Freelancing: Five Lessons Learned

Illustration: Five Lessons Learned

I’ve pretty much been doing this for ten years now. It would have been around 2005 that I finally decided to ditch the excuses and acknowledge that doing this was my responsibility and that the dream of being a freelance illustrator wouldn’t be coming any closer all by itself.

Whilst that moment was initially empowering, what followed next were a lot of hard lessons as I embarked on this steep learning curve.

One things that was a certainty was that I would be making more than my fair share of mistakes along the way but as a result of those “clangers” I’ve learned a few valuable lessons.

Here are just five that I’d like to share, starting with…

1. Don’t Rush, Be Patient

Everything about Illustration-especially freelance-is a long term project. You may initially feel like you have motivation and dedication to burn but the fact is, this takes time.

Occasionally, you may find yourself on a certain day, putting in the hours, blogging about your stuff, sending out promo packs and still, it feels like nothing.

It feels like nothing is happening.

Do not despair though, although it often takes a long time, you should never confuse something being slow to happen with nothing actually happening.

Look at it this way. Look at your life right now. Day to day nothing seems to change that much, things seem the same right? Now, look back to where you were five years ago. Does it look anything like your life right now? Things have changed right?

Things are always changing and by staying focused on your goal, you ensure that things change for the better.

Ignore the temptation to turn this from a marathon into a 1,000,000 meter dash. Slow and steady wins the race.

Another approach is to keep remembering that you’re doing something that you love at this very moment. That’s a lot more fulfilling than always gazing off to some imagined future and wondering when your “big break” is going to come along.

2. Take the Time to Find YOUR Style

This is a crucial factor in being able to stand out from the competition.

And lets face it, since the internet there is a lot of competition. If you want to be able to stand out from all the others then your style has to be as distinctive as your own handwritten signature.

This may take a while. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to wake up one morning and say “I think today, I’ll find my own unique illustrating style”. This is a real challenge because there is always this constant pressure to emulate what is out there and what appears to be successful.

There’s is no doubt that this can be daunting. I think we’ve all had these moments when we go online and just by merely browsing sites like behance or deviantart, you stumble upon another twenty artists-on top of the countless others that you’ve already found-that produce the most amazing work. How are you going to be seen amongst all that?

There’s an interesting way of looking at this though. Even if it seems like there are always artists out there that create more detailed work than you and that there’s always somebody raising the bar, there is one thing that you have that nobody else can have, and that is that nobody is you!

Nobody has had the exact same experiences that you have had. Draw from this! Use your own experiences, your own inspirations. Incorporate as much of that as you can into your work and soon you’ll start producing something that is unique to yourself. Something that stands out from all the noise out there.

3. No, it’s Not a Good Idea to Talk Yourself Down

It’s good to get this down in writing actually because it still quietly bothers me all these years later.

This is the story,

I had been working fairly hard at creating a series of screen prints and I was pretty happy with the results. Now I had to figure out how to get them out into the outside world.

This is when I thought about a local gallery/bookshop that I felt would be a good fit for my work. I loved the shop and all of its contents. I knew the owner through mutual friends and we seemed to get on pretty well and I’d attended a few of the art shows there and always had a good time. It was and still is a neat little place.

I wanted to approach the owner about the possibility of stocking my work there. How would I go about that though?

I decided to craft an email(yes, not unoriginal or impersonal at all). Half way through the email though, I started to get really self conscious. I guess I was also struck with a touch of self doubt. I suddenly thought that my work wasn’t going to be good enough. Some of his recent artists had been fairly established and of a high profile so I guess I slipped into this “why on earth would he want to stock my work” kind of thinking.

As I typed away and tried to sound confident, everything I came up with just seemed really corny and insincere.

Then I had an idea.

“I know!” I thought to myself, “I’ll just be really casual about it and down to earth. I’m sure he’ll appreciate that.”


It turns out that I ended up writing something like, “Hey! I have these screen prints and I’m not sure what to do with them, fancy stocking them in your shop”. It was probably a little more articulate than that but not by much.

As I said, I thought I was being really casual and down to earth. A little like I was facebooking one of my friends about the prospect of grabbing a beer one night soon.

Of course, he didn’t see it that way. I think that to him I was treating his shop like a thrift store or something where I offloaded all my unwanted stuff. Obviously, that was the exact opposite to what I thought but how was he to know that?

After that episode, I think it’s safe to say that I never made that mistake again.

The lesson is simple, if you don’t take yourself seriously and sound excited about your own work, how can you expect anybody else too?

4. Be Nice

You could apply this to most things in life. When you first start to put yourself out there there may be the temptation may be to try and come across as clever, interesting or even funny.

In all honesty though, my experience is that people respond to you best when you’re just being friendly and approachable. People need to know that they can just get in touch with you and have a friendly straight forward conversation.

Keep it simple. People are generally too busy to make the time for anything else.

When someone gets in touch with you or vice verca, all they initially need to know is that you’re a professional illustrator, you work hard, your work is great and that you’re happy to be speaking with this person at that moment.

Also, avoid conflict and negativity wherever and whenever you can.

A reason for this is that it’s always a smaller world than you think and word gets around.

Whether it’s your fault or not, a negative story that you’re attached to almost always has a negative effect on those who are hearing it.

5. Don’t Work for Free

I almost didn’t put this in here as I’ve covered it before. However, I feel particularly strong about this one so here it is.

For some reason, there are plenty of people out there that seem completely justified in approaching a creative out of the blue and asking them to work for nothing. Why, I have absolutely no idea. Maybe it’s because they think that because somebody has chosen to pursue something that they love they aren’t really working. Of course, this is absolute nonsense but there you go.

Most of the time they won’t frame it like that of course. Usually it’ll be worded like “We have no budget for this but it will be great exposure for yourself, wonderful for your portfolio and will lead to paid work.”

In actual fact, if you do go down this route then the harsh truth is that the only thing that you are “exposing” is the fact that you are stupid and naive enough to work for free. What’s more, if you do work for nothing it is almost certain that the person that you are doing all this work for does not respect you or what you do and they are always the worst clients. They’ll see you as nothing more than a subservient.

Who knows, maybe you’ve even found yourself thinking along the lines that you shouldn’t mind doing a bit of work on the side for absolutely nothing as you enjoy it anyway.

If you do find yourself slipping into this way of thinking then please, think about it. What has actually been fun?

Was it simply fun 100% of the time to put in all those long hours that you sacrificed in order to get good at what you do?

Did you have the time of your life spending an absolute fortune in student loans just so that you can study your profession leaving you with a massive amount of debt as a result?

How about all the times that you’ve had to put up with screwed up expressions from people when you tell them that you’re in the creative industry?

Believe me, I’ve had that.

I’ve had people say things to me like “You’re going to art school to learn animation? Is that something you have to even go to school for?” or “Art? I could do art! I’d rather do a real job though.”

Think of all that. Still want to work for free?

Don’t get me wrong, I do love illustration and what I have chosen to do but this is not an easy road to go down. Please don’t get all the way down it just to end up working for free.

It’s an unfortunate truth that those of us in the creative industry aren’t valued in quite the same way as those in other professions but we are no less valuable and it’s our job to assert that.

Stick up for your industry. Get paid what you deserve.

So that was my five lessons learned. Actually, the last one was more like a piece of advice but it’s based on past experience so that’s all good.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading. Let me know what you think in the comments section or even feel free to let me know of any lessons you’ve learned.