Life as a Freelance Illustrator

Yesterday evening the University of the Arts hosted a seminar about "life as a freelance illustrator." The speakers, Becky Brown, Andrew Clark, and Benjamin Cox, illuminated the various aspects of working as an freelance illustrator.

As a freelance illustrator you are not just an artist, you are also: a book keeper, an accountant, marketer (PR), lawyer, courier and IT manager. These are all essential roles in maintaining your business, and it pays to stay organized and professional in your approach to each one.

Keep up to date accounts. Keep your receipts and all paperwork. If you register as self-employed, you can use those receipts against your tax return, even if you've not made any money. Get a separate bank account, so that if you are audited the Inland Revenue won't need to look through all your personal transactions as well.

Agents rarely take illustrators who have just graduated from college. They want to see a track record of publications to prove that you've been well received, and that you can complete briefs in a professional way.

It is an unregulated industry. In theory, anyone could set up an agency regardless of whether or not they are scrupulous. Be very careful, ask for references and background checks unless you know from reputation that an agent is good.

Read all your contracts carefully. This includes your contract with the agent, as well as any work contracts that come through the agent. Just because you have a representative is no excuse for ignorance.

Before you sign on with an agent, keep in mind that they take an average of 30% of your pay.

Never sign an exclusivity contract with an agent.

If in doubt, check the Society of Artists Agents.

Self Promotion:
You must have a web presence. This can be a very simple online portfolio, a blog, or a full-blown website. Make sure it is up-to-date. Make sure your home page is a statement page, because busy art directors may only take the time for a quick glance at that one page.

When sending cold-emails or cold-"regular" mail to art editors make sure you have the right name and job title. If you buy into a mailing list, make sure to double-check the names because they're not always current. Ask how they want to receive submissions and comply with their guidelines.

An example of an cold-email might be:

Dear ......... (make sure the name is spelled right)
I hope this email finds you well.
I am a London based freelance illustrator available for commission.
My website address is:
If this interests you, I have a full (40 page) portfolio which is viewable by request.
(attach one low-res image)

The law of averages states that if you get more that 20% response you are doing extremely well. Pat yourself on the back.

Produce postcards that speak loudly of your personal style and send them to all the art directors. Every art direction office has a pin-board, and your card will most likely go up. Even though you may not get an immediate commission, the chances are they will notice you in the future and give you a call.

Be inventive. Have fun. Your website and mail-outs should reflect your personal style and speak for you when you're not present.

Portfolio Presentation:
Research each client, and include 2-3 pieces that reflect their direct needs. For example, if you're submitting to a gardening magazine, have a few pieces featuring plants or gardens. If a client uses a wider variety of subject matter (like a newspaper), include more variety in your portfolio.

If you're focused on one genre, such as children's books, demonstrate your variety within that field. Include different subjects, different media and black and white work.

Don't put any life drawing or sketchbooks in. It is understood that you can demonstrate classical skill, the editors would rather see relevant application of that skill.

For an editorial portfolio (newspapers and magazines) you might want to include: people/portraits, typography, buildings and landscapes, common objects, pattern, characters, jokes, and food. Don't make the illustrations too intricate because you want to make sure you can produce them within one or two days. The lead times for newspapers could even be as quick as a few hours.

You want your portfolio to be able to say: This is who I am, this is my style, this is how you can use me.

The Economic State of the Industry:
Benjamin Cox, of CIA (Central Illustration Agency), re-assured the audience that he has noticed absolutely no slowdown in commissions in the last year. On the contrary, customers seem to prefer hand-made illustrations (watercolour, collage, etc) over flashy graphic design as it gives a more re-assuring message to consumers.

And....Finally. If you demonstrate professionalism and respect for your own work, clients will treat you with the same respect.

Make sure you check out the Association of Illustrators website for up-to-date information about the industry, agents, pricing and news.