAW / MAKE ART AS MUCH AS YOU CAN. PRACTICE!

Second-to-last but perhaps the most important is to MAKE MORE ART! There is no substitute for learning and growing your skills through independent practice, and working with other artists. In the past, you may have had to get a job at a studio to work on a video game, animated project or comic. This is no longer the case. Similarly, artist-run galleries make compiling and pitching exhibitions easier than ever. If you want to work on something, just do it! Make the time, do your best work, do not base your self-confidence as a maker on others’ opinions. Do what you love, and your work will be better, and people will notice.

It can be really hard to be motivated to create work right after school, with goals and deadlines gone. There are a lot of little ways to re-discover why you decided to spend four years in school doing this thing, anyways. Try drawing (/ painting / designing etc.) things that you LIKE to draw. Don’t worry about the audience. Don’t fret about the presentation. Just try to find love in what you do. It might take awhile, but this will build your confidence as an independent artist, and you’ll be able to transfer this confidence to bigger, more public projects.

Do you feel like your skills are lacking? Read tutorials or watch videos online. It is not necessary to take classes simply to improve your skills. There is no substitute for practice. Make work, critique it yourself, and change your approach accordingly. Learning to critique your own work will not only make you a stronger artist, but make you better to work with and more conscious of your decisions. 

Try really hard to draw EVERY DAY. Anything. A doodle. A study in the park. A Pokemon. Whatever keeps your clock ticking. It will only improve your confidence and help you to grow as a maker. 

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10) Don’t be too hard on yourself. 

Perhaps most importantly – don’t be afraid to go with the flow.

Miss a drawing day? Don’t worry– you can make it up tomorrow. Did you chicken out before a big event and stay home? That’s okay– even the most social people have bad days. Did someone totally bash a piece that you were proud of? Don’t let other people’s opinions sway you from doing what you enjoy. Have you already been out of school for years and have barely painted at all? No worries- there’s no better time than now. 

In any creative career choice, being able to bounce back from failure, remain motivated after success and look at the bigger picture of why you are doing what you are is absolutely vital to being ‘successful’. After all, you probably aren’t going to sell a painting for a million dollars, or immediately get signed to the best agency in the country. We read too many stories that simply people’s lives to make it seem like success is always a door knock. It isn’t. Being happy with what you are doing, and where you are going is all relative. Don’t get too caught up in the future, and definitely don’t linger on the past. Make stuff, enjoy yourself. We only get so much time on this space pebble.

Bonus tips

These are just a few things that I think are also important.

  • Share your skills. If you’re good at something, write about it, share it. Teaching is one of the best ways to learn.
  • Try things that you haven’t done before. Learn an instrument. Go for hikes. Listen to the entire discography of Prince. Inspiration comes from weird places.
  • Be open. If an opportunity comes your way that isn’t exactly what you were expecting, go for it. 
  • Avoid people asking for free work for ‘exposure’ or ‘portfolio building’ and create your own projects instead. These situations usually result in a project which you are unhappy with, anyways.
Thanks for reading, and good luck out there!
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