Sunday Mailbag

September 26th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Now that I’m working freelance full-time, I’m wondering: what do you do when you get sick? As I’m typing this, I’m dealing with a nasty cold and although I want to spend the day in bed, there’s work to be done. What’s your experience with being sick while dealing with deadlines, Tom? I can’t imagine trying to pull an all-nighter with a puke bucket by your drawing desk!

A: That reminds me of my standard answer to the question “What’s it like working at home?” My answers are:

“The best thing is you get to work out of your home” and “The worst thing is you are never out of the office”.

Similarly, you don’t get to call in sick and turn whatever work or productivity your company was planning on getting out of you that day into someone else’s problem. It’s a drag and maybe a little unfair but it’s also the cold, hard truth. You’ve got a job to do and nobody else is there to pick up the ball if you are too sick to play. I’m fortunate in that I don’t get sick very often, and when I do it’s short lived. However it would take me being really, seriously ill to keep me from getting something done when I have a deadline. Everybody gets colds and has the flu and that little stuff sometimes. If you have a deadline and no wiggle room, then you just suck it up and get it done unless you are so sick you can’t function properly.

People are human and do get seriously sick sometimes, or have accidents or personal crises or some other catastrophe. I guess in that case you just have to call the client and explain the situation and hope they understand. If they do, then that’s fine. If they don’t, I guess you have no choice if you just cannot continue your job for whatever serious reason. If the client has a drop dead deadline date and it gets blown as a result of you being sick, then that’s simply life. If the client is not understanding then maybe you never get another call from them, but that is out of your control. Life happens and sometimes things get in the way. It’s just as easy to get in a car crash and be laid up in the hospital for a couple of days with broken ribs… there is no “sucking it up” from something like that. That’s why operating at the very edge of a deadline is not a good idea… there is then no cushion for the unforeseen.

There is a difference between being truly too sick to work or having some other crisis interrupt your life and just coming up with excuses as to why you can’t get the job done on time. You know the difference, and if you only allow something really unavoidable to get in your way you will not lose many jobs or have many problems because of those issues. Allowing the minor ones to get in the way will eventually catch up to you.

Thanks to Chris Houghton 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. Lar says:


    I can’t tell you how good it is to read this. I’ve met artists who make excuses, slough off deadlines and any respect I have for them plummets. At the same time, it can be difficult to explain to family and friends that you are, in fact, working!!! Even if you’re in a home environment.

    You write as well as you draw! 🙂 Thank you for another great post.


    • Tom says:

      Thanks, Lar.

      I think it’s easy to spot the freelancer who takes their client commitments seriously and ones who do not… the latter seem to have this terrible luck that always messes with their delivery of work like having to go to the funeral of the Grandma number 4 or 5 or coming down with their third case of pneumonia in the last 6 months.

      I’ve said before that professionalism is as important as talent in the freelance illustration business. There are a whole lot of super talented artists who work at Kinko’s because they can’t meet a deadline, and some arguably marginally talented artists who make a good living at freelancing because they can do the business side of it well. If you have both sides working then that is a recipe for success.

  2. Jeff Zugale says:

    It’s also very helpful to have some other artist friends who can finish work for you in a pinch. If they can cop your style exactly, that’s great, but if you can do all the stuff that’s “style-specific” and they can take care of finishing the art, that works well too.

    If you can put together a little network like that, where 3 or 4 people can all back each other up, it’s a good thing for all of you.

  3. Hey Tom! Thanks for answering my Sunday Mailbag. As I type THIS, I’m feeling much better and have knocked out the three deadlines I had this week. Phew! Thanks for the advice. I always appreciate you answering my Sunday Mailbag questions!


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