How to become a freelance artist

Discover the steps for becoming a freelance artist

Do you want to become a freelance artist?

Typically, a freelance artist works with clients from around the world from their home studios.

However, becoming a freelance artist isn't as simple as having a good portfolio and a website. It requires a lot of administrative work, stamina to build a clientele, thick skin to face rejection, and the ability to manage a variety of tasks every day.

Since 2005, I've had a lot of different types of illustration jobs. After I graduated from animation school, I worked in everything from storyboarding to motion graphics. After having done these things professionally for a few years, I quit.

I quit because I learned I only enjoy to storyboard and do graphic design for my personal projects.

It wasn't until later I realized I get more gratification from creating wildlife and natural history-focused sketches. A focus that has guided me into work as an editorial illustrator and concept artist. With animation occasionally entering the mix if a client wants to see my drawings move.

If you take the time to become skilled in your art, and thoughtfully set up your business. You'll have no problem becoming a freelance artist with a rewarding life.

1. Don't call yourself a freelancer

The first part of becoming a successful freelance artist is to not call yourself a freelancer.

The second part about becoming a successful freelance is to NOT call yourself a freelancer.

The term “freelancer” unfortunately is associated with a false stigma. A stigma of someone who works in their underwear at home. A person who only works for a low hourly wage.

When in reality, you are a business just like any other professional service business.

You're no different than an attorney or a doctor running their professional service business. Would you ever go to a freelance dentist?

Always remember that as an artist, you're offering a professional, creative solution to a specific group of organizations and brands.

2. Create your signature style

The last thing you want is for potential clients to think of you as a commodity. Where anyone can accomplish what you do.

You see, you don't want to find yourself in a situation where you're only being hired for your knowledge of a specific program. Or even because you can draw in every style.

You want clients to go to you for you. More specifically your unique style and vision. Why? Because a client wants to know exactly what they'll get once they hire you.

3. Determining your skills as an artist

Be honest with yourself and assess your abilities as an artist.

For example, as an editorial illustrator, you have to work with fast turnarounds. Often as soon as you're hired, within 24 hours you have to send the art director 3-5 pencil sketch ideas. Once those get approved, you'll have another 24-hours to send the final.

As a freelance artist, things happen fast. Clients are blunt and critical of your work. So make sure to take an objective view of your skills and experience. This will help you decide if being a freelance artist is right for you.

A quick way to see if your work is competitive or unique enough is to research. Search online to see what other artists who work in your medium and subject matter do.

Is your work up to standard or better?

If not, keep working on your art.

If so, keep reading…

4. Think about how being a freelance artist will fit into your lifestyle

Consider how becoming a freelance artist will fit into your life financially, emotionally, and personally.

Unless you have at least 6 months of savings, don't quit your regular job.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with starting your journey to becoming a freelance artist as a side hustle. Where you're working full-time and spend a few hours developing your business.

Are you able to handle the physical demands? Rather, a lack of physical demands.

You will more than likely need to be sedentary for long periods of time. I wasn't aware of this until I went to CalArts to study Character Animation. Where I spent 8-10 hours a day drawing or animating at the computer.

Fellow classmates, including myself, were getting back problems, wrist problems, and invisible issues. Invisible issues such as lack of cardio and bad nutrition. Most of us were in our early 20's.

After the first year, I started actively working out. You really have to be conscious of your health and making time to work out when you're spending the majority of your work hours sitting.

Does being a freelance artist fits your personality?

Emailing and talking with clients is a huge part of the business. So written and verbal communication is something you'll also have to become aware of. Apart from your work, how likable and easy you are to work with is a determining factor to someone hiring you. You have to get along.

You will also need to schedule a specific time for work. Also, have a dedicated workspace. This can either be a dedicated desk in your home or an office you rent.

3. Determine if becoming a freelance artist meets your needs financially

From just client work, the income of a freelance artist hovers above and below $40,000 USD per year. This amount will fluctuate depending on who your target clients are and the value you're able to offer them.

Learn more about illustration pricing in this article.

Remember that you will have to pay taxes and other fees for your business.

This article is specifically about becoming a freelance artist.

Which means doing just doing client work.

However, like any business, diversifying your sources of income is smart and essential.

Which I talk about more later on inside this article.

4. Check your current equipment

Apart from your workspace, you’ll also need sufficient supplies to produce your art. Though this depends on your drawing style. You basically want to be able to comfortably work on your illustrations without any friction caused by a lack of or poor quality supplies.

When you're working with a client, you'll want to 100% be focused on creativity and delivery of your project.

5. Make a financial goal and determine your deliverables

Create a reachable financial goal. Then reverse engineer how many projects and at what rate you would have to work to reach this goal.

To help you understand how you're going to reach your financial goals, you need to know what your specific deliverables are.

For example, if your deliverables focused on editorial illustrations. Then you would know what to charge for spot illustrations, a quarter-page, half-page, full-page, and cover illustrations. You would also know how your pricing would fluctuate depending on factors such as the size of the publication, etc.

This will now give you an understanding of exactly how many illustrations and clients you would need to work with.

Be as detailed in your plan as possible. Use this list of deliverables and prices so you can reference them on demand.

6. Make a portfolio of your work that shows your signature style

Your portfolio showcases how your style and vision have solved creative problems for clients.

It also shows consistency in your style so your clients will be confident in knowing what they'll get after they hire you.

Always have an updated, well-organized portfolio ready to show clients. All work should be your absolute best and all pieces should be finished.

7. Create a simple freelance artist website

Create a portfolio website for your art business.

Inside the website show at least 12-20 examples of the specific deliverable, you would like to charge for. It's important that you show your work in the context you would like to get hired for. For example, if you want to focus on editorial illustrations for food magazines. Then show your food illustration in actual magazine layouts.

Even if you're just starting, you can make mock magazine layouts with your illustrations in them. Remember the key is to boost the confidence a potential client has in hiring you.

Other key elements of a successful artist website include an About page, a clear way to get in contact with you, clean design. That's it! I recommend having your portfolio on your home page too.

Having things like a blog or store aren't essential for getting clients.

Your goal with your portfolio site is to show your work clearly.

8. Getting clients

The biggest mistake a lot of freelance artists make is to wait to be discovered. Relying too heavily on things like ads and social media. Thinking along the lines of, “If I build it they will come!”.

Instead of waiting to be discovered, you have to go out and connect with your potential clients first. You accomplish this with well-written pitch emails.

I share how to do this step-by-step inside my Illustration Essentials course. I include exact scripts and email templates to help you connect with art directors and other creative decision-makers in organizations and companies.

What makes even knowing who to approach and connect with is knowing your creative deliverable. Which we talked about in the previous step. Once you know what creative problem your work solves, then it's just a matter of reaching out to them.

9. Install a legal contract and client invoicing system

Having a contract signed by the client is essential before starting any work. I include a freelance artist contract inside Illustration Essentials.

Once a contract is signed by you and your client, you have to send an invoice to get paid your deposit.

Freshbooks is what I use to send invoices and manage my business finances.

Make sure every aspect of your pricing and billing is clear to your clients.

10. Stay on top of new freelance artist tools and techniques

Being a freelance artist can be a challenging business. However, staying current with new software, techniques, and trends will only help you succeed.

11. Create multiple sources of income

However, like any business, diversifying your sources of income is smart and essential.

Here are ways to diversify and increase your income as an artist. Art licensing, teaching art, writing guides, self-publishing children's books, selling limited edition prints, creating art books, taking on private commissions, and selling your work as fine art are perfect ways to increase your income.


Discover how to get paid to illustrate.

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