How I sketched a career in freelance illustration

My own storyboard

Doodles. Sketches. Caricatures. I’d drawn all of them unprompted since childhood, so my hand didn’t dither on the page when it came to ticking ‘Animation’ in the box of available BA courses at university. This I did, gaining a first class degree from the University of Wales, making me feel animated in a whole different way, probably helped along by the odd drink to celebrate!

During my more sober moments, I realised that traditional drawing and painting would remain central to almost all the work I wanted to do in the future. The only caveat being that, in this digital age, a computer might also come in handy.

Sell, Sell, Sell

Upon graduating, I assembled a physical and online portfolio of my creations thus far – a process still considered the first step for most illustrators and animators who want to go it alone. I then set about promoting myself with targeted postal samples and, as much as possible, pointed people towards my website, where my propaganda did the rest.

Freelance ‘opportunities’

My efforts were and remain fruitful, but the quality of enquiry received by freelancers naturally varies. There are exciting proposals from serious clients who understand that the freelancer has a living to make. But equally, there are the less attractive proposals. Some record labels, for example, approach freelance illustrators to ask whether they would like to work free of charge on an animated video for one of their acts. My answer, unsurprisingly, is normally a polite “No.” For freelancers at all stages of their illustration careers, such requests are common but, no matter how frustrating you find them, keep your responses to these ‘opportunities’ within the realm of firm diplomacy.

Becoming your own creative director

I fluctuated on and off as a freelancer during my immediate post-graduate years. Initially combining a life of arty assignments with less creative work, before I settled for a fixed-term spell as an illustrator for a small publisher. It was afterwards that I decided to fully commit to freelancing, switching my focus back to building a clientele and to me, not an employer or their staff, being responsible for developing my creative streak.

Drawing the line

Today, I’m careful to only take on work I’m entirely suited to in order to be fair, both to the client and to myself. That means requests for anime-style illustrations are politely declined and I make no pretence at being a motion graphics or 3D computer animator, as creative and enticing as some of that work appears.

The art of asking for leeway

It’s also important to be honest and frank about what can be achieved by you, a one-person supplier with the associated resources, within a given timescale. Typically, this is crucial when a number of attractive assignments each come in at the same time. It can be tempting to agree to all of them, though truthfully nobody will thank a freelancer for doing so if deadlines are missed. Remember, in this situation, an immediate start isn’t always required of you, so asking if there’s any leeway, in terms of your actual first day of work, might result in a great assignment being secured at a mutually convenient time.

Be red-faced early, not late

Being open and up-front is also vital if there are difficulties, actual or envisaged, with an assignment you agree to carry out. Technical or even personal issues can make deadlines and delivery dates impossible.

Still, in my many years of freelance contracts, I can assure you that a client will always appreciate an early warning, instead of being kept in the dark while you struggle to fix things behind their back, even if you have good intentions. All freelancers, not just those sketching out careers as illustrators, would do well to remember this. Unfailingly keeping clients up-to-date, and aware of any difficulties, is a desirable quality, albeit one that clients increasingly expect one-person suppliers to include in their services as the minimum standard of customer care.


Matthew Harding is a freelance illustrator and animator


18th January 2011

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