How to make a living as a freelance illustrator

I'm writing this article to try and help out aspiring illustrators out there. I'll be writing a bit about how I make a full time living from freelance illustration exclusively from my home studio. There's a huge amount of information that could go into this so I'll try to keep it to the point.

Most of this article is based on my experiences and what has worked for me as an illustrator. I'll try to do what I can to give some advice for other kinds of artists too, as some parts may apply better to you, and some not so much.

Finding commissions yourself

Before you get really stuck in applying to a million different projects, you're going to need at least a small portfolio. More established illustrators will be adding to their portfolio as they go, but getting the ball rolling to start with is tough and will mean you'll need to make some work for portfolio pieces.

These could be projects from a university course, self initiated pieces, or free work for a small charity for example. Other than this I would absolutely never recommend doing free work. (One thing I do for free is sending prints to charity auctions – this doesn't cost me time I can't afford to lose, and can be a good form of donation).

Something that has naturally formed and helped me secure more jobs has been having a recognisable style, and some sort of speciality or niche. While this is easier said than done, your style will probably naturally develop from your inspirations. For example, mine is a bit of a mixture of technique inspiration (screen print layering / limited colours) and artists/designers I love. Obviously I'm not suggesting copying anyone, but chasing 100% originality is a pretty much impossible task.

An animator friend of mine Dan Palmer has had success with animated explainer videos for example. For me, it's mostly map and children's work.
For you, it might be concept art for games, fashion illustration, photo manipulation etc. One thing I wouldn't recommend is trying to be an expert at everything.

Job/portfolio Sites

After years of testing, I've found job boards to be a mixed bag. Some are a downhill race to who can be the cheapest, and others have landed me some interesting, fun and well paid projects.

A great project found through Reedsy

A great project found through Reedsy

Please do your own research on what might work best for you, but here are some that have worked for me: Reedsy, Behance, Workingnotworking, If You Could, Hire An Illustrator, The Dots, Dribbble, Reddit forhire/designjobs

Word of mouth and contacts

Like me, many of you might not have contacts and friends in the industry to begin with, or live somewhere where it isn't easy to meet industry contacts. But, there is usually at least something worth pursuing. For example, I live in Margate, a small seaside town in England, where a local gallery (Turner Contemporary) have stocked my prints, and commissioned interesting projects.

Once you start to get some work, if you're reliable and doing a good job, things should start to grow by people referring you, or previous clients may be able to help out with recommendations of people to speak to and send your portfolio to. There may be small galleries or local shops that would be interested in stocking your work too, if you offer prints or products.
A large amount of my commission income comes from search. As I previously mentioned, a lot of it is map related. When people search 'Map illustrator', my portfolio is one of the ones they'll see.
SEO is fairly complicated but very important – if you aren't aware it means optimising your website to make it easier for searches to land on you. I'd recommend spending some time learning the basics and keeping it in mind as you progress. I personally know very little about it but the effort I have put in after a bit of reading, has paid off so far.

Social Media

It's pretty much a given that visual based social media like Pinterest and Instagram are going to be good for artists and designers. Some styles are more viral and perfect for Instagram and will find success naturally on there, while others may be great for larger media and print. There are many online guides to help with these, but very simply engagement is key. Genuine liking, following and commenting is a great way to get followers on Instagram. Don't be tempted by bots or buying followers.

I try to make sure to post fairly regularly to Instagram and use it as a portfolio of sorts, but it's important to also limit time on the app to get on with the important thing: making.

Commissions through an Agency

If you're at the level where you think you might be of interest to an agency, this can be a brilliant way to get regular work. Agencies vary in specialism and size – some are more licensing based, and represent many artists, and some are run by one person and will only have a few illustrators on their roster.
I've had experience with both kinds and while they both have pros and cons, I personally prefer a smaller agency. They can offer more personal care and attention, but this of course doesn't mean a larger agency can't do this: every one is different.
Commission rates the agents take can vary from 20% - 40% so you need to make sure your agents are getting good enough budgets to cover their fees, and enable you to earn enough.
They should also be helpful in using their experience and skills in negotiating rates and rights usage and more for you – if a client wants full ownership on a tight deadline they should be paying for it.

Selling products and licensing illustration for passive income

One of the great things I've found about having some sort of online shop, is that in between commissions, there's still something to work towards. Personal work is great, but I like to make new prints for my shop.

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Ones that I have found success selling on are Etsy, Notonthehighstreet, Artfinder and my own website on Squarespace. Shopify is also a great platform for an online shop. When I make a new print, I can put it on all these platforms. It's a lot of work especially in the beginning when setting up the store fronts, but they build momentum as you get (hopefully!) good reviews, and I find that, with consistent care, the earnings from these increase each year.

Another great thing about personal work and new prints is the possibility of licensing. These are usually a very low percentage per sale, but they're also passive income. I license currently with Juniqe in Germany and Fy recently, and they give me small commission each month. For map and location prints give my side business Mapsy a try!

I know there's quite a lot here to digest, but feel free to come back to it, take notes, write your own version that works for you – whatever is best, everyone's different. I hope this article could help some of you out there.
And I know it can be overwhelming (I definitely feel that often) - scheduling, having weekends and evenings off/a regular schedule, workouts, meditation, yoga, and time in nature all really help.


Ps. Other than Mapsy, I don't have any affiliate links or sponsorships from any of the companies mentioned.

A recent interview with student Lucy Wooldridge

Lucy is a first year Graphic Design student, and she recently sent me an email asking whether I'd be happy to answer a few questions for one of her university projects. 

Here's the interview - I thought I'd post it online as there may be questions on here that other students may want the answers to (Some of these are questions I get asked from different people so I see students wanting to know the same things sometimes.)

When did you realise you wanted to be an illustrator ?

I learnt about illustration when my art teacher at school mentioned the University for the Creative Arts - our career advisers hadn't head of the place despite it being 1 of only 3 universities in the area. So I'm glad he told me about that! Also one of my first inspirations was when I saw amazing screen printed gig posters.
I went on to do the foundation year there, then moved to London to study a degree in Illustration at Middlesex University. This is where I did a little bit of commercial work and was my first introduction to the freelance illustration world - since then it's been hard work, trying to always improve and market myself to continue the flow of work. I'm very lucky to now have regular commissions and sales through my shop to keep me very busy with it all.

What was your first job (in the creative field)?

I've had lots of little jobs from labouring in construction, to start ups that were copying other business ideas (so I didn't really feel motivated working for them) but I haven't had any jobs in the creative field except for when I started freelancing.

How would you describe what you do currently?

Mostly map commissions! Loads of uses for maps but it is 99% of the commercial work I get. I have more freedom to make what kind of prints I want if I have time between commissions and I can make prints for my shop.

What has been the biggest change in illustration since you started?

I'm not too sure how to answer this one as being a freelancer I work from home alone most of the time, so news and goings on in the illustration world is mostly from online blogs and things I find online. The changes I can think of though are pretty much just trends and whats becoming popular, this applies to the design world too - plants/green styles, human bodies with animal heads, cute cards with puns on etc.

What has been your favourite project?

With this question I pretty much always say Roald Dahl for obvious reasons - I've been a lifelong fan and it was amazing to have a job where I got to look through almost all of his books and make a map out of them. But really any project where there is good communication with the client and things go relatively smoothly - a solid brief and vision of what is needed really helps produce good results.

Favourite project you have seen but haven’t worked on?

There have been loads I would have love to work on - I like this question. I'd love to work on a children's book but my portfolio probably doesn't show publishers that so much (The kind of work you do is what you'll get hired to make).

What was your biggest mistake?

Pricing is one of those things that is always so hard to get right. My agent told me about an amazing book called 'Pricing and ethical guidelines' by the Graphic Artists' Guild which really helps. But you never know what other illustrators have quoted - they may have quoted low without realising. But also on high profile jobs, if they want you and you're more expensive than another - they still might go for you. It's also something that comes with experience.

What is your ambition?

To keep what I'm doing and expand really - great commissions big and small where we're passionate about the project, I've been working hard and spending lots recently on expanding my product line and working with new stockists to hopefully see my work in lots of shops across the world!

Who is the most inspirational person you have worked with?

To be honest all my work 'colleagues' are across email so you only really get a small sense of how they work, but you can still get an idea. Lots of people who commission me feel strongly about the project and want to make it as good as it can be which I always respect. Sometimes this means making extra changes that I didn't want to make, but usually they're right and it's better afterwards.

What piece of advice would you give to someone starting out now?

It's tough to get into, and tough to make money at, but keep making work, keep making the type of work you want to be hired for, and hopefully a little further down the line you can specialise and become the go to illustrator for a certain type of work

The Indianapolis Craft Beer map

Over in Indianapolis, Valerie created and commissioned me to create a map of breweries, pubs and bars supporting the craft beer movement. Over 50 places signed up and I'm looking forward to seeing the printed leaflets distributed across the city promoting the craft beer destinations!

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