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Submitted on
July 21, 2012
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Five Tips to Starting Freelancing

Journal Entry: Sat Jul 21, 2012, 8:04 PM
So, you're tired of being unemployed.  You've been stuck at home for the umpteenth month in a row, a new season of The Legend of Korra is still a year off, and your government support checks (should you be lucky to still be getting them) won't even come close to affording you a bus ticket to Everfree Northwest.  Your evaluation of life is the same dissertation of tedium and monotony as Helen Keller's review of Chinese Democracy.

You know, pretty much on par with every other review of Chinese Democracy.

But know what?  If you can't find a job, you'll make a job!  Screw finding work, and screw the employers who keep dismissing your applications for being "over qualified" like that Bachelors of Science in Graphic Design is as detrimental to your character as being a registered felon.  Screw them and that stupid help wanted sign at Quiznos.  Now you're freelancing, baby.

While I'm assuming you're already good enough and networked enough to get little nibbles here and there, it cannot be emphasized enough that the best way to drum up interest in getting freelance work is to be communicative with other artists and show off as much work as you can.  Always keep practicing, stick to your art, and frequently post new stuff.  While acquiring a freelance gig is a bit of a complicated matter of its own, the manners of getting it are pretty well documented.  Visit forums dedicated to small art jobs.  Draw what's popular and siphon interest from an existing fanbase.


But once you've secured that first freelance job, you'll quickly come to find that the hard part hasn't even come yet.  Because now comes the challenge of actually getting it done.  Yeah, here seems to be an appropriate spot for the title.

- - - = = FIVE TIPS = = - - -


You're working from home now!  Hooray!  No bosses or supervisors to hold you to task for anything!  Now you get to stay up as late as you want, sleep in as late as you want, take as many breaks as you can, and hey, just as long as you get a good six to eight hours a day in, you'll be flying pretty and living the high life!  Right?

The unfortunate truth with freelancing and working from home is simply this.  You're still working.  Just because you stripped away the office confines and have replaced it with a more traditional residential ecosystem doesn't take away the necessary obligations you're still held to.

As a freelancer, you'll still have to deal with deadlines.  You'll have to deal with clients.  And when you're dealing with clients, they are your bosses.  And you will be working with many bosses.  Think you're your own boss?  Think again.

The human animal is highly accustomed to "The Routine."  If we break that routine, we blow our productive homeostasis.  Something as simple as waking up one hour later can demolish our ability to be creative, simply because we're subjecting our bodies to a subtle change in "The Routine."  As creatures highly conditioned to recognizing and adapting to change, humans have difficulty sticking to "The Routine" if "The Routine" gets hit with seemingly trivial alterations.

You were productive and punctual at your last job, right?  You wore the uniform, dressed the part, arrived on time sober and wearing pants, are you really so opposed to punctuality that transitioning to working from home will coax you to stop such a practice?  Don't be unprofessional.  You're working from home, yes, but you're still working.

Shower, dammit.

You'll find that starting your day of freelancing in a manner identical to starting your day at the office will keep your body in tune with "The Routine," and make it so much easier to just wake up and get productive.  Sure, it's all in your head.  "The routine" is all in your head.  But you know what else is all in your head?  That fantastic creativity and artistry of your's.  I certainly don't see you throwing that away.

Dress nice, smell good, wake up early, treat your workspace as you would your own office environment, and keep clear of distractions.  Granted, a tiring day of constant drawing takes a lot out of you.  But the feeling afterward isn't nearly as bad as the "God I did absolutely nothing all day today when I was supposed to" sensation.  After all, you've been unemployed for all those previous months.  I'm sure you're quite sick and tired of the "I did nothing all day" sensation by now anyway.

Break time's over.  I don't care if nobody's around, put some damn pants on.


Face it.  You don't know how much you can do.  You think you know, but the truth is, you don't.  Every commission you receive is a new experience, a new series of things you must learn, and a new array of benchmarks you must achieve first.

It's admirable if you want to get started straight away at being the fastest, most highly detailed, intricate artist in the universe.  Better to aim high and miss than aim low and hit, right?  Of course.  Pride and ambition are fantastic qualities in young artists.

However, when you make the brave step into doing commissioned artwork, remember that you're no longer up against your own ambition or desires that you must achieve.  There's now a second person in the mix.  Your client.  And as you've taken a brave step yourself, they're taking quite a brave step trusting you with their money.  So don't let them down.

When starting out, do something that you know very well you can do and have done.  There's nothing wrong with starting small.  It would be a shame to go through all the work to elevate to an artistic caliber where you could even humor the crazy idea of selling your talent...only to crash and burn out right out of the starting gate.

Think it'll only take you a few hours to do an image?  That's cute.  Give yourself a week.  "But Daaave," you protest while sipping a venti light vanilla latte with no whip, "It's just a silly little logo design, how hard can it be?"

You'll be amazed at how easy it is to bite off more than you can chew.  So make for darned sure you give time frames that are reasonable not just for your client but more importantly for yourself.  Start small, give yourself a crazy amount of time to do it, and if you just so happen to get it done six days and twenty-two hours ahead of schedule, then imagine how pleasantly surprised your client is going to be!

Listen.  The last thing you want to do is be hit with too much work.  And I know what you're thinking.  "Dave, you horrible ambivalent weenie," to which you wave a boot angrily over your head.  "How dare you complain about having TOO MUCH WORK when the jobs economy is flatlining harder than the third season of Mind of Mencia!"

Cleverly noted, you dapper illustrious bastion of the common man's plight.  It's perfectly natural to throw up in your mouth to hear some bloke in this economy advising against accepting a lot of work.  I hear you.  But as much as our current reality sucks with economy, reality also has quite the penchant to suck when it comes to our creative capacities as well.

Hear this.

Maybe starting out small will only get you partially up to your desired production rate.  But starting out already overwhelmed and bogged down will, guaranteed, completely stop you immediately.  You'll lose the desire to work.  You'll hate doing freelance work.  You'll miss deadlines, lose sleep, fall behind, and worst of all, get a bad reputation from the person who hired you.

Oh, they talk.  Yes, they definitely do talk.  Your clients will make everyone else know if you took on way too much and will safeguard their fellow potential clients to seek commissions elsewhere.

Don't risk it.  Start small.  Build up gradually.  Make sure you never cross that line into getting overwhelmed.  Give yourself tons of extra time to anticipate any unforseen events like PC crashes, illness, or emergencies.  And most importantly, allow yourself some time off, too.  Like a car, you can't start the engine if you flood the...umm...accelerator thingy with the, err, uhhh gas pipe flowey bit-look I'm an artist not a mechanic, but just imagine a coherent metaphor of sorts here.  You do too much, you're going to have a bad time.


You don't have a secretary.  There probably isn't a director handling the workload above you.  You can't afford an accountant.  And if you mess up managing a commission, you certainly can't afford a lawyer either to protect yourself.  As a freelance artist, you are predominately on your own, and as your own separate entity, you must remember that it falls upon you to manage and maintain the commission given to you.

Worst part about being your own boss?  You still have to act like a jerk boss.

First off, data keeping.  Hope you have some experience with that, otherwise you'll have a lot to learn in a frighteningly short period of time.  Put forth that extra effort to properly organize all the work you're doing.  Create folders that are organized by the year you do a commission, and then folders for each month within.  Then, create a folder for each commission you do that month.  Inside of that folder, create YET ANOTHER folder for references and specific directions from the client.  Include a text copy of every Email sent between you with time stamps.  Keeping track of Emails in an offline file is a great safeguard to protect both of you should a disagreement arise.  It's also way easier to refer to that file than go sifting through the piles of other Emails and commission-related messages occupying that bulging inbox.

Then keep a text document that tracks that commission's progress.  Have you received the instructions and references?  Is it paid for in full?  Have you only received the first half of payment?  Did the payment go through?  On what day did you receive payment?  Keep track of every facet of the commission's development, particularly the financial information so your client doesn't pay you less than the agreed amount (or worse, if you lose track and accidentally charge them twice).  Handling finances is a dirty, icky feeling, and nothing can ruin a business relationship faster than mismanaging the financial stuff.  Just because you're one of those "we'll handle the payment later, no pressure" kinds of people (bless you for your patience by the way) doesn't mean you're also lax on keeping tabs on it.

Secondly, you're also in charge of data storage and supply. When working on your commission, don't just save frequently.  Save multiple copies.  Save on both your internal and external hard disk drives.  If you do not yet have an external HDD, go buy one right now.  And if you don't have a backup external HDD, you'd do well to have that on hand as well.  For myself, I save my image across three different files.  That way, if I make a gigantic error that I cannot undo that just ruins the file I'm laboring on, I don't have to start over; I just grab one of the two backups.  Maybe it'll put me back ten, fifteen minutes.  But I'd rather that than lose an entire afternoon.

Lastly, manage your time.  Keep a planner of stuff you want to get done today, and don't forget to include planned time off as well.  And yes, plan time off.  Don't assume you're mister crazy awesome-pants artist guy, because you're not.  If you keep your time intact, you'll realize you'll find more days to spend on yourself, and that your productivity will soar when you remember to unwind every now and then.


This is by far the largest and most prominent crime committed against freelance artists.  It's absolutely disgusting to see some people even attempt to get away with this.  I get these offers all the time, and these offers always, ALWAYS, get immediately deleted.  I don't keep track of them, I don't respond, and I immediately purge it from my memory.

Working for free, expecting royalties as compensation.

To a new freelance artist, the opportunity sounds amazing.  What if you're the guy who creates the next Batman?  Imagine, having a promised twenty percent stake in the whole franchise?  Do this with enough stuff, and inevitably you'll land upon a runaway success that brings freight trains of gold straight to your doorstep, right?

Every artist makes this mistake at least once.  I did it.  You probably did it.  Every big name artist I know has done this.  They've worked for free on something that wasn't guaranteed to earn revenue, and paid dearly for it.  Luckily for me, it was just a week's work, but I know people who contributed to projects for several months and haven't gotten a single check out of it.

This is why "royalties as compensation" doesn't work, and why any aspiring producer should be publicly shamed and immediately IP Blocked from all job boards should they be so insulting to the craft as to suggest it a valid means of payment.

Say for example I were to agree to a 10% cut of a comic.  Or 20%.  Heck, let's make them super generous, I get 80% of net profits on a comic.  I could make up any percentage I want, actually, and I'll still get the same amount in the end.


Here's how.  I complete the comic.  Let's even give these guys some credit.  It doesn't immediately crash and burn in sales like 95% of all unfunded ventures go.  Let's glance over the fact they were unprofessional enough to resort to "royalties as compensation" which implies a lack of professionalism regarding other matters like advertising and distribution.  Forget all that, they defy all laws of physics and their comic sells an impressive 2,000 issues at five bucks apiece over the course of three months, meaning a gross income of $10,000 in a single fiscal quarter.

Awesome job!  80% of that would land me $8,000!  Right?  Told you these dapper blokes were generous at 80%!  But how generous are they really?

Economics lesson, kids.  Take a seat, because this joke gets pretty funny.  Let's say that they printed a total of 3,000 issues.  Printing cost for that would run about $4,000.  Therefore, the $10,000 gross you made is now $6,000.  Still, 80% of that is $4800 just for you, still not bad for an 80% cut (did I emphasize how unrealistically generous these guys are?  I know, right!).

Now let's talk about how they sold all those copies.  Like most independent sellers, they got their money through conventions.  Over the course of three months, they could attend up to six different comic conventions.  Boothing at each one runs about $500, so that's $3,000 when divied up between six conventions.  Oh, did I mention that with "royalties on net profits," business expenses like attending conventions to sell product cut into your own chunk of money you're owed?  Should've clarified that earlier.  Because now you realize, they're not paying you a whole lot at this point.  In fact, the work you did on that book, the money you're supposed to be receiving, is now being used to pay for its printing and distribution.

Let's also not forget, these guys are seasoned comic distributors seeing as they're going to so many conventions.  So they also know to write off everything else as a business expense.  Now your "royalties on net profits" are going towards paying their gas.  You're now paying their lodging.  You're paying for their food.  You're paying for the late night binge kareoke session they got hopelessly sloshed at after picking up two underage Adventure Time cosplayers at the adjascent Burger King.

And when all is said and done, guess what.  There are no net profits left.  You get 80% of zero.  In fact, they're probably in the hole at this point.  Technically, as 80% shareholder of the venture, you owe THEM money to make up how far into the red they went after blacking out and regaining consciousness nine hours later covered in a pile of Monster High merchandise in aisle seven of a Walmart eighty-nine miles south in Fullerton California.

Oh, when I said earlier that this joke gets funnier?  I lied.  There is no punchline, actually.  It's just one gigantic tragedy, like some glorious opening sequence to The Final Destination except it's not happening to people we're championing gratuitous misfortune upon.

Compensation via royalties is an absolute sham, a dingy scheme to swindle well-meaning hard-working artists into giving them product they can peddle unto others to satiate their own ravenous appetite for raucous parties and free trips to see the voice cast of Futurama.

And worst of all, I wish I thought of it first.  Crafty jerks.


Protip: If you don't value your time...nobody will.

I knew an awesome character artist.  She was in high school, loved what she did, and certainly had an amazing talent in regards to imagination, creativity, color theory, and manifesting the emotional attributes of a character in their physical attire.  She was amazing.

Then, she opened herself up for commissions.  I will draw your character.  I will make you comics.  I will give you full poster resolution scenes.  And I will do it for between $2 and $5.

She means well, she really does.  What she doesn't realize was she took my workhorse, and clipped off its legs with a pair of garden shears.

There are a lot of professional artists out there who make their living solely through the generous patronage of others.  They have to make their own prices, and they have to find the right balance between something that's agreeable to a casual audience (we know you're not a super corporation like Fox or Disney, so we'll charge a reasonable faire), and something we can still live off of.  We need to pay bills, pay for gas, pay for food, and if the wallet permits, stake a claim in the latest Steam sale.

Hey.  Priorities, man.

But when a young girl who still lives with her parents and aspires to venture down other professional avenues opens up her invaluable talent at a rate that sinks the rest of us, problems arise.  Again, she didn't mean any harm in it, but harm is exactly what she did.  She single-handedly dropped the pay grade curve a few notches forcing professional artists in her circle to adjust their prices accordingly.

Think from a producer's standpoint.  They want great work at a cheap price.  This girl was their golden goose.  Screw the rest of us, they go to her.  She gets all the work, we get lots of days off instead.

Sure, it works for her, because she doesn't suffer any major consequences in working borderline for free.  But on the same token, she wouldn't be much worse off if she did work for free.  Producers also prefer to purchase their work, and will usually insist on a price if "free" is the only answer they get, even though labor laws demand at least some compensation of sorts.  And ya know, she'd be hugely surprised to see a handsome check grace her PayPal account that she never even expected in the first place!

The point is, we freelance artists have to stand together and work together.  We have to compare our own rates amongst eachother, and try to be as consistent as possible.  Otherwise, we throw off our own economy, we force a lot of artists out so they can find a more stable economic engine, the talent pool thins out, we get crappier artwork in the long run, and the producers suddenly get this new luxurious power where they can get all the artwork they want for criminally low prices.

Don't enable them.

Charge a real price.  Or don't charge at all.

Add a Comment:
ll-Corah-Sage-ll Featured By Owner Dec 24, 2013  Student Digital Artist
this needs to be a DD
Vexcel Featured By Owner Jun 1, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Love your journals!
Carnie-Vorex Featured By Owner Apr 13, 2013
This is a very useful article, and besides, I like the language :) But there's still a lot to learn for someone who doesn't even know the average prices, and where that information could be acquired.
thierryclan14 Featured By Owner Oct 28, 2012  Professional Digital Artist
This, i agree wholeheartedly.
ScatteredAshe Featured By Owner Oct 26, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you for this outstanding and illuminating article!
ricardoredway Featured By Owner Sep 16, 2012
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