Finding Work as an Illustrator

Author & Illustrator: Justin Donaldson · Contributing Editor: Darren Di Lieto · 3rd August 2020

Finding work online as a freelance illustrator is hard and I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you already know that!

Having been a professional illustrator for several years now, there are a few things I’ve learnt along the way that have helped me earn a living. While I’m always looking for better methods, I wanted to take a few minutes and share what I know with my fellow illustrators.

Let’s take a look at four points I consider to be cornerstones of freelancing:

  1. You only have finite resources
  2. You don’t want every job you can get
  3. Clients who pay less, expect more
  4. You have to get your work seen

You Only Have Finite Resources

You only have a finite amount of time and this is important because it takes time to get work done. As an illustrator, there’s only so much work you can do, and therefore a ceiling on the amount of money you can earn as a creative professional. Sure, as your skills improve, your workflow will speed up, but working faster can on occasions be counter-productive, so aim to work smarter, not faster.

If you take 15 hours to produce a decent piece of card art and you sell it for $100, you’re probably only going to be able to produce three of these per week, giving you a take home of $300. Maybe you can rush through the work and squeeze a couple more pieces of card art in, but all that’s going to do is reduce the quality of your output. With a lower quality, you’re never going to attract the higher paying clients who will expect a higher standard of work from you.

Can you live on $1,200 a month? If not, increase it to $300 per piece and you might do alright if you have constant work, good clients, live in a cheap area, and within the bounds of humble lifestyle choices. We’ll get to the matter of more constant work shortly, but here’s the thought you need to take away from this point:

There are markets within the illustration and art industry that won’t pay you the money you need to make ends meet. And if that’s happening, maybe that niche or market isn’t right for you. What you need to do is find a marketplace that values your work, so you can continue to do what you love. Allocate your time wisely and value it accordingly.

You Don’t Want Every Job You Can Get

The biggest reason freelance bidding websites are so terrible, in my opinion, is that they present you as a commodity and force you into a race for the bottom. It’s a case of “Are you affordable and alright at what you do?” Cost is the main factor, the way the system presents you, and whether your style fits is only moderately important. You may well end up creating work you would not normally produce, given the choice. Let’s say you win a job and want to please the client, so you pull a piece together in the style they have dictated…

… but then you find they are not happy with the work you send them, because you are not the person who created their dream ’90s Saturday morning cartoon that you are modeling the artwork after. And the job takes you twice as long as you expected, but you have finite time, which means a low paying job is now of even less value to you. Once the contract is agreed, you’re stuck with it for however long it takes and you won’t get paid any more than was originally agreed. Take jobs that are outside of your illustration wheelhouse at your own expense.

Not only that, but you are a creative professional with a unique visual approach, not a copy-and-paste art generator. Illustrators and artists infuse their work with their own personality and vision, but the way bidding sites work doesn’t usually allow for that to happen. Connections are made through financial incentives, rather than prioritising individual’s skills and styles. You risk compromising your artistic integrity, as well as your income, by working this way.

Instead, you need to find websites and services that present you as a valued service and encourage the clients to come to you. In this scenario you are in charge, but more importantly, the client has already looked through a whole list of people and has decided that your style is the best for their project. With this sort of set up, the clients buy into the idea of working with you, without even seeing your prices. Clearly they’re not engaging with you because you’re cheap, they’re engaging with you because you are what they want or need.

You really don’t want every job you can get. You want clients who respect what you do as an individual and you don’t want them to be driven by a “cheap is as good as expensive” mentality, which bidding websites reinforce. You’re providing a unique and valuable service, so you need to make sure that’s how you’re presenting yourself to your clientele. You’re a skilled professional who’s running a business, not a commodity to be sold. Don’t set yourself up to fail, so if a job or platform doesn’t meet your criteria, move on.

Clients Who Pay Less, Expect More

Clients who pay less, expect more and are generally terrible to work with… this includes friends or family. Don’t ask me why, but I’m yet to be proved wrong. Freelancing gets easier the more your client is willing to pay.

You have to get your work seen

I put myself out there on a lot of platforms (Unity connect, Unreal engine forum, Board game geek, Good Reads…), but the ones that get my unrivalled attention and that I keep up-to-date are few and far between.

Hire an Illustrator (HAI)

HAI has been immensely useful to me. I can’t tell you how much work I have received through there, because it’s been a LOT. It costs $1 a day to be up there. For a lot of people that’s a deal breaker, but I can tell you that it’s the cheapest way I have ever advertised, and I know for certain I have received tens of thousands of dollars through there in my time on it. The dollar a day is the last piece of cash they will ever see from you. No commission, no cut, just $1 a day.

On average I get about one inquiry a week. That often actually looks like two weeks silence and then a number of inquiries in a week. The people who run it will absolutely go out of their way to get you work, will help you set up your portfolio if you are having problems, and help you identify why your portfolio isn’t currently working at its best.

They have a “news” system where you post your most recent works and that guarantees you get on the front page of the whole website. They also run very active social media accounts, where they often like to shout about their members and show off their artwork.

There was a period where I wasn’t getting much action through there and I talked to them about it. They redid my portfolio, bio wording, and then organised to have me as a “spotlight illustrator” for a month. They are very generous and invest in your success.

I have a friend that I convinced to get an account who had no action up there for a few months and was about to quit when he got approached by a university who needed art for an educational game… That ended up being something like a $30,000 commission for him!

Last thing to say on the matter: they receive a lot of inquiries from people who don’t know which illustrator they want to go with. So the owner (Darren Di Lieto) sifts through these every day and makes suggestions. That man needs to know what you do! You need to be clear about your intentions with your bio and your portfolio so that every time a pirate-riding-a-shark inquiry comes in he can send it to you, the pirate-riding-a-shark guy.

Reedsy

Reedsy is an online community built around making it easy for independent authors to create their works. You are on the site as a marketplace professional. You don’t pay for it, they just take a cut (10% + payment fees), and everyone who is there is expecting you to charge good rates. In fact, the people who run it will ask you to raise your rates if you aren’t charging enough.

They do have pretty high standards, so it’s a lot harder to get into. They suggest that they let in less than 5% of the applicants. You need a relatively large body of work and they require you to have a published book. So if you have any client who has actually set up their book on Amazon you are good.

Again, I get about 1 or 2 inquiries a week.

Twitter and LinkedIn

What!? Twitter? Linkedin? No way!? Yes, way!

I have three words for you… Search. Your. Market.

I must admit, I don’t do this all the time, because “to always be on the search” becomes a source of habitual anxiety for me. But it never fails to provide good leads. It’s all about searching and understanding your market.

Let me give you a few search terms to start with:

  • Looking for an illustrator
  • Looking for a concept artist
  • Looking for a Twitch banner
  • Hiring an artist

Before potential clients take proper action to commission an illustrator, here’s what happens: They throw it out to the universe on Twitter or LinkedIn in the hope they can find the perfect person without all the effort of going through official channels. Ignore the trash, like “portrait commission for $10”, because there is gold out there – I have scored thousands of dollars doing pre-vis for production companies that had lots money and deep pockets, but lacked experience when it came to hiring. Along with being able to seize upon an opportunity, professionalism and communication are key to making this work.

My Final Thoughts

Working within the established channels for companies that undervalue your worth can be difficult at times. What you need to do is find clients who appreciate your work, because they will pay you your true value and treat you with respect.

When starting out, it can be difficult. You lack experience and you don’t have a rapport with any clients yet, but you need to persist and take your time. In the same way you’re new to the marketplace, there’ll be clients who are also just starting out and looking to build a relationship with an illustrator like yourself. The thing is, independent creators who have a decent budget also like to take their time when working on books, games, movies, etc… So even if they end up becoming a repeat client, it may be 9-18 months between jobs, but building these relationships are key to longevity and having a successful career in the illustration industry.

These are just some of the points that have helped me on my journey to becoming a professional freelance illustrator, I hope they point you in the right direction and you find value in them. I would love to hear your thoughts and what works for you!? Leave a comment or get in touch.


Justin Donaldson is a freelance fantasy and science fiction illustrator by day and also by night. Sleep, what sleep? No seriously, he has two kids under three so sleep is a dream… Good sleep, doubly so. He does a lot of book cover work and world building for independent authors, and in his time off he builds the world of “the Unforgotten Forest”, a fantasy about what it means to grow up and find yourself. justindonaldsonart.com / illo.cc/72016 / @justin_donaldson_art

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this! So relatable about those who pay less expect more. Usually on a tight deadline, low funding and promises that what you lack in payment, you’ll gain in ‘exposure’.

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