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How to Become a Freelance Illustrator

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Gigly team, Marketing at Gigly
Freelance illustrator

Illustrators use their artistic talents to bring captivating stories and brands to life through character design, product packaging, comic books, and every possibility in between.

Freelance illustrators enjoy the luxury of commissioning their own work and guiding their own careers.

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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Learn how to start a freelance business in your field:

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Establish Your Business Officially

Your inner circle and professional connections dub you an artist or illustrator.

But now, with a newfound freelance career brewing, it’s time to add a new title to your résumé: 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. 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 a brief overview of each business model to help you decide.

Sole Proprietorship

Freelance illustrators earning income on 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, if a disgruntled customer files a lawsuit or your business’s debt becomes unmanageable, you become liable.

LLC

An LLC (or limited liability company) comes with startup and filing fees, sometimes in the ballpark of a few hundred dollars. Yet, it’s the tax and legal benefits of LLCs that sell many freelancers on this business structure.

Not only does the IRS view you as your business come tax season (just like a sole proprietor), but LLCs also protect your personal assets. So your car, home, and other assets are safe in the face of business debts and lawsuits.

2. Handling the Legal Side

Next up is the legal side — ensuring that you’re playing by the government’s rules and you’re 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 (yes, there is a difference).

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’ll need to apply using your social security number (for sole proprietors) or an EIN (for LLCs) — which you can apply for 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 legally binding contract that requires both you and your client to hold up your respective ends of the deal: You producing the agreed-upon illustration(s) and them providing the negotiated payment.

Download an illustrator contract template, tailor it to your design business and each unique project, and 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, and 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 also auto-calculating your estimated quarterly taxes.

Business Accounts & Credit Cards

To make that even simpler, 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 personal 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 ol’ flat-fee versus hourly rate conundrum.

Truthfully, there’s no “gold standard” in the freelance illustrator world, and the choice often comes down to personal preference and the type of project.

If you know approximately how long it would take you to design a video game cover, greeting card, or character design, a per-project rate is a good call.

Otherwise, an hourly rate aligned with your experience level is a better option, especially 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, but don’t lowball your talent to secure just any old client.

Insurance for Freelancers

Last but not least, we’d recommend all freelance illustrators at least consider insurance — specifically professional liability and general liability coverage.

These policies will provide protection in the rare case you miss a deadline and cost a client revenue, accidentally infringe on a trademarked image, or somebody becomes hurt because of your illustrations.

Yes, investing in these policies will be another monthly expense to consider. However, not having them could cost you thousands — if not more — if the unexpected ultimately does happen.


Invest in Professional Illustrator Tools

Freelance illustrator professional tools

Whether it’s 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, drawing 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

Your passion for art led you to freelance illustration. But it’s excelling in one (or two or three) areas — sometimes called “niches” — within the vast world of illustration that’ll really wow potential clients.

That’s why we’ve made this next step a two-parter:

Decide on a Niche

Think back to all of 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. 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

(Not surprisingly, this list is only scratching the surface!)

How Many Niches Should You Choose?

The honest answer is:

As many as you can that clients are willing to hire you for and that you can put time and effort into perfecting.

That could be just one if you stumble upon a previously untapped niche. Or, it could be four or five until you discover a select few that earn you money and you truly feel are your calling.

Establish Yourself Online

Most illustrators prefer to stay behind the scenes, where they concoct visual masterpieces in “secrecy.” But, as an aspiring freelancer, it’s time to push your modesty to the side and (humbly) brag about your artistic prowess.

And, the best way to do that is with an online portfolio showcasing your best work thus far — preferably in your chosen niches.

Here’s an overview of the top three portfolio sites for rising illustrators:

Behance

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 full of opportunities.

Wix

Wix is a simplistic (and free) website builder popular within the artistic community, including artists, photographers, and illustrators.

With a completely customized website built with Wix, you can buy a domain name, 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

Dribbble (with three Bs) is a “self-promotion” platform for artists specializing in animation, typography, print, and everything in between.

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 fine-tuning 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

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With your business set up, a niche chosen, and a glowing portfolio, you’re finally ready to begin applying for freelance illustrator jobs.

Now, to be clear:

Becoming a “freelancer” isn’t necessarily the polar opposite of a regular employee. In fact, 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 gigs as a freelancer.

Freelance Job Boards

There’s a reason freelance illustrators (and any freelancer, for that matter) 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, which could include samples of your work, areas of expertise, and a professional résumé.

You can then 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 remoteness. But you should also 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, 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

Securing your first-ever freelance illustration client will pack a much-needed ego boost. But, while art is your #1 passion, becoming a full-time freelancer also means it’s now your sole source of income.

To keep the profits flowing, you’ll need to split your time between producing art for clients and marketing your business.

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 (such as those targeting keywords like “character design illustrator”) and social media ads that entice potential clients to click.

In other words, give each marketing tactic its own spin.

That could mean targeting a super-specific illustration niche to reach a narrower audience. Or you could offer them something of value like an informational blog post or free vectors to download.

Build a Social Media Following

In a purely visual industry, one of the best ways to sell yourself as a freelance illustrator is to show rather than tell.

Building a presence on image-based social media platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, VSCO, and Behance are obvious first steps. Dial down the sales pressure, show off your newest creations, and engage with your followers!

Not every one of your followers is in the market to hire an illustrator. But if they share your posts or tag a friend, that instantly boosts your odds of drawing in clients.

Become a Local Name

Simply put, 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 on it), 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

In an industry known for requiring upfront payment or deposits, it’s not unusual for new clients to be wary when taking a chance on an illustrator.

That’s where past clients moonlight as your sales team.

Asking clients for referrals is one of the most productive ways to build your client base with an automatic built-in trust. Their friend (your current client) recommending you trusts you — 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, meaning you can be more selective about which clients you take on while justifying raising your rates.


Conclusion

Becoming a self-employed (or freelance) illustrator can signal a huge career change. Yet, if you already have natural artistic talent, the biggest hurdles will be setting up your business and generating leads.

This guide should prove helpful in establishing your new career with success!

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