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10 Things I learned about Freelance Illustration after Uni

I graduated from my undergrad in 2017 and with an MA in 2019. I dipped my toes in commercial illustration during that time, but it wasn’t really until after graduating that I realised how much I didn’t know. Why they encourage doing free work and don’t teach standard business skills in Uni baffles me. I’ve had a steep learning curve scrambling through the internet and reaching out to professionals searching for advice. I am by no means an expert, but here’s some general advice that I would have found helpful in 2017, and hopefully someone else will too.


Work hard, but work smart

If you don’t have paid work yet - that’s ok! This is the best time to create the work that you want to be hired for. I usually have a thousand different project ideas buzzing around in my head, and then feel paralysed when I can’t decide on where to start. Editorial, advertising, food illustration, packaging design, publishing, it all sounds so exciting! But, as much as I hate to admit defeat - you can’t do it all at once. Instead, pick a focus (Just for now - you can always change it later!). If you want to get into food illustration, illustrate food! If you want to get into YA book illustration, design covers and b&w interiors. Do some research and commission yourself.

Once you have some awesome work, share it. Research companies or magazine you like where you think your work would be a good fit - and send it to them with a short introduction and why you want to work with them. Post your work online and tag it appropriately to make sure people who are searching can find you.

Set Boundaries

Did I think I had to work 18 hour days after graduating in order to make it as an illustrator? Yes I did. Is it true? Absolutely not. Burn out is not cool. If an email comes in at 10 in the evening, you don’t have to reply to it immediately. If it comes in on a weekend, you can reply on Monday. You don’t have to set up a Skype call with a client after one email for a small project outline that can easily be put in an email. (For larger projects that need discussion they can be helpful though) If someone comes to you with a ridiculous deadline that would mean no sleep, you can say no. Ask for the time you realistically need to complete the project, there’s usually a few extra days of wiggle room. If a new project comes up with a very short deadline I will ask for a rush fee - to be compensated for my overtime/evening hours. (That’s also an easy way to distinguish the real rush job from the one that suddenly found more time in the schedule)

Invest in good work habits

My back thanked me immensely when I finally invested in a desk easel. Who knew that crunching over your desk with a bent neck for 6+ hours a day wouldn’t feel so good after a while? Keep a paper trail of all your commissions and email a confirmation of any conversations had in person or over the phone. Use a contract and add in not only the fee, but also project schedule, feedback schedule, cancellation fees, moral rights etc. (The AOI has a great contract template to get you started)

Competitions are detrimental

I am concerned about the amount of competitions I see online being marketed as “an amazing opportunity” or “great exposure.” Doing work for free to have your artwork printed on packaging or on social media advertising campaigns sounds cool, but it’s really just exploration of labour. It’s detrimental not only to your own practice, but also to the industry as a whole. Would you ever hire 50 plumbers to fix your broken pipe, for then to only pay the one you liked the best? (and only in gift vouchers!) Of course not, it wouldn’t stand. Exposure doesn’t pay your bills, and the only person you are giving free “exposure” is the company who is exploiting you. They have a tendency to target students and young artists new to the industry who are eager to get a ‘foot in the door.’ By not treating artists as professionals they help build the idea that we’re all doing this as hobby and it doesn’t have value.

A lot of competitions will also have really horrible contract conditions attached to them. Often you will resign all copyright to the company, have no moral rights to your work and the pay “if you are chosen” is way under industry standard. Sometimes they’ll even have you sign over your copyright, meaning they can do whatever they want to your image without consulting you, or even sell the rights to someone else.

To illustrate my point, the last time I entered a competition was for a fairytale book. I was still in my undergrad and encouraged to apply by my tutors. I was one of the selected winners and received two copies of the “book” in the mail as my prize. (That was it! 2 copies after probably a weeks worth of work!) It was honestly the most horrendous publication I’ve seen in my life. I am 99% certain the whole thing was put together in Word, text was overlapping images, images were stretched, and on the cover they had collaged (without permission!) all of the entries into one image.

(Trade competitions where you submit work in wide categories, not specifically made for the competition (like the AOI Illustration Awards), is a different category all together, and I don’t think of them as exploitative)

It’s ok to say no

If something doesn’t feel right I’m one for following my gut and don’t feel guilty about it. It can anything - a project, a ridiculous deadline, a fee that’s too low. Ask for what you need first, you don't have to accept the first offer in a negotiation. If you can’t meet in the middle however, it’s ok to say thank you - but no thank you. It also gives someone else the opportunity to say yes.

Don’t work for free

Working for free can seem like the only way to build your portfolio in order to get paid work. Big promises of ‘exposure’ and that ‘it may lead to paid work in the future’ has never lead to anything (at least not for me or anyone I know) and will only devalue your practice. Instead, it will likely lead to repeated expectations of you delivering work for nothing. And if you don’t think your work is worth anything, why should anyone else?

Instead of doing work for free that doesn’t really interest you, what’s your long term plans for you illustration practice? What kind of work do you want to do, and be commissioned to do? Do that. Commission yourself, make good work, and share it, make your own exposure. Do your research on industry rates and standards. Know what your work is worth.

(This goes for commercial illustration as a rule - gifts, collaborative projects etc. with peers are a separate story)

Don’t be afraid to ask for more money

It’s uncomfortable to talk about money - I know. But it get’s easier. In the beginning I found it easiest to make price estimates based on an hourly wage alone. (And I'd estimate a minimum hourly wage for unskilled labour, and not take taxes of business expenses into account) I always estimated wrong and when I did the maths after the project was done I had sometimes been paid as little as half a minimum wage. That doesn’t feel great. Make sure you at bare minimum can cover your rent, expenses and tax. Educating yourself on industry standard rates is really important, and also makes it much easier to say no when someone comes to you with an international advertising campaign of 7 detailed illustrations - and their budget is £400 (Yes that happened).

(, the AOI, and various Facebook groups like 'Let’s Talk Pricing’ are great resources to get you started.)

Patience is a virtue

Whether it’s waiting on email replies, late payment, poor communication, seemingly endless revisions or getting impatient with how long it takes to grow a new skill - patience is a good skill to have. I find it helpful to have my own project on the side when things are quiet and keep myself busy. I'll update my portfolio, socials, paint or simply take a break. Being self-motivated is a large part of being a freelancer as no one else is going to keep things moving for you. At some point you might have to prompt people, but be nice about it - everyone has their own stuff that they're dealing with.

Talk to your peers

There's this feeling I was left with after Uni of 'now I have to compete with every other illustrator out there.' I honestly don't know where that feeling came from. Competitiveness doesn't benefit you or your peers - only big brands and companies looking to exploit labour and create a feeling of scarcity so they can get away with underpayment and ridiculous project turnarounds. What helped me get over this feeling of standing on the outside was to reach out to my peers. I started conversations with people on social media, left comments, asked for advice. Pretty quickly I'd find more people, through people I was talking to and felt as if I was part of the community. It's so nice to be able to talk about the good bits, but also the hard or challenging parts with people who get it.

I'll vouch for community over competition every day. Especially considering we are in fact not competing for the same jobs. We all have different strenths and interests. If I get an inqury about a job I either can't take on for whatever reason or don't think I'll be a good fit for - I'll refer someone else whose work I love. What goes around comes around, and we are much better together.

People are actually really nice

Whether it’s peers, strangers or potential clients I’ve pitched, in my experience people are really nice. I don’t know where the idea of the “big scary client” first came from, but it’s definitely something that was prevalent in my first impression of the industry. After having asked strangers for advice, sent cold emails asking for work, had my work rejected and worked with people in various industries - I want to tell me to not be afraid to reach out - people are really nice.


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