Creating a Sustainable Career out of Freelance Illustration Jobs

While working as a full-time freelance illustrator may not be as glamorous as you imagined, there are ways to make job-finding easier. 🕵🏻‍♀️

Creating a Sustainable Career out of Freelance Illustration Jobs

Creative people gravitate towards freelance careers because of the freedom they provide. We don’t work well with constraints, so the freedom to follow your passion, choose your projects, and structure your own time suits us. However, freedom does come with responsibility; in this case, it’s having to find (and land) high-paying freelance illustration jobs that sustain you.

As it does with all aspects of freelancing, creating and repeating processes is what takes the guesswork out of the equation. Once you create a structured plan of action, it streamlines the approach to all of your freelance illustration job searches.

Systems are what build consistency in freelance careers. Having a formalized method for freelance processes saves us time, stress, and uncertainty. System-making is so vital that we consider it a fundamental of freelancing!

To build the systems that create a sustainable foundation for your business, learning about yourself is the best place to start.

Start off by getting to know everything about your job. Define your skills, strengths, and interests. Find and understand the problem you want to help clients solve.

ask questions about yourself to freelance illustration jobs
Knowing the power of your work as an illustrator makes your pitch direct, simple, and persuasive.

Asking yourself these questions builds up your confidence. It will also make you well-versed and persuasive when you pitch. Creating a sketch of what you do and why will give clients a simple but strong reason to hire you for freelance illustration jobs.

What do illustrators do?

Defining the core purpose of your job as an illustrator is vital. It helps you understand what you should be doing, as well as clarifying for clients what you intend to do for them.

Illustrators combine art and design to create visual images that communicate a message or emotion. They use both manual and digital art skills to capture and convey ideas. That’s the textbook definition of an illustrator, but their real mission goes beyond that.

Illustrators are visual storytellers.

Illustrators create magnetic images that catch the audience’s attention and draw them into the subject matter. Their work gives meaning to the context, eliciting emotions and getting viewers invested in the topic.

Your job as an illustrator is to create images that add captivating and memorable elements to a client’s overall vision. Your work will increase the quality and originality of any project it’s used in – no matter the niche.

Here are some examples of freelance illustration work:

  • Book covers & illustrations (graphic novels, children’s books, etc.)
  • Medical illustration
  • Storyboard (films, TV series, books, commercials)
  • Fashion design (pattern making, clothing design)
  • Technical illustration (blueprints, product renderings, etc.)
  • Graphic design (logos, graphics, packaging, etc.)

This sample list shows only the most common industries; there are more niches to be discovered! However, you might be wondering why graphic design is on the list of online jobs for illustrators…

The difference between illustration and graphic design

Before you start sending out proposals to every gig that needs digital art, it’s important to note the difference between illustration and graphic design. Illustrators are more than capable of doing graphic design work, but it’s important to note that it has a different purpose.

Graphic design is mainly used commercially, or simply put, to sell something. It is meant to grab a buyer’s attention and communicate something with them instantly, either to reinforce brand ideals/style or push customers down a sales funnel.

Illustration is used most often in artistic domains (editorial, publishing, broadcast/film media, etc.) although it is increasingly used in commercial work as well. Illustration work conveys emotion and helps the viewer understand or relate to a concept.

apply to the freelance illustration jobs that fit your art style
This illustration conveys a feeling of nostalgia rather than a message. Inspiring a certain emotion in viewers makes the related content more powerful; that’s the job of illustration!

It’s not uncommon to take jobs in both illustration and graphic design, especially for freelancers. After all, the best way to ensure a sustainable flow of freelance illustration jobs is to diversify your sources.

For artistically versatile designers, accepting jobs in both graphic design and illustration can work out as a long-term solution.

Graphic designers and illustrators both rely on an artistic skill set but set out to accomplish different goals.

However, most designers tend to pivot to one area or the other after developing a unique style and gaining freelance experience. The benefits of choosing a niche are undeniable: it’s easier to grow your rates, get better freelance gigs, and be seen as an expert with a specialization.

What skills does an illustrator need?

Knowing why a client is seeking an illustrator will help you showcase the skills they’re looking for. It will also help you take stock of your own expertise and feel more confident.

The most common skills of an illustrator needs are:

  1. Drawing skills: Strong drawing and/or painting skills are a must-have for illustrators. Sharp command of their artistic skills enables them to bring their client’s visions to life accurately and reliably.
  2. Digital art skills: Whether you prefer to work manually or digitally on illustrations, eventually you’ll need to digitize your work. The most common software for freelance illustrations is literally called Adobe Illustrator; digital art skills are essentially tied to the job.
  3. A distinct artistic style: As an illustrator, your work’s aesthetic is your calling card. Creating a consistent style will make your work stand out; it also assures clients that you offer a creative solution by showing them what to expect.
  4. Creativity: This is indispensable in any creative industry! You’ll be hired for your ability to understand what a client wants and to use your creativity to bring that to life.
  5. Communication skills: To do a great job, you’ll need great communication. You need to ask questions, clarify answers, and stay in close contact with clients to manage and deliver on their expectations. Understanding client expectations can also inform your illustration process (a persuasive addition to freelance job pitches).

Understanding your role will strengthen your freelance pitches. Knowing what you’re good at and how it can serve your potential clients is exactly what clients want to hear. It creates trust and instills confidence that can lead to long-term client relationships – which the key to a sustainable job flow as a freelancer!

Articulating your skills and process is vital for getting clients to see you as an expert they need on their freelance illustration jobs.

Once you’ve got the bedrock skills you’ll need as an illustrator, it’s time to let your personality shine. Get to know yourself as an illustrator – and the freelance job market.

What’s more important for illustrators: niche or style?

In the freelance world, niches are a hot topic. In the illustration world, style is the more common buzzword. When you combine illustration and freelancing, it gets confusing. So, should freelance illustrators start by finding a niche or defining their style?

Freelance niches help designers define their business and focus on a certain industry or problem to be solved. This makes their efforts more successful as they’re targeting a smaller pool with a more specific offering. Niches make designers stand out amongst the crowd.

An illustrator’s style is their unifying aesthetic. Presenting a consistent body of work lends credibility and reliability to illustrators. It makes their work recognizable and it distinguishes them from others.

landing niche freelance illustration jobs
While painting murals is a possible niche for freelance illustrators, it’s more important to focus on developing your personal style first.

Niches and illustrative styles are both helpful in finding your ‘why,’ or professional mission. Having either will help clients understand your work and expertise.

For freelance illustrators specifically, however, developing a personal style should come before planting yourself in a niche.

Curating a distinctive aesthetic will help you to land freelance illustration jobs. When clients search for freelancers, they want a freelancer they can trust. Establishing a consistent style will show them your work is reliable – as well as worth a high rate.

With a consistent style, freelance illustrators don’t need a niche. Their work can be applied across many different industries, so choosing a niche would only be limiting the job pool. However, if you’re an established illustrator with a well-defined preference, niching yourself can also bring higher freelance rates and true joy for working on projects in that realm.

Income streams for freelance illustrators

To create a solid flow of incoming freelance illustration jobs when you’re just starting out, your sources should be diverse. Concentrating on building a main source of leads is important too, but that’s more efficient when you’ve established your niche and personal style. For newbies, it’s better to cast a wide net.

Creating multiple streams of income can also provide stability in the future. If one of your income streams starts to dwindle, you’ll have other sources ready to support you. For example, if your portfolio website’s SEO gets outranked and incoming leads decrease, you could add more digital illustrations to your webshop to cover the loss.

In the modern world, there is no one way to become a freelance illustrator. Find what works for you through these alternative ways to get paid as an illustrator.

income streams for freelance illustration jobs
Find what income streams work best for you according to your preferences.

Finding gigs & freelance illustration jobs

Working as a subcontractor on freelance illustration jobs is the most typical business model for freelance illustrators. You can find gigs either by creating a profile on freelancing websites or by directing leads to your own portfolio website.

Freelance illustrators like this model because it gives you control over your projects. There are thousands of design gigs posted online every day, which you can pick and choose from based on your plan for strategic growth.

Taking on many diverse gigs is also a transformative way to work. Freelance illustrators open to a variety of projects will grow and develop rapidly in their profession.

The key to creating a sustainable influx of freelance gigs is to create a system for proposal-sending so that it becomes a quick, simple process. For example, I love sending video proposals: quickly created but still a personalized approach.

Generating a stable influx of freelance jobs from your portfolio website takes more time than applying for them externally. However, perfecting your design portfolio will go a long way in proving your professional worth and your work’s value without sending a proposal.

Figuring out how to juggle artistic work with the formalities of freelancing can still be tough to learn, though. Why not enroll in a course for freelance designers and stay on top of the ball?

Getting commissioned as a freelance illustrator

Most illustrators choose their line of work because they’re creatives at heart. They’re always full of ideas – which is why offering a service on commission is a great choice financially and creatively.

If you’ve created a strong online profile or have a dedicated following, you can choose an illustrative service to offer on demand. You could draw portraits, do character design, or create the genre of illustrations you love to work on.

Make sure to take your time into account when creating prices. You don’t want to undersell yourself on what should be a fun side project!

Selling stock illustrations

For freelance illustrators looking for a passive stream of income, selling stock illustrations is a top choice. Instead of applying to freelance illustration jobs and being told what to draw, you can create what you want and sell your illustrations as downloadable products.

sell stock illustrations as a freelance illustrator
Here’s a great example of a high-selling stock illustration: timely, simple, and applicable in any industry.

There are numerous websites where you can sell stock illustrations. Some of them are geared toward higher-quality illustrations (and provide a higher payout), like Creative Market, iStock, Graphic River, and Patternbank. Payouts are smaller on popular stock websites like Shutterstock.

Selling stock illustrations is a great way to earn some extra income, as your work can be sold and re-sold while you work on other projects. Uploading your illustrations to stock websites also provides you professional exposure.

However, this passive business model isn’t reliable. Websites can be selective about approving illustrations to their platform. Sales can be slow and unpredictable. However, if you find yourself with time on your hands, sell your stock illustrations!

Opening a shop to sell your illustrations

Another way to passively earn income as a freelance illustrator is by opening a print-on-demand shop. Like selling stock illustrations, this income stream doesn’t take much work at all and can supplement your main source of income nicely.

All you need to do is upload your illustrations to a print-on-demand website and choose the products that you want to sell your art on. The hosting website handles everything else: orders, printing, shipping, customer service, etc.

Illustrators will earn around 10-20% of the price as a commission, but it varies from site to site. Look into Society6, RedBubble, and Threadless for more in-depth information.

This business model works great once you’ve built up a range of popular illustrations and it only takes time. It also doesn’t involve much hassle, unlike opening a full-service shop on Etsy, for example.

Hiring an agent as a freelance illustrator

Here’s a business model that works especially well for freelance illustrators: hiring an agent. You will need to pitch a developed style and a solid body of work to find an agent to represent you.

Once you find an agent, they’ll promote your work and help you find clients and freelance illustration jobs that suit you. They often have a database of high-paying clients, so working with an agent will get you access to great gigs.

Most agents work on a commission basis, though all agents are different! Some will help with client management and contracts, others may help you develop a more commercial style. Find an agent that supports your specific weak spots.

Agents can help accelerate your journey to your dream career, but only if you’ve already defined it. Get a clear vision of what you expect your agent to do and where you expect them to take your career so you’re sure it’s a beneficial arrangement.

If you’re still not sure about some of the odds and ends, check out the Design Clients on Demand Course. You’ll find all the information you need to build your freelance career from the ground up. There’s a community of like-minded professionals waiting to support you!

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