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4 tips for your first year as a freelance illustrator

Thomas Patterson illustration
(Image credit: Thomas Patterson)

Embarking on a freelance career in illustration is an exciting yet nerve-racking move, particularly in the first year. As if learning the art of illustration wasn't enough, you now have to contend with all the challenges that come with managing your own career. 

Luckily, there's always advice on hand, both in terms of techniques (see our how to draw tutorials) and from within the community. Here, three freelance illustrators reflect on the things they wish they'd known when they were first starting out.  

This advice comes from AOI's Fresh Eyes event in Bristol, 2020  

01. Get organised early

Illustration by Thomas Patterson

Organisation is key (Image credit: Thomas Patterson)

The first piece of advice isn't exactly the most exciting, but you'll thank yourself for following it. "Keep your receipts!" says Aleesha Nandhra. "I recently started using an online accounting software, and that really helps." It's also important to keep track of how long you spend on projects, especially if you're being paid for your time. "I wish I'd started early when it came to organisation," she adds. "I wasn't great at tracking my time at first."

Ana Jaks agrees. "I wish I'd started sending out contracts earlier," she says. One of the many benefits of contracts is negotiating a kill fee for when a project doesn't work out. "I had a couple of jobs stop halfway through," Jaks adds. "I didn't get paid for them."    

02. Do personal projects

Illustration by Ana Jaks

Ana Jaks' embraces colour, pattern and inclusivity in her work (Image credit: Ana Jaks)

When you're trying to get your foot in the door as a freelance illustrator, you may feel like you haven't got time to work on personal projects. You should be spending every minute of the day trying to get commissions, right?

Not only are personal projects a great way to build up your portfolio, but they can also lead to commissions. "I love conceptual, political work," says Thomas Patterson. "A lot of the work I did in my spare time was tech and social stuff that I'd put on Instagram. Now, most of my work is that sort of thing." Patterson's clients now include The New York Times, the Economist and lots more. 

03. Don't worry about having another job

It can feel like there's a stigma around holding down a job alongside illustration, but in reality it's both normal and a necessity when there are bills to be paid. "It's impossible to go straight into illustration," says Patterson. "But it's easy to put unfair expectations on yourself and think that everyone else is doing really well. Take your time, earn money, survive, have fun." 

And there can be benefits to having another job. "In terms of mental health, working from home can bring its own challenges," says Jaks. "I sometimes miss the days when I worked in a chip shop in Cornwall. I needed my shit job and my friends. Customer-facing roles can be really sociable."

Nandhra used to work as a teacher. "Having a job is nothing to be ashamed of, and you never know what situations it will prepare you for. When you've dealt with a room full of Year 9's, you can deal with anything."

04. Make work you enjoy making

Aleesha Nandhra

Aleesha Nandhra makes work that is both whimsical and evocative (Image credit: Aleesha Nandhra)

While it's good to keep an eye on trends, and the styles or tools that other artists are using, it's important to stay true to your own style. "It’s very easy to see other illustrators pushing their work in a direction that works for them and gets them plenty of work," Patterson says. "But if you do what enjoy and create plenty of work then sooner or later it will get seen."

But you don't have to feel pressured to stick to a single style – experimenting can be just as enjoyable. Most of Nandhra's work uses bright colour. "Then I made one thing that was black and white and stuck it in my portfolio. That was the piece that caught one client's attention."  

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