Resources and Freelance advice:
Beginning an Illustration Career:
1) Always keep searching for more advice
Google “advice for illustrators” and a host of interviews with professionals with probably both more experience and different experience than myself will show up. No illustration career is the same so gather as much information you can from as many sources as you can. Reach out to people and ask questions. Keep what makes sense and what helps you meet your goals, discard what doesn’t.
2) Take it slow:
Working towards a freelance illustration career while you're still employed at another job can be a safe way to transition to a full-time illustration career. Some people are able to jump right into the industry, making a living wage right at the get-go but many are not (and that’s ok and I would argue, normal).
When I was starting out, I worked part-time at non-creative jobs while I was building up my portfolio and client list. I treated illustration as a second job- spending evenings making personal work, doing research or doing assignments for clients. That way, I still had a dependable source of income but was also actively building a freelance career. Eventually I was able to get enough regular freelance work to pay my bills so I quit my other job and began to do illustration full-time.
Make personal work. If you haven’t worked for any clients yet, give yourself practice assignments and use those to build a portfolio. This can:
a) help develop your skills
b) build up your portfolio
c) produce examples you can share on social media or show to future clients.
When you make new, better work, use it to replace the older, less successful (or less enjoyable) work in your portfolio. Clients will hire you based on the work they see in your portfolio so it's best that this work reflects what you like to do (otherwise freelancing won't be that enjoyable). For example, If all you want to do is create illustrated maps then make illustrated maps! If you want to make book covers, practice illustrating book covers! Clients hire based on the work they see in your portfolio.
Getting hired by clients means you have to know who those clients are and how to reach them. It's helpful to determine what kind of work you want to do then figure out who is commissioning that sort of work. Google is your friend. Use it, often.
5) Role models:
I’ve heard this called “career stalking” It can be helpful to find already successful creative freelancers and using them as role models for your own career. For example - if you were interested in lettering, maybe you’re researching people who are successful lettering artists.
The idea is not to copy the work they're making but observe why their work is successful - do they have a unique, marketable style? Are they great at self-promotion? Do they have more than one skill-set? Who are their clients?
Apply these observations to your own work. Maybe your work needs to be stronger or doesn’t stand out enough from the crowd or maybe you need to work on your self-promotion or maybe you’re not sending your work to the right clients?
6) Social Media & Self-Promotion:
Have a portfolio website with examples of your work as well as clear contact information for clients. Sharing work on places like Instagram and Twitter can also help get your work get seen (but remember, “likes” and “followers” doesn’t equal money in your pocket so this can’t be the only way you promote your work). You can also research art directors and follow them on social media sites.
Email samples of your work to art directors who have published contact info. This applies to work emails only! DO NOT send your work to their personal emails. A work email should have the company they work for in the address.
Learn how to “self-promote” to get your work in front of clients. Drawn and Drafted’s Art Business Bootcamp PDF’s can teach you about this!
7) Be patient:
It can take quite a bit of time to build a successful freelance career. It's easy to get discouraged but a sustainable career that you’re passionate about is worth the wait, right? Careers aren’t built on skill alone, you also need patience and persistence.
8) Be kind:
The illustration community is quite small so being known as nice, hard-working, dependable sort of person can go a long way. Most art directors would rather work with a "good" illustrator who is pleasant, manages their time well and hits their deadlines rather than a "great" illustrator who maybe isn't very nice to work with or is unreliable.
9) Be careful:
Don't sacrifice your well-being for a career. There is no shame in having to take on other, non-creative jobs to pay the bills or saying no to a creative job that feels exploitative or wrong for your career.
Unfortunately, illustration is often a career for the privileged. There are no benefits, no health plans, no guarantee that you’ll get paid each month, no mat leave, etc. Having more money (or a living situation that allows your living expenses to be low) means that one is able to survive long stretches without getting an assignment or getting paid. It means one might be able to afford art school or classes to boost their skills or a benefits plan. It can mean that one is able to live in a more expensive place where it’s easier to attend industry parties and events with art directors and fellow illustrators and develop a network. Keep this in mind and don’t compare your journey to freelance to others.
A freelancer rarely knows how much money they'll be making month-to-month which can make budgeting difficult. Being mindful when managing your money, having at a few months worth of expenses in your savings account and building up an emergency fund can help alleviate the stress of irregular employment. This takes time (believe me, I know) but being prepared can save you a lot of heart-ache.
10) Remember, this is a business:
Freelance illustration doesn’t mean drawing all day- you’ll be running a small business. You need to act professionally with clients, manage your time and meet your deadlines. You need to be comfortable reading contracts, invoicing clients (re-invoicing clients if they forget to pay you), marketing yourself, keeping spreadsheets of your income and expenses, paying taxes (which is a lot more complicated as a freelancer), charging taxes, etc… There are online classes that can teach you some of these things (see my “Resources” section above).
You might also consider finding an agent to represent you. Be sure to do A LOT of research if you take this route. You need to know the difference between an ethical agent and an unethical one. How much work are their clients getting? Do they expect to take a portion of the fee for work they did not assist you in getting? Do they pay on time? Are they easy to work with? Are they well-regarded in the industry? Can you easily sever the relationship if things aren’t working out?
And remember, an agent works on commission. If they’re not certain you will be able to bring in work, they won’t be interested in working with you.
If you’ve decided that freelancing isn’t for you, you might consider applying for work at company where you can use your skills (a publishing house, a design company, gaming company, animation studio, etc). This route often offers more financial security and can often offer benefits that you wouldn’t get as a freelancer.
Resources - A Small List of Ones I FInd useful:
Drawn and Drafted - Resources about the business side of creative freelance careers from real life art directors
Make Your Art Work (affiliated with Drawn and Drafted) - online art business bootcamp classes and pdf guides!
Dear Art Director - Real life art directors answer questions on a variety of topics.
Illustration Age - a great site dedicated to illustration - articles, features, classes, podcasts and other resources.
Graphic Artist Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines, 15th Edition - a handy book that covers all aspects of illustration as a business including “suggested” rates (but always use your best judgement) .
Creative Pep Talk Podcast - hosted by illustrator Andy J. Pizza - interviews with illustrators and topics important for illustrators.
Classes by Lauren Hom - online classes about lettering, inking, and how to make your passion project a professional.
Taxes for Freelancers by Cali Ciesemier - advice for US residents on doing taxes as a freelance illustrator.