Sunday Mailbag

January 22nd, 2012 | Posted in General

Q: I’d like to do freelance illustration and cartooning for a career, but I hate marketing and invoicing and dealing with the business side of things. I just want to draw. How do you handle all that business stuff?

A: There is supposedly a scientific reason for a highly creative person not liking (or in some cases being any good at) the business side of art. Most people have heard of the concept of “right-brained” and “left-brained” people. As the theory goes, people who’s brains are left-side dominant are more analytical and logical, and are generally better at math and other structured concepts. Those who are ride-side dominant are more creative and artistic. Obviously we all use both sides of the brain, so to say either are mutually exclusive is silly, but it does seem to be true that many artistic people don’t get along with math or business. That said, I know of many terrific illustrators that are also exceptionally good at the business side of it, so take that theory with a grain of salt.

Being a professional freelancer takes more that just the artistic skills. You need to have great communication skills to work with art directors and clients, the ability to manage your time and meet deadlines, strong marketing senses and the ability to handle the contracts, invoicing, paperwork and other business things that are part of being a freelancer. I know many very talented artists who can’t make a living freelancing because the don’t have those other parts of the whole that make one a professional. That’s not an indictment of their talent as an artist or cartoonist, but being able to create that work within the demands of the marketplace is necessary if you want to make a career out of illustration. Some artists just don’t have that skill set.

One solution is to find a business manager or rep to handle that end of things. That’s really ideal if you just won’t or can’t do any of the business stuff. I know a few successful illustrators who would not be able to function without that rep. Of course you have to give up a percentage of your fees for that service, but a good rep easily makes up for that in more work and in building solid relationships with clients. I’ve never had a rep, and good ones are hard to find.

Another solution is to get your spouse involved if he/she is willing or able to do so. I also know of a few “spouse teams” where the non-artist husband or wife acts as the manager for the other. It takes a pretty special spouse to do that… I’ve got one of those myself! The Lovely Anna helps me out enormously with paperwork and other business tasks that free up my time to do the artwork.

Finally, as always, there’s an app for that. Actually there are many computer programs that help with the business end of things, from accounting to time management to marketing. I use Intuit QuickBooks to do all my invoicing, accounts payable and all the money stuff. I have a small to-do program called Things that I use to manage my time, setting goals for various tasks and deadline reminders. I know there are some programs out there dedicated to the freelance professional that incorporate several elements together in one place. Mac Freelance is one I know of. I am sure there are others but as I have never used any I am unable to recommend one. That might be something to look into, though.

The reality is there is an art side of being a professional illustrator, and a non-art side. Both are important, and both need to be handled competently for to succeed in the tough world of freelancing.

Thanks to John Larson for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Lee Fortuna says:

    Great advise Tom to people like me who may want to start making a little coin from a hobby that we love! Wish it could be a full time decision but made my career choice long ago & have too many people in my life depending on my skills to take care of them. But being almost 51 yrs old now, I would love to let my hobby of cartooning make a little extra income for me & mine! That’s why I go to The Mad Blog every day at 5am to get inspiration & knowledge before making a move like that! Thanks Tom!

  2. Robin Crowley says:

    I have to disagree a bit here in my personal experience, I’ve never handle a single invoice, besides being an artist, I’m also an anarchist, so I don’t “share” my earns with “the government” (I’m the artist, not them), hehe, so, I think it is possible to make a living as an artist (I have since 1995) without knowing about accounting, just as long as you let your clients know beforehand how you work, that you don’t give invoices for example. Marketing to me is all about being the best you can in what you do, so as long as people like your work, they’ll tell others and so on. I like printing my cell phone number on the paper of each caricature I do, that way the client has my number in case he wants to hire me later for a gig. Marketing to me is about being nice to people, smiling an having good manners. Sure, sometimes you have to avoid “difficult, unpleasant, clients”, but that’s a different story. 😉

    • Tom says:

      Robin- Don’t sell yourself short. You are doing marketing, accounting and handling client interaction via communication skills. You are just doing them your own way, and it fits your clientele and career goals. Those techniques work great for your business and what you do. You would have to change your methods somewhat if you wanted to try and get work from bigger clients like major magazines or ad agencies.

      • Robin Crowley says:

        Thank you Tom, that is correct, when your goal is working for an stablished company as you mention, they all require an IRS invoice, unless the manager, or some staff member is doing a “private party” and paying out of his personal wallet, then no need for it (the invoice). Here in Mexico, art is divided in what taxes exemptions means in “Hacienda” (Mexican IRS dept.) in different categories, some have to pay taxes (like big oil expensive paintings, illustration for published prints, clothing, etc…) and some are tax exempt like sculpture, street art, private gigs caricature, charcoal portraiture. It’s kind of an incentive for artists too (not requiring us to pay taxes) 🙂

  3. Richard says:

    I used to hate the business side of any creative job. But once I started my own web design company, I realized I actually enjoyed running the business as much as I did designing. It’s really not that bad.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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