I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator for the past four years but my path started since I graduated from university with a degree in Graphic Design in 2007. I’ve been on quite a journey and I’ve worked with some interesting clients, I wouldn’t go out and say I’ve seen it all but I’ve had some interesting experiences in my field of work. I’ve doodled murals in the offices for Facebook, Microsoft, Leeds and Sheffield’s Children hospitals and other great companies and all because of the illustration style that I’ve honed over the years with practice and motivation. I will say that it’s not always about style but staying motivated, reaching out to an audience, using common sense and understanding you as the creative in charge of your work.
It takes a degree of knowing yourself too, knowing how far you want to go and believing that you are good enough. I’ve been asked many questions from various students and young illustrators trying to get into the field of design and the such so I thought I would answer some of these questions in my first post, hopefully some of you might find it a useful insight but I would advise you just to take it as you will as everyone treads their own path.
1) How do I develop a style and when do I know it’s the right one for me?
This is a tough one to answer because I feel that I’m still searching for my style and being the person I am, I like to adapt so I don’t like the idea of pigeon holing myself in one sole style. I’d say that during my college and university years I was constantly experimenting with style but at that time I didn’t feel a need to nail a final look but to have fun and play and experiment with materials, pen line etc.
I’d also say that once I finished my studies I kept at drawing and painting in my spare time and managed to piece together certain styles that borrowed elements from comic books, manga, cartoons and video games. I’ve always made sure to take these elements and make them my own, much like how famous musicians re-appropriate sounds and styles but put their own twist on it. Through the act of playing and experimenting I’m always coming to new junctions with my work, even with slight little changes to my visuals which excites me a lot and keeps me spurred on to see how far I can push the style. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s important to ask people around you of their opinion, be prepared for harsh criticism at times which can only really help you in the long run. But as an individual take the advise as it comes as you see fit. You know when you find a style that is right for you when you’re happy with it and other people are buzzing off it too.
I’ve found that my drawing and graphic style has slowly evolved over time, something that is quite inevitable in life, for example the older you get you might slowly change your own personal sense of style and dress sense, even to the music you listen to. The same is said with the way you create and draw, you may take in many different things that feed into your style and work template. As creatives and designers you should be taking in stuff around you, the cityscape, the graphics on buildings, buses, your phone, everything. You can be inspired by a lot of things without realising and it will feed into your work one way or another.
2) How did you start out as a freelancer?
I get asked this a lot from college and university students, ready to take on the world. I did feel that in my studies, this topic was slightly glanced over at university, it’s something that tutors don’t really break down or explain to you. Maybe it’s because it’s such a multifaceted path, to work for yourself and set up as a sole trader or even company later on. Being a freelancer myself for some years has taught me a thing or two about myself as well as the industry, so tutors would struggle to nail an explanation as to how you work for yourself in what could be an exciting but sometimes volatile industry. I’ll try and break down the path to freelance designing in a couple of pointers.
– You need a portfolio of work, whether its a physical A3 black leather binder with 15 sheets of good work or an online gallery (website) A good website will reflect back on your work ethic and sense of style. Same goes for a physical portfolio but I’d say concentrate on nailing a good online portfolio first as it’s a quicker means to share your work for people to see. It’s instantaneous and not many art editors or buyers will have time to view and flick through a portfolio if they’re looking for an artist in a short space of time. For sit down meets with publishers and art editors, a portfolio is key and especially if it’s a tidy one with a good selection of work.
– Research and reach out to those who may be interested in your work. I spent quite a while researching publications, magazines and marketing agencies that would lean towards illustration and reached out via email in hope for some feedback on my style of work. Going off the bat and asking for work isn’t a good way to start a conversation with someone you don’t know, especially over email but it never hurts to be polite and to use common courtesy in reaching out. Once you’ve built a rapport with the right commissioning editor you can always send them updates on projects or new images you’ve been working on. I still send out printed postcards with my work on as well as stickers to previous clients to let them know I’m still around but importantly just as a common courtesy to say thanks for their support.
– Promote yourself. In my early days I used to produce home made stickers, zines and comic strips that I would distribute or sell on at independent market stalls. Later I realised they were great tools for promoting myself and my work as everything I created had my website and contact details on it. Business cards come later but anything of that ilk is very handy for those formal and informal occasions. Social media is a great means to spread your work far and wide and with careful attention, you can build a rapport with your audience and let them in on your world as you publish sketches of new work, let them know about the tools you use etc. In the digital age, we are more open to sharing, look at the everyday impact that platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have on our lives.
– Get your work out there. Through uploading my work via social media, I was lucky enough to have people repost, share and talk about it. I made sure my work was printed in independent magazines and zines as a starter, I didn’t expect anyone would want to pay me for my work which was a bad precedent I set for myself but I did believe that I needed to earn the trust and attention of potential clients. I was also fortunate to put my work out in exhibitions and shows in bars and small galleries which help boost the word of mouth and the buzz.
– Get organised. It helps to keep notes and lists of your daily tasks, especially when you’re working for yourself, you’re learning the ropes to your trade. Being organised just means setting out your agenda, and getting your tasks completed. Being organised means knowing to send your self promotional emails out at the start of the week and scheduling enough time to turn around your projects.
3) How do you get work as a freelancer?
Typically, people who look to start off freelance, have already worked within their chosen industry, made contacts and professional relations. This helps them on their first days of freelancing as they have ears on the ground and some contacts and clients from years of work. If you’re starting to freelance right off the back, the path is a little slower but not impossible.
There are many ways of obtaining work but in order to do that, you need to demonstrate you have the style, you have the understanding and you need to show people you’re ready to work in your field. In the creative field, a picture speaks a thousand words so create promos that pop out to an audience. I obtained work through my free time projects, putting t-shirt designs together for Hantu Collective which I also ran as Creative Director. Working with t-shirts and street clothing was a great platform for me. It opened up many doors because of the word of mouth it generated, off the back of that I worked on club flyers and posters, I showed everyone that I could work reliably and keep the clients happy.
Networking can be very useful, in my younger years I was quite active in going to gigs and show openings and was very fortunate to meet people who would throw me a job or two designing flyers and posters for nights and gigs. I’ve worked off the back of good word of mouth. mostly from jobs that I produced reliably. Sometimes off the back of one job, you can use it to promote yourself and show people what you can do as it’s important to remind yourself and other clients that you provide a service and execute it well. Networking can be a bit off putting but it does help you make contact a lot quicker, the alternative is to work behind the scenes, send out emails, social media postings and keeping your ears to the ground on a commissioning opportunity.
There are often online design competition which serve as good practice and a chance to creatively vent, note if you have enough spare time to enter open calls for submissions they can be worth it too.
4) Should I hold down a part time job whilst freelancing as a back up?
I certainly worked part time in bars and cafes when I first started off with my freelancing. As I mentioned before I hadn’t built up a contact list before I’d started freelancing, I more or less just jumped straight in, but I realise from the start that it would be safer to have a separate part time job to keep me afloat. Money woes can really get you down at times and I think it’s a good idea to steady your base before you venture out looking for your own work. I started off with easy to manage projects and eventually those projects would help the snowball effect with my work and after around a year I was able to pack in the cafes and pub shifts to concentrate on my own work.
Before you jump in with both feet its wise to consider your financial management, I’m no whizz with money but I released as long as I wasn’t over spending and I was living within my means, I was doing fine. Eventually you may have some over heads to look at, such as a studio space, paying for materials, magazine subscriptions and such, that’s when your financial common sense is at play and should help you evaluate your situation.
Another bonus to working part time, is that it can be a great motivator for you to launch your business full time. It also helps you appreciate the time you’re given to work on creative projects and in my case it helped me from procrastinating too much. My productivity was hot when I was delegating my time between part time work and freelance project work, thankfully that desire and motivation has followed me into my own studio space and I can manage my time and financial operations adequately.
5) How do I find my audience?
The ideal situation would be that your audience finds you. The way you piece your work together and how it looks will be based on your own personal liking and opinion, so in that respect once you find an audience who buy into your work, you can project your work towards in a certain way. Your sense of graphic style is bound to slot into a range of audience, it’s always the case of getting eyeballs on your graphics to build that following.
I found that my audience slowly grew over time with my social media presence of sharing my work online, showing people and asking of their opinion whether good or bad helped build a following for me. With the right attention, your group of followers can utilise social media to spread your images and work to their own followers, it’s almost a game of chance and numbers but always aim to garner a following on the merit of your work and not too many gimmicks.
6) How do I price my work?
This is a bit of a taboo question and an awkward one to answer. Many different artists will price their work accordingly to the following, time taken to complete, the materials covered, the depth of detail in the work, how many sketches and how many amendments they’ve had to make for the client etc. Whenever taking on any job you need to weigh up the client and weigh up how much time you can afford on the project, if it’s a job you can manage and how much you would be happy to work for. You need to consider that clients will work to their budgets and you need to find a way state your price whilst letting the client know that they’ve come to you for the job. It’s good to remember to never set a bad precedent to yourself by undercharging and letting clients believe that the fee they will pay is expected.
I always remind myself and other people that if you have a leak in your house or your car is having engine trouble, you will always pay a plumber and an electrician to solve your problem. The same can be said of people in the creative industry, clients come to them to solve their problem, therefore they can be expected to be paid. If you are offered work on the pre tense that you won’t be paid but it’s “good exposure” you need to weigh up if it is worth doing, if the exposure is the sort you want. It’s never a good idea to accept too many jobs that won’t pay you, but if you’re inclined to do so, you can use the opportunity hone your skills on the job.
7) What tools should I be using?
I don’t believe there should be specific tools you should be using, other than you do need access to a computer. You’ll find that the job market requires a lot of communication so a means to have good access to emails, social media and phone calls is essential. If you work totally offline, it doesn’t mean that you won’t obtain work, but you’re limiting yourself to the endless possibilities from your corner of the world.
Talking about tools and what I use, I have my MacBook Pro, Wacom Tablet, Apple iPhone for instant web access when I’m on the move. My drawing tools include, mechanical pencils, pens, brush, indian ink and posca markers. A lot of my work is then manipulated and tidied up on Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator to give it a finished look.
In terms of what you should use, that’s up to you, it depends on what you want to use, what you’re good at using, whether it’s paints, inks, vector graphics on Adobe, it’s down to you as the craftsman. I don’t believe there’s a write or wrong way to illustration, at the end of the day the objective is create a visual that suits a purpose it’s been intended for. Does it matter if you can draw like Da Vinci? I don’t think so, some of the best illustrators I’ve seen have utilised drawing in different ways. My good friend Billy, is a great graffiti artist and illustrator, she has amazing drawing skills and yet she pulls off a great naive style that pulls you in because it’s so inviting. Marian Deuchars is know for her brush work and loose sense of drawing style. I’ve know some illustrators to create images purely on the computer using blocks of solid colour. Tools are merely tools, your mind and your ideas require constant sharpening. Once you get your head around that, your use of tools will come into play, as I mentioned before through play and experimentation you will be able determine your style and utilise whatever method and means you see fit.