Monday, 25 June 2012

My First Year As A Freelance Illustrator / Tips for Illustration Graduates

Unbelievably, New Designers next week signifies that it has been a year since I finished at uni! I can't quite believe how quickly the time has gone or that there will be a new wave of graduates bursting out of all the illustration courses at any moment. I'm not sure which of those is more intimidating... but I am excited to see lots of fresh work and new faces around in the coming months. I wanted to do a summing up post of my first year as a graduate and as a freelance illustrator to help me think about what I have achieved throughout the year and where I want to head from now on. It's hard to write something like this without sounding patronising or pompous... I'm certainly not a big success story and my business is only a tiny fledgling but I have picked up a few little things along the way that I thought I would share, as obvious as they may be. Hopefully this might be of some use to the new graduates or anyone starting out on their illustration career.

To start with, I think that you shouldn't be disheartened regarding any aspect of your course, whether because you were unsatisfied with it or due to not receiving the marks you wanted etc. Although I feel quite lucky about the course that I did, and did well marks-wise, I really believe that you can succeed as an illustrator almost regardless of where or how (or if at all) you studied. I chose a relatively local course, and at the time actually had a lot of disparaging remarks from several people I knew that were 'concerned' about... well, just about everything, as some people helpfully tend to be. They said the course was worthless, that I was wasting my money, wasting my talent because I would never be able to make anything of myself there, and even wasting my life by choosing not to move away. I must admit that I did dwell on these doubts for a while, but after having finished the course I can categorically say that I do not think I could have done any better on any other course. My tutors were fantastic and inspirational, and as a more vocational course we completed so many briefs and projects in comparison to a lot of other universities. My course obviously had its flaws, but I have heard complaints and disappointments from so many other illustrators about how badly run their own courses were, even at the most renowned arts universities, that I can't help but feel that every course is going to bring dissatisfaction of some kind throughout the years. Some people will be disappointed with their tutors, uni admin, course content, the academic side of the syllabus, the work that they have produced, or perceived lack of success from their degree show. Due to this, a lot of people feel that they are ill-equipped for the real world or that they don't have a good idea of the business of illustration. Because of this my most important piece of advice for anyone graduating is that you have to do the grunt work for yourself and be willing to be self-sufficient and put huge amounts of effort in. While I absolutely agree that the business and marketing side of things needs to be an integral part of any illustration course, I think that it is also your responsibility to be researching that stuff while you are still studying so that you can hit the ground running when you leave and don't get overwhelmed by the immensity of the creative 'scene' and all the duties that you will inevitably have to perform if you want to start working for yourself. There are constantly going to be changes in technology, social networking platforms, the success of various methods of self-promotion/finding work that you will have to follow, so you might as well start as soon as possible!

Photo courtesy of Freya Murray.

So.... my year. Throughout the year I was shortlisted for the Adobe Design Achievement Awards in the Illustration Category, and (something that I forgot to blog about!) a month or two ago won the Sky Arts Ignition: Creative Wish Brighton prize with a whopping 1088 people voting for me at the Sky Arts Den at the Brighton Festival. I think it's really worthwhile keeping your eyes peeled online for these kind of opportunities, as the prizes involved are often really great and as a boost to your morale while struggling through the freelance jungle they are really helpful. Saying that, illustration competitions themselves are a tricky area for me. When I first graduated I was entering all the illustration competitions I could, seeking out briefs for them, hoping to win, hoping to just get a good portfolio piece out of them, and as the time has gone on I have become quite disillusioned with them. I'm a lot more suspicious of the competitions, their intentions, and their judging methods and now only tend to enter ones where I really love the brief, and don't pin any hopes on them if I enter. I would advise to go ahead and enter the competitions, but only if you think that the prize is fair compensation, that they're not taking advantage as a way to get free work, and that it will be a piece of work you are proud of. 
In terms of actual work and commissions I won't pretend that I have had it easy or been wildly successful, but I have managed to have a relatively steady stream of work trickling in throughout the year. I had work licensed by Tesco and Samsung, and have done commissions/tutorials for Digital Artist Magazine, CD artwork for Haystack Records, Christmas cards for Powell Publishing and various other private commissions. I have been working hard to actively chase opportunities for work, and must say that only one or two have actually found me. The majority of the rest have been from call-outs, searches or conversations on Twitter. I'm sure I will harp on about Twitter repeatedly through the course of the post, but it genuinely has facilitated me getting quite a lot of work as well as enjoyment from the social aspect, which is why I recommend it so highly. Writing out my clients and achievements throughout the year actually leaves me feeling quite surprised as it's easy to forget when you have a few quiet weeks that you are getting anywhere or doing well at all.

Things I've learned this year:

- Work, like many things, tends to come along like buses. Nothing for absolutely ages, and then three jobs crop up at once. Several of my friends are also self-employed working in other areas, and the 'feast or famine' idea seems to be pretty standard across the board. I suggest that you try to embrace this as much as possible, by taking on appropriate jobs and opportunities when they come up, and trying hard to enjoy the gaps in between to create personal work, do self-promotion and update all your websites/shops/portfolios.
- Freelance work is different for everyone and depends completely on your situation; don't compare yourself to other people. Some people will work full-time freelance, others will work full or part-time jobs around their illustration depending on how much money they need to live and how much they need to leave the house for the sake of their sanity! Some people will work at home on their own, and some rent out a space in a studio. Don't feel bad that you function in a different way to someone else, and don't judge other people for how they choose to work.

- Don't get complacent about finding work. One big job or client does not necessarily equal success or more work, you will probably always have to fight hard to seek it out.

- Throw as many darts at the board as possible! Technically I didn't learn that this year... it was a piece of advice from one of my tutors, but it has proved to be very useful. Some people will like your work and some won't, and some jobs you just won't be right for. The more places you send submissions, put feelers out to, talk to, or advertise in, the more likely you are to get something back from it. Don't pin all your hopes on one opportunity or lead.

- Learn to say no! When you graduate, the excitement of actually being paid to draw can tempt you into taking on jobs that are not right for you, or that aren't worth your while. I've taken on jobs with a variety of pay brackets, perks and downfalls, and I'm still very happy to work on a range of different projects, for different audiences, and to try to work within a client's budget. However, the more experience you have, the better an idea you get of what is and isn't acceptable or appropriate for you, and the easier it gets to respond with the right answer to each individual prospective client. 

- Get used to rejection and being ignored - if you're working hard to put yourself out there then it will probably happen more frequently than successes and replies.

- Draw! At times it can be quite difficult to actually find time to do work (which sounds unbelievable). The internet is full of distractions, and running your own business means playing lots of different roles that all compete for your time and attention. Just when you think you're finished with your accounts/self-promotion/client work, you sit down to do some personal illustrations and something else crops up (usually in the form of some kind of 'ping', ringing or doorbell noise!). It helps if you plan your time, write out a schedule, or just resolve to switch the computer off for a certain number of hours each day.

- People will think you're lazy, that you don't work, that you must be rich, that you must be completely poor and pathetic, that you're lucky to be doing what you love, that you must just not be able to find a 'real job'. People won't know what illustration is, or that it's even a 'thing' that you can be paid for. Some will even be offended that you 'do art' for a living, or be disgruntled at the fact that your way of earning money is different from theirs and doesn't require much commuting. Some people will think that you're a fine artist, or a graphic designer. Some people will ask you to do what equates to hours or days of work for free, and then get annoyed at you when you won't. Some people will think you spend all day sitting around drinking tea, baking, reading, doodling, and pratting about on Twitter. Sometimes you do spend all day doing those things, but sometimes you work 8am-11pm seven days running and barely stop to eat or see anyone. Some people will just unmovingly believe what they want to, and there's no point trying to convince them otherwise.

Tips & Links / Things I think every Illustration graduate should do:

- Join Twitter. I can't stress enough how useful and fun Twitter has been for me over the last couple of years. I've found out about work, potential clients, competitions and events through it, and have discovered several hundred amazing friendly illustrators and other creatives to talk to. Say hello! @BryonyCrane

- Try to join some kind of local illustrators group, ask around on Twitter if you're not sure what's available. Go to events and suck up inspiration and knowledge like a big fat sponge.

- Consider joining The AOI for at least one year, preferably with your student discount, to see whether it's going to be useful to you personally and to collect information about the industry, pricing etc.

- Watch this speech by Neil Gaiman - it is perfect and inspirational.

- Utilise online organisation tools like TeuxDeuxEvernote etc. I love a good stash of trailing paper to-do lists, but sometimes it's nice to be able to check them on the go, and to be able to sync them between devices.

- Join online portfolio/networking/opportunities sites. My favourites are BehanceIdeas TapCreative Boom. If you join loads of them at once it can be quite intimidating and you will spend all of your time trying to update them. Try to join one or two at a time, then once you've got the hang of them, add more.

And to end on a happy note in case I've sounded like a negative nelly....

The Best Things About Being an Illustrator:

- Doing what you love to do, and getting paid for it!

- The freedom of being your own boss. Sometimes you work really, really hard, and because of that you can allow yourself days off, breaks to meet friends or to go out to gather inspiration.

- Not being able to draw a character with an extreme expression or pose, without inadvertently mimicking it yourself (sometimes in public) and looking quite, quite mad. 

- Often having to do the above on purpose into a mirror or camera for reference, and that still counting as legitimate work.

- The thought that one day a book I have drawn and written could be on the bookshelves of millions (ahem) of little children all over the world!

- Having a great work/life balance, even if it does mean living off a diet mainly consisting of own-brand cereal and poached eggs. (Not together...)

- Being able to work whilst bouncing on an exercise ball, singing loudly and in various states of untidyness/unacceptable dress/mad birdnest hair.  

I think that's quite enough rambling for one post... I hope I haven't bored you to tears. Are you about to graduate, or have been working freelance for a year or two as well? Let me know your thoughts/questions etc in the comments below! 


  1. A wonderful, interesting and informative post Bryony! :)

  2. I love doing illustration as it increases my creativity. Illustration is a great way to create and edit various vectors, logos and many more things. The above tips are really very useful for every people who wants to start their career as a Illustrator. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. This is a super fab post Bryony! I love the humour in it too 'living off a diet mainly consisting of own-brand cereal and poached eggs. (Not together...)' HA! love it! Thanks for this ace post! <3 x x

  4. Thanks Natasha, really glad you enjoyed it!

  5. Thanks for posting this, it's obviously super helpful to someone like me who's about to do the New Designers thing - so underprepared, it's scary! I'm really, really awful at advertising myself so I think my first step will be getting an agent if at all possible, then do the part time work thing just so there's something regular and not feast/famine like you said.

    If you do have a minute, it'd be great to know a bit more about how you went about advertising yourself to land the jobs like the magazine and Samsung - I wouldn't really know where to start!

  6. Thanks Emilie. The magazine and Samsung licensing were both through Twitter, through just chatting to the editor on there and the latter just responding to a call-out that someone tweeted. I think the key to it is just to put yourself out there as much as possible and get involved in conversations and every opportunity that's going. At the same time set up a plan of attack regarding sending email or posted promo stuff out to a group of people that you'd like to work with and see what happens. If they have social media accounts, then chat to them on there and try to make yourself known a little bit. I'm still trying to work out the finer points (and find some time to do it!) of setting up a full promotional schedule, hopefully it will be fully in place by the end of the year. Other work comes in through my main website... I'm not sure if you have one of those yet, but if you need help with that my boyfriend actually runs his own IT company and deals with creating and hosting sites amongst other things.

    Loved your work at the show the other week by the way :) Good luck with New Designers! Try to go and speak to any agencies that have stalls there with your portfolio, they're very friendly and it's worth a shot. I can't think of any other good New Designers tips other than if you're stuck at the top level like we were last year, go downstairs with some of your postcards to hand out to people coming back towards the stairs and tell them there's more work up there.

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