Building your engine: Sustaining a career as a freelance illustrator

By in Blog 13th Sep, 2017 0 Comments

After talking about starting out as a freelance illustrator I thought I should follow up and write about how to build a sustainable career as a freelance creative. I often think about my business as an engine that I’m continually trying to fuel and keep ticking over nicely. To extend the engine/locomotive metaphor further, I’m always looking ahead and constantly laying down track to make sure it doesn’t all come to a sudden halt.

In the beginning my engine was very new and small and hardly anyone knew about it. I had a tiny number of potential clients I was hoping could send work my way. My aim was to work on children’s books and someone asked me if I knew anyone in the publishing industry. I didn’t and the feeling that I was an unknown with no hope of getting work was a difficult one to shake.

I bought lists of Art Directors from the AOI, stalked people on LinkedIn and roamed Waterstones admiring other illustrators’ work and looking for publishing companies I could contact. I sent out 250 hand-written postcards and was met with months of silence. I waited for someone to reply and in the meantime worked on my portfolio. This was a tough period, especially when people asked how the freelance work was going. I felt like a total charlatan. I’d had a few potential enquiries come through my website and after quoting on three different jobs, they all fell through in the same week. My confidence was shot and I couldn’t see how I could make a living from illustration.

But eventually after three months I received an email from an Art Director who had seen one of my postcards and asked me if I’d like to work on a new robot sticker book. Amongst one of the characters on my postcard was a dancing robot so it was a lucky circumstance of my illustration being in the right place at the right time.

Since that first batch of postcards I’ve emailed more Art Directors, sent out more postcards and gradually picked up more repeat clients. Enough clients that I’ve been working full time as a freelance illustrator for the last three years and managing to pay the mortgage. It takes time to build your engine and the first year is probably the hardest. You need to have a savings safety net to help you pay the bills when the commissions aren’t happening, but you also need to have enough self belief that eventually you’ll have enough work coming in.

Every new piece of work you create is another addition to your engine. Every tweet, Facebook post, new contact or web page also increase the chances of you being found by a potential commissioner and help expand your reach. None of this happens overnight though and patience is essential. I created a map of Yorkshire as a fun personal project for the They Draw & Travel website and it was two years later that an Art Director for a branding company saw it online and commissioned me to design a map of Yorkshire for McCain chips. I think it was this commission that really built my confidence and convinced me that I could make it as a freelancer.

I now feel much more confident that I’ve got an efficient, productive engine. Sometimes there are busy months when I don’t know how I’m going to find the time to get all the work done on time. Other months are quiet when the fear of not having enough work starts to creep back in. These are the times when I’ll update my website, work on a personal project or send out an email newsletter in the hope that another commission will come in and I can keep laying the track down.

So here’s a few ideas for things you could try to hopefully generate more work and fine tune your engine:

Update your portfolio

Everyone loves to see new work and regular updates will attract people back to your portfolio. Even just adding two or three new pieces of work will freshen up your site. Remember to give each new piece of work a title that can be found by someone who might like to commission more of that kind of illustration.

When you’ve got your online portfolio to a standard you’re happy with, start to replace older work you’re not so fond of anymore with your latest favourite projects.

Start a personal project

Some of my favourite work in my portfolio are personal projects that I did on the side. Think of something you’d love to design and keep chipping away at it in the background. Your passion will shine through and commissioners will tell. This is a good way to develop your style too and experiment with new techniques.

If you’re working on something that’s starting to drag, starting a personal project can also help to revive your love for what you do.

Enter a competition

Entering illustration competitions can be great for exposure (if you’re shortlisted) and is another good way to build your portfolio. Responding to competitions that have a clear real-world brief like Talenthouse is also a good exercise. And if you don’t make the shortlist it’s useful to see the work that was selected.

Send out some postcards

In the world of emails and social media, good old fashioned snail mail still makes a big impact and is a good way to get noticed by potential commissioners. Even if you don’t get an immediate response your postcard might get pinned to the noticeboard and jog someone’s memory just at the right time. The cost of printing and posting a couple of hundred postcards can be off putting, but if it leads to one decent commission it’ll be worth it.

Send an email newsletter

One thing I’ve learnt is that commissions can sometimes come from the most unexpected of places. A mail shot to past clients, friends and family is a good reminder of what you’re up to and can help you cast your net to a wider audience. Saying hello to an old acquaintance might just lead to new work.

Email someone new

Have a think about clients you’d love to work for or where you think your illustration would be a good fit and hunt down a contact. A friendly email with a link to your portfolio might just land you your dream job. Or you might be met with complete silence! Be prepared for this possibility but don’t take it personally. Art directors are busy folks and receive hundreds of emails a day. If you don’t get a reply just take it as a polite rejection and move on to the next potential client.

Update your social media channels

This is said a lot but if you’re freelance, social media is a must if you’re trying to drum up new work. Sharing your latest work on other networks and try and lead people back to your portfolio to see more. If you’re not getting much of a response it can feel like you’re just shouting into the void. But I’m often surprised by people telling me they’ve seen my work on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Try and post regularly using hashtags and you’ll see your following start to grow.

Hope you found this post helpful. If you have any questions just give me a shout on Twitter @tcwoolley

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About The Author

Tom Woolley is a freelance illustrator based in Yorkshire. He specialises in illustrated maps, 3D diagrams and vector artwork.