What is it REALLY like to be a freelance illustrator?
When I tell people I am a freelance illustrator people's eyes light up: "oh, wow, I wish I was an illustrator!" they say, as though being an illustrator is on a par with walking into a sweet shop and having as many strawberry bon bons as you like. And sure, in my opinion it is the most rewarding career there is, else I would not be pursuing it, but it is rewarding for a reason – and not just because I get to drawn pretty pictures.
If you know me at all, or if you follow my blog posts, you will know that I am a pretty honest person. A lot of my blog posts are about letting you in on my journey of being a freelance illustrator with all it's ups and downs. I blog about my work and creativity in order to (hopefully) inspire other creatives and also let you in on how I work and what I do. I am not claiming to be some sort of creativity guru, I'm just passionate about design and illustration and I'd like to share the things I learn with you and give you an insight into the creative industry, for which I've been in for the past ten years*.
When I had my first baby I suddenly had an awareness of what it was really like to become a parent. And what relevance is parenting to a freelance career in Illustration, I hear you ask? A hell of a lot, actually. Sure, I had my suspicions that parenting would be tough: I thought it would be hard, but the reality of holding a newborn baby is a whole different kettle of fish to shopping for baby grows in Mother Care, and the reality hit me like a ton of bricks – this is bloody hard work, but I love it (well, when the kids are well behaved).
Although I've only been full time freelance a relatively short time in the scheme of things, I have been pursuing a freelance career for a number of years. On deciding that this was the route I wanted to go down in my career, the reality of it hit me like a tonne of bricks; this is bloody hard work, but I love it (well, when the clients are well behaved ;) ).
I often get students emailing me for tips on how to become an illustrator and, when this happens, I often feel like copying and pasting their emails and sending it to another illustrator for the answer. In all honesty, I have no idea how I got here, I just kept drawing and emailing, and ringing round people, and drawing some more, and then someone thought I drew something nice and said they'd pay me for it, so I drew some more and then more people said they'd pay me for it too so I gave up my day job.... (not really an ideal response to a desperate student, is it?). The more you venture into the business world, the more you suspect that everyone is probably just winging it (illustrators, art directors, CEOs, doctors, prime ministers...), with a bit of talent and knowledge, yes, but mostly just determination, a bit of stubbornness, a lot of caffeine, and probably a bucket load of strawberry bon bons (or is that just me?). The sooner you embrace that fact, the more the world becomes your oyster - you email people you thought you didn't have a chance in hell of getting work from and then they get back to you because they think you know what you're doing (did I just give that away? Oops.).
Joking aside, I do know what I'm doing really, honest**. The more I study illustration and lettering, or the way that food looks in order to draw it (before I eat it), or the way someone's eyes look in order to make them look funny or sad or confused, the better I become at what I do. The more I deal with clients and write quotations and ask for feedback, the more professional I become. I'm basically a practicing illustrator, which means I spend my life practicing, and unless I enjoy simply doodling in my sketchbook there's really no point in seeking big illustration commissions. If you don't love the practice it's highly likely your work won't mature enough to cater for larger clients. This is why some illustrators' work makes it look as though the illustrator has spent a mere five minutes on it, when in reality they've spend decades practicing in order to get to the point where they can draw something in five minutes.
Just because I am getting commissions and earning a living as an illustrator, that doesn't necessarily mean that anyone who can draw can approach companies and expect commissions - your work has to be unique in some way and of a decent standard. I spent three years developing my personal illustration work alongside a job in Graphic Design. That's three years worth of unpaid, personal work, in order to develop my portfolio before it was good enough to send out to people. Sure, I tried intermittently during that period (with little success), so I kept drawing and creating alongside my job, on evenings and weekends. Towards the end of my third year I actually started getting commissions and good feedback and I started to push in the direction where I got the most response. And my work is still not quite where I want it to be, and probably never will be, because it's a continual process of development, which makes it very frustrating sending work out today that tomorrow you will think could have been done better. But if you don't you will never, ever click send.
So, you'd like to know what a day in the life of an illustrator is really like? On Monday I spend an hour researching people to send my work to - one hour I could've been catching up on Bake Off - to get around five suitable contacts, none of which have replied to the email I sent (which, by the way, took me another half an hour to draft because I thought it sounded too friendly, not professional enough, too professional, too apologetic, too cocky... and I ended up with the email I'd drafted in the first place). Over the past month I've sent over fifty emails to well-researched companies, and two have replied saying they have my work on file. Admittedly, the others may have my work on file too, but this I may never know until I get a commission from them, despite following up with an answerphone message and another email in a month's time. Last month was more successful, I had ten people telling me they had my work on file, but then, maybe I sent more emails. This month I have had a number of great commissions, most of which have been either word of mouth or contacts I have been in touch with for at least six months (aka, sending a few emails with no reply, then bingo, a commission).
Next, I spent an hour chatting to Apple Support about some issue with my mac, did a few keyboard commands that stretched my fingers in a way I didn't know possible, made a cup of tea, wrote some tweets, connected with a few more people, sent some more emails, replied to some more emails, sent some artwork off to print, and procrastinated on social media in order to avoid chasing an invoice, working out some quotations and updating my expenses records (did I mention I have to do maths? I hate maths). Then it was lunchtime. By the time I did anything creative it was 2pm, and even then it was a lot of planning and rough work which was interrupted by trying to negotiate a contact. I managed to get some lettering work done which I was pleased with, but nowhere near as much as I would've like to have got done. Then I had to pick up my kids, bath them, and put them to bed before I opened my laptop again to edit some work and write this blog post. I usually go to bed around 12am because I generally work better in an evening (unless I'm interrupted by my kids).
And then there are the clients; the mostly lovely ones and the sometimes nightmare ones who can't get the brief to you till four o'clock in the afternoon but they still need the visual doing for first thing the next morning. Or the ones that approve the rough and then want to change the composition after you've created the final illustration, or the ones who tell you what you should be charging as an illustrator, like this one:
That is honestly a genuine email from a client.
And then there are the times spent travelling round with your portfolio, as though you're carrying around your knicker drawer (because showing your work to someone feels as vulnerable) and the ad agencies tell you your work is more suited to editorial, and the editorial companies tell you your work is more suited to advertising, and some tell you it's just up their street and take a business card (thank god).
And then there are the times you spend trying to get hold of art directors' contact details from rude receptionists who won't give them to you after you've politely asked (I have also spoken to some absolutely lovely ones too, it has to be said, and I also respect the art directors who do not wish to give their contact details away if I am told that directly). So then if you are fobbed off with 'all the details are on our website' and you search for another thirty minutes and can't find them, you resort to working out their email addresses yourself by searching on google, then guessing their email addresses: forename.surname@... bounce back... forename_surname@.... bounce back... and so on like I'm a goddamn art director stalker (okay, maybe I am, and I totally appreciate how many emails art directors get from illustrators, but I'm just trying to do my job). And then you eventually get through to some who speak to you like you're a rodent and tell you they don't like your work (but they won't tell you why), others who like your work and politely tell you why it's not for them (genuinely helpful), and others who, more successfully, love your work and you end up forming great working relationships with them. It has to be said, that I never pester people and I only contact people who I think my work would be of interest to - you never land a commission by irritating people.
And so it goes on, day after day. And I love what I do – it's all worth it – but when someone tells me I'm incredibly lucky to be an illustrator it's on a par with telling me I'm lucky to be a parent: sure, I'm lucky, but that doesn't mean I don't have to clean up shitty nappies, deal with tantrums in the middle of Sainsbury's or spend hours trying to get them to eat their greens. It's bloody hard work but I wouldn't change a thing.
So, if you're an aspiring illustrator, I have no idea how you become one, other than just keep doing what you're doing, don't give up, practice, sketch, strengthen your backbone, buy in lots of bon bons... you'll need the energy.
Oh, and Art Directors, I love you really***
*I put that line in because it makes me look like I know what I'm doing. #wingingit
** It's a total lie, I have no idea what I'm doing.
*** but please respond to my email ;)
If you'd like to see more of my work please check out my portfolio