Being a freelancer is rough. Thing is? It doesn't have to be.
Take it from someone whose instinct is to try and do everything on her own: don't. Not only will you run the risk of burning yourself out prematurely, you can set yourself up for failure by missing important legal details or drastically underpricing. There are free and affordable resources out there that can take the sting out of the freelancing process. Pricing, marketing, state law, copyright, portfolio direction, you name it. You can't create a piece of art without tools, right? The same goes for running a successful business. Below are five resources I use on a weekly -- sometimes daily -- basis, useful for both experienced freelancers and budding professionals starting to dip their toes into the working world.
Without further ado:
Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing And Ethical Guidelines
Screw saving the best for last: this is a book you need on your shelf if you want to make good money on your art.
This is the commercial art Bible to end all commercial art Bibles. I was first introduced to this book a few years ago by an art peer/client (you know who you are!) and was instantly floored by how comprehensive it is. No detail is too small, no topic too specific. Graphic novelists, commercial illustrators, fashion designers, concept artists, animators...I don't have enough room to go into all the working artists that could benefit from this tome.
If you're intimidated by its page count, rest easy knowing the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook steers clear from being a stuffy compendium and keeps its language -- whether discussing fair pricing or exploring kill fees in a contract -- very accessible. The whole book feels like a patient teacher sitting by your side and walking you through a hurdle.
It doubles as a self-care book, to boot. You can't turn a page without being reminded of your value as a working artist.
The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing And Ethical Guidelines is consistent and organized in its layout, providing useful pricing spreadsheets that are separated based on experience, page percentage, geographical sales, etc. With a shelf life that'll last as long as your career does, give or take a few technological advances, there's no reason not to get it. The $45 price point on the home site can be a little steep, but you can find used and new copies on Amazon starting at under $25. Beware of shady sellers, as some reviewers have reported getting copies with missing pages. I got my book in pristine condition, I'm happy to say, and this is now one of my greatest treasures.
Hell, I even read it for fun.
To repeat: you can't do everything by yourself. This means both in the quiet of your home office and in your day-to-day interactions with peers or prospects.
Freelancing isn't straightforward, and that's by design. I won't speak for artists in other countries, but the United States is a workaholic culture that wants workers dependent on employers as much as possible. Right down to when you take a shit and when you can recover from a cold. As such, becoming your own business (or even just making a little side-income) can be an uphill battle. Should you do the 1040-ES or the 1090? Do you need a state license to sell physical goods? What about writing out an effective contract? The Freelancers Union gives you knowledge in bite-sized pieces to ensure you're up-to-date on law changes, ethical business practices and health insurance.
I'm a big fan of the Freelancers Union newsletter and have been subscribed for over a year, which uses appealing templates and straightforward copy to give you important information at a glance. They also discuss self-care, share opinion articles written by experienced freelancers and offer much-needed words of encouragement. It's a full package. Sign-up is free and their newsletter crops up several times per month. Check out their blog to get a taste of what you can learn.
Ed Gandia (High-Income Business Writing)
There are a lot of advice coaches out there. How do you sort out the pragmatic teachers from the out-of-touch gurus?
I checked this guy out based on an anecdote of the fourth recommendation on this list and wasn't disappointed: Ed Gandia is a copywriter with years of experience in business writing, with a fantastic site dedicated to helping today's freelance writers make more money. He runs a blog, podcast and newsletter filled with useful advice to help freelancers avoid what he calls the 'feast-or-famine cycle'. He's no snake oil salesman, either, and never promises to get you knocking out six-figures overnight. His demeanor is practical without being cold, and his sense of humor goes a long way in helping absorb new information.
Even if you're not a business writer: you can still learn a lot about self-promotion and smart financial habits for your illustration or design career here.
I always enjoy sitting down to one of his podcasts in the morning. His free newsletter is weekly and is chock full of tips he's gathered over the years, offering practical approaches on everything from daily self-promotion habits to overcoming self-doubt when contacting a prospect for the first time. Just one example: his method of dividing daily tasks into high-priority, medium-priority and low-priority (with estimated timeframes) has done a lot to chip away at my anxiety. I use this method every day (except for days off, of course) and finish 80% of my list on average. That's not bad from someone who used to be a serial procrastinator!
Attention, any and all black or mixed-race freelancers in the black community: here's a fantastic resource for you.
Getting specific with your hurdles is how you find answers. The one-size-fits-all approach does nothing but a disservice to your unique challenges and just ends up wasting your time. If you work with a chronic illness, then you need to find resources that tackle the intersection between class and accessibility. If you are trying to find work in a certain country as an expat, then you need to find resources that supplement that experience. Blackfreelance provides a plethora of concise, practical blog posts, resource lists and a newsletter to help you navigate building yourself as a freelance black professional.
Burnout, maintaining professional boundaries, defining a niche...you name it, it's been discussed. The advice provided here easily applies to several skillsets, since much of it focuses on a groundwork of shifting your mindset toward your work. Another example: I can happily thank Blackfreelance for convincing me to choose a niche, as I went the longest time convinced I had to be a jack-of-all-trades. In fact, the creator of the site was the one to recommend Ed Gandia up above!
Recent estimates are expecting to see freelancers making up the majority of the workforce in less than a decade, so now's the time to consider some side-income if you haven't already. You can find BlackFreelance over on Twitter or the website here.
Super Condensed Informational Zine: Portfolios, Websites, Pitching And Agents
If all of this is feeling a little overwhelming, particularly for those just starting out, look no further than this short-and-sweet zine by graphic novelist Shannon Wright. This is a nine-page .pdf that hashes out the basics of getting your work together and sending it out to the right people. Nice and easy!
While most of this (very on-point) advice on portfolios and websites is familiar to me, I still got some helpful tips on working with agents (a partnership I'm looking to expand to in either in 2021 or 2022). When it comes to the whirlwind deluge of freelancing, those little nudges in the right direction are everything. You get to choose the price of the zine, as well, so pay it forward and support an artist who wants to support you! Also, her portfolio is gorgeous. Take a gander and get inspired.
There you have it. Five freelance resources that have helped me -- or are helping me -- and could very well be an anchor in your sea of chaos. If you've got any resources that have helped you out, please leave a comment and share the goodness!
Sometimes you need to start over fresh. There's no shame in it. Why waste effort picking away at something you could just re-do in half the time? Other times, though, you'll need to bite the bullet and push through. Knowing which one of these to commit to is part of being a productive artist. I've talked about it before and I'll repeat until I'm blue in the face. It's a gamechanger.
Now that that's out of the way...let me start this by saying I wanted to drop this piece like a cheap vase. Even worse? This was one of my favorite sketches in my sketch batch. Talk about artistic whiplash. It didn't help I was winging the color scheme and many of the supporting details (a habit I've developed since color theory is one of my strongest skills). I had a vague idea I wanted blue and gold, that I wanted everything fancy and dream-like...and that was about it. For once, my guesswork backfired and made me fudge around more than normal. This doesn't happen often -- I've winged crazier pieces than this -- but it cost me several hours that could've been saved if I fleshed out the draft stages better.
This was a good reminder of how badly a piece can backfire if you don't have the basics down. I thought of throwing my hands up in the air and outright moving on to another sketch, but something about this one told me to keep going. 'Make it work' is a phrase made famous from Project Runway and one I've adopted. It's a saying that tells you to work with your mistakes and find a way out of the hedgemaze you've built for yourself. I might just have to do a post on all my personal quotes one of these days.
(If you're curious about other pieces I've done, check out my recent post on the progress of 'Yasar'.)
As you can see, I did the work of thumbnailing out these outlandish outfits. Just, well...didn't actually think about everything else! From now on I think I'll hash out a quick color scheme in Photoshop -- a cluster of dots ordered from most dominant to least -- before committing. A few minutes to save me a few hours. Same with the big block of starry space. Yeeeah, I added that in during the last stages, too.
I was extremely happy with how this sketch turned out. Both the pose and silhouette were the right amount of elegant and playful. I also used a reference of a kid playing the flute to make sure the hands looked right.
This character's fashion is inspired heavily by classic JRPGs, magical girl anime and various architectural designs. While many of my characters have a certain theme, this one is intentionally all over the place. All the colors, all the silhouettes, all the patterns! The only rule is a visual smorgasbord: they're a lion child with a wild imagination that, fittingly, helps my imagination run wild. As such, I don't care too much about logistics when it comes to their outfits (beyond differentiating texture and a reasonable fit).
I've been drawing this character for years and enjoying every fanciful, floofy, extravagant clusterfuck they end up in. It just hit me that gold tends to be a dominant hue or focal point, an entirely subconscious detail. These were done back in 2015, all made up on the spot and something I still don't recommend you doing, ha ha. I can't believe winging it used to be my default. Reconnecting with my youthful spontaneity is a goal I still want to nurture moving forward. It won't replace the reliable structure of thumbnail-draft-sketch, but rather, support it.
In came the first problem: what even the hell color scheme? At the very least, I made sure to adhere to the basics. If you have a lot of cool colors, add a pop of something warm. If a certain color dominates up top, see what can contrast it below. It's like a math equation if math sucked less.
Even though I ended up veering away from the olive backdrop, I still like how it contrasted against everything else. Might have a green-and-gold centered piece later. Speaking of which, check out 'Green And Gold' by Lianne La Havas. Gorgeous song.
There may be a lot of working parts in this piece, but the face has the most pressure to be done well. It's what we tend to gravitate to as human beings, after all, and flubbing the expression/eyes/etc is like ruining the broth in a soup. The science behind the face is a fascinating topic for me and a big reason why I do so many portraits.
Oh, the gold decorations around the scepter ball drove me crazy. I kept fudging with them in the hopes they'd look better and eventually went, "Fuck this." Yes, you can give up and keep pushing in the same illustration.
I was given some very helpful feedback in one of the Discord communities I'm part of, particularly concerning the fish. While outside eyes thought they looked fine, this element just rubbed me the wrong way. They were too cluttered, and yet, not enough. These magical betta didn't provide enough contrast and took up so much space the eye didn't know where to travel. I didn't want to eliminate them entirely, though...
...so I went for the 'less is more' approach. The piece immediately felt more breathable. The eye traveled more naturally, too, from the shooting star down to the fish down to the face. I made sure to keep the shade close to the scepter, too, to tie together the color scheme.
A little .gif for those that missed my Twitter post. I'm loving making these so much I might start playing with simple animations in 2020.
At the last second I decided to go for a light lavender backdrop, mostly because there was already a lot of blue in the piece.
This piece was another lesson in 'just because you can, doesn't mean you should'. Just because I usually am able to wing my designs doesn't mean I should go into a piece flying by the seat of my pants. All in all? I'm glad I stuck with it. I'm going to celebrate what I did well and learn from what could've been better.
It's a New Year, ripe with potential, and I'm going to stick to growing my good habits. I've talked before about how I don't make lofty New Year's declarations, instead preferring to focus on the smaller baby steps that lead up to goals. Now, that's not to say I don't have some idea on what I want. I'm going to continue to test my skills and build my portfolio. I want to create breathtaking illustrations that tell captivating stories, with emphasis on character interaction and complex backgrounds. I want to design all sorts of unforgettable characters and creatures. I want to expand a little and branch out into concept art, 3D modeling and fashion design.
Here are some small goals I'll be doing over the next few months:
Reaching goals, big or small, means lots of thumbnailing, lots of rough drafts and lots of baby steps. Stay tuned!
Here I post WIPs, sketches, speedpaints, thumbnails and anything else thrown into the veritable stew of artistic process.