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Starting Out as a Freelance Illustrator - Part 2

18th October, 2017


I would never claim to be an expert on business, but as I’ve been working as an independent illustrator for a number of years now with some success I feel that I can offer a few insights into what and just as importantly what not to do when you're starting out as a freelance illustrator.

For the purpose of this blog post I’m going to assume that you already have your place to work/hardware/software/pens/paper/paints etc all ready.  If you’re unsure of what you need and what you don’t need then you may want to check out my earlier post Starting out as a Freelance Illustrator - Part 1.  




Have some Self-Belief.

I know that’s corny and probably very un-British of me but this really, really important.  If you don’t believe you can do it, you’re going to have a difficult time convincing other people (i.e. clients) that you can do it too.

I hooted with derision when my husband first suggested I set up my own business as we had 3 children of 5 years and under. But I was hard-working, organised and had lots of skills I didn’t want to see going to waste and after a few months I realised that yes, not only could I set up my own business, but that I could also make a success of it too. 

For starters you need to remove phrases such as ‘would be illustrator’ from your vocabulary, anything that implies you might not know what you’re doing. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that you should lie but you need to instil confidence in potential clients. Confidence that you are competent and able to fulfil their brief, on time & skilfully. ‘Would be illustrator’ doesn’t really cut the mustard does it ? – It makes me cringe every time I see it in people’s bios.   You can have a great portfolio but if you don’t take yourself & your business seriously others probably won’t either.

If you’re promoting yourself as an illustrator then that’s what you are.  No one else is going to believe that you are an illustrator if you sound like you’re not sure yourself.

Working freelance/independently whatever you call it means you are running your own business.  Even if that business is only 1 person, you.  Get used to the idea that you run a business and think like someone who runs a business. I don’t mean wear a 1980’s power suit and start smoking cigars but what I’m trying to say is take it seriously.  Don’t go into setting up your own business in a half-cocked way.  You need to get business cards printed, register yourself with HMRC (if you’re in the UK) or with whoever your countries tax body is.




Get yourself out there and get some Commissions.

The most obvious first step is to put together a portfolio and get it out there with your name attached to it. You don’t have to include all your work in your portfolio, it’s probably better if you don’t. But what you do need is an accessible – ie easy to use, professional looking & pleasant to look at portfolio which not only shows a consistent body of work of but also your contact details.  You can also include a bit of information about yourself, how much is entirely up to you.  Personally I like to keep it brief because I don’t think any potential client needs to know my innermost thoughts & feelings, even less my family background but I know there are plenty of people out there who like to share. 

On your portfolio site it’s always a good idea to include a few links to other places where your work appears such as Behance, Pinterest, Instagram, other blogs, your shop, published work if you have one etc.

It goes without saying that client testimonials are a valuable asset to your website as it a client list when you eventually build one up. It will all help to not only sell you as a great illustrator, but as someone who is good to work with too.

When you put together your website – either by designing it yourself or using something like Squarespace you need to make your website as easy & intuitive to use as possible.  Remember, the purpose of your website is to get your portfolio in front of potential clients as simply as possible.  Making those potential clients click on lots of links before they even find your portfolio is not a good idea & trying to stand out by calling your portfolio page link something obtuse like ‘all my lovely things’ instead of ‘Portfolio’ may make a potential client pause just long enough not to click on the link. If you need anymore convincing there’s an excellent book on web design called ‘Don’t make me think’ by Steve Krug.

I know it’s great to be creative, but you really need to make it as easy as possible for people to see your work and commission you.


Website Management Basics

I’m not going to cover how to properly manage your website just now, I’ll leave that for a later date.  But a top tip to be going on with would be to remember to name your image files & web pages properly so they can be ‘read’ by Google – eg instead of naming an image showing an illustrated bowl of spaghetti image1.jpeg call it illustrated_bowl_of_spagetti.jpeg then it will have a much better chance of appearing in that Google search that your potential client does for illustrated bowls of spaghetti.

Ditto naming a webpage page1.php isn’t going to result in it appearing in too many web searches either.




Promote Yourself -Now this is where it starts to get tricky. 

Your Website

Obviously your website if it is designed & coded well with all the correct tags, keywords etc will be your first & initially your most important method of self-promotion.


Social Media

These days there are numerous social media websites - too many to mention I don’t need to list them all but Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest are a good place to start. I’m sure that you’re familiar with many more.  Now let me be clear......I consider social media to be a necessary evil.  As far as business is concerned there is no other way than social media to get your work out there in front of so many people so quickly

** Even though I moan about social media I have to admit I use it lots and I’ve had some really fantastic commissions and sales from potential clients seeing my work over social media. **

There will be some types of social media that appeal more than other to you.  I suggest you stick with the ones you like for starters and then dip your toes with the others when you feel you want to.  My favourites are Twitter & Pinterest and I struggle to get excited about Instagram, largely I suspect because it’s very mobile based and if I’m away from my desk I don’t want to be staring a mini version of my monitor rather than spending time with family & friends. You may love Instagram – lots of people do & it’s a great way to get your work out there.

** Don’t forget to promote your successes on social media (& the successes of others). Recent completed commission, personal work, support for good causes it’s all a good way to get your name & work out there. **




It’s not all about Commissions


In between and alongside commissioned work I like to work on my own designs which I sell retail & wholesale...sometimes I like to take a break from drawing maps.  This is a good way of trying out new styles/tools, making money and promoting your work as each completed piece for sale gives you a great opportunity to promote yourself online numerous time.  You may even decide to put together a wholesale catalogue to send to retailers, but that really is a post for another day.




Stay away from Freelance/Job bidding Websites

There are probably people out there who will disagree with me about this, but I would strongly recommend staying away from any freelance job site. You know the ones I mean…I’m not going to name names, but the websites that encourage you to bid for work against every Tom, Dick or Harriet.  They may seem like a good idea when you're starting out but freelance job websites are very bad news for professional illustrators & creatives in general as:

  1. they reduce fees to the lowest common denominator worse still they give the impression to potential clients that commission fees are lower than they actually are.
  2. your level of legal protection is shaky at best.  Better to find a client who you can actually speak to and who will accept your own commission contract.




Join the Association of Illustrators

I don’t get a cut from the AOI, honest, but as well as a great place to market yourself I’ve found then to be helpful & supportive and invaluable for advice all sorts of things from agents to pricing and copyright law.




Sort Out your Paper Work

Make sure you have a contract ready to go.  It doesn’t have to be a fancy, expensive one penned by a solicitor.  The AOI have plenty of sample contracts that you can use.




Take Regular Breaks during the Day

It’s difficult when you’re busy and sometimes even more difficult if you’re not busy as you feel you should be beavering away looking for your next commission. But it’s really important to take regular breaks from your desk. No matter how much you enjoy being creative, it’s not physically or emotionally good for anyone to be sat drawing for hours on end.  You'll end up with a bad back, a sore shoulder or worse still, a repetitive strain injury.

Remember to take time off at regular intervals to walk about, go for a walk, make a drink, sit outside and get some fresh air, visit a gallery or park, go shopping. Inspiration can be found anywhere.




That's it my list of how to go about setting up your own freelance creative business.  It's my no means exhaustive, but I hope it will at least point you in the right direction and provide a few tips that hadn't crossed your mind before.









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