Do you want discover how to become a freelance illustrator?
Being a freelance illustrator is one of the most rewarding and sought after careers out there. Drawing, illustrating and being creative every day – what’s not to like?
It’s generally fantastic. Illustrating for magazines publications, children’s books to advertising, the list is endless! It’s rewarding, creative and stimulating.
Of course, it’s not always that easy. It takes hard work, late nights and constantly working on promotion to secure consistent commissions. Freelancing often requires a calm head, as you never know when or if that next commission will come. Sounds gloomy, but that’s the reality.
Unlike a full time job (which is not as secure as everyone makes it out to be), handling this this potential emotional strain is key to freelancing. But on a positive note, pursuing a career as a freelance illustrator is certainly achievable. Thousands achieve it successfully, and don’t live like a poor artist on the streets.
I’ve been an illustrator for over a decade, and can safety say that it’s been a roller-coaster. I’ve learnt a lot throughout this time and improved my work. As a result, this article is all about what I’ve discovered and learnt along the way. I’m hopeful it can help you achieve success in this oversaturated creative industry (sorry to burst the bubble). I’ll be discussing and sharing tips on marketing yourself, how to create an awesome illustrator portfolio, to investing in your freelancing adventure!
If you’re not familiar with my illustration portfolio, I specialise in publishing, advertising to editorial illustration, and I’m an illustrator for hire. I’m currently based in Hampshire, United Kingdom, and work with worldwide customers. Check out my work and see what you think, I’ll love to hear from you. I also often publish new articles on this blog, like my popular seven tips to boost your gouache paintings.
Anyway enough with that, let’s kick things off with tip number one!
Sales & marketing is your best friend
Successful selling and marketing is the key to become a prosperous freelance illustrator. The majority of freelance illustrators spend the majority of their working week drumming up business, marketing and networking, than actually illustrating itself. It might sound crazy, but sales and marketing is the backbone of their business, which they need to continuously pump to ensure future commissions.
Freelance illustrators often push themselves to achieve the ambitious goals they have set themselves. Sometimes they hit, sometimes they miss. This is the beauty of goal setting. This all might disappoint you, especially if you want to just paint and draw all day (I can relate!). It’s a hard-hitting tip number one, but this is the reality of freelancing in general (no sugar coating here).
In order to consistently secure illustration commissions, you need more eyes on your work. Expose yourself everywhere (but decently please). The more eyes the better. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but think of McDonalds. They are everywhere, you hear about them constantly on the tv, you drive past them on motorways, you see them as bus stops adverts. Love them or hate them, they are successful because they are always on people’s minds. As a result, when someone is craving some fast food, who is one of the first restaurant they are likely to think of?
This is exactly the sort of mentality you need to be able to thrive. People forget, and need constant prodding that you exist. Look I’m here, don’t forget me. Hey you, I’m here bro. Oi I’m still surviving, here’s a reminder. Times that by hundred.
Start a blog, create a portfolio on Behance, join Twitter (and give me a follow!), and send offline marketing materials. This is just the tip of the iceberg to market yourself, but the more you do of it the better. I always think of a great book called 10X by Grant Cardone (more of my recommend books on my illustration and design Resources page). The essence of the book is this – if you think you are doing enough, you aren’t. You need to do 10X the amount of action to get to where you want to be. Have this in the back of your head and you’ll get places.
When I first started illustrating, I thought clients would come to me, but it’s simply not true. You need to get out there and fish them out, and not let them go. You need to be omnipresence. According to Cambridge Dictionary, omnipresence means:
“The fact of being present or having an effect everywhere at the same time:The world has grown accustomed to the omnipresence of global brands.
You’ll likely receive more commissions (as more people will know about you), and you’ll develop key relationships. Unfortunately, mostly no clients will come to you, unless you have brilliant work (which I will discuss later). It helps if you’re popular within the illustration or creative field, but this essentially arrives from having great work. One important thing to do that is improving the illustrations on your website.
Seven tips to help you get started
- Register to at least one social media platform (Twitter, Instagram to Facebook). From here, post your illustrations to get things started. Twitter is great for starting a conversation, showing your latest work or asking a question. Remember to be consistent to build a following.
- Create a blog on your website and write content to help your audience. Create content on subjects you think people will search for and learn from. A good example is my recent blog post to help you discover the golden ratio and how it can help your art. Use that as inspiration.
- Network and meet people face to face. This could be connecting through social media or at an networking event (as offline is equally powerful as online marketing).
- Sign up to the AOI, which is an association to help freelance illustrators with commissions, pricing and has your back. You can also purchase a AOI Folio with every membership to showcase your work on their website. Ideal for anyone new to the industry and wants support.
- Send direct mailers and offline marketing material. Create a spreadsheet of potential clients, including their name, email address, company, title, and any other contact details you may want to include. Create a direct mail design and post to possible clients.
- Sign up to Dribbble or Behance, which offers an extra boost to your marketing. Post two illustrations on these platforms to get started, and be consistent. Interact with other designers and involve yourself with discussions.
- Using your spreadsheet from Step 5, send a personal and direct email to ten Art Directors. Keep it short, include 3 low-resolution images and say who you are and how you can help them (with a link to your website too).
Marketing is crucial to your survival as a freelance illustrator. Do it incorrectly and you’ll be scraping the barrel. Do it correctly and you’ll have a wealth of commissions at your disposal.
Pro tip: do ten times the amount of action. Commit to this and you will see results. Ten times the amount of emails, ten times the amount of social media postings, and ten times the amount of blog posts. This will inevitably lead to more.
Create a visually stunning illustration portfolio
In order for you to secure commissions, you need a well established illustration portfolio and website. This is what art directors and clients see when they look at your illustration work. So you need to make sure it’s the best!
In-between commissions or when you have no paid work, practise your craft and create personal work. This illustrated map of Brussels below was a personal project when I didn’t have any commissions at the time. It’s shown within my portfolio, that I also send to clients as marketing material.
Personal projects can help build your portfolio, skills and style, and gives Art Directors another excuse to come back to your website.
There’s nothing worse than an Art Director revisiting your website and seeing old work. Not only is this a poor user experience, it’s bad for SEO (search engine optimisation). When Google bots crawl your website, they love new, fresh content. A neglected website is a bad sign to Google. For example, I’m constantly updating my old pieces of content, and regularly publishing new blog posts (like this post to help you with complimentary colours).
I recommend you create your own website that showcases your illustrations. External portfolios are great, but having your a website that you can control is crucial.
Pro tip: select one aspect of your work that you want to improve. Take your work to a close trusted friend, or ideally someone in the creative industry, and ask their opinion on your illustrations. Use this insight to enhance and get better. The better your illustration portfolio, the easier it will be to market and receive commissions.
Speculate to accumulate: invest
The biggest brands we know have this in a nutshell. They don’t sit around, waiting for accumulation. They invest and speculate, to accumulate. Investing comes in many forms with freelance, but one major one is your tools, marketing, and promotion. According to Spendesk:
“Global digital ad spending predicted to reach $567.49 billion by the end of 2022.”
This digital advertising spend is crazy big, and of course, spending money on advertising doesn’t always mean more money and sales. You might also look at that sum and think it’s not related to you. However, it really is! You need to speculate to accumulate to gain commissions, for example you could invest in:
- Social media advers
- Direct mail promotion
- AOI Client Directories
- Illustration and design conferences
- Networking events
The list goes on and on. The main focus with these is to get your name out there, connect with people who commission illustration, and make sure you’re always in the client’s mind. This relates to tip number one.
The key here is that you are investing. Investing is different to just spending money – you’re investing to secure commissions in the future. Think about your ROI (return on investment) and see the investment paying dividend in the future. Think about investing as growing an apple tree. You may not see results straight away as a little seed. However by watering it over time, it will start to flourish and be fruitful. Then it’s just a case of maintaining the tree, trimming it and taking care of it.
My recommend art tools
Away from sales and marketing, one of the first things I bought when I first started illustrating was an A4 Canon scanner. Allowing me to create work and scan my illustrations in Adobe Photoshop.
If you’re about to graduate, or you’re thinking about becoming a freelance illustrator, make a scanner your first investment. I think it applies to digital artists too. As you can scan your rough drawings, essential to send to clients at the start of a commission.
Scanners allows you to create work for clients and produce personal work, which I highly recommend. Another timely and money saving investment is a high quality printer. This saves a lot of money if you’re sending marketing material to Art Directors.
I have a full list of essential purchases on my essential art tools list.
Pro tip: What areas of your freelancing journey can you invest in, to reap the rewards later? This doesn’t have to be a monetary value either. Could you invest in sleeping better, having a daily morning routine to exercising more?
How to become a successful freelance illustrator
Freelance illustration isn’t easy, and much like anything in life, if there’s hard work and dedication involved. As everyone nowadays wants to be a freelance illustrator, competition is astonishing. However the world of illustration isn’t alone. Just about any industry has stiff competition, so don’t let this put you off (you just need to keep learning and creating great work). The better your work, the more likely it can often lead to something great on the other side.
Lets sum up what we have discussed on this blog post:
- Sales and marketing is your best friend! Go to networking events, send marketing materials and pick up the phone. Be omnipresence.
- Create a stunning illustration portfolio.
- Keep learning and developing your work. There is no excuse to not keep learning, as there are thousands of different free resources to help you progress.
- Speculate to accumulate: you need to invest in yourself and your freelance illustrator journey to have any chance!
If you’re creative and want to pursue a career in freelance illustration, then do it. I can’t tell you anything different, but make sure you take these pointers with you, and just get out there! And I’ll like to finish today on a quote;
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life – endurance.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt
If you liked this article all about becoming a successful freelance illustrator, see how you can improve your perspective knowledge with these horizon line tips. Check out my latest article to help you learn how to use the Baseline Grid in your design work!
Many thanks for listening and visiting my news page today. You can follow what I’m up to on my Twitter or Facebook, I’ll really appreciate it if you do, and don’t be afraid to say hi to me! Many thanks again, and have a great day!