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So you’ve decided to quit the 9-5 trend and try your hand at freelance illustration… Some things to consider before you get started:

  1. Freelance illustration doesn’t pay right away. It can take months, or even years before you’re making enough from regular commissions to support your lifestyle.
  2. Some months will be extremely busy and some may be slow. You have to learn to budget carefully to ensure that you don’t run into cash flow problems.
  3. Even when you do get a commission, you usually still have to wait 1-3 months to receive your payment.

The three points above are the practical problems that all illustrators will face at one time or another. To make sure that you’ll make it through, it’s important to save a good sum of money before leaving your job to pursue your freelance career. Many freelancers start their career whilst they’re still working full or part time. Casual work can also be helpful once you’ve left the security of steady employment.

You have to be realistic about what freelancing means. Success probably won’t happen over night, but the benefits are well worth the hard work. If you have the right attitude from the start then you will succeed and live the lifestyle you want. It won’t be easy and it will be hard work, but it will be worth it!

If this hasn’t deterred you (and hopefully it hasn’t) then read on…

An Illustrator’s most valuable asset – Your Portfolio


Before you go out looking for work or agency representation you have to make sure that you have a strong and varied portfolio. An illustrator’s style will usually dictate the type of clients they attract. Do you work mainly with childlike imagery and themes? Are your illustrations more typographic? Are you a graphic artist, or do you produce illustrations that are hyperrealist? Understanding where your style fits within a wider context will help you to asses your target audience and market.

If you work with a variety of different themes and subjects, then you should demonstrate this in your portfolio. A client will never assume that you can produce landscape illustrations, if all you show in your portfolio is portraits. A portfolio showcasing a variety of themes with a strong consistent style will open the most doors, so have a really good think about what type of market you want to attract. If you want to work in Fashion Illustration, then you should have a variety of posed subjects in various types of garments.

If you want to work in Children’s book illustration then you should produce illustrations showing children, animals and various other relevant themes. You don’t have to limit yourself to one market. If you feel that your work is appropriate for a range of different markets then produce a variety of illustrations that will target those markets. You should have at least 40 strong pieces in your portfolio before contacting clients or agencies.

Your portfolio is the most important tool you have to market yourself, so you need to ensure that it is strong, varied and professional. Only include your strongest work! Every artist has work that they produced years before that they find embarrassing. That work shouldn’t be anywhere near your portfolio. If you have an online portfolio, make sure that the images that you use are good quality and are arranged well.

You should also have a printed portfolio that you can bring to meetings. All of the pieces in this portfolio should be professionally printed on high quality paper of at least 210gms. Slightly textured paper like Hahnemuhle Etching is a great option and is very popular for fine art reproductions. You should house these prints in a good quality folder with acid free plastic sleeves. The Colby Zippered Binder Display Book is a great option.

So you have a great Portfolio, what now?

It’s time to start promoting yourself. Whether you choose to seek agency representation or self promote your work, having an online presence and engaging in social media is essential to your success. Some great resources are: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Deviantart, Dribbble and Behance. You should also have your own website and make sure that you register your own domain name.

Using a domain name that is attached to a website builder looks very unprofessional and will not inspire confidence in clients who are considering engaging your services. Squarespace is a fantastic website building website that enables you to use your own domain, with their customizable templates. It’s a great option for online portfolios and projects. They showcase examples on their site or you can visit my page to get an idea of what you can do with their templates.

Finding clients – agencies vs self promotion


Different methods work for different people. Both options have different pros and cons and at the end of the day, the choice you make will be down to personal preference.

When you’re represented by an agency, they provide the clients, manage the contracts and negotiate the fees on your behalf. They also promote your work through their various social networks and media contacts. For this service, they take a commission on the fees that you charge your clients. Although you pay a commission, they also usually attract larger clients who want the security and ease of going through an agency, rather than scouring hundreds of websites for appropriate illustrators. This means that the pay is often better than it would be otherwise. Many illustrators prefer this method as it leaves the artist free to focus on the creative side of the work, rather than having to spend hours negotiating fees, contracts and timeframes.

Working for yourself has its advantages as well. Some illustrators find the attachment to an agency at odds with their original motivation to go freelance. It can be very empowering working for yourself and managing all of the aspects of the delivery process. Working independently also means that you will receive 100% of the fees that you charge. Some Illustrators swear by using social media to find clients. Twitter and Facebook can be used to great effect in generating interest in your work. Entering competitions and exhibiting in galleries is also great exposure. You can also register with sites like iFreelance, eLance and TheLoop (Australia only) to find freelance illustration and design work.

Some friendly advice

1. Always be nice and always be professional. These are probably the most important things to remember in order to succeed in this industry. You can be an incredible artist, but if you can’t work to a brief, a timeline, or if you’re rude and unpleasant, chances are you won’t be hired again.

2. Clients will expect you to know how to use Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. Even if you work in a traditional medium, it is essential that you learn to use these programs if you want to get work in this field. I’m traditionally trained as a Printmaker, and for my first commission I worked on a children’s book for an author that had only ever worked with digital illustrators. I had to remind him several times that colours couldn’t be changed once applied and lines couldn’t be moved once printed, which resulted in several emails sent daily for approval before I could move on from one area to the next. Years later I taught myself to use the Adobe suite by watching YouTube tutorials and I have never looked back. Clients want to reserve the right to change their minds about form, colour etc. If you can’t let them do that, then you are seriously limiting your market.

3. Always use a contract. If a client is put off by you presenting them with a contract, then they are not someone you want to work. A contract is a great way to set out the terms of your agreement clearly and with no room for interpretation. You can give the client an idea of what they can expect from you and also what you expect from them.

4. It’s ok to say “no”. Sometimes a job just isn’t worth the trouble, or isn’t right for you. That’s the great thing about freelance. You are your own boss and you make your own decisions.

Lastly, never lose sight of why you chose to go freelance. You can have a wonderful lifestyle and enjoy every day of ‘work’ as an illustrator. It can give you incredible freedom. When you go freelance you can work anywhere… Paris, Bali, New York, Japan, the choice is yours!

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Posted by Shira Bentley

Shira Bentley is a Sydney based artist and illustrator. Working in a variety of mediums and styles, Shira finds inspiration in all things humorous, fantastical, whimsical and bizarre. Her work is often characterised by bold graphic strokes and patterns, anthropomorphosis of any kind, and scantily clad buxom beauties.

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