Q: I am an illustrator and cartoonist at heart, but since college I’ve been stuck working as a sign designer. I loved doing it at first, but over the last few years I’ve become pretty unhappy with it. The work I’m doing it’s really limiting and not where I really wanted to be. I’ve taken some time to get back to the work I enjoy doing, which is caricatures and cartoons. The reason for my email is I was wondering how you broke out into the scene? I’d like to get out of the design job and freelance full-time.
A: Your story is a very common one. Many illustrators and cartoonists have “day jobs” that pay the bills while they do their cartooning/illustration on the side. It is extremely hard to make a living solely as a freelance illustrator. Even in the best of times the work can be very sporadic and is susceptible to periods of famine that too often outweigh the feast times. Too many of those and your car gets repossessed. or the bill collectors start knocking at your door.
You asked me how I “broke out into the scene”. There really is no such thing. Illustrators slowly build their careers over the course of many years of pounding the pavement looking for work, doing a good job when you get the work, and patiently amassing clients who return to you with more jobs. In order to do that you need to do exactly what you are doing now… have a stable source of income while you work on your freelance art and clientele. It’s actually pretty great that your “day job” is somewhat creative and art-based. Imagine if you sold insurance to pay the bills—it would be hard to keep the creativity flowing coming home from that every day. My steady source of income when I got started was my theme park/tourist attractions caricature art operations. The money I earned from these paid my bills while I worked on my freelance career. Today it is still a big part of my income (although far less than it used to be, the theme park business is not what it once was), but my freelance work has reached a level where I could be self-sufficient with just that . . . with a little belt tightening. That did not happen overnight. It took me over 20 years, and I am still working all the time on developing my freelance business by pursuing bigger and better paying clients, other markets, etc.
The danger with this approach is getting discouraged if your freelance work pursuits are going badly, and just giving up. Many a talented artist ended up taking the easy paycheck and never pursuing their art career to the fullest extent of their abilities. That is just a measure of your personal determination, tolerance for failure, and ability to stay focused on your goals. Worthwhile things are never easy, and there is never a guarantee anyone will end up reaching a point where their day job becomes superfluous. Many continue with that steady income source, even when their freelance work becomes financially viable.
Don’t give up the day job. Just keep up the efforts to pursue freelance work . Get your online portfolio spruced up with your most current and best work. Find magazines, book publishers, ad agencies and other possible clients by perusing your local bookstore/news stand, and send postcards out to the art directors. Look for local sources of illustrations work, like local publications and papers, businesses, etc. Keep at it, but keep the stable income also.
Thanks to Tony 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!