I want to be a freelance illustrator
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    I want to be a freelance illustrator

    I really want to work for myself, I think it would be a lot more difficult but so much more rewarding and it would be something I've always wanted to do.

    My parents both tell me no, no don't do that... my boyfriend is extremely supportive however, and he is not in the art field either. People whom I know from college aren't doing this because they are still in their jobs from college!

    I had courses on this all throughout my 4 years of college, they of course never told us we couldn't do it! And I absolutely have the drive. I graduated a year and a half ago and am doing technical illustration for work for the same amount of time.

    It is something that would work for me too because I feel trapped in an office. I work really well by myself. That is what I keep being told, not easy to work for yourself. Of course not!

    I would want to rent studio space with another artist before I even think of my freelance career taking off, just to get more work done to begin with and it would also be nice to have another person in the field with me, like it was in college! Very helpful.

    Its funny because I am someone who can't make a decision unless someone else tells me its a good idea-- I hate to make a bad choice.
    And this is the first time I can make this decision myself, and I am so excited! I've been doing this since I was a little kid and always involved, went to art college, have a job in the field now...

    I suppose my question is mainly how possible is it to be able to make a living as a freelance illustrator? I live about 10 minutes from Boston Massachusetts. I haven't a website yet (an essential!! Has to be done!) so I can't show my work, of course how does that help me with this question?! I work with pen and ink and oils and acryllics, watercolor.

    Do I have to be the absolute master of all things illustration to make a living doing freelance, or can I be someone who has the lifelong drive to make it work and still make a living on it without having to rely on another job?

    Last edited by nrxx; June 7th, 2009 at 12:58 PM.
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    Do I have to be the absolute master of all things illustration to make a living doing freelance
    I was just having a discussion about this last night actually, one of the hurdles that stops alot of people (in my opinion) from getting a steady career going. Personally, I think it's kind of the opposite that's needed and what alod of students/recent graduates don't understand. You're not going to be the master of all things to begin with, ever, but that's not how you get work anyhow. What you do need is a focused interest or goal.

    Unity and clarity in your portfolio and a clear direction in the sort of jobs you want to do are the best ways to convince a client to hire you (assuming that your work is up to par). Whatever companies you want to work with, whatever medium you want to be involved in, concentrate on that. Make your samples as though you were already working for those jobs, show the prospective client that you're serious and that you understand their brand.

    Trying to appeal to too broad of a market is actually counter productive if you have any kind of idea what you like to draw and paint. Produce the sort of work you want to do and that's the sort of jobs you'll get in return.

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    I was a terrible freelancer. I hated flogging my portfolio around trying to drum up work. Many of the clients I worked for seemed to think being rude about my stuff would keep prices low. I was never sure I was going to make it financially from one month to the next. I ended up taking crap minimum wage jobs to make sure I could scrape up the rent, which sucked me dry.

    I hung in for a few years, but finally gave up and took a corporate art department job.

    That said, if you've got the juice to hold on until you get a steady stable of clients you enjoy working with, it's an altogether pleasanter and more stable ride. Just my luck, when I found a steady client, I hated the work.

    Good luck. All paths have their joys and suckitudes...

    I was once on the receiving end of a critique so savagely nasty, I marched straight out of class to the office and changed my major (sketchbook).
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    I'm currently between college semesters in LA, and had to somehow pay rent for 4 months this summer. There aren't many part-time jobs (that aren't taken) where I am, and I figured I should try my hand at freelance. I'm still here, so I guess it's been going okay. I think it's possible for most people with a good portfolio, but the way you define living might change between people... I live on cheerios and ramen, but it's enough to stay where I am, so I consider it a living.

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    I'm in a similar situation but with even less experience.

    I will be graduating this month and then what? I would like to take on freelance work but where to start and who to contact. I was never given any advice on looking for jobs as an illustrator and I feel like I am looking into a dark tunnel not knowing what's in there.

    I think many are going to have this issue in the coming months. More so than in previous years because of the fear of the recession.

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    DavePalumbo, I agree with what you said except about the part of being too broad. If you look at khang le's portfolio........ http://www.khangle.net/gallery/ he has a little bit of everything in there? And nrxx, not being a master of all things? Big deal, if you collect the proper reference whats to worry about? Justin pretty much nailed it on the head about time management it's pretty important.

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    rist, start a website and gather a strong portfolio and just do the work man. Your clients will tell you what they want, hell, they might even give you the reference to work off of. Some say design it like this but don't copy it hehe. Really though, the employers know good work and if they need your work they will contact you. They know what sites to go to for hiring people. oh yeah, don't forget the shameless plugs

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    Quote Originally Posted by nicehighs View Post
    rist, start a website and gather a strong portfolio and just do the work man. Your clients will tell you what they want, hell, they might even give you the reference to work off of. Some say design it like this but don't copy it hehe. Really though, the employers know good work and if they need your work they will contact you. They know what sites to go to for hiring people. oh yeah, don't forget the shameless plugs
    Although still showing a mix of my work from my degree course I already have a working portfolio website (shameless plug). I am looking into take a few months to develop my skills and this website. I also have an account at DA and post my work here regularly.

    But is it enough? Would it be better to send them a cover letter with my website address. Who are they I send to? The publishers which can be found in Writers and Artists Year Book, or something else?

    Sorry for been a negative sloth.

    Thanks nicehigh.

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    DavePalumbo, I agree with what you said except about the part of being too broad. If you look at khang le's portfolio........ http://www.khangle.net/gallery/ he has a little bit of everything in there? And nrxx, not being a master of all things? Big deal, if you collect the proper reference whats to worry about?
    The competition is strong out there and getting stronger, especially now that I can be competing for a job with somebody who lives 12,000 miles away. Across the internet, there is a tremendous abundance of people who are very skilled and want the job too. The way that you get hired is by being recognized, remembered, and eventually known. You need people to have confidence that you are capable and comfortable with the task they're assigning you.

    It's an exaggerated version of a common problem for young artists: if your portfolio is all over the place, people don't have a clear understanding of who you are and ADs don't have assurance of what you'll be giving them. If there is erratic subject matter or multiple techniques present in an illustrators portfolio, they have communicated to the person reviewing it that they don't yet know where they're going or that they're still looking for their style or voice. If, on the other hand, you have a concise and concentrated body of work all dealing in the same (or closely related) genre and style, you not only show mastery and confidence, but it's much easier for people to remember what you do.

    The problem of trying to run in five directions at once in the hope that one will pay off is very common, but not efficient. Especially in the digital age with instant worldwide communication, specialization is almost demanded. Stephan Martiniere is the man when it comes to massive future cityscapes. Todd Lockwood is the man when it comes to dragons. Brom is the man when it comes to dark gothic imagery. Of course, others do these things well too, and these artists do many many other things well too, but they have done very well in establishing a solid recognizable brand. This is crucial for a freelancer. You want people to think of you when they need an artist, and the best way to make this happen is to present a clear and confident identity.

    Once you have established yourself, it's a different story if you want to branch out, because you already have a market and you already have work. Trying to start out with a thumb in every pie is more likely to end in confusion or frustration though. Better to choose the path which you feel the most enthusiasm for and which you feel suits you best and give that your full attention.



    now, this applies chiefly to somebody interested in print illustration (and the gallery market actually) and maybe not so much concept work. I believe it's probably still sound advice for freelance concept artists, but the expectations of that job are not the same and it's a field which I have very limited direct experience with. Flexibility in style may be a plus for some jobs where for others it is not.

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    ahhhh ok I understand where you're coming from, I can see how that would important for an illustrator but not so much for a concept artist. Thanks for the insight. Rist, improve your portfolio man. Illustrations help sell a product you have to ask yourself would this image help sell a book or a product? I dont really know what style you're going after but it looks like you like venturing to the dark side of things? There are a lot of talented illustrators you can study from seek them out.

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    I can attest to the problem of having too broad of a portfolio. That's why I support myself with media design and do the illustration as a sideline. But if you've got the drive to pursue freelance illustration as your main income it's certainly possible.

    Obviously getting started is the hard part, and nobody's got a sure-fire formula, but here are some thoughts about where to begin.

    1) Get real clear about what you like to do and what industries you'd like to get into. If it's not the kind of work you want to spend your time doing, DON'T put it in your portfolio! Don't try to cover all the bases.

    2) Hammer your portfolio and if you find opportunities to have professionals go over it, take 'em. It may be deflating, but you've got to get real about your odds. Make sure your portfolio is APPROPRIATE to the industries you're targeting.

    3) If you don't have the skills or can't afford to set up your own website, start a blog. It's a cheap alternative to building your own site, and people are going that way more and more. I do at least half of my submissions electronically, so you do want SOME kind of an on-line portfolio.

    4) Look up Mass. chamber of commerce and find out how to set up a tax ID. Also set up a Paypal account.

    5) Build up your contacts, and start sending out submissions. I prefer a little research and sending targeted submissions packages, some people like sending gazillions of postcards to a wide distribution. Maybe if you're really going to support yourself you need to do both? If there's a particular company you want to target, FOLLOW the submissions guidelines posted on their site (assuming they have them posted). DO follow up on contacts and opportunities though... that's one place I tend to fall down.

    Speaking of contacts... this is a must-have for starting out... Artist's Market

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    Quote Originally Posted by nrxx View Post
    Do I have to be the absolute master of all things illustration to make a living doing freelance, or can I be someone who has the lifelong drive to make it work and still make a living on it without having to rely on another job?
    You don't have to be an absolute master, but there is a level of proficiency you probably need to get reliable work. For example, you don't need to be a master at landscapes if you don't intend to focus on them, but you should have enough art chops to not have to turn a job down just because there's an element of landscape required.

    Realisticly there's a ton of work involved in getting to the point where you can do it full time. Unfortunately, I'm not there, but even at my level it's a ton of work and a ton of things that don't involve artwork that still need to be managed.

    It can certainly be done, but try to do some reading and listening to freelance illustrators to make sure you know everything that will be involved. Check out Ninja Mountain Scrolls for a weekly podcast that goes into a lot of the issues that freelancers face.

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    Quote Originally Posted by nicehighs View Post
    ahhhh ok I understand where you're coming from, I can see how that would important for an illustrator but not so much for a concept artist. Thanks for the insight. Rist, improve your portfolio man. Illustrations help sell a product you have to ask yourself would this image help sell a book or a product? I dont really know what style you're going after but it looks like you like venturing to the dark side of things? There are a lot of talented illustrators you can study from seek them out.
    Thanks. This is why I'm going to take a few months to develop my skills and portfolio before I take that initial step. The reason I have a website so early on was because I was learning website design at the time.

    Thank you for your honest opinion. It reinforces my decision on having to take the time out to improve.

    People in the gallery sector seem interested in my portraits, so that could be a small income earner while I perk up on my illustration skills. I might take on an online class if I feel i need it.

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    There is an underlying belief that "I'm not good enough because I'm not as amazing as my heroes". While it's fair to say that you're not good enough to be that hero, that doesn't mean you aren't good enough to find the work.

    If you can put together the portfolio that makes a client want to take a shot on you, remember this - they aren't necessarily hiring an artist. They're hiring a problem solver who will sell their product, and the client themselves. Where photoshop or a brush is your tool for artistry, you become their tool for growth.

    So is it about masterful skills? Not as much as it is about providing a service where you help somebody sell their products. It's kinda a symbiotic relationship. Your skills will help create a solid portfolio, they will help you problem solve any mistakes you make in a timely not so panic driven manner, and they will give you some confidence. But if you hold back because you still make some mistakes.... make sure you're not shooting yourself down just because of a lack of confidence. If you can fill a client's needs without falling on your arse... you should be able to drum up some work.

    Can you live off of it? That's the big question, most people have a rough time of it. I was unable to sustain a full time freelance income longer than a year, so I went into a more corporate full time drawing position that offers almost no creativity, and then freelance on the side of that position. I will try again at some point, but what's important is to have that backup plan. Believing in oneself is good, but doing it blindly is the worst thing you can do. Create a backup plan if you can. Something to fall back on, even if it's just long enough to get some secure footing again before trying once more.

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    Quote Originally Posted by nrxx View Post
    Do I have to be the absolute master of all things illustration to make a living doing freelance
    No, you have to master one thing better than anybody else.


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    oh wow, I am so glad I asked this question! All of you are so incredibly helpful!

    I feel so much more encouraged reading what everyone has said. When I was still in college we had so many classes on this... but to be honest, at the time I just didn't think it was something I would be lucky enough to do but I know now that its not about luck (well, it is kind of, but not the way I was thinking) as it is about the work you put into it. And I have been all about it now, its really exciting.

    And its so funny, I almost bought that book, the Artist's Market book as suggested, but I put it down because I thought I should do a few things first, I'll definitely pick it up next time I'm at B&N again. I do have the Graphic Artists Guild which is the nitty gritty stuff for when I'm actually in the process I think. I also ordered this book called "Starting Your Career as a Freelance Illustrator or Graphic Designer" like TWO weeks ago, still waiting on that. I don't know how good that one will be but I figured it would be worth something.

    I'm absolutely taking all the advice and words given here! And I am new to this forum, have been looking around a LOT and recent and old posts. I will have to get started on putting my work online and participate in the threads and I can get some more educated advice from you guys again!

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    "Change is a virtue my friend... if you want to escape, all you have to do is make up your mind."
    John Cale / Bob Neuwirth


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    what the... ?

    i was trying to be the best nrx i could be, and now theres a competitor asking better questions than me.. damn

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    Dude, you'll always be nrx to me.

    I was once on the receiving end of a critique so savagely nasty, I marched straight out of class to the office and changed my major (sketchbook).
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    Quote Originally Posted by cmalidore View Post
    Can you live off of it? That's the big question, most people have a rough time of it. I was unable to sustain a full time freelance income longer than a year, so I went into a more corporate full time drawing position that offers almost no creativity, and then freelance on the side of that position. I will try again at some point, but what's important is to have that backup plan. Believing in oneself is good, but doing it blindly is the worst thing you can do. Create a backup plan if you can. Something to fall back on, even if it's just long enough to get some secure footing again before trying once more.
    I was thinking of perhaps going into freelance after I leave school, but this was the thing that concerned me most: amount of income. I'll have to pay school loans once I'm done with school and that won't be too long from now (maybe two years, a half a year more if I want to continue to develop my skills). I most likely could defer my government loans, but not the one private loan I took out to boost my finances one semester. And besides there are other issues about freelance that concern me like health benefits. Even if there is a lack of creativity with a freelance job, I think it would just be a lot better to make a living off of. I'm guessing it can't be that bad if you at least try to find a corporate drawing job in the field that you are good at.

    "And you will shed tears of scarlet."
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    I am curious to know what kind of company job an illustrator can look for. I've always presumed illustrators were freelancers.

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    I tend to agree with Rosen. There's a difference in my opinion between eventual goals and the means to get there. If you can find a cooperate job that's very related to what you want to do, you have found yourself a steady paycheck, a handful of mentors(your AD to be the least, who guides you as part of his job,) industry connections, and many chances to observe pitfalls a business entity may stumble on without taking the full hit yourself. Not everybody has to take the infamous starving artist approach - While the worrying over your next bill may provide a healthy motivation, the stress and fear can be very counter-productive. Also, personally, I found having to sit in an office for 8 hours a day very motivating - it's not like I can be doing things other than art stuff anyways

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    It's really interesting what some of you are saying about the variety in a portfolio, because I always assumed that it was better to have a little bit of everything, to show that you could do anything they asked (when I was in school, we really didn't cover how to actually get a job at all). But maybe that's misleading to a prospective employer, because there are some things I hate to draw, and they probably wouldn't turn out as nice as the stuff I do like.

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    I'm sure they would tell you what they were looking for if you phoned and asked. They are trying to acquire YOUR services, not the other way around.

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    I always assumed that it was better to have a little bit of everything, to show that you could do anything they asked
    this is more important if you're trying to secure a staff position for, say, a magazine or something where the subjects of your assignments would be fairly erratic from one day to the next (today a child's first birthday party, tomorrow a story on military widows, the next day a story on African rhinos, etc.). For freelancers, I think it's better to show what you do best and that's what they'll hire you for.

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    Quote Originally Posted by pinkishblack View Post
    It's really interesting what some of you are saying about the variety in a portfolio, because I always assumed that it was better to have a little bit of everything, to show that you could do anything they asked.
    That is actually one of the biggest indications of a student portfolio most of the time. Even if the work is very good, if it's full of "student work" (figure studies, next to still lives, next to very class assignment looking pieces) you probably won't get much response. Art directors much prefer to see a consistent portfolio. There can be some diversity, as long as all of the work fits together in a cohesive way so the AD knows what to expect from you. For example, if you want to do book covers, show book covers. Fantasy can sit next to sci-fi or horror as long as they all communicate one style and they all work as covers. You want some variety within your niche, but not variety in what you communicate with your portfolio as a whole.

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    Quote Originally Posted by pinkishblack View Post
    It's really interesting what some of you are saying about the variety in a portfolio, because I always assumed that it was better to have a little bit of everything, to show that you could do anything they asked
    I think it's not bad to have variety when it comes to subject matter, but the style should be consistent and clear throughout all of your portfolio.

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  38. #28
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    There is such a thing as being overambitious. You're going to want to take it slow, do freelance work on the side of a regular job, until you've saved up enough or become established enough that you can lean more and more on freelance work. Like Rosen said, it's not a good idea for a new artist to jump straight into freelance work.

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  39. #29
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rosen_Ice View Post
    I would think just jumping into freelance isn't the best idea for a new artist. Probably the best way to approach it would be to get an industry job to build a name for yourself / improve your skills / make contacts and network. Then, while working in the industry for a company, you begin taking freelance work to build your name in that area and spread yourself around.
    This. And I know, because I didn't do this.

    If you want to do it like me: Just get the addresses of all the adverticing agencies in your region. You might not be the best illustrator in the world, but you might be in your region of the world.

    Call them and ask for the art buying. Tell them that you are new and want to make contact. Go there, show them what you can do. You normally won't get a job immediately, but you made yourself known (this is important).

    Why do you do this? Because sometime, somewhere down the road somebody might come back to you and this time you'll get the job. And afterwards you might have a client and this client knows other potential clients and so on. I've got jobs from agencies where I was 3 years ago und suddenly they felt the need to hire me.

    The best rule is: nothing NOTHING (you hear me?) nothing beats personal contact. So always try to make personal contact. Don't call on the telephone - go there, don't send a letter - call them etc.

    @diversity
    It depends. I've seen people with absolutely no imagination. Sometimes, if you show them a book full of realistic drawings, they don't get that you can also draw Bugs Bunny or some other things, so the best way was always for me: show what you can do good. Maybe you are famous for your Frog Drawings, but sadly they aren't asked any more and than? You still have to pay your rent, remember? Than you want them to know that you can also do landscapes. If you are well versed in different things show it or people don't know about it. If youre the world's best woman portraitist and suck at everything else show just that. And don't put still lifes or life drawings in your portfolio. At least in agencies people have products to sell. They want to know if you can paint a person (with a photograph as reference). They want to know how their problems get solved when they hire you. Their problems are seldom "How do I find somebody that can paint me an apple". If you are an illustrator the client very well assumes, that you took life drawing sessions or can paint a still life. This information is redundant, so there's no need to show it.

    Freelancing is tedious and most often you won't see immediate results of your actions. Be like a hamster in a treadmill and things will come around. But: The best advice is Rosens. Look out for a corporate job and build a client base first.

    Last edited by Sascha Thau; June 16th, 2009 at 09:23 AM.
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  40. #30
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rist View Post
    I am curious to know what kind of company job an illustrator can look for. I've always presumed illustrators were freelancers.
    I worked for a research and engineering firm for twenty five years. They required a surprising amount of illustration: technical illustration for data sheets and patent applications, assorted illustration for training programs, slide presentations, sales programs, court cases. We also did publications design, multimedia, web production, Flash and Director dinguses, video production...all sorts of things in-house.

    If a firm is a big enough consumer of art, it's more cost effective to bring some of it in-house. The way it went for us, in times of prosperity, the "good" jobs went out of house to freelancers. In lean times, more illustration and design happened internally.

    The pay wasn't brilliant, but it was steady and an improbable amount of fun.

    I was once on the receiving end of a critique so savagely nasty, I marched straight out of class to the office and changed my major (sketchbook).
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