I’ve just recently reached the one year mark since my graduation from university and it’s been a crazy year. Aside from a lot of changes in my personal life, it’s also been my first year as a “full-time” illustrator. I say that with quotation marks because I have definitely NOT maintained a 40 hour work week, however I have had some great work opportunities and also some total flops. I wanted to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned this past year and hopefully you can avoid making the same mistakes I did!
Treat yourself like a professional and others will too
It’s really tempting to accept every offer that comes your way when you first graduate because your portfolio is empty and you feel the pressure to fill it - and fast. Unfortunately, companies know this and they often take advantage of that desperation (see this blog post about my internship experience). It’s therefore important for you, and the industry as a whole, to take yourself seriously and set boundaries for what you will and won’t accept. When companies see that you’re confident, they’ll treat you as the professional that you are.
Always work with a contract
Oh contracts, so boring but so important. You should really start every professional job with a signed contract that will protect you if something goes wrong. I’ve definitely made the mistake of rushing into work without this step and the projects ended up being cancelled half way through, leaving me with no compensation for the work I’d already done. Make sure you include a line in your contract that addresses the possibility of cancellation and what the company would owe you in that scenario. Most companies have their own contracts but if they don’t have one prepared I like to use the ‘Illustrator Commissioner Agreement’ template from the AOI as well as their Terms and Conditions. And NEVER work with a company who is unwilling to sign a contract with you.
Accepting free or heavily discounted work for friends
I’ve worked with friends a few times and it always got messy. Friends expect more from you and boundaries can easily be blurred. They normally expect huge discounts or just complete freebies and they often don’t know exactly what they want. It’s up to you whether or not you do favours for your friends but from my experience it’s mostly ended in me feeling over worked and taken advantage of. I think it can be necessary to explain to your friends that this is your job and how you pay your bills. It’s worth mentioning that no other professionals (think mechanics, teachers, doctors etc) work for free and you shouldn’t be expected to either. Same thing goes for art competitions which I’ve tended to avoid.
Have a safety blanket
This one is especially relevant now because of the current pandemic, but freelance work in general has a tendency to be unreliable. Some months will be great whilst others might be crickets. I think it’s really important to have some kind of a fall back for the quieter times that means you won’t be in a stressful situation. This could be an emergency fund, a part-time job on the side or living with someone who has a more stable income such as your parents or a partner. It’s completely normal for your business to take time to grow and the first year can be scary. I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve doubted if I can really do this but I’ve also been lucky to have people in my life who support me and an emergency fund to fall back on.
Being a freelance illustrator is an amazing job but its not the same as making art for fun. Writing this post has made me realise just how much I’ve learned this year, and there are still so many points I could have covered but I’ll leave it here for now. I hope my advice has been helpful and maybe reassuring to any of you who have had similar experiences. I know from talking to my illustrator friends that I’m not the only one who’s gone through them. I’d love to hear advice from more experienced illustrators have too in the comments.