7 Tips for Starting a Business as an Illustrator

Sometimes I declare that I won’t do something, and then immediately after I go and do exactly that thing. Like this morning, when someone asked if I could make a video on the business part of illustration, I said:“I hope not to disappoint you, but there is no easy ‘here are the 7 steps to start a business as an illustrator’ type tips.”

But then I had to write something on this blog. So, here are 7 tips to start a business as an illustrator. Fair warning, though: I don’t believe there are shortcuts to being an artist for a living. There’s that whole tricky part of being an artist first, which is kind of a prerequisite. It’s more than a prerequisite though: it’s everything. The business part is just a logical way to justify illustrating more!

The creative industry, including illustration and design, is a highly sought-after job market. Of design and illustration, illustration is more specialized, and by nature, more competitive: jobs are more scarce. Design, on the other hand, is a more open field. Design is highly practical and applicable to almost every industry and market. There are far more opportunities to work and get paid as a designer. Meanwhile, illustrators must work with designers on most projects. When we know our way around the language of design, we become better collaborators with our clients and art directors. There are all kinds of benefits to studying design alongside (or before) illustration. Of the most notable is understanding typography. Typography is not only about knowing how to choose and use type (fonts), but also in how to arrange visual elements in a hierarchy. Illustration is at its core a very specialized kind of design—the design of images. Illustrators who understand design in this way are able to express ideas in more powerful ways. But on the business side of things, as mentioned, you’re just more likely to find work as a designer first. Chances are, as a designer, you’ll need to hire an illustrator sometimes. How convenient is it that you happen to also be an illustrator yourself?

This should not come as a surprise. In order to learn how to work for other people as an illustrator, someone’s going to have to go first: they’re going to have to be your guinea pig. Personally, I wouldn’t pay someone who’s just learning to illustrate to work on an important job. More to the point: I wouldn’t trust them to do it right. However, maybe, as a client, I would have some less pressing illustration-related jobs that need to get done, and I am patient enough to provide the level of guidance a new illustrator might need. The advantage for you, the illustrator, of course, is that you start to get a feel for making art for someone besides yourself or your teachers. You start to see what others think of your work, and how your work does or does not seem to meet “business” expectations. What you will learn is highly valuable and translates to real world experience. You may even end up with some work for your portfolio. Both working as a designer (see first point) and working for free (perhaps for a friend’s band or an aunt’s small business) is one of the only ways you will be able to build up real world work examples at first.

One of the most sure-fire ways to launch an illustration career is to start with a real job. This ties back to being a designer first. If you can work as a designer at a company or agency, you will learn far more than you could ever learn on your own—and you will learn much faster too. As a designer with a company, you get a front row seat to so much of what happens behind closed doors.

I studied design and so of course my first work experience out of school was as a designer. I don’t know if I could have become a freelance illustrator, or even a freelance designer for that matter, without this valuable experience. While I had some creative chops, I had very little experience working through big design projects and working with and presenting to clients (often far larger companies than I could have dreamed of landing on my own). I even learned more mundane things like how to organize project files on my computer.

My family is about to get some backyard chickens. So far I have learned that you usually buy hens as chicks, just a week or two after they hatch. While they are already out of the egg, walking about, they have a ways to go before they can survive in the backyard. For a few weeks we have to keep them in a brooder, a sort of cage you keep indoors with a heat lamp and bedding. Maybe we could just put the chicks outside, cross our fingers, and hope they survive. But they’ll have a much better shot at surviving out there if they spend some time in the brooder as they literally grow their wings.

Similarly, starting out as a freelance illustrator is going to be much tougher than going the route of first working as an employee. Even if you’re not a designer, you can still learn so much about the corporate world just by being in it yourself for a while. Whether you work as an admin assistant, a junior designer, a support technician, or a car salesperson, by working with and even under others, you gain valuable insights that would be impossible to find on your own.

If you’re going to do business as an illustrator, you’re going to have to sell your art. Fortunately, for illustrators, it looks a lot different than, say, selling a used car. Fortunately, because we don’t have to sell anything that’s already made and just taking up space. Unfortunately, for pretty much the same reason: we don’t have anything tangible to sell. By the time we actually create final art for our clients, the selling should have already been done. At first, we are selling our ideas, explaining in just the right way what they are and how they address the client’s expressed actual needs. Later on, we are simply presenting the final execution of the idea. We are not selling—building up expectations—at this point, we are delivering on those expectations.

So how do you present ideas to clients? Or when? In short, you present your first ideas as soon as you have them—provided they are well-thought out. You present them as sketches in a well-designed deck, or presentation PDF. You don’t present too many ideas: maybe 2 or 3 per illustration at most. All your ideas are ones you have thought through carefully and know you can (and want to) deliver on. Never present an idea you are uncertain about, and certainly never one you don’t like. Include a quick description but don’t write a novel about your ideas. Your sketches should say almost everything there is to know in terms of concept, content and composition. The description just drives the point home.

This is a much larger can of worms though. Fortunately, I have written an entire post about this.

Networking is a gross word. I prefer to call it making friends. And it’s not just a turn of phrase: making friends implies a two-way relationship, whereas networking has a one-sided feeling to it. “I’m meeting you to further my own business goals”, it seems to say. Making friends, on the other hand, is more like saying, “You and I both seem to have this one thing in common. Let’s connect over it sometime!”. Making friends is about truly connecting with people out of curiosity and shared interest. Whether it materializes into business opportunities later on is very secondary. Paradoxically, when you make friends in the industry, without expecting leverage, these are the relationships that will most likely lead to meaningful work later on.

How do you make friends in the industry? By showing interest, but supporting those you’d like to connect with, following their social media. Invite them out for coffee if that seems like a possibility. When I was a new designer looking to make connections in a new city, I made a point of connecting with creative directors and art directors at agencies I admired by email, and asking if they’d ever have me over for a tour. Of course, I used this as an opportunity to casually share my career goals, and more importantly, my portfolio. This happened so many times I can’t even remember how many people I met this way. What I do remember is that, because I was not just a resume or a postcard on a stack of paper on their desk, I stood out. Years later, and even to this day, folks I made friends with then still reach out to me to illustrate for them.

If you want to stay in business as an illustrator, you are going to need to find a way of pricing your work. This is a huge pain point for almost all illustrators, both new and seasoned ones. There is no gold standard for how to price work. An illustration of the same size and general function could go for $200 or $200,000 depending on the artist, their reputation, their experience, and their talent.

When I was starting out as a freelancer, of course, having a pricing strategy was crucial. While some of the illustration projects that came to me had a budget, I often had to send quotes. When clients gave me their budgets, that made things a lot easier, most of the time. But sometimes I had to wonder whether it was really as good of value as I thought. Either way, it became important to know the value of my work, independently.

Here’s what worked for me: I knew I had to make a living making my art, so I always had to make sure that, at the end of the year, my earnings reflected the kind of salary I wanted to earn. So I did what most freelancers have to do and worked out a based hourly rate. Then, when projects came in, I could simply multiply that by how much time I thought the project should take, and get a ballpark estimate of the minimum value of the work.

While I don’t illustrate on an hourly rate, like I said, this number at least helps me give a minimum value to my art. Let’s just say my hourly rate is $100. And let’s say I receive an editorial illustration commission with a $500 budget. Right away I know I need to complete the entire job in 5 hours in order to stay on budget. But maybe I think this job will take me 20 hours. That means at this rate I’m only earning $25 an hour. I can then ask up or say no thank you. Depending on the client and the job, $2000 might be too high. But I can at least know I’m not being greedy to ask for a bit more, say $800.

Since those early days, I have also learned to price my work based on usage and value to the client, not just on a hidden hourly rate and estimate of time. While this is a much more complex subject, I can say that most of what I know about value-based pricing originates in the book, The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook. Anyone who wants to go beyond simple hourly rate based pricing should get themselves a copy—and read it!

For this tip, I was going to say “Always keep working”, but you already know this. Illustrating for a living takes a lot of work, a lot of entrepreneurship, a lot of just showing up, especially at first. This is related, but more important than just working hard is keeping an open mind to what you consider work. While it would be lovely if we got to illustrate for illustration clients all the time, the truth is there is often a lot of time between jobs. Meanwhile we need to earn a living. That means we need to accept work that comes to us even if it’s not sexy. It doesn’t mean you have to show the world what you’re working on. Maybe you are designer hoping to transition to full-time illustration. Chances are you will still get more design jobs at first. Take on whatever you need to, and as much as possible, try to use each job as an opportunity to illustrate. Pitch illustration as part of your concepts. Or maybe you are a full time illustrator but not getting full time work: why not create a class for Skillshare or Udemy? Or make products for an Etsy shop? Your chances of earning much at any of these may not be that high (at first), but these illustration-related ventures can blossom into huge opportunities later. While you’re waiting for that juicy illustration business, you don’t need to sit idle. Always be working, no matter what. If you’re anxious about making ends meet or succeeding in the way you hope, you can channel that nervous energy into getting things done elsewhere. If you’ve ever wondered how busy illustrators seem to have time making content for Instagram, YouTube, their blogs, or selling products for their shop, they don’t. Or put another way, they have lots of time between actual jobs, but they don’t sit still while they wait. Being open-minded means seeing opportunities everywhere, even when they seem to be utterly absent. One thing I think illustrators need to embrace is that we are small businesses. We are entrepreneurs. It is not only our job to make art, but to find new ways to define our art.

If you want to hear my fuller thoughts on the business side of things, please check out my YouTube video series, How to Become an Illustrator for a Living. So far I’ve been talking about how to just start the artist part, but everything is connected. . Eventually I will get more into the business side of things. Today is just a teaser!

Illustrator. Creatively Empowering Teacher/Speaker. Represented by Making Pictures/UK & Dot Array/USA. Top Teacher on @skillshare. www.tomfroese.com/links