You may be graduating from an illustration degree very shortly, or throughout your career in another creative sector realised you have a passion for illustration – but you’re feeling unsure about setting out on your own. You may be wondering how you could ever make a living purely off illustration, where to begin freelancing – or if that’s even the best option for you right now.
Setting up as a freelance illustrator can be a scary career move, but with the right enthusiasm, willingness to work long hours and a few contacts under your belt, you'll be ready for just this moment.
Brooklyn-based freelance illustrator Abbey Lossing – who used to work for the likes of BuzzFeed and Vice – and UK illustrator, author of Champagne and Wax Crayons and host of the Arrest All Mimics Podcast Ben Tallon explain the ins and outs of how to set up as a freelance illustrator. British freelance illustrator and animator Peter Henderson, now based in Latin America, discusses how to apply for a job at an agency (most illustrators do this first to get a stable income).
Find practical advice on whether you should go freelance straight out of university or not, managing money, how to find work and create contacts, what’s important to have on your website, which social media platforms you should be advertising yourself on, how to balance illustration with another full-time job and how to mentally prepare for a freelance lifestyle.
Jump down to a specific topic:
Can I successfully go freelance straight out of university?
How to mentally prepare for a freelance lifestyle
The best way to advertise your work
Juggling illustration with other full-time work
Finding work and networking
How much time should I be dedicating to personal work?
Tips for managing money
For most people who love illustrating, being able to work on your own projects at your convenience is the dream. But people have to drop this dream pretty quickly when they can’t gather enough work, and end up working at an agency for a few years first anyway. Trust me, we’re not trying to crush your dreams – working with others first is always a good way to gain experience to put on your CV, earn a stable income and figure out if illustration is still for you, plus making some great creative-minded friends along the way to keep you sane. It doesn’t mean you can’t build a portfolio and list of contacts on the side in preparation to go freelance.
"Getting a part time or full time job is a healthy thing,” says illustrator Ben Tallon. “It lifts the pressure – a major factor. Some thrive under pressure, others buckle and with income from elsewhere, we have time to play, take time to understand what we want and seek it in the right way. Be honest with yourself and don't be afraid to work a job. The frustration some jobs brought me proved a great motivator and contacts, friends and income from others was just as crucial.”
But if you think you’re prepared to enter freelance work right now, consider these factors – your location, how much savings you have, how many relationships and contacts you have already forged and if you have established your artistic style yet.
“I think if you were able to build up a following and make lots of connections during school, than go for it,” says illustrator Abbey Lossing. “For me that wasn’t the case, so I had a full-time job for three years before leaving to pursue freelance full-time. You have a lot of expenses after college (student loans, new apartments, for example) so it’s nice to have a reliable paycheck when you’re first getting off the ground.”
Before diving into the varying landscape of the freelance world, think about how you work alone, whether you’re a good self-motivator, or if you should look at renting a shared studio space. Consider how you work under the pressure of yourself only – there’ll no line manager checking over your shoulder. Only you can stop yourself from procrastinating.
“Be very mindful of your network,” says Ben. “After working for years in education, surrounded by peers and tutors, the loss of those people can hit hard. I felt very lost for six months and my big turning point was sharing a studio with four others. It changed everything. So map out cafes, co-working setups, studio space and the local creative scene and surround yourself with inspiration."
Don’t compare yourself to others, but take inspiration from them. Long-term goals will no doubt change quickly so it’s better not to set yourself up for disappointment. Make sure you’re also seeking opinions and a second pair of eyes on your work. Constructive criticism may be hard to hear, but it’s healthy.
“Set a schedule for yourself and create a list of personal goals you’d like to achieve within your first year. If you have a slow week – work on a personal project to help build your portfolio,” says Abbey.
Before starting to contact potential clients, make sure your website and social media platforms are fully updated, your contact details are easy to find, and you've showcase a range of your best illustrations. It’s also good to set up a space where you feel you can work productively. This could be a studio space or simply a desk in your apartment.
Make sure you’re regularly posting to Instagram, Behance, Twitter and Dribbble and other platforms. Sometimes it’s not worth being on every platform – pick your battles and master the one that works for you, says Ben – but if it’s your first year out of university, it may work in your favour to try a range first and see which platforms suit you best or bring in the most client commissions.
On your dedicated website, have a cohesive body of work that represents the type of jobs you want to be hired for, says Abbey. And don’t forget your contact information and links to social platforms.
For the best portfolio websites for artists, check out our list.
If you are able to create a brand identity for yourself, this is also helpful. Even basics like checking your manners and grammar in emails sent to clients – everything counts towards a professional front.
“You would not believe the amount of emails I receive from students who fail to use my name or ask how I am. It is unprofessional and very, very basic. These simple things will go a long way,” says Ben.
It’s common to begin your career in a 9-5 job to provide you with a stable income while building your illustration portfolio in your spare time. You might feel like you’re working two jobs, and you may have to sacrifice heading down to the pub with your mates if you want to get ahead of the crowd. If you’re not passionate about your chosen path, this juggling act could quickly ware you down.
“I worked full time for my first two years after graduation because I wanted to take the time to explore and develop at my natural rate,” explains Ben. “It meant I worked 9-5, then spent most evenings in a freezing garage we called a studio, working until 11pm on self-initiated projects.
“On the weekends I would be in there both days because I knew nobody was going to do this for me. You couldn't keep me out of that work space because I wanted to be an illustrator so badly, but needed to pay my bills.”
Similarly Abbey worked full-time for three years before making the plunge into freelance. She also endured late nights and working over the weekends to complete freelance assignments.
“I’m sure that’s not the answer people want to hear, but if you work a 9-5 job that’s really your only option,” she says. “Most of the time, I was so excited to have a freelance assignment that I didn’t mind working on it in my free time.”
Freelance illustrator Peter Henderson, now represented by Folio Art, is a recent graduate. His advice when applying for an agency job is to showcase what you love. You’re far more likely to stand out with a few unique interesting projects, than someone who has 20 high-level but meaningless projects, he says.
“Even after graduating, keep pushing out personal projects that you truly love making, that will be the sort work that you end up doing. There will be thousands of graduates with the same degree as you, walk ahead of the crowd.”
As well as applying for jobs through online job boards, social media can be a great source of job postings. You don’t need to have any form of following.
“The keyword searches in Twitter and LinkedIn can pull up posts directly from the art director or senior exec; giving you a great personal contact when applying,” says Peter.
Remember to research the companies you’re applying to work for, don’t copy and paste previous application emails and consider internships as a great way to give you a head start over competition.
Probably the most crucial part of setting up as a freelance illustrator is learning where to find work and how to create and maintain professional relationships. If you’re not wanting to sign up with an illustration agency straight away, then it’s important to chase potential clients on your own accord.
“Compile lists of potential suitors and take the time to call them up, ask to go see them. Do not blanket email,” says Ben. “Make the clients feel special because you love what they do and feel you can add to it. Address them properly, speak to them politely and ask how they are. Emailing is the likeliest form of communication to end up in the trash because everyone gets bombarded. Use the mail and call them.”
For many illustrators, social media is also a place where many clients notice their work and approach for commissions, so regularly update your accounts with engaging work that reflects your style and range of abilities.
Create GIFs if that’s your thing, challenge yourself to completing a series of works like #365daysoftype or consistently post each day – anything to give an art director a reason to follow your social media channel. It’s also important to engage in other people’s work – follow all your illustration friends, brands and editorials you’d love to work for and online communities for illustrators. Retweet, like and comment on other people’s work to make yourself known and keep you up-to-date in what’s happening within your community.
“Go to launches, talks, networking evenings and coffee mornings. Listen to podcasts, read the blogs, maximise social media and reach out to people,” says Ben.
“I have made so many friends and connections because I took the time to share a compliment and vice versa. Who you know is vitally important, but you have to be a decent human, reliable, willing to learn/listen, professional and good at what you do to get to know the right people.”
It’s a constant conundrum with illustrators – how much of your time should be spent on client work for an income, and how much should you be pursuing personal projects to expand your knowledge, skillset and of course, creative flair?
Sometimes it can be difficult to get the balance right, and you can be left either creatively starved or financially deficit. But Ben says personal projects reveal your unique personality and character, and are worth spending lots of time on.
“It shines through in projects that mean something to you. No matter how weird, off-trend or personal, the work you do because it's yours will resonate with many people because it is not likely to be lost amongst work created because someone felt like it was trendy to do so, or that someone else wanted to see it.”
Sometimes it might help to factor a specific time slot for personal projects into your week. Abbey tries to create a quick personal project every Friday.
“Personal work is really important when building a portfolio, but it shouldn’t feel like a chore. If I’m feeling burnt out at the end of the week, I don’t force it,” she says.
Illustrators often have a fluctuating income – one month could provide you with steady work, others will be slow. It’s helpful to try and save as much as you can in preparation for those slow months.
To make sure you’re on top of who owes you what while working on multiple projects at one time, use a spreadsheet or document to track all your owing payments, invoices and completed projects.
“I keep a running doc of projects that are one, in process, two, completed and invoiced and three, payment received,” says Abbey.
Don’t be afraid to invest in the right areas, such as a studio space, physical promotional material, and photography and design of your brand. This will set you up for greater good, says Ben.
“Seek good advice for putting the correct amount of tax away – many accountants are affordable and friendly. Get a job if you have to – it is in no way a failure and more often a very healthy thing on many levels,” he says.
It’s important for us to address here the mental strain that stems from an unstable income. Ben O’Brien, aka Ben the Illustrator, put together an Illustrators Survey last year, with more than 1,000 illustrators globally taking part. It found that 81 percent of illustrators worked from home, and 69 percent feel they don’t earn a suitable amount to sustainably live from.
The survey also revealed 79 percent of respondents feel they have anxiety or confidence issues that affect their career. If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety or other forms of mental health, you can seek expert advice either online or through the phone from UK charity Mind. If you wish to hear fellow artists’ thoughts on this, read our interview with animator Linn Fritz and illustrator Julia Bernhard, who have both opened up about dealing with mental health.
Remember to value yourself. Only work for free in skill swaps, with charities and on your personal work, says Ben. The Association of Illustrators is a great resource to tap into if you wish to learn more about pricing and contracts, or speak to a more established freelance illustrator.
“Do not box yourself in. Too many people are narrow minded, seeking inspiration only from other illustrators,” says Ben.
“Explore and play, collaborate with photographers, filmmakers, designers, artists, scientists, fashion designers and more – your skills can be applied in so many places so have fun and find out where. Creativity knows no bounds and if you enjoy the ups and maximise the downs, yours will have every chance of flourishing.”
Surround yourself with a creative community – whether that’s online or off – to inspire you, bounce ideas off and simply provide a social outlet; something hugely important if you’re working from home.
“In college you’re surrounded by your peers, which can be very motivating,” says Abbey.
“You see them making great work and that inspires you to do the same. After school you might feel isolated because you won’t have this collaborative environment.
“If you live in a big city you’ll have opportunities to make connections with other creative people, but if you don’t – you can always find a sense of community through online social platforms.”