How I Became A Illustrator In A Country Where Illustration Isn’t A Field?


Gabriel Soulza is an illustrator/designer living in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. He currently divides his time by being LIV’s (social-emotional program for schools) Creative Director and freelance.

I was never great at school, to be honest. I mean, I’ve always loved history, and I read a lot, so I did pretty good at essays. But as far as Physics, Mathematics, and other sciences go: I was a total wreck. That eventually led to me failing two years. On another note, I have drawn ever since I can remember. My earliest memories would be when I used to go to my school’s library and get these huge encyclopedias to copy the images that would be different from a statue of Shiva and South American monkeys. I was trying to figure out how to illustrate all these complex shapes on paper. My first school, Sá Pereira, was more humanist, “artsy,” so I got a lot of support from teachers and organized an annual exhibition with all the kid’s artworks.

As I got older, I lost a big part of my interest in drawing in my teenage years. I learned how to play guitar while discovering punk rock, and my dream was to be in a band. The fact was that I couldn’t play that well and I didn’t know anybody who would be interested in doing Bad Religion, Anti-Flag, and Strike Anywhere covers. Most bands at the school festival were playing Beatles. So when I got to the age where I needed to choose a career and what college to go to, I still didn’t have any idea. I knew I could write, and I knew I could draw. My mother suggested that I should try Law, but I couldn’t picture myself in a suit, waking up every day to work in an office. So I went with Social Communication, which here in Brasil constitutes Journalism, Publicity, and Cinema. My goal was to work on MTV or Rolling Stones, interviewing and writing reviews for the music I loved.

In my first semester or even month, my Journalism 1 teacher said something in the lines of If you don’t wake up enjoying the smell of today’s newspaper, don’t do Journalism. There’s no such thing as 9 to 5. If a building collapses: you need to be there. If there’s a war between drug lords at Rio’s slums: you need to be there. News is a 24h job with a small budget. Either you love it, or you don’t. I didn’t. Gladly, at the time, I discovered the lowbrow art magazine Juxtapoz while scrolling online. And a whole world opened to me. Until then, what I knew about art was the classics: Salvador Dali, Michelangelo, and some Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, which my mother loved. I had no clue what people were doing today, besides some tattoo and graffiti artists. So everything was exciting to me, and I would come home every day from college straight to my computer to see what new stuff they had on the website.

Through that, I discovered two artists that changed my life: Tomer Hanuka and Yuko Shimizu. Both of them weren’t comic book artists, animators, graffiti artists, or tattooers. They were illustrators focused on editorial illustration. I had never heard about this in my entire life. Instead of working for Disney or Marvel, they were doing book covers and editorial pieces for The New York Times on complex economic, war, and political topics. At that point, I knew this is what I wanted to do for the first time in my life. I started to search for every piece of an interview they did to understand what I had to do to become an illustrator. I must point out that there’s no such thing as an Illustration major in Brasil. You could go to art school and learn how to paint, but there’s no real industry you could work on once you’ve graduated. Most of our newspapers use cartoonists and caricaturists to poke fun at politicians, but almost never illustrators. So traditional learning wasn’t an option.

The first thing I did was to get a Wacom tablet. I had already switched from Journalism to Publicity, which had an Art Direction area, which in fact was only one class during the 4 years of college. So I had to learn the programs, mostly Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, all by myself through trial and error. Although I wasn’t that much interested in what was going on at college, I was living and breathing illustration by the time I got home and improved myself as an illustrator and a designer.

First Job As A Designer

My first job as an Art Director was at a local agency as soon as I graduated. Having had only one class during the whole college period, I wasn’t prepared.
Since day one, the schedule was chaotic. At the time, the agency had probably 10 different clients, with whole campaigns, social networks, branding, etc…Most of the time, one of the Art Directors would create a KV, and the rest of us would apply it to all known and unknown banners’ sizes. There was no time to think through, have a design process. And the ambient was toxic: you had to be working on something from 9 to 5, with no stops to watch tutorials on Youtube, or else you’d get emails with reprimands. Nothing you did was good enough. The whole crew worked under a lot of stress (most of them self-medicating, as I would learn later), and we couldn’t even talk to each other, afraid of more reprimands. I worked there for one year and a half, saving money to move from my mother’s house. And by the end of it, I promised myself I would never work in a place like this again.

First Job As A Illustrator

During this time, I did one of my first real professional illustration work for the beer brewery 3Cariocas. Until this point, I would work on whatever opportunity came by. I did bar menus, lettering for a wedding lamentation, cover for a friend’s rap EP. Although the payment would be very low, I’d still have problems with the client actually paying it or doing it in a reasonable time. I knew I needed a contract. Through research, I found Stuff & Nonsense “Contract Killer.” Andy Clarke, a designer himself, made an open contract template with no use of complex legal terms but still making sure that he would be protected with rights to the work so that he could display it on his portfolio, 50% payment upfront, and the other 50% once the job is done. All the responsibilities the client and himself would be obliged to. I also found Chris Do’s Youtube Channel and learned what to have in mind while pricing your work through his video “How much do you charge for a logo?”. So when 3Cariocas approached me, I was more prepared than before.

So how did I get the job?

One day I was with my tattooer in his studio that was part of a coworking house. While we were figuring out what we were going to tattoo that day, we went to the coworking bar. They had many 3Cariocas coasters that consisted of their logo: three silhouettes of faces with only hair and bear. So I and the tattooer did the only smart thing at the moment: started drawing faces on the coasters while we were talking. I ended up liking what we did, so I posted on Instagram and tagged 3Cariocas. They loved it! That was combined with the fact that their previous illustrator was a friend of mine from school that I haven’t talked to in years but still recommended me for the job because she followed me on Instagram and knew I could draw.

So this was one of the first things I learned: make a presence online. If you can be the reference of a designer and illustrator in your circle of friends, the chance is when their friends need a service, you’ll be the first and sometimes only name they have in mind. Believe me. I still got jobs through this. I ended up doing four beer labels for 3Cariocas, the second one “Space Cake,” guaranteeing my first award on “Latin American Ilustración 7”, the same permeation that awarded my heroes Tomer and Yuko.

Advice About Cvs And Portfolios

  • Do Fantasy Projects: I could not stress this enough, both as someone who did that as I was starting, as with my current job as Creative Director where I actually evaluate designers’ CVs. You have to start somewhere, and nobody will give you a job out of nowhere (unless your uncle works at an agency or something). So you want to make book covers? Create a cover for one of your favorite books and put it on your portfolio. Or maybe you want to illustrate articles for The New York Times? Read an article and try to come up with an illustration for it. If you do this enough, you’ll get good at it. And you’ll prove to future clients that you have the tools the experience to get the job done. It will be way easier for them to give you a chance.
  • Have Focus: Nowadays, while reviewing portfolios, one of my biggest problems is figuring out: what does this person actually do? What is she or him good at? It’s common at the beginning of your career to shoot aimlessly in every direction in the hope that something sticks. I get to have a magazine project in most portfolios, a pointillism illustration they did on their wall, a logo. The thing is: nobody is good at all of this. I once read an interview with an illustrator that said that most clients come for him looking for a retake of a project he already did. For example, if he illustrated The Beauty and the Beast, someone might come with a commission for Cinderella in this style. And this is so true. A client will never know if you can build a website design if all you have in your portfolio are logos. So it would be best if you focused on whatever area you want to work in.

Following this logic: don’t put everything you’ve ever done on your portfolio. Ensure that everything in there is because you’re proud of it and would gladly do it again on a new job. For example, I’ve done a lot of editorial design in my career, but I hate it. It is something I’m not passionate about and is far from being one of my specialties. As a result: you won’t see any editorial design pieces on my portfolio. If you see my portfolio, you will easily understand that I work on branding and illustration. These are my specialties. This is how I differentiate myself and why clients come to me. And if a client still comes for me with editorial design work in mind, I’d gladly recommend a better friend and would love to work on it.

Also, Behance is a great network for designers, illustrators, and creatives alike. There you can show your entire process, and this counts a lot while applying for a job. Right now, I’m looking for an intern, and I know that by definition, the person won’t have that much experience. So I’m much more interested in seeing their process, what they think while doing their projects, and their influences. A technique I can teach them. But I don’t have time to educate them on influences and think like a designer.

How To Keep Yourself Updated?

C’mon people we live in an online world so we have no excuses for not researching. That being said I’d recommend:

  • Skillshare (online classes) – DKNG (illustration) , Aaron Draplin (design) , Victo Ngai (illustration), Yuko Shimizu (illustration), Daniel Scott (UI), Chipp Kidd (design), Paula Scher (design)

  • Podcasts – Radio Juxtapoz, The Futur with Chris Do, Being Freelance, Backstage (com Marina Colerato)

  • Newsletter – not exactly a newsletter, but Muzli is a browser plugin that shuffles art inspiration daily from the web, so every time you open a tab, there’s something new to discover

  • Websites – Abduzeedo, Under Consideration, Juxtapoz

  • CONTACT site :
  • Friends/colleagues who I would like to see share their story –

Also read How I Became a Digital Designer & Illustrator

How I Became A Illustrator In A Country Where Illustration Isn’t A Field?

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