My freelance illustration endeavor turned 1 year old this month, meaning I survived a year living 100% off of drawing things, and I'm really proud and thankful to have reached this milestone of sorts! Along the way there were all sorts of interesting challenges, and finding solutions to them has been formative beyond just figuring out how to make art work. It's taken me closer to figuring out who I am and how I want to live my life in general. This is really just a journal for me to reflect on that, but maybe it can be insightful to other artists freelancing or looking into that as well -- take from it what you will.
Let's start with a facts sheet: over the last year I sent out 25 invoices to 13 clients who together were from 4 countries, the biggest group by far being Americans. Most clients were individuals, with only 3 commissioning in the capacity of a company, and even in those cases they were small businesses of 2 people at most. I worked on 1 long-term project (a game, still in development) which took up at least half of my time, and many smaller ones, from promotional art (games, figurines, concerts) to character/mascot design, album covers, custom skinning, and pieces just for personal enjoyment. I'm not exaggerating when I say that 100% of new clients contacted me through my homepage's email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Which brings me to the following observations/tips. On PR: Would you hire you?
Having a good (portfolio) website is absolutely necessary. I vowed to design, wire, and code
my own right in the first month, because it really helped me to focus on and fortify the reality of doing art full-time and just giving that my all. A year later now I'm so so happy I did, because it ended up doing a lot of work for me. To list a few benefits:
1) it gave people confidence in me and my work, enough to be interested in spending money on it and actually make the step to contact me,
2) it filtered out the clients from hell looking for some for-exposure deal (I only had to waste time on this twice and both requests were through some social media platform),
3) I designed it to be mobile friendly and was happy enough with it to show it at parties and stuff if people asked. Moreover, actively curating my work and how it's represented has helped me to stay focused on what direction I want to be heading in the most, and to attract clients accordingly.
**Side note: I've had a good amount of notes and emails from fellow artists with requests for portfolio reviews and/or seeking advice on how to make it as a freelancer. I hardly think I'm the best resource for this, but ok. Regardless of the quality of the work, presentation matters. Most of these would have some page like dA or tumblr that they posted to, but no independent, curated portfolio website with easily accessible information on what they offer. This is just my 2cts but I REALLY think it's necessary here to put yourself in your client's perspective and wonder: "would I hire me?". To be honest, I think commissioning art is hella expensive. I myself would not be rich enough to casually commission myself (if that makes sense haha), so I'd have to save up for it and I'd probably spend a good deal of time online looking for the best artist for my money. Why, then, would I ever choose someone with a disorganized, irregularly updated tumblr page, with no past work references/credentials or artist information for me to investigate, over someone who has taken the time and effort to present all they can offer in a user-friendly way? I don't mean this in a strict and harsh way, on the contrary. It's a point about valuing
your work and taking yourself seriously as a professional artist if that's what you've decided to be. Create stuff you love, make a website, print business cards, actually give them out. Ain't nobody got time for NOT doing these things, asap.** Maintenance of the Art Machine
Even if I often didn't have enough work to spend a full 40-hour work week on, I would still fill the week practicing, reading, browsing art I loved, discovering new things, and practicing some more. I've come to regard this kind of "me time" as necessary maintenance for the art machine in the brains to function smoothly. To go into how I think this machine works and the various ways in which it can get broken would be another tediously long journal entry lol, so for now I'll just say that I've found feeling happy and inspired about your art is crucial to producing satisfying work. Spending time drawing whatever I want -- be that weird abstract swooshy shapes or animu fanarts -- has helped to stay in that confident and ultimately productive state.
However, "me time" is not enough. No matter what anyone says or how introverted you are (...or how strong your sticker game is
), freelancing alone in your house 8 hrs a day will drive you insane. I've only just begun experimenting with how to combat that, so I have no real conclusions on the matter yet. It would be ideal to have a separate studio that you and some freelance friends/colleagues share and go to each day, but it's expensive if you're still starting out and it can be hard to find the right people. For the moment, I'm doing a 2 day a week internship at Wispfire, a small game studio in Utrecht working on the game Herald
, to see how I'd like working in a small team, while learning new things and enjoying the social environment.
One thing that has been a tremendous help and motivator, is meeting other professional artists and developers (online) and spending some time to get to know them and their work. Twitter has by far been the best place for this online. Sometimes people's careers might be intimidating, other times it might be the other way around, but approaching it all with a friendly and collaborative mentality goes a long way. It's basically a "glass half full/half empty" argument, but I've just found it really helpful to not think of great artists I run into as either competition or some god to gush over, but instead to just be interested and see what I can learn from them. And let them know, too! It's surprising how often I've sat down to send someone a compliment pm, assuming it'd get lost in their sea of fan-mail, but actually getting a very appreciative, sympathetic response shortly after. There should be an international tell-someone-you-love-their-work day, because apparently even the best could always use some thoughtful support Finally, on pricing and profiling
I can only echo what's generally accepted as good practice here, with some minor additions that work for me personally.
1) As a freelancer you need to base your prices on an hourly rate that's much higher than regular wages to pay for all the overhead fees -- 2 to 3x minimum wage at the very least, then go up as your skills and/or workload increase.
2) When estimating prices for clients, the main indication should not be just what they're asking for, but how much time you need to create what they're asking for in a way you're also happy with and will want to advertise yourself with. In reality, the time you need to perfect a piece will be much more than anyone is willing to pay for, so for me it's always a balancing act between reserving mental and financial space to create something great, and then compressing-without-compromising that to come up with a reasonable price.
And lastly 3) I try to avoid taking on projects that I can't see contributing to self-development in some way, even if I need money. That time is better spent studying or doing maintenance on the machine ^^
...I think that's it! Despite making it the first year, I don't know how long I'll be able to do this. This summer's been very irregular with little work actually taking off yet. One of the stress factors of being a freelancer, of course, is never knowing if something like that will persist or make a 180. All I know is that I love creating beautiful illustrations, and it's the thing I can do for 8 hours, come home, and continue doing while still enjoying it. I don't think I can really do that with anything else, so what choice do I have? : ) This is the work that doesn't feel like work to me, so I must keep giving it my all until I go bankrupt or something -- and even then I will probably try to find a workaround. Here's to another year of Self Inc. - CEO ~!