How I went from casual doodling to drawing professionally within a year

Over the course of 2015, I went from a graphic designer and casual doodler to a professional illustrator. One thing to note is that I did not start out as a novice- I’ve been drawing since childhood and have a lot of practice, but I experienced such a large shift because of hard work, practice, focus, networking, and some luck! Read on for the full story and applications for you:

“More often than not, finding out what you love doing most is about recovering an old love or an inescapable truth that has been silenced for years, even decades. When you come to your dream job, your thing, it is rarely a first encounter. It’s usually a reunion.”

― Jon Acuff, “Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job and Your Dream Job”

January 2015: I was working as a designer in College Station, Texas. A friend of mine in Houston needed an illustrator for some whiteboard videos their studio was doing, and he remembered some casual drawings I had posted on Instagram and my office whiteboard, and asked if I could do the job. I hadn’t drawn much since college, but said “yes!” It turned out to be the most fun gig I’d done in ages and I posted the final video to my Dribbble portfolio.

February: I left Texas and came to Nashville for a new design job. 2 days after I started, I went to a “Do Over Club” hosted by New York Times best-selling author Jon Acuff. These meet-ups were focused on the new content in Jon’s new book “Do Over” and also gave people a place to network, collaborate, and celebrate wins. Jon mentioned something close to the quote above about finding your passion. Jon prompted us with questions like “What have you loved since you were a kid?” “What do people compliment you on?” “What do you think is really easy that everyone else thinks is hard?” and I came up with my answer: Drawing. I could not make sense of how to turn that passion into a career (I’m practical to a fault in my approach to everything), so I tucked it away in the back of my mind and said a shallow, somewhat faithless prayer asking God to reveal to me how that could work.

March: A company saw my whiteboard video post on Dribbble and asked if I would be interested in working with them. Travel the country and get paid to learn and draw? Yes, please! I started practicing sketchnotes, and they were pretty terrible. My boss and I later met in person at Jon’s book launch for “Do Over” (for which he did the illustrations). Interesting how we were all connected already…

April: I attended the Creative South Conference feeling energized and pumped about my future in design. I left the conference a day early to attend a sketchnote workshop back in Nashville with Mike Rohde. I left the workshop more excited than I can remember being about anything, even the conference I just left- which is saying a lot! I wanted to sketchnote everything every day. The workshop was extremely helpful and I noticed a huge difference in the quality of my notes afterwards due to Mike’s instruction and the practice. I started taking sketchnotes at every event I attended from church to Creative Mornings.

May: My pastor, Jamie George, reached out and asked to meet. He admired my sketchnotes and asked if the church could share them on social media and if I would be willing to illustrate some sermon teasers for a series (I said yes).

June: I had my first graphic recording gig at a leadership conference at my church.

July: I did my second graphic recording for the Kinekt conference in Franklin, TN. I also got my formal job training.

August: While working with a friend on a design project, I felt unhappy with my graphics skill level and spent some time reflecting on my career choices. I hadn’t surrounded myself with enough mentors or peers to be at the level of design I thought I should be at that point. I don’t believe it’s ever too late to improve, but in my case, I felt that I had 2 choices: I could either spend a lot of time and energy getting better at design, or I could spend a lot of time and energy doing what I really love- drawing. I love graphic design, but I love drawing more.

October: I challenged myself to do one sketchnote a day for the month of October, and had my first sketchnote gig here in Nashville for the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management. I also traveled back to Houston to illustrate for two more whiteboard videos for my friend.

December: I sent out an illustrated, sketchnote-style Christmas card. While expensive to print and send, I got a lot of compliments and loved creating something just for people to enjoy for free. Jon Acuff also tweeted a picture of the card which gave me a huge bump in my online following (Thanks, Jon!) AND it gained me a book illustration client!

Takeaways for you:

  1. Share your work, even if you aren’t proud of it. If you can’t bring yourself to share it, at least keep it so you can go back and see how much you’ve grown.
  2. Don’t ignore your passions. They will come back to haunt you sooner or later. Not everyone can turn their passion into a career, but don’t ignore that little voice saying “let’s do more of that.”
  3. There is no such thing as an overnight success. Tomorrow’s success starts with you taking action right now. Small changes and developments add up to big things. Say yes. Practice more. Show up every day.