Sunday Mailbag

July 30th, 2006 | Posted in Freelancing

Q: How do I get started doing freelance illustration?

A: Making a living solely on freelance work is a tough and scary thing to do. There is no steady paycheck, and sometimes waiting for that phone to ring with a job seems like it takes forever. Other times you are so swamped you can’t keep up. It’s not a life for the faint of heart.

First, I’d suggest for beginners to find a secondary source of income so your freelance work is not what you rely on to pay the rent. I used my live caricature work and businesses for this purpose, and it allowed me to take my time building up both my work and my client base. Barring having a rich uncle to support you, it’s a lot less stressful to “break into the business” with a paycheck you can count on on the side. The stereotype of a struggling actor waiting tables to make ends meet is not undeserving, and visual “starving artists” are similarly common.

The term “breaking in” is a misnomer. You do not burst thought the freelance wall into a room full of work. It’s more like slowly chipping though that wall until you construct a door you can go though at will. That first job is always the hardest, however. Many art directors are only interested in working with established artists. This is because they are just as interested in someone who is easy to work with and who can hit a deadline as someone who’s work is exceptional. That’s a bit of a catch 22, so getting that first job and, more importantly doing a professional job on it, is important.

The first step is to have a good portfolio/promo materials. I’ve found few art directors have the time to want you to send them a full portfolio. Postcards and tearsheet promos plus a website has replaced the traditional portfolio. The aspiring freelancer must have professional looking promo materials. This isn’t all that expensive anymore, thanks to computers and ink jet printers or cheap 4 color printing. Still, it will take a little investment of money to get those materials put together. Promo pieces should consist of 2-4 images, and not be too big or unwieldy. 4 x 6 postcards are great, and letter sized pages are also good. Websites are a must and cheap to put up and maintain. Instant access to unlimited examples of your work. There are thousands of illustrator website out there to see the kind of formats are being used.

Once you have the promo stuff together, you need to get it in front of someone who wants to buy illustration. That’s one of the harder things to do. Getting started means thinking small and sending your promo stuff to smaller clients who are more willing to work with less experienced illustrators, and who pay less as well. Local publications are a great way to start. The free papers, local printers who do graphic design, local magazines… there are often many potential clients right in your immediate area. Look around and think about who would be looking for the kind of work you do.

One quick way to get your work out there is through a sourcebook. Sourcebooks are illustrator advertising books where artists buy a page or spread to show their work, and the publishers of the book distribute it to buyers of illustration. I did this for many years, with varying degrees of success. Yes, it does get your work out there, but there is something self defeating about putting a page of your artwork in a book with 500 to 1000 other artists trying to get the same jobs. It’s also very expensive, and you’ll need to get several jobs just to break even. Still it isn’t a bad idea if you have a few grand to blow and want to try it out. The Directory of Illustration and Showcase are two of the bigger sourcebooks to look into.

Direct mailing is another way to get your work out there. Every magazine published has a masthead with an address and the name of the art director in it. Go to your local big newsstand and look for magazines who’s subjects and styles seem like a match for the kind of work you do (I wouldn’t send sports related artwork samples to “Ladies Home Journal” for example). Buy a copy of the ones that fit, or if you are really cheap bring a notebook and copy the info out of the mastheads. Create a mailing list and send off your promo samples to the art directors. Go ahead and send it to Time and People if you feel you must, but I’d save those stamps and target smaller, niche type magazines. It’s the dirty little secret of all professional illustrators, even the big guns, that most of their income is from the smaller, niche magazines than the large publications. Send out a second mailing a month later, and from then on every 3 months or so. Always send out new images, not the smae ones over and over. You need to have you work on their desk when that lucky job comes in, but you don’t want to be a pest, either.

Finally, the best advice I ever got on how to be a successful freelancer was from the great David Levine. He dispensed this advice while we were utilizing side-by-side urinals after a panel discussion he was on was , which for some wierd reason makes it seem unmistakeably genuine… you do not bullshit a guy peeing next to you. He said being successful freelancing was about knowing people and building relationships. For example, say an artist does work for an art director, who has lunch with another art director and mentions the job the artist did for him or her when the subject of a particular style of work comes up. The second art director may well call said artist for another job. Art directors change jobs all the time and go to different publications, often calling artists they previously worked with for the new publication, etc. All this is predicated on the artist in question doing a good and professional job, of course. If you are hard to work with or unreliable, you won’t get work no matter how many people you know.

Freelancing for a steady living is about building a client base. That means finding a core group of clients who provide steady work, while still pursuing new clients. You can’t get comfortable with just a few steady ones, because no client lasts forever. Art directors leave and new ones want a different look, and other things happen beyond your control. Stay patient and confident, and continue to produce new promos and send them to new potential clients. Above all work hard on even the smallest of jobs. It’s a long climb, and even the most successful still worry about the next phone call. Keep at it and don’t let anyone tell you it’s not possible.


  1. cedricstudio says:

    Excellent comments Tom. Well said, I agree completely. Quality work, reliability, persistence, and good people skills are essential.

  2. andertoons says:

    Nice post, Tom! And nice new site!


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