Guest Post – How To Find Freelance Illustration Work – Part One
Unless you’re already a well-known illustrator it can be tough to find work that allows you to earn a living, even with a solid portfolio and professional attitude – in this article I’m going to assume you already have those basics covered. Promoting ourselves is something we need to learn the same way we learn to draw: with a lot of trial and error attempts because no single way works for everyone. There is no clear path to become established. There are, however, a few basic approaches that everyone can rely on.
There are two ways to get illustration jobs: Those that find and contact you (passive) and those that you find and contact (active).
In this first part I’ll talk about how potential clients can discover you. Later, I’ll publish Part Two which will be about the reverse: how you can actively seek out and contact potential clients.
How to make potential clients find and contact you
Pave the way
It goes without saying that your work should be present both online in your own professional looking website or blog, as well as printed in good quality for portfolio reviews at conventions or meetings with clients.
Since internet users have the shortest attention span of any species, it is especially important that they’re able to contact you instantly. Have your e-mail address, a link to your e-mail form, or a contact form on every page of your online portfolio. Make sure that visitors can get straight to viewing your work, ideally with less than one click, and that your online gallery is easy to leaf through, without any brain effort. Your website design should be simple, too. Look at it on different devices: old and new Windows and Mac systems, smartphones and tablets, to make sure it looks good on them all.
To make your website easier to find for the search engines, make sure it’s HTML-based (no Flash!) thus easy to read for search engine crawlers. If you’re new to this, look up SEO basics on how to optimize your site for Google and others. Ideally your template comes with a preinstalled SEO gadget that makes things even simpler.
If you’re using a predesigned theme or template, make sure the code is clean (some free WordPress templates have been discovered to have malicious code!)
Offline, get into the habit of carrying your business card with you at all times – you never know whom you’re going to meet. I keep them in my handbag in a small, lightweight business card case.
In my physical portfolio, a leatherbound A4 sized book with clear bags, I put A4 prints of my work that I order from an online photo service since they offer the best quality A4 prints at the lowest prices.
Spread your work on- and offline
Consider „branching out“ to other online galleries. On Deviantart many artists have found a huge audience; and there are many more, for example: Shadowness, CGHub, Behance, and general professional networks such as XING and LinkedIn.
Fill and maintain as many (professional-looking) online portfolios as you can. To keep track of them you can create a bookmark folder just for them.
Remember to add your real name, e-mail-address and website to all your other online presences, too! Think of them as „outposts“ representing your main place, your website. You might even go as far as putting your website address under every image you upload.
Your website is your business card and your name is your brand, so don’t be afraid to repeat them liberally. Since you’re a business I also recommend not hiding behind a pseudonym – it makes it harder for potential clients to remember and contact you. I don’t use mine anymore at all – it is a whim from my teenage years and meaningless.
I have been uploading my work to online galleries since 2002. Many websites have died since then, and many new ones have appeared. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track. Sometimes I even abandon online portfolios that get no views, or that make uploading a hassle. But in all those years the work seems to have paid off: On average I receive a handful of inquiries weekly from clients who have found my work somewhere on the internet.
And you can be published not just online. Future clients also find you through work you’ve published in print, so make sure you get credited with your name whereever your illustration is used. (In Germany there’s even a paragraph of copyright law, §13 of the Urheberrecht, that states a creator has the right to be credited. Cool, eh?)
There are print annuals where you can submit work for consideration: the yearbook of the Society of Illustrators, the Ballistic Publishing books, Spectrum, and some more. The entry fee is moderate and sometimes there is none, but competition is steep and only a selection of illustrators „make it“ into these books.
There are also online galleries that charge monthly fees, and questionable publications that charge exorbitant fees to have your work printed in them. They usually claim to reach thousands of potential clients, but that’s hard to prove. Since you don’t know who these clients are you can’t even tell whether they have any use for your work. And how up-to-date are the mailing lists? It is much more effective to seek out potential clients yourself. Save your money – spend it on good promotional materials and nice postcards instead.
When I advise to spread your work through many different online galleries I don’t mean you should be actively involved in all of them. That would be impossible unless you enslave your clones. But if you have found a favorite art community where you like to hang around, by all means do so. There’s a lot to be learnt from other artists. Unfortunately some of the most interesting communities are no longer the bustling beehives they used to be (Epilogue.net, Eatpoo, Sijun…), as more and more people focus on Facebook. But ultimately a community is what you make it, so you can give a lot and get a lot even from a small forum. The best one is where you learn the most – not necessarily the biggest. And you’ll make friends and „grow up together“ with other artists. That’s how professional artists got to know each other: they travelled the path together! Over the years, a lot of names will become familiar to you and you’ll see many new professionals emerge.
Word of mouth
If you already have a track record some clients will find you through recommendations from others. Sometimes another artist may recommend you, especially if you’ve been around in both online and your local artists’ community for a while. The best professionals are usually very supportive and don’t mind passing on work to other illustrators who may be better suited or have more time for the job. But they will be choosy, and recommend you only if you have proven that you’re a skilled professional and trust you to handle their client. Don’t you dare let them down!
Clients, too, can recommend you to other potential clients. Congratulations, you have done a good job! You have a reputation. Now you must live up to it and do stellar work (but you do that anyway, right?). Experienced illustrators who’ve been freelancing for years or decades report that word of mouth is their most effective way of marketing and a major source for new work.
Remember: there are no predefined steps to success
How do you define „success“ anyway?
Is it getting any money for your work at all? Being published in ImagineFX or Spectrum? Selling 100, 1,000 or 1,000,000 copies of your art book? Making a living only from selling prints? Painting a presidential portrait commissioned by Obama? Illustrating for National Geographic? Having your work appear on the cover of The New Yorker?
Any of these can be a great experience but none of these things actually guarantee long-term artistical success as defined by a regular, lifestyle-sustaining income from drawing and painting.
I used to think that after my work had been published in a certain place I would have „made it“. That was far from the truth. To this day my work hasn’t been published in that place, but I have been making a living from illustration for the past year now (my first full-time year!), and many of the steps I made to get there are not the „right“ ones I expected to do.
I hope this article was helpful and interesting. Check out part two of this article here.
Kristina Gehrmann grew up in North-Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Always having been busy drawing and painting, she is now working as an illustrator full-time. When not obsessing about a digital painting she divides her time between cooking and baking, reading books and writing. Currently she lives in Hamburg, Germany, with her boyfriend and cat. Her work has been published in Advanced Photoshop, ImagineFX and The Artist’s Magazine. Check out her work at http://www.mondhase.com or her Blog at http://www.mondhase.com/blog