How did you first make it in the illustration industry? What steps would you recommend to artists looking to start working professionally?
I started drawing cheap quarter-pages and character vignettes for RPG companies at bargain-basement prices, and I slowly networked that into better and better jobs through a general policy of "be nice, don't drop the ball". It took a loooong time and a lot of low-rent work.
I hooked up with Brandon in 2008, when I read Mistborn and drew up some fan-art, posted that to his forums at what turned out to be the perfect time (which I had no way of knowing, so that's my lottery ticket story :)
Longer Version for Aspiring Artists who want to hear some Real TalkTM :
I've been "working professionally" (getting paid to draw) a lot longer than I've been "making it" (getting paid enough to live on just by drawing)... and I've done most of it without mentoring, so my traditional learning process has been something along the lines of "get it horribly wrong, and then fix it, rinse-repeat".
All this is to say I may not be a good role model. But I started out pretty low and I'm doing all right today, so maybe I can contribute something useful.
More than anything, I think it's more important to love doing it than to love being it... If I never make it in The Big Time, I still do it. It's the activity itself you're enjoying, not the status or the rewards. When I do succeed, I often find those rewards and the status are nice, but they're fleeting and the only thing that keeps 'em coming is more work.
You do good work, you get more work. It's an never-ending cycle, but that's a fine thing so long as you love working.
I recommend learning the fundamental basics put forth by classical illustrators like Andrew Loomis. Sometimes all that formal stuff feels boring and static and it's hard to relate it to what you really want to do, like you're being stuffed into a conformity box. But believe me, if you can master that stuff and learn to use it, you can do anything in any style you like and it will always look solid. Look around at the best of the best, see the fundamentals in play in their work, recognize that you can take that stodgy mathy rules-laden stuff and make anything with it.
Persevere. I started getting paid to draw when I was 18. I stopped working at "real jobs" when I was 28. I started getting the work I'm most proud of today when I was 32.
That's a long time, I pretty much went through my entire youth without ever knowing if I'd succeed. But I've been drawing all my life, and I really don't know what else I would do. So even if it meant that I worked a 32 week shift at Sunglass Hut while I drew shitty T-shirt designs for anyone who'd pay me $50, I never stopped working or saw myself as anything other than a craftsman.
Lots of people make it happen faster. Even more people never make it happen at all. But you can't lose the game if you keep on playing.