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Kickstart Guide to Breaking into Freelance Illustration

by
Gift

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A career in Freelance Illustration is much more than drawing pretty pictures. As much as you’d like to spend the entire day sitting in front of Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, you’ll also need to learn about selling yourself, keeping your portfolio fresh and, all the admin work we love to hate. It's this work we love to hate that will define your success as an illustrator.

There are many different things you may wish to consider when thinking about entering into professional illustration, such as:

  • The purpose of your illustration: Illustration itself covers many different areas. While drawing pretty pictures maybe one aspect, you need to be specific in your objectives.

    Are you wanting to illustrate for advertising campaigns? What about book covers? Maybe graphics to accompany news and magazine articles? Maybe graphics for a cocktail menu? How about diagrams for medical journals? And there are also illustrations for packaging? These are just the tip of the iceberg of the many avenues you could go down in finding a niche illustration market.

  • The medium of your artwork: Sometimes the purpose of your illustration can depend on what medium your artwork will be rendered in. For instance, is the work going to be displayed on a CD cover? If so, maybe an illustration within Photoshop/raster based work will be fine. However if the work is going to be displayed on a billboard and you're going to need a high resolution graphic, perhaps looking at vector work in Illustrator is what you need. If you're unsure of the key differences of these mediums, check out this article on What is Vexel Art?, which goes into what raster and vector art is.

  • Client vs Stock: There are several ways you could earn money as a freelance illustrator. The most obvious is via clients who commission you to create a tailored piece of artwork to their specifications. However there is another way you can earn money with illustration and that's selling your illustrations via stock websites. There is a huge benefit of creating illustration stock and that is that you don't have to deal direct with clients. So if selling yourself and hunting out clients isn't your thing, then maybe this route is something you may want to consider.

    To find out more about this check out these articles on How I Make $2,000 Every Year Without Doing Very Much and the follow up article 9 Tips for Creating and Maximizing a Steady Income Stream by Selling Stock.

  • Agency Representation: Illustration agencies act as a third party. They market your work through the relevant channels and are great for getting those household name clients. Bigger companies tend to target agencies due to the variety of talent on their books, experience and convenience.

    The benefits of being represented is that they will can handle contracts with clients and can help negotiate larger fees. However, they don't do this for nothing and they will take a commission percentage from your fees. They may also ask you to cover costs for promoting your works to directories and marketing opportunities. For more, check out the article on Computer Arts: Finding an agent.

Advice from Talented Freelance Illustrators

I'm going to introduce you to five talented Freelance Illustrators. They'll tell you how they got into freelancing and what advice they can give you on getting started in a career in Freelance Illustration.

Cristiano Siqueira

How did you get into freelance illustration? Were you employed in a similar field prior to freelancing, if so did this help? How long have you been freelancing in illustration?

I got into freelance illustration by some pressure of clients, a good pressure actually, they always said that my illustrations were good and they always asked me to include some kind of illustration works in the design jobs. I worked as a Graphic Designer for 5 years, as a regular employee, in different studios, creating packaging and print design. So, after some time and with the support of a few clients, I decided to leave the job in the studio and try a freelance career in Graphic Design, working from my home for these few clients that supported my decision.

At first time, I didn't know that I would be able to keep a freelance life just with illustration, but, job after job, I realized that my illustration work was, actually, the work that the clients were looking for the most. Then, I started to show my work to clients with more potential to explore and use illustrations on their projects. I built a gallery on DeviantArt (I still didn't have a website portfolio) and I sent to some publishers, agencies and such. So, the first illustration jobs started to happen, mostly books and illustrations for packaging design and then my freelance illustration career really started out.

It happened in 2005. I consider as the start of my freelance illustration time, the day I got the papers and authorizations to offer services in illustration. So, I have almost 7 years in this field.

Are you represented by an Illustration Agency? If so, how did you go about being represented? Do you think it's important to be represented by an agency when you're a freelance illustrator?

I'm represented by Erika Groeschel. She is an Independent Agent. I really appreciate the way she works, with a closer relationship, with clients and the illustrators represented by her. We started to work after initial e-mail contact. Erika found my works and she sent me an e-mail with a proposal.

We talked about it and we did a deal, so we started working. I never thought about working with representation, but now I think it's important. This way the illustrator can be focused in what is really important, the work, the creative work and the excellence of the work, while the agent is focused in other parts, such as: the selling, pricing and contracts. Also, agents or agencies in different countries can help the illustrator to expand his commercial field

What advice do you give people who are seeking to make the switch to freelance illustration?

My main advice is to have a few clients before jumping into the freelance world. Use the time as an employee to get and acquire clients. It's extra work, it can make your nights a bit short for sleeping, but this is the only way I found to not get into the freelance work without any guarantees. For the first year it's important to have a few clients with constant jobs to do. So, with a more consistent portfolio, it's time to find more clients on your own

Another advice is to know the clients for your work, for the kind of work you do. Make a search, talk to the people, see their needs and try to make an easy solution for them. It's usual, in the start, for the freelancer to be a kind of "fireman" and be called just as urgent support. Once the clients get more confident with your work, better work starts to come in.

Vincent Rhafael Aseo

How did you get into freelance illustration? Were you employed in a similar field prior to freelancing, if so did this help? How long have you been freelancing in illustration?

I had a day job back in 2008 as a multimedia artist in a company and everything was fine, but I felt the need to go my way, so I got into freelance web design and Illustration.

I then realized I can't juggle them both so decided to focus more on illustrations to have more time creating personal projects and it's been 2 years now.

Are you represented by an Illustration Agency? If so, how did you go about being represented? Do you think it's important to be represented by an agency when you're a freelance illustrator?

Nope, everything was self initiated/promoted. I think the success of being represented by the agency relies heavily on their background and such.

How do you go about gaining clients?

Its all marketing online and connecting with the right people, the trick is really to be visible on the internet and not wait for clients to drop by.

Start self-initiated projects for clients you want to work with and send proposals.

What advice do you give people who are seeking to make the switch to freelance illustration?

Freelance illustration requires as much marketing as it requires talent. It's going to be hard at first, but if you know how to handle your clients well enough, then they will come back and new ones will follow. If an opportunity does not exist then create one.

Helen Huang

How did you get into freelance illustration? Were you employed in a similar field prior to freelancing, if so did this help? How long have you been freelancing in illustration?

I have been freelancing in illustration for the past four years. It started when I was approached by a few clients after they saw my illustrations online. Art community sites like DeviantArt and Behance are really good places to showcase your artwork and attract potential clients.

I was not employed in a similar field prior to freelancing, but I did have plenty of illustrations that served as my portfolio. I think a portfolio speaks louder than a resume, especially for freelance illustration.

Are you represented by an Illustration Agency? If so, how did you go about being represented? Do you think it's important to be represented by an agency when you're a freelance illustrator?

I am represented by Lemonade Illustration Agency. Two years ago, my freelance career started to grow fast and I told myself it was time to find an agent to handle the business side for me, so I can focus on the creative side. I researched online and filtered my options down to a few agencies that I think might be a good match for my style. Most agencies have contact info and a submission section on their site. I reached out to the agencies with my online portfolio. And the rest is history.

I think to join an agency or not is a personal choice. Some artists would rather not deal with clients directly, especially when it comes to discussing money. In that case, working with an agency would make your life a lot easier. Agencies know how and where to promote you so industry people can find you.

They handle all the business side with clients, so you can focus on art. However, they do take commission from the work they get you. So if you have enough work and are good at dealing with clients, then you don’t necessarily need an agency.

Do you still seek clients outside of the agency (if your contract allows)?

I am currently working full time at an interactive advertising agency. I am not taking an active role in finding clients at this moment because of my busy work schedule. Among all the freelance jobs that come to me, I only take the ones I really like. That’s a luxury to have when you can pay bills from other sources.

What advice do you give people who are seeking to make the switch to freelance illustration?

Build a strong portfolio. For freelance illustration, the portfolio is more important than a fancy resume. Keep your portfolio fresh with quality new work.

Consider an illustration agency. When you just start out in freelance illustration, agencies can be a very good resource to have and help you grow in this business. Take a look at agencies and figure out if you should work with one.

Svetlana Makarova

How did you get into freelance illustration? Were you employed in a similar field prior to freelancing, if so did this help? How long have you been freelancing in illustration?

I have been a freelance illustrator since April 2009, and I started drawing illustrations in March 2006.

I got into freelance, because I decided that it was the perfect time for that. The main job I had at that time was connected with web design and I just began to feel myself not in the right place, so decided to give freelancing a try.

But I must say that web design definitely helped me in my current occupation. First of all, it gave me great input in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, and also experience in communicating with clients. I was involved in web design for 3 years, before that my jobs were connected with management and translation\interpretation from Russian to English and vice versa, which again was very helpful in terms of communication with clients, business correspondence, and great practice in the English language. For me now, this is a huge plus because I can work with clients from the whole world.

If you're not represented by an agency, how do you go about gaining clients? If you're with an agency, do you still seek clients outside of the agency (if your contract allows)?

You know the main thing about gaining clients is to showcase your works as much as possible on different specialized web sites (i.e. DeviantArt, Behance) and of course have a personal website. I remember only 2 cases when I turned to clients myself offering my services as an illustrator, and that was in the very beginning of my illustration career. Now clients either find my works on the web or I'm being recommended to them by other clients or illustrator friends.

What advice do you give people who are seeking to make the switch to freelance illustration?

Expose your works as much as possible, take part in different illustration competitions, so that people get to know about you.

And the main thing of course is make your work better and better!

Jared Nickerson

How did you get into freelance illustration? Were you employed in a similar field prior to freelancing, if so did this help? How long have you been freelancing in illustration?

About 7-8 years ago, I was working in a regular office job. I started doing desktop wallpapers and offering them for free download as practice. I would regularly receive feedback from the general public, and this helped me slowly improve and develop a style.

Slowly, from there I started to build a fan base. From that point, I started to collaborate with other artists and get involved in various projects online. Eventually, I started to do freelance projects for smaller clients and it grew from there. Once I realized I was making more money and spending more time doing illustration, I quit the day job and started freelancing full-time.

Are you represented by an Illustration Agency? If so, how did you go about being represented? Do you think it's important to be represented by an agency when you're a freelance illustrator?

I've never been represented by an agency. I've been contacted a few times, but never found a good fit. I've done a lot of single projects with firms and agencies, but I've never officially signed with one. I'm not opposed to signing with an agency, but I like to have direct contact with the client and creative control. Most larger companies don't deal with artists directly, they almost always go through firms. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with good representation, if it's to everyone's mutual benefit.

How do you go about gaining clients?

Most of my clients contact me via Behance or my official website. This is often achieved through word-of-mouth or exposure on various blogs, DeviantArt, BloodSweatVector, Twitter, Facebook, etc. which all in turn lead clients to my website or Behance portfolio.

What advice do you give people who are seeking to make the switch to freelance illustration?

I give this same advice all the time: take business courses. You need to know how to market yourself and deal with clients on a professional level. You'll also need to know how to run the business, bookkeeping, etc. unless you plan to hire someone for that. In most cases, you need to know the business and marketing side of the industry. This is where many artists fall short. They have the artistic skill and the software know-how but no idea how to use it to their financial advantage.

Also, be financially prepared for the freelance world, being self-employed there is no "guaranteed money." One month can be an incredible month, and the next you can make only $500.

Be prepared for the ups and downs. Once you release your work online, be open to critique. People have different tastes, don't expect to make everyone happy.

Personal Experiences

I've gotten into freelance illustration by accident. I've always seen it as a hobby and written tutorials about vector art in my spare time. The traffic gained from creating tutorials have given my illustration work an priceless boost and has opened doors to several opportunities.

Getting paid to write tutorials has enabled me to quit my 9 to 5 desk job (which wasn't design related at all!). The illustrations in my tutorials have mainly been created to help enhance the variety and appeal of my portfolio, so I've not had to sacrifice too much time with friends and family (as you often hear horror stories of).

I've been given the opportunity to write for several websites and they have helped me begin creating a client list, which in turn has given me credibility when approaching new clients for illustration work. It's been a great route to get into illustration.

You just have to look at talented designers such as Justin Maller, Fabio Sasso, Ryan Putnam and Chris Spooner to name a few, that sharing your knowledge and resources within the design community is an effective way of getting your name out there.

Further Freelance Illustration Advice

So if this has peaked your interest, where to go now? Well you're on FreelanceSwitch and there are a multitude of articles on jumping into a freelance career here. Specifically, check out the following:

There are many articles out there which can give you different kinds of advice on freelancing within the illustration and design field. One of the best collections of links I've come across can be found over on Computer Arts.

I write regularly for another Envato website, Vectortuts+ where I have written some articles on this subject:

All that's left for me to say is: Good luck in your freelance illustration career. Enjoy drawing, creating, and read up on freelance business to boost your success!

Graphic credit: Some rights reserved by yuanden.

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