***Update*** This article has moved over to illonotes.com, a blog all about the business of freelance illustration.
This is part one of a blog series intended to share some knowledge about the business of freelance illustration. A career in illustration doesn’t just involve drawing nice things, you need to be able to promote yourself, handle social media accounts, contact art directors, record your income and expenses, file a tax return, maintain your website regularly, write contracts, make sure you actually get paid…the to do list goes on. And it’s usually things you don’t get taught by your tutors so you just have to figure it out as you go along (my first self assessment was a nightmare because I had 6 day jobs in one year and couldn’t find any of my payslips!).
I don’t claim to know everything, I’m not a seasoned pro. Absolutely no way, I’m still figuring some stuff out. But if I can help one person not make one of the painful mistakes I have made, then we’re good. Below are some brief points to get started, we’ll cover them in more detail as the series goes on. (Also, please do feel free to leave comments if you have some ace tips yourself or tweet me @taaryn_b if there’s a particular topic you’d like to see)
1. Think about what kind of work you’d like to do
Most people I know start off in editorial illustration. It’s a good area if you’re starting out as art directors in this field are more likely to take a chance on someone new. Plus, you can build up your portfolio with local magazines. BUT! Editorial illustration is usually the lowest paid with the quickest turnaround times. Areas such as packaging and advertising generally come with bigger budgets (although to be fair, no one gets into illustration for the money!). You can also illustrate for stationery, books, products, surface patterns...do your research!
2. Get drawing
Right, so you’ve now figured out where you want your work to be seen. So now it’s time to make some work. But don’t just draw any old thing and slap it in your portfolio. Be focused and create the work you want to be commissioned for. Don’t expect an art director to look at your portfolio and think you’re suitable for a kid’s book if there’s nothing remotely similar in there. I keep a list on my notice board of personal briefs relating to work I want to do and I make the time to work my way through it.
3. Create a portfolio website
Now you’ve got some new work behind you, it’s time to show it off on your website. Not a dribbble page, not a tumblr, an actual website. You’re a professional now. If you can’t code, I’d recommend something like Squarespace. It’s so easy to get up and running, everything I need is in one place and most importantly, it’s responsive and looks super. You don’t need anything flashy, just let the work speak for itself. Make sure you get yourself a custom domain name. And don’t forget about email. Once you’ve got your own domain name, apply it to your email. None of this hotmail crud. No excuses either as Zoho does free business emailing hosting.
4. Set your business up
I can only speak for UK folk on this matter, but let HRMC know as soon as that you’re going to be self employed. You can do it online here. Oh and for the love of god, just keep any letters they send you.
5. Share your work on social media
A lot of my work and website traffic has come through Twitter so it pays to show off sometimes. Make friends with other folk in the industry, get involved in discussions and make the most of visual platforms like Instagram and Pinterest. And don’t just show your finished pieces, remember to take photos of the process!
6. Start hustling
So how do you get the actual work? Research magazines, publishers and studios that commission work similar to yours. This is really important, don’t waste time on places where your work doesn’t fit. And then get on the internet and Linkedin to find out who the important people are.
7. Make friends with other illustrators
Illustration is a lonely career and you’ll need like minded people around you to keep sane and help you out in tough times. See if there’s a meet up in your city and if not, be the person to start it. I’ve said it so many times before, but illustrators are the most friendly people ever, especially to other illustrators. Be nice to other people, appreciate their work and share it without expecting anything back and you’ll get off to a good start making new friendships.
8. Get organised
I can’t stress how important this once is. Once you get into the swing of things, there’ll be so many things you need to do. Even when you’re quiet, you should be always doing something! I keep a track of things I need to do with Trello and Google Keep and also set reminders to scan and file all my receipts and payslips at the end of the month. There’s a lot of planning and organisation tools out there, do a bit of research and find out which one works best for you.
9. Don’t be in a rush to drop your day job
Being a successful illustrator is a long game, it’s not going to work out overnight. So you’ll need some stability and some regular money coming in.
10. Try not to work for free
I say “try not to” because I’ve done it before. Three times in total, once for a local magazine when I had no portfolio and twice for small charities. For me, this was fine because I wasn’t being exploited and I was happy to donate my time.
Unfortunately, there are clients out there (and especially some big name ones too) who clearly have the budget but are unwilling to spend it on quality illustration because they just don’t believe it’s worth anything. But they can promise you all the “exposure” in the world. There’s some that just don’t view it as a real job and that because you love creating, you’ll happily do it for free. If everybody gets paid but you, don’t even waste time on these people, delete that email and make your own exposure. If you’re going to work for free, do it for yourself.
This includes spec work. Spec work is where a client asks to see some concepts or finished work to win the job. A dream client that I had been dying to work with contacted me earlier in the year to pitch for some work for an event they were doing. Honestly, I was flattered that they emailed me and nearly had my head turned. After going over the brief and the budget with a fine tooth comb, I realised they were asking for an awful lot of work BEFORE the job was even guaranteed. A big fancy pants agency might be fine with doing that, but I’m just one person, that’s a lot of my time taken up working for free. No thanks.
And that’s it for now. Over the following weeks, I’ll go into more detail on pricing and usage fees, contracts, invoices, bookkeeping, self promotion and client relations so keep an eye out!