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Starting Out as a Freelance Illustrator - Part 1

9th October, 2017


Recently I’ve been asked a few times about how I started out as an illustrator & how I set up my business. It must be a sign of the times, either that or a sign my friends children are starting to get to a working age and have career choices to make. Below is by no means an exhaustive list. It’s based on what I experienced in the years I’ve been working for myself and it’s what I wish I’d known/thought of when I first set out on my own. If you’re considering setting up independently I hope you find this helpful.

A friend once expressed surprise that I didn’t ‘just work on a laptop in the dining room’ this article hopefully dispels some of that way of thinking.


Somewhere to Work

You will need an actual physical place to work and store all your work related paraphernalia, whatever that might be. These 2 places don’t have to be next to each other but you will need them both.


If you’re lucky like me you will have a room to call your own – well almost my own, at the moment I’m sharing my office with Hammy, my oldest daughters hamster. It goes without saying our resident feline furball is also up here a lot at the moment ;) As you can see from the picture above my work space if far from stylish, but it does the job.

If you don’t have the luxury of your own office room is there a section of a room/entrance hall that can become a dedicated space for your desk? – Ideally one away from grabby little children’s hands – although with 3 children of my own I appreciate this is easier said than done.

Apart from an actual workspace you will need storage for your work ‘stuff’ such as:

  1. Filing/receipts that show all the incoming & outgoings for your business for at least 5 years (please note this is recommended by HMRC in the UK, it may differ in other countries).
  2. Archive work & commissions.
  3. Packaging & stock if you intend to sell your illustrations/cards etc (don’t underestimate how much a 3 boxes of 12 A2 cardboard tubes can take up.)
  4. Drawing paper, paints, a drawing board etc

You get the idea; the list is pretty long.

Some people choose to rent out office space in a unit or co-operative. I’ve never done this so I can’t really comment. What you gain in comradery from other renters & keeping work & home physically separate I guess you lose in the cost & commute. You may want to consider this option when you’re more established.

Some people can maybe run a business from a stylish coffee shop, using a neat looking MacBook with a child perched on their knee but as far as I can see this is a myth. I’ve never met anyone who did this, in fact I think they only exist on TV. This brings me onto my next point….




Time to work

This is possibly even more obvious than my first point but as someone who was used to multi-tasking it took a while for the penny to drop.

You will need to give yourself time to work, uninterrupted time and if necessary from time to time, you may have to extract time from other activities, like sleeping. When I first started working for myself my youngest was only 2 years old. For more than a year I got up at 5.30 to get 2 hours in before ‘getting children up time’. I’m not going to pretend that this was great & empowering in any way, it wasn’t it was totally rubbish. But it meant I had 10 extra hours a week to work uninterrupted & it enabled me to build good foundations for my business.

To work effectively you need serious, dedicated work time. Not work time while you’re caring for children, or watching TV. If you have children you will definitely need some childcare, either that or prepare to have a nervous breakdown.




Hardware, Software & Tools of the Trade

Because I don’t know what type of illustration you do I’m going to generalise here. You will at least need some kind of hardware, either a desktop or a laptop. At the very least a tablet of some kind to receive emails, update your website, do your tax return, assuming you do it online, look for contacts, read blogs like this one etc. the list is endless.

Software depends largely on how you work. I primarily use Adobe Illustrator to produce the final version of my illustrations, an ancient version of Fireworks to edit image files for my website & Etsy shop & online promoting, MS Excel to record all my finances & MS Word to produce invoices/quotes. Obviously I also have PDF readers, web browsers etc. You may prefer Photoshop over Illustrator or an online invoicing service over DIY Excel. You may, or may not have older versions of software & not had to succumb to the evil that is subscription software. Whatever your hardware & software choices you need to have it in place & working well. There is nothing worse than a flaky software/hardware combination when you have work to do.

By tools of the trade I mean things like, paints, pencils, paper, charcoals etc, whatever your chosen medium.

I favour pencil & a good, solid angled drawing board. I also have my trusty Wacom graphics tablet. Even if you don’t spend a lot of time online I’d really recommend a tablet & pen mouse. Once you get used to them they are better for your hands & posture than a mouse.




Get a Proper Business email Address & some Business Cards Printed

When you set up your website the chances are you will also have the ability to set up numerous email accounts under the same domain. I think it’s always a good idea to use that rather than a Gmail or, God forbid, a Hotmail account. It just looks a lot more professional. Also don’t forget to get some business cards printed.


When I first started out working for myself I inwardly cringed every time I handed out a business card. But if you want potential clients to remember you, distributing a few well designed cards could make all the difference. I use Moo mini cards and carry some in a felt key ring so I always have some with me.




Register with HMRC & Business Insurance

Register yourself with HMRC (if you’re in the UK) or with whoever your countries tax body is. If you don’t, the tax man will find out and you will face penalties. It may seem a bit scary at first, but it’s not difficult to do. You will be sent a unique ID number & a password so you can login to your records & do your tax return. I do my tax return online – that isn’t difficult either as long as you record all your incomings & outgoings as you go along. You can start and save it and come back to the return as and when you like. Believe me if I can do it anyone can. I have trouble with my children’s primary level maths – something I’m not proud of.


Who would have thought you’d need it for illustrating? If you have people visit you in your home/office you need to make sure you’re covered it they fall down your stairs because of that ball the cat left at the top. If you visit your clients in their office you need to make sure you’re covered when you accidentally spill a coffee on their new super-duper laptop. And if you never go out and only communicate with your clients over email you need to make sure your illustrations don’t show something inaccurate likely to damage a client’s reputation and that will leave yourself wide open to prosecution.

Some people also choose to take out insurance against illness & injury in case they can’t work.




Lots of Hard-work

I know, working for yourself, who would have thought you’d have to put in lots of hard work? I think there is (a now diminishing, thankfully) idea that if you work freelance/independently then you’re relaxing at home most of the time watching ‘Homes under the Hammer’ and eating chocolate digestives. Sorry to be the bearer of surprising news but if you want to make a success of your business then you are going to have to work your socks off, at least until you have some sort of client base and a more regular workload, then you can just relax & work very hard J. The thing about working for yourself as opposed to working for a company is that you have to do EVERYTHING. You don’t just get to do the lovely drawing design stuff, you also have to:

  1. promote your work,
  2. find new business opportunities,
  3. follow up existing clients,
  4. Quote & follow up said quotes
  5. Invoice & make sure your invoices are all paid
  6. File all relevant legal documents such as tax returns, receipts, expenses etc
  7. Get professional insurance
  8. Keep you online presence ‘relevant’ & up to date.

There’s probably more, I’m getting exhausted just thinking about it, but I think you get the idea.




Self Belief & a Positive Mental Attitude

Last and by no means least this is what you need from the word go when starting out as an independent illustrator, but more about that next time.....






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