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.

illustrators online shop barcelona.jpg

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.