Zen and Art

How do I become a freelance illustrator?

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

So you’re tired of working 9-5 for a paycheck and you’re thinking of becoming a freelance illustrator?

(I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about becoming a freelance artist.  These are some basic points I try to cover.  This is by no means the ultimate article on becoming freelance, but it will help get you on your journey to getting started.  Hope it helps!)


Becoming a full time Freelance artist is not something that happens overnight.  But it is definitely worth the time and effort.  It takes a while to build up enough clients to really make a good living at it, but starting out, its pretty easy to make it a supplement to a regular dayjob income.  And unless you’ve got people knocking down your door, I highly recommend you KEEP your dayjob, and start building a bridge to self-employment with freelance work.  In time though, freelance is definitely the way to go. 


Clients usually come from unusual places.  My first and favorite clients were ‘clowns’.  Literally.  I met them randomly nearly a decade ago while doing caricatures at the county fair.  I did a drawing for them, and that led to another and another, and after 8 years I was doing thousands of dollars worth of illustrations for them.  But if you’d told me that when I first met them, I wouldn’t have believed you.  Most of my clients came about that way.  Like most relationships it takes time to build up trust.  You just have to be patient, provide the best you can, and treat them the way you would want to be treated.

Its important to think of freelance as a long term thing.  You’re not looking for overnight results, because that will only make you frustrated.  But if you’re patient with it, and try to put everything you got into each job, each job will lead to more, and eventually, if you’re lucky like I have been, you’ll be making more with freelance than you could ever make working for a regular paycheck.  Keeping it consistent though… now that’s the tricky part!

A few pieces of advice…

1.  Invest in yourself.  Treat each job like you’re getting paid twice what you actually are.  Meaning, if you’re underpaid starting out for your first few gigs, put so much into them (within a reasonable amount of time) that your next client will assume you are worth twice what you were paid for the last one.  Over time this can work as a sliding scale to take you from $10 an hour work to $50 an hour to a whole other range of income.  Its all about the customers’ perceived value – balanced with your skill level and speed.  Both should increase exponentially over time.

2.  Work a month or two ahead.  If at all possible save up money before you go completely freelance.  Being without a day job, this may be hard.  The nature of freelance is that you never know when your next job is coming, and even when you have a gig, sometimes the checks are slow getting to you.  This said, I highly recommend you have a month or two of income saved up to work from BEFORE going freelance , so that you’re not doing each job out of desperation to get a paycheck. This can REALLY affect your mental state and your work.  Save yourself anxiety by saving yourself some cash.

3.  Don’t be afraid to say “No.”  Some jobs are not worth the headache.  Either the subject is something that does not at all interest you or the client gives off a vibe that your instincts tell you to beware of.  Walk away, or try to charge way too much to scare them away.  Whatever you do, its better than getting bogged down in something that will only make you miserable and consequently will take ten times as long to finish.  I will say this, the only clients that I have been consistently burned by have been churches and schools.  Art by committee is not cool.  So enter at your own risk.

4.  NEVER let a client know how long it actually takes you to do the work.  If you’re quick like a lot of freelance artists, you can knock out a quality illustration in a matter of hours.  But a lot of clients see that quick turn around and think you’re charging way too much.  So give yourself a little buffer.  If it ever does come up, remember, its not just the number of hours to do the art that the client is paying for, its the years of practice, sacrifice and experiences that have taught you to do it in that quick amount of time.   Some people don’t understand that.  Its best just to leave the numbers in black and white and not haggle over it.

5.  Get an online portfolio started like www.coroflot.com. I also recomend you make up business cards right away.  Something high quality.  They’re cheap these days.  I’ve seen many online printers like www.overnightprints.com make 1000 for as little as $30.  Keep the cards with you at all times and give them out everywhere you go, have friends and family help you market.

6.  Come up with a quick 20 second pitch.  “I draw cartoons, I can do…”  you fill in the blanks.  keep it simple, and keep the products and prices you provide very simple.  Run the pitch by people you trust for feedback.  Sell to every person you meet and have your friends and family sell for you too.  Its possible to make the pitch so conversational it doesn’t feel like you’re selling at all, but that you’re entertaining.  It takes practice.  Whatever you do just keep putting it out there.  You’ll start getting clients pretty quick.  At worst, pitching to people leads to an interesting conversation, at best, it leads to a lasting business partnership.

7.  Most importantly… think about where you want to end up.  I know artists that have spent decades doing menial graphic design just to pay the bills.  You have to ask yourself “is this what I want to be doing in five years?”  and more importantly, “WHAT do I want to be doing in five years?”  And take jobs that will help you get closer to that goal each week.  Remember, those without goals are destined to serve the goals of others.

Good Luck!

-Will Terrell

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2 Responses to “How do I become a freelance illustrator?”

  1. George Says:

    Thanks for sharing. Its really important points for new start.

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  2. Dan Says:

    This is really helpful, and encouraging! So many illustrators go out of their way to put you off freelancing these days. This has given an insight I hadn’t come across, so thank you for sharing! xxx

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