Finding work as an illustrator can seem daunting when you're first getting started. However, expert illustrators and the companies that hire them have told us there's plenty of work available, and many companies are willing to work with someone new. There's a market for you right now if you want to learn how to start as a freelance illustrator.
While every company and project will want to look at your portfolio, some other actions and intricacies can help you land your first project or those elusive, larger clients. So, here are 10 of the best freelance illustrator tips to jumpstart your career.
1. Set aside time for running your business
Experts say it's important to remember that this career involves you running a business. There’s more to it than just creating excellent illustrations. Make room for all those extra things that need to be done.
"Going freelance can be a big leap, especially for people who are used to a more structured environment," says Gilam Rom, founder of Huan. "A freelance lifestyle offers freedom, but you also need to be disciplined. It's important to set a schedule that includes pitching clients and working on personal projects to build your portfolio."
Giving yourself dedicated time each week or month for project management, administrative tasks, talking to clients, and finding new illustration jobs can prevent you from getting overwhelmed or having to work late into the night to finish these and your projects.
2. Learn and explain your total value
Potential clients know that they want an illustrator for a specific project or task. However, expert illustrators and clients say that people often don't understand what illustrators can offer beyond an image.
So, one of the best tips for starting as a freelance illustrator is to examine where you can help a partner and how you can add value. There may be additional services you can offer. Look at best practices around using images online that you can help clients with, such as how high-quality images can improve e-commerce sales or improve SEO by keeping people on a website longer.
"I want to share the simple trick my illustrator used on me to get over $8,000 in orders to date. The trick: explain the value of your services," says Michael Dean, co-founder at Pool Research. "Here's what my hire did. When we talked on Upwork, he listed all the ways he could help me and make my website better for users. Until that point, I hadn't even considered the value of an illustrator's work. I just thought of graphics as something I needed to have, and what I preferred to save. If you can do this for your prospects (once you have their ear), you're likely to increase your own business too."
3. Turn your expertise into an extra offer
It's tempting to give away free work early on, but our expert freelancers say resist that temptation. Instead, turn it into a valuable addition to your project or the scope of work. You want to be seen as a beneficial option, not a cheap option.
"When you send a pitch or proposal to a client or project you want, always, always add in some additional value for the client beyond the scope of work they're looking for, and include it at no extra cost to them. You don't have to give away work for free. The 'free' aspect is covered in the price you pitch for the main work," says freelancer and business coach Chelsea Baldwin.
"This works even if you're more expensive than everyone else because the client sees your willingness to show up and help them be successful beyond just being a hired pen to draw pretty designs. The fact that you add it on as a bonus for 'free' really makes them appreciate you and see that you're the kind of illustrator they can't find just anywhere."
4. Find a niche and specialize
After you assess what you can offer to potential clients—both your general design capabilities and those extra offers—narrow your focus to what you like to illustrate and where you shine. Targeting your efforts to a specific niche or industry helps you build a portfolio that speaks to your audience. Generally speaking, companies want to see work that looks similar to what they want for themselves.
"Find a niche and specialize," says Reuben Yonatan, CEO of GetVoIP. The company has worked with freelance illustrators several times to build and improve its website user interface. "An illustrator can work in various industries—from fashion design and magazines to medical journals and websites. When my business looks for illustrators, I try to find one who has worked with websites like mine before. It proves they have experience with the kind of work I desire. Being a general illustrator might open more opportunities, but it will lower a business leader's confidence in you. That reduces the chances of getting hired."
You can perform research on niches and start finding clients by simplifying your work process, starting with an Upwork account that lets you sort work by industry, job size, and more.
5. Get comfortable selling
It can be tempting to put your nose to the grindstone as a freelancer and focus on churning out work. However, to make that practical and ensure you have work to do, you'll need to sell yourself and promote your work. This can be difficult, especially in areas like illustration where much of the process can happen internally.
Read articles, listen to podcasts, and check out books. You want to find something that talks about the sales process that resonates with you. Match these to your situation, especially if you're one of the many people working from home.
"Get comfortable with the idea of promoting and selling your work," says Jennifer Willy, editor at Etia.com. "For many people, it can be uncomfortable and cringe-inducing, but you have to get over that insecurity. No one will come to know about your work if you don't show them that."
6. Find other creatives in your niche
Multiple experts told us to look at LinkedIn and Facebook for local and industry-specific freelance groups. Their users tend to ask for help when they need it and share leads or openings that they discover. You can increase your chance of landing a gig if another freelancer, such as a writer or web designer, makes an introduction to a client. Engaging in these spaces with other freelancers can help get you that introduction.
"As a freelancer, I often need help from designers and illustrators and would love to know more people in my network who I could count on," says Grace Baldwin, a freelancer and content marketer. "Make sure to network with other creative people in different disciplines, and you'll be surprised who may have work for you down the line."
7. Add context to portfolios and pitches
If you're using a service like Upwork to find potential clients, use the proposal process to explain your capabilities. Don't just show someone your final work. Tell them about the client's goals, the process you used, and how you worked together. Do this in text elements on a website portfolio as well.
"Context is important when showing illustration work," says Ian Sells, CEO of RebateKey. "I like to see how a client has used the freelancer's illustrations as part of the portfolio. It would be helpful to see a screenshot of a website, for example, with the illustrations present. Context helps me understand the possibilities of the illustration work."
8. Ask for testimonials and referrals
For some freelancers, early clients trickle in slowly. You might be able to win a few project bids based on an existing relationship or when a client wants to support a new freelancer. Freelancers can ensure that those early wins support long-term growth by asking for referrals and testimonials from any early client. If you've done volunteer illustration work or have had your illustrations featured anywhere, ask people from those opportunities for testimonials.
"Potential clients will want to know that you can do the work, but also that you can deliver it on time, and you are pleasant to work with. That can be demonstrated by your past clients," says Matt Bertram, CEO of EWR Digital. He says his company has both hired freelance illustrators and worked with them to build out their marketing.
"Reach out to anyone you've done work for in the past and ask them to give you a testimonial. You may find that people in the past have already given you positive feedback on your work, so all you need to do is ask their permission to turn it into a testimonial. Now you have your testimonials, feature them prominently on your online profiles to give potential clients confidence in your abilities."
9. Sharpen skills outside of work
Whether you're a novice or have been an illustrator for some time, you've likely developed your style of art. Sometimes, you may have to adapt that style to meet a customer's demands. It can be hard to develop this flexibility in your work without practice. Many experts said that the best way to explore new techniques and tools popular today is to take some time outside of billable projects.
"In your free time, hone your creative skill as well as your customer service skills by participating in a design competition platform like Crowdspring or 99 Designs," suggests Nicole Garcia, chief marketing officer at Mostcraft. "These are good places to experience design pitches from clients while in direct competition with other designers. This will give you an idea as to how well your creative process will fare in real life."
10. Do your best on any project you take
When you start landing clients, no matter where you start, do your best on each illustration and handle client communication as professionally as possible. Treating others the way you want to be treated can help you determine what types of clients and projects you like the most.
"Doing the best job possible within the budget, no matter how small the job, is a way of showing respect to the person you're working with," says R. Jean Cooke, owner and illustrator at Ornament and Interest. "Consider commissioned work as a form of collaboration between you and the client. Take a stand if you feel you must, but leave room to let the client surprise you."
How you handle early clients can set you up for long-term success.
Start your freelance illustrator career today
Freelance illustrator tips can help you learn the industry and prepare for clients, but you still need to make that first leap into building a profile and pitching for work. Make that process easier on yourself and minimize the need to code or do other outside work by signing up for Upwork, where you get access to a structured profile and a place to put work samples that are easier to share for client jobs.
Thankfully, the digital landscape has made it much easier to find work as an illustrator, and you've got many tools at your fingertips to master your skills and your business.