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The Changing World of Freelance Illustration

This was a recent column of mine in a recent edition of the National Cartoonists Society publication “The Cartoon!st”:

One of the things I love the most about the NCS is that our members cover the gamut of all facets of professional cartooning. Syndicated comics, comic books, animation, web comics, book illustration, gag cartoons, greeting cards… you name it and some of our members do it. I find it fascinating to hear and learn about the trials and tribulations of the different ways people make a living in this industry. I do mostly freelance illustration, which is an exercise in feast, famine, panic, and anxiety.

Like all aspects of popular media, the world of freelance illustration is changing. I used to do the vast majority of my work in magazines, but these days I am finding myself doing jobs for all sorts of different clients. Not that I wasn’t always open to doing different kinds of work, but the need for traditional illustration to accompany articles in print is shrinking and it’s become more important than ever to branch out into other outlets to stay busy. There are just fewer major magazines out there these days, and the budgets of the ones still around are less than they once were. There are still a lot of publications needing illustration, but most are niche magazines with mid to low circulations that cater to a very specific audience—publications for industries or specific hobbies like actuaries or snowmobiling, for example. These magazines still buy illustrations but they have smaller budgets and are harder to find and market to. Now more than ever it’s important to not be afraid to get “outside the box” and find work in different parts of the industry. Fortunately humor is something that is universal, and any form of media can and does need cartoonists/humorous illustrators to create visuals that invoke a chuckle while conveying whatever message they client is looking to get across.

Just to give you an example of the kind of wild swing the sort of work a freelancer might do, here’s a list of the types of projects I’ve done or am doing in the last 12 months: magazine illustrations, book illustrations, comic books, TV animation character design, product art for posters, T shirts and other merchandise, illustration for smartphone/tablet apps and assorted other jobs. In the past I’ve done character designs for CGI animation for films, concept drawings for toys and other products, storyboards for commercials and films, art for advertisements from prints to billboards, products labels, CD covers, art for computer games, movies posters, and many other diverse projects.  As I write this I am working on, among other things, a 44 page comic book for an independent publisher and doing the art for a birthday party invitation. That last one may seem odd but “odd” is the name of the game these days. Actually it’s no ordinary birthday party, it’s for a big media mogul who has bands like AC/DC play his birthday party and hires MAD Magazine illustrators to do his invitations. That’s a great example of the weirdness of making a living as a freelancer… if they pays you da money you does da drawrings.

Another avenue that is becoming an important part of being a freelancer is concept art. More and more jobs I do these days do not involve my finished art being the end result, but rather being part of a larger process. Doing concept drawings for products, commercials, and TV and movies has become a big part of many freelancer’s source of income. I recently explored the possibility of getting an illustration “rep” and had a conversation with an agent from one of the biggest rep firms in the business, Gerald and Cullen Rapp. He told me that much of the work they get for their artists these days involves concepts and visual design rather than finished art. This issue’s cover story (meaning The Cartoon!st) features a cartoonist whose bread and butter is that sort of work, Cedric Hohnstadt. His career trajectory is another excellent example of how traditional illustration is evolving into work that is part of a multimedia creative universe. Like most forms of creative work, freelance illustration is experiencing a tectonic shift right now, but also a renaissance. The demand for art and the people who create it isn’t going away. If anything, it’s increasing. What’s changing in the way it’s used, who wants it and how those people find the creators they are looking for.

The eternal bane of all freelancers is fear, mainly the fear that the job you are working on is the last one you’ll get for a month or longer… or forever. This usually leads to an inability to say “no” to jobs that maybe don’t pay as well as they should or that you shouldn’t take on as the deadline is too tight or you have too much on the board as it is. No matter how busy I am, I experience a physical pang every time I turn down a job that is offered to me. A freelancer is always afraid that the phone is not going to ring again for a long time, and he or she can’t say no to a job no matter how overworked they are.

That’s one part of the business of freelancing that hasn’t changed, and never will.

2 Responses to “The Changing World of Freelance Illustration”

  1. Jose Villena says:

    Great post about freelance work. This is a reality these days. Now I’m also designing inflatables and bouncy castles, among other things, and I hope the phone continue ringing.

  2. D. D. Degg says:

    Back in the day (the day of Marge Devine running the office) those of us who are not NCS members were able to buy issues of The Cartoonist and the annual Reuben issue. Could that once again be possible?

 

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