Freelance illustrators turn art into careers. But it takes more than artistic talent to become your own boss and work as a freelance illustrator. Business sense is also required.
Freelance illustrators make their living by creating pictures for books, magazines and other publications. They may also create logos for businesses. Many commercial products, such as textiles, gift wrap, stationary, greeting cards or calendars, also require illustrations.
More than half of fine artists in the U.S. are self-employed. Compared to other American workers, that makes them 3.5 times more likely to be self-employed. That’s according to a 2008 report by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Ian Challis has worked as a self-employed artist and designer in Seattle, Washington for 20 years. He says being able to work for himself from home is a great benefit to his job.
“I can make a decent living doing what I love,” he says. “It’s like getting paid for a hobby.”
However, he says that the salary can vary a lot. “You could make nothing to $300,000 per year depending on how popular your designs are,” he says.
One way freelance illustrators make money is by licensing designs to publishing or manufacturing companies. Most of their pay comes from royalties. That’s a percentage of the cost of the item that’s sold. If a product that uses your illustration sells well, you make more money. If it doesn’t sell well, the company will stop producing it, and your pay will stop too.
Working as a freelance illustrator can be a part-time or full-time job. Many people who do this begin slowly. They do other jobs and begin to build a client-base to get some experience. Building a portfolio (a collection of best work) is important for illustrators so that they can show off their style and accomplishments.
There are no formal requirements to starting your own freelance illustration business. But in reality, artists are often well-educated. In the U.S., artists are twice as likely as other American workers to have college degrees.
The role of graphic designers and artists requires them to build a large foundation of skills to make a living, says Nancy Winberg. She is an illustrator and graphic artist in Seattle, Washington. She says it’s important not to limit yourself.
“Job descriptions are always changing with the advent of new technology, and it is important to keep up to date with the resources that are in demand,” she says. She has gained experience as a scenic painter at a theater, and as a graphic designer, web designer, desktop publisher and digital photographer.
Heather Castles is an illustrator and graphic designer. She went to college for illustration and design. Then she got a job and gained experience in the field. After a few years of experience with publishing companies, she went out on her own. She now finds employment by researching different companies online and sending them samples of her work. She used to do freelance work in the mornings and work for a design studio in the afternoons. Now she is a new parent and does only the freelance work.
“The lovely thing about freelancing is it’s such a flexible type of work, I can fit it in whenever I have time available and make my own hours,” she says.
Knowing the Market
To be able to market yourself to potential employers, you must know what kind of work is available. For example, you could create graphics for online stock use, the gaming industry, greeting cards or other retail items, even children’s books.
“The diverse applications for illustration require an artist to examine and focus in on what they want to specialize in,” says Winberg.
Most artists develop a certain style that makes their work suitable to a niche in the large illustration market. “In college, I was informed that the best way to create a demand for your illustration was to develop a personal signature style and to strive for a consistent look,” says Winberg. She adds that the gaming industry is another market that demands talented artists with sophisticated computer software skills.
Illustrators can work in fine art or commercial art. Fine art is created by hand and commercial art is digital. Work done by hand must be scanned and digitalized to make it suitable for printing or online use. Since that creates an added step, many artists now create all their work digitally.
“Regardless of the changes in graphic design technology, there is still a demand for traditional artwork. Most evidence of hand-rendered illustration can be seen in children’s books and editorial illustration,” says Winberg.
Getting Your Name Out
Online social networking is an easy and free way to advertise your illustration services. Kimberly Schwede is an illustrator and graphic designer. She uses Facebook to network. She has a “fan club” to advertise her most recent artwork.
She also joined a group of women entrepreneurs. This has brought her a lot of work, such as designing logos for new businesses.
When she was starting out she didn’t wait for work to find her. She went out and asked for it. She would look for websites that sold things that were cute and feminine. Her illustration style matches that niche. She would e-mail the website and ask if they needed a new logo.
“E-mailing is so easy. There really isn’t any rejection because if they don’t like your work they just won’t respond — versus meeting someone in person and having them say ‘sorry but we’re just not that into your illustration style’ to your face,” says Schwede.
She loves working for herself. “You definitely have to hustle though,” she admits. In addition to e-mailing, she also isn’t shy about mailing postcards with illustration samples to greeting card companies or publishers.
Ups and Downs of Freelance Work
Schwede encourages artists to consider a career in freelance illustration. But she says you have to be patient while building your career. “In addition, you have to be able to deal with criticism because not everyone is going to like your work. It’s good to be well-rounded too. For me, having basic graphic design skills where I can design a tri-fold brochure helps a lot with my salary. Living solely on illustration work is tough,” she says.
Freelance workers often find it’s a feast or a famine. One week they may be working long hours to meet multiple deadlines for different clients. The next week they could have no clients at all.
“Sometimes I get down when the work flow slows down, but I always have to remind myself things will pick up again,” says Schwede.
Society of Illustrators
An American society that promotes the art and appreciation of illustration
Set up an Illustration Business in 10 Steps
Great tips from Heather Castles
Resources for illustrators
Lots of fun links to get your pencils moving
Steve Lieber: Suggestions on Getting Started Learning the Craft
A successful comic illustrator shares his wisdom