I got an email from a graduating illustration student last week. This is pretty normal, I frequently hear from students, in fact I invite it, and I love it, I enjoy conversing and will advise or support however I can. However this one student asked a question that really threw me, and that’s why I’m writing this. This new young talent asked me “Would you recommend becoming a freelance illustrator?” which I thought was an odd thing to ask me, since I’m a freelance illustrator who loves his job, why wouldn’t I recommend what I enjoy doing? I thought about the answer for some time and, to be honest, I’m sorry to say that my answer is actually no. I don’t recommend becoming a freelance illustrator.
As a professional freelance illustrator with a decade or so experience, why don’t I recommend becoming a freelance illustrator? Here’s why…
1 - It doesn’t pay straight away, no matter how amazing you are, it can take months, or years, before you get enough regular commissions to make a living. And even once you’re established and well-experienced, you’ll still go through dry patches. Then even when you get your first commission, there’s a chance you won’t see the payment for a month or three!
2 - We all lied to you, I’m so sorry, we all lied, we made it look so easy. Magazines, blogs, professionals, we all went on Twitter and did some interviews and just talked about how much of a blast it is, how easy it is, how busy and rich and satisfied we are. But that was a lie, I’m sorry. Just because someone is appearing to be super busy and showing some amazing projects, it doesn’t mean all is well behind the scenes, it doesn’t even mean they’re paying their rent.
3 - This industry sucks right now, honestly, there’s not a huge amount of work around. There is work, and some people are getting enough, some people are getting loads, but behind them there are a lot more illustrators who aren’t getting much at all. We’re still rolling out of a recession, some potential clients have low budgets for things like illustration, and can easily to turn to stock for a cheap option.
4 - You are not a superhero. As a talented student with huge aspirations, it’s easy to get over-confident. Your tutors praise your work, you’re showcased online or in print as a future talent, your peers envy you and your parents think you’re a prodigy, you can do no wrong, you’re an illustration superhero! No, you’re not. There are thousands of brilliantly talented young illustrators and you’re just one of them.
All that said, it really doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want to be a freelance illustrator, and if you can’t solely do illustration full-time now, it doesn’t mean you can’t ever do it, trust me, career paths flow in mysterious ways. Here’s how you can help find the path you dream of…
1 - It will pay if you do it right. If you don’t have a magic pot of money to fall back on, find yourself a full-time job while you start promoting yourself and networking in your free-time, any freelance commissions that do come in become pocket money on the side of your wage.
2 - We’re very honest and supportive. We may glamourise the truth a little at times, but we’re still able to give honest, truthful advice. Get some industry experience, if I could have my time again I’d do at least 3 years in a design studio from the off; learn the business, find out about pressure, and stress, and clients, and self-promotion, and answering a brief, and everything else you can only really learn on the job from people who have experience.
3 - ‘Illustration’ is not the only industry. You can more than likely do more than just illustration, diversification is a wonderful thing for any creative and being open to freelance work in other areas (photography, animation, graphic design, branding) can bring in a lot more work.
4 - You have to work at being a superhero. I’ve known incredibly talented young illustrators get featured on every site going, they’ve even illustrated the covers of top design magazines, but that doesn’t directly lead to a queue of clients at the door, you can’t rely on hype to make an income, this isn’t X-Factor, this is business. Be humble, understand how many talented illustrators you’re up against, keep your mind very broad and be ready to work, strive and fight harder than you have ever even considered before. A successful freelance illustrator isn’t just a creative heart and a technical hand, they’re a professional, business mind. Be a super business.
Being a successful freelance illustrator is a rollercoaster ride, there are some wonderful ups and some very hard downs, luckily every down is a learning experience. It’s not easy to survive as a freelancer, I’ve been self-employed for 12 years now (working in animation, design and illustration), and I’m still learning, evolving and developing to work in a better and better way, year after year. You will have to do the same, the industry moves at breakneck speeds at times, be prepared to keep up. Don’t feel that not ‘making-it’ in your first year working means you’ve failed, you haven’t, there is no such thing as ‘making-it’. There is no point where you have created enough successful work that you are suddenly perfectly stocked with pens, software, knowledge and clients forever. It’s an on-going process of change and learning, new aims and new experiences. It’s all ahead of you and if you’re prepared for anything, ups and downs, then you’ll be on the path to being a freelance illustrator sooner than anyone. Enjoy the ride.