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How to Become a Freelance Illustrator

Selfgood team, Marketing at Selfgood
Freelance illustrator

The Illustrators use their artistic talents to bring captivating stories and brands to life through character design, product packaging, comic books, and every possibility. Freelance illustrators enjoy the luxury of commissioning their work and guiding their careers. So, are you ready to launch your freelance illustration career? Look no further. This guide will explain how to become a freelance illustrator, from establishing your business legally to recruiting a steady stream of paying clients.


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Establish Your Freelance Illustrator Business Officially – Become a Freelance Illustrator

Your inner circle and professional connections dub you an artist or illustrator. With a newfound freelance career brewing, it’s time to add a new title to your resume: Business Owner. Launching your freelance illustration career as a business owner begins with a few simple steps:

  1. Deciding on your business structure
  2. Handling legalities
  3. Preparing to manage finances
  4. Setting your rates
  5. You are securing your business and yourself with insurance, supplemental coverage, and other benefits.

Let’s dive in.

1. Deciding on Your Business Structure

The freelance world may never settle the sole proprietor vs. LLC debate. Yet, making the right choice between these two now can set your business up for years of future success. Here’s an overview of each business model to help you decide.

Sole Proprietorship

Freelance illustrators earning income from their artwork are sole proprietors by default. From a legal standpoint, all that means is there’s no distinction between you and your business. You’ll file one tax return — Form 1040 — in April. Sole proprietorships are the simplest and cheapest business structures for up-and-coming freelance illustrators. However, you become liable if a disgruntled customer sues you, or your business’s debt becomes unmanageable.


An LLC (or limited liability company) comes with startup and filing fees, sometimes in the ballpark of a few hundred dollars. Yet, LLCs’ tax and legal benefits sell many freelancers on this business structure. The IRS views you as your business come tax season like a sole proprietor. LLCs also protect your assets. So, your car, home, and other assets are safe in the face of business debts and lawsuits.

2. Handling the Legal Side

Next is the legal side — ensuring you’re playing by the government’s rules and protected from client non-payment. To do that, you’ll need to:

Apply for a Business License

If you’re selling illustrations to turn a profit, the IRS defines your gig as a business, not a hobby. So first, check with your city’s Municipal Clerk’s Office or county government to learn whether freelance illustrators need a business license in your area. If you do, you must apply using your social security number (for sole proprietors) or an EIN (for LLCs). Then, you can apply through the IRS.

Create Contracts For Customers

Before you accept your first gig from an art director, it’s important to “lock in” the project. To do that, you’ll need to create a contract that requires you and your client to hold up your respective ends of the deal. Next, you produce the agreed-upon illustration(s) and provide the negotiated payment. So, first, download an illustrator contract template. Then tailor it to your design business and each unique project. Then, sign away with peace of mind!

3. Managing Your Business’s Finances

Requiring upfront payment is one way to turn your illustration hobby into a full-time freelance career. But expert illustrators take charge of their finances with the help of:

Income & Expense Tracking Software

That means every cent you spend on watercolors, drawing pads, vector graphics software, other illustrator supplies, and every client-paid invoice. Finance-tracking software like Quickbooks Self-Employed allows you to monitor your expenses and income in real-time while auto-calculating your estimated quarterly taxes.

Business Accounts & Credit Cards

To simplify that, consider setting up a bank account for your business dealings and apply for a business credit card. A card strictly for business will keep all expenses in a single report without tanking your credit utilization ratio when you need to splurge on a top-of-the-line $1,000 drawing tablet.

Setting Your Rates

Ah, if it’s not the flat fee versus hourly rate conundrum. Truthfully, there’s no “gold standard” in the freelance illustrator world. The choice often comes down to preference and the type of project. However, a per-project rate may be the best choice if you know approximately how long it would take to design a video game cover, greeting card, or character design.

Otherwise, an hourly rate aligned with your experience level is a better option, mainly when the illustration project entails client meetings or several rounds of revisions. Rates can vary from client to client and project to project. Be willing to be flexible. Don’t lowball your talent to secure just any old client.

Insurance for Freelancers

Last but not least, all freelance illustrators should consider insurance, specifically professional liability and general liability coverage. These policies will protect you if you miss a deadline and cost a client revenue. It could also cover you if you accidentally infringe on a trademarked image or get hurt because of your illustrations. Yes, investing in these policies is a monthly expense. However, not having them could cost you thousands if the unexpected happens.

Invest in Professional Illustrator Tools – Become a Freelance Illustrator

Become a Freelance Illustrator

Whether oil painting children’s book covers or packaging graphic design, establishing yourself as a top-tier illustrator requires professional tools. Depending on the project, that could include:

  • Software: Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, ProCreate, Canva
  • Drawing Tools: Pencils, watercolors, brushes, erasers, pens, sharpeners, charcoal, sketch pads, sketchbooks
  • Drawing Technology: Drawing tablets, tablet stands, tables, computers, scanners, computers

Odds are, you already have most of these tools at your disposal. But if there’s ever a right time to upgrade, it’s during this transition!

Master Your Niche & Create a Portfolio – Become a Freelance Illustrator

Your passion for art led you to freelance illustration. But excelling in one (or two or three) areas or “niches” within the vast illustration world will wow potential clients. That’s why we’ve made this next step a two-parter:

Decide on a Niche

Think back to all the illustration projects in your portfolio.

  • Which ones received the most positive feedback?
  • Did you build a reputation as a guru in concept art or T-shirt design?
  • Do you gravitate toward specific types of projects?

If you’re torn between several illustration niches or consider yourself a newbie, here’s a list of 33 potential areas of focus:

  1. Children’s books
  2. Character design
  3. T-shirt or clothing design
  4. Product design
  5. Editorial illustration
  6. Animations
  7. Package illustration
  8. Concept art
  9. Digital illustration
  10. Book illustration
  11. Vectors
  12. Commercial art
  13. Woodcutting
  14. Mascots
  15. Technical or infographic illustrations
  16. Medical or biological illustrations
  17. Fashion drawings
  18. Fine arts
  19. A comic book or comic book illustrations
  20. Graphic novels
  21. Advertising
  22. Cartoons
  23. Charcoal
  24. Ink
  25. Pencil
  26. Watercolor
  27. Storyboard illustration
  28. Metal etching
  29. Magazines
  30. Lettering
  31. Watercolor
  32. Greeting cards
  33. Historical illustration


How Many Niches Should You Choose?

The honest answer is:

  • As many as you can that clients will hire you for and that you can put time and effort into perfecting.
  • That could be one if you stumble upon a previously untapped niche.
  • Or, it could be four or five until you discover a select few.

Establish Yourself Online

Most illustrators prefer to stay behind the scenes. They concoct visual masterpieces in “secrecy.” However, as an aspiring freelancer, it’s time to push your modesty aside and brag about your artistic prowess. The best way to do that is with an online portfolio showcasing your best work, preferably in your chosen niches. Here’s an overview of the top three portfolio sites for rising illustrators:


Behance is an offshoot of Adobe, with over ten million users, and the perfect place to showcase your artistic talents. Here, potential clients and art directors can search for art by category (i.e., 3D art, illustration) to find an illustrator for their upcoming projects. Behance also has a regularly updated job board that’s full of opportunities.


Wix is a simplistic (and free) website builder famous within the community, including artists, photographers, and illustrators. You can buy a domain name with a completely customized website built with Wix. Flesh out your business’s branding and lure in would-be clients. Wix will also turn you into a marketing fiend with its lead-generating features and on-site contact forms.


Dribbble (with three Bs) is a “self-promotion” platform for artists specializing in animation, typography, print, and everything. On top of sharing your illustrations with millions of other users, this digital tool also boasts an active freelance job board and an option to open a shop. Dribbble offers online courses for novice illustrators to fine-tune their craft.

Pro tip: Add watermarks or your logo to all content in your portfolio to prevent others from taking credit for your work!

Search for Freelance Illustrator Jobs – Become a Freelance Illustrator

With your business set up, a niche is chosen, and a glowing portfolio, you’re finally ready to apply for freelance illustrator jobs. Now, to be clear:

  • Becoming a “freelancer” isn’t necessarily the polar opposite of being a regular employee. For example, many businesses hire freelance illustrators on popular job websites like LinkedIn and Monster.

So let’s briefly talk about where else to find your first freelancer gig.

Freelance Job Boards – Freelance Illustrator

There are reasons freelance illustrators (and any freelancer) flock to freelance job boards. They work! Online platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, Freelancer.com, and Dribbble allow you, as an artist, to create a profile. It could include samples of your work, areas of expertise, and a professional resume. Then, you can apply to whichever job postings pique your interest and fit your rates and schedule.

Reach Out to Local Businesses

Sure, the glory of freelance work is in its flexibility. Never underestimate the power of staying in town! Local businesses are a great way to build your portfolio and reach new clients. If you “wow” those clients, the word will eventually spread. Contact your favorite local businesses, authors, bands, manufacturers, news stations, or website owners by sending brochures or dropping off a business card hyping your illustration services.

Market Your Freelance Illustration Services – Become a Freelance Illustrator

Securing your first-ever freelance illustration client will pack an ego boost. Art is your #1 passion. Unfortunately, full-time freelancing is now your sole source of income. You must split your time between producing art for clients and marketing your business. Keep the profits flowing. Here’s how.

Give Online Ads a Go

Nearly half of all advertising in 2020 came from the Internet. Build your online presence with pay-per-click advertisements. targeting keywords like “character design illustrator.” Social media ads entice potential clients to click. Give each tactic its spin. Target a specific illustration niche to reach a narrower audience. You could offer them something of value, like an informative blog post or free vectors to download.

Build a Social Media Following

One of the best ways to sell yourself as a freelance illustrator is to show rather than tell.

  • The obvious first step is building a presence on social media platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, VSCO, and Behance.
  • Dial down the sales pressure.
  • Show off your newest creations and engage with your followers!

Of course, not all your followers are in the market to hire an illustrator. You may draw in clients if they share your posts or tag a friend.

Become a Local Name

Make it a point to talk about yourself and what you do. Reach out to local businesses, hang up flyers, wear T-shirts boasting one of your custom designs (with your Instagram handle), send mailers to every store at nearby strip malls, or offer your services for a big-name charity event. Everybody you speak to should know that you’re a freelance illustrator!

Ask for Referrals

It’s not unusual for new clients to be wary when hiring an illustrator. So, that’s where past clients moonlight as your sales team. Asking clients for referrals is one of the most productive ways to build your base with automatic built-in trust. Their friend (your current client) recommends you trust them.

Why shouldn’t they? In return, you can offer a discount on their next project with you or a commission for every new client they bring your way. In a few short years, your entire client base could be referrals. You can be more selective about which clients you take. Justify raising your rates.

Conclusion – Become a Freelance Illustrator

Becoming a self-employed or freelance illustrator can signal a huge career change. Yet, if you already have natural talent, the most significant hurdles will be setting up your business and generating leads. This guide should prove helpful in building your new career with success!

And with Selfgood by your side, you can have the resources. Learn more about Selfgood here!