Time. The first thing everyone says about building a career as a freelance illustrator is that it takes time. Time on the scale of years, not weeks.
You need time to make mistakes and learn from them. You need time to absorb information from guides and other illustrators, to practice and develop your voice. With that in mind, here are three actions I’ve found useful in my first two years freelancing full-time.
UNDERSTAND THE FIELD
Like any other career, illustration has its own quirks, customs, and cultures. As a freelance illustrator working in speculative fiction and editorial illustration, I have to understand the needs and trends in these specific areas – locally and internationally, since Malaysia isn’t abundant with opportunities for this. I should know who the leading artists are, what they do well, and who commissions them. Additionally, being well-read in current issues and general knowledge is mandatory for editorial, while a love of the genre/s is almost a must for speculative fiction.
This means spending a significant amount of time researching, both online and offline. Bookstores are great places to see what’s trending for book covers. Then there are basic practices to learn – how to email art directors with illustration samples, how to curate and display a portfolio, how to negotiate and price work, how to budget and how to manage your finances. Reading guides online and speaking with mentors will help you get up to speed on this.
MAKE A NICHE
I use ‘make’ instead of ‘find’ because the former is deliberate. Making requires action and initiative. It calls for introspection – to know what you want to do, and an examination of where that fits with clients’ needs.
Because of a smaller market in Malaysia, it does pay off to be versatile at first. However, you don’t want to be known for too many things that people forget what it is that you do well. I have no intention of doing lots of commercial work that only serves to sell products; I want to illustrate stories that are thoughtful, make readers see the world in a new way, and have diverse characters. So, the work I put into my portfolio, the clients I reach out to, and the jobs I accept have to align with that goal.
Here’s an example of how knowing your field and niche is important. In science fiction and fantasy, there are many magazines publishing English short fiction. ‘Fireside’ is one such outlet. I enjoy reading what they publish and have noticed that they commission illustrators to make art for certain pieces. Most importantly, they are committed to inclusiveness and diverse representation. This is right up my alley as most of my portfolio consists of illustrations for fiction, focusing on quiet moments and moods with diverse characters. I explored their site, found the art director and sent him an email with a few relevant samples. A few months later, my first short story illustration was published by Fireside.
Having said that, whatever your niche is, you should always try to get better at it. Always challenge yourself technically and conceptually.
KNOW YOUR WORTH
Working with great clients and friends, both in Malaysia and abroad, I have come to identify certain aspects of what makes the most fulfilling freelance jobs:
- Clear briefs and frank conversations about budgets – fair and transparent contracts
- Payment on time
- Crediting the artist/team everywhere possible
All of those have to do with respecting the value an illustrator brings to a job – their mind, their experience, their skill, and their personality. We can contribute our best when we aren’t seen as just hired hands.
When discussing potential jobs, the brief, budget and contract must be clear and understood by both the client and the freelancer. Red flags for freelancers include clients who refuse to negotiate budgets and contracts, make a big deal out of doing it for charitable causes, give “I don’t know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it” directions, and ask you to do something absolutely out of your skillset or portfolio.
Initial emails and negotiations are like first dates. If your gut feeling is uneasy, it’s probably not going to be a healthy or smooth relationship. Not all clients will generously look out for you beyond what professionalism requires. After all, one of the perks of freelancing is getting to choose who you work with. Let it be people who value you and your contribution.
Payment on time is a mark of respect. It’s good practice for freelancers to take a percentage of payment upfront before proceeding to start any work. This doubles as a cautionary measure against more unscrupulous clients looking to get away with free work.
Clients should credit the artist when showing their work. All it takes is a tag or a link to their website. Apart from being a decent thing to do, it also shows that you value creative contributions, which in turn attracts more artists.
While it’s not always possible to get all three of those things on one job, we shouldn’t aim for any less. “That’s the way things have always been” isn’t an excuse for clients or freelancers to put up with suboptimal working conditions. Start saying “This is the way things can be”, and lead by example.
RESOURCES FOR BEGINNING FREELANCERS
- Shaun Tan’s ‘Advice for a New Illustrator’: https://www.writersofthefuture.com/advice-for-a-new-illustrator-by-shaun-tan/
- Drawn + Drafted’s Art Business Bootcamp PDFs: http://www.drawnanddrafted.com/
- Lauren Panepinto’s ‘How to get into publishing’ guide for illustrators: http://www.muddycolors.com/2017/11/how-to-get-into-publishing/
- Randy Gallegos’ ‘Learning How To Commission Illustration’: https://www.hireanillustrator.com/i/blog/583/learning-how-to-commission-illustration/
- Jeanette Bradley’s ‘The Indie Publisher’s Guide to Hiring (and Working With) an Illustrator: http://www.jeanettebradley.com/indie-guide-to-illustration.html
Learning about the Industry
- Association of Illustrators (UK, worldwide): https://theaoi.com/
- Society of Illustrators New York (USA, worldwide): https://www.societyillustrators.org/
- SCBWI (chapters worldwide, including Malaysia): https://www.scbwi.org/
- The Big Five publishing houses: http://www.muddycolors.com/2016/10/the-big-5-publishers/
- Spectrum: http://spectrumfantasticart.com/
- Communication Arts: https://www.commarts.com/
Charis is an illustrator and educator based in Penang. Drawing upon literature and visual culture, she depicts fictional worlds and current issues with a deft combination of traditional and digital media. Her work has been recognised by the Society of Illustrators Los Angeles, 3×3 Magazine, and exhibited in the US, UK, Nepal, and Malaysia. As a member of Arts-ED, Charis works on community arts and culture education programmes for youth.