5 Steps to Becoming a Freelance Illustrator

A woman draws a woman on a tablet as an illustrator.
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Getting paid to make art may sound like an unattainable dream, but look around: Art is everywhere.

Book covers, tarot cards, clip art, graphic T-shirts — someone sat down and created every illustration that decorates our world. And most of them got paid for it, too!

How to Become a Freelance Illustrator

A freelance illustrator creates images for clients. If that sounds like a broad definition, it’s because it is. There are freelancers out there who whip up quick vector illustrations in Adobe Illustrator to jazz up blog posts. There are also freelancers who take weeks to create elaborate, painterly children’s book illustrations.

As varied a career as it can be, there are lots of things freelance illustrators have in common. They all have to deal with clients, self-promotion, and taxes. They all have to make sure they have the skills and tools for the job. Last but not least, they all get to say they make art for a living.

For Kati D., the artist behind Thoughtless Illustrations, freelance illustration was a fulfilling career path after years spent juggling art school and work.

“I was coming home from my courses that by and large left me wondering if art school was ever worth it… a terrible job, making around seven bucks an hour, getting yelled at by entitled customers… to sitting down, getting out my sketchbook, sending over concepts and just having these awesome creative conversations,” she said.

Here’s how you can get started in freelance illustration.

1. Polish Off Your Tools

To make art, you need materials. Painters need paint. Sculptors need clay. What do freelance illustrators need?

“An artist’s most important tools, first and foremost, would be a simple sketchbook [and] good pencil,” Kati said.

Plain old pencil and paper are exactly what you need to sketch a rough draft or ten, which is a big part of the job.

“You’re going to create so many thumbnails,” Kati said. “And then thumbnails building off those thumbnails, and so on.”

But it’s 2022, and the bulk of illustration jobs out there will require a digital end result.

For that reason, Kati explained, “it’s extremely important to have a decent computer… and a tablet with good sensitivity.”

That way, there will be no tech barrier to creating digital illustrations.

2. Find Clients

Once you’ve got your stylus and tablet at the ready, the jobs don’t just come pouring in.

Finding clients as a freelance illustrator is basically a job within a job.

“I’m sending out multiple emails a week, reading online proposals, and keeping my portfolios up-to-date,” Kati said.

A new freelance illustrator has lots of options to introduce themselves to clients.

  • Upwork: The popular freelance platform is a go-to for clients to find illustrators.
  • Behance: This platform is great for showcasing creative work.
  • Social media: Instagram in particular is a great place to show off illustrations and attract a following. (See Kati’s work here.)
  • Personal website: A portfolio where you can send prospective clients to is a must.

But the best way to get more work is with return customers, so satisfy the ones you’ve got.

“I have spent years working my way up and creating a network of clients that leave reviews, and even return for additional work,” says Kati.

3. Set Rates as a Freelance Illustrator

It can be overwhelming to set rates as a freelancer. Should you charge hourly or per project? How high is too high?

Here’s a good place to start calculating your rate for a project: Estimate how many hours it will take and multiply by your desired hourly wage. Add on an extra 25% for taxes. The result is what you should quote the client.

No matter what, be clear and firm about your rate.

“Protect yourself and your work, always,” Kati emphasized. “Drafting up a simple contract is very easy, you can find example templates online.”

Freelance illustrator Kati D poses for a portrait next to some of her work.
Kati D, the artist behind Thoughtless Illustrations, recommends providing clients with different concepts and working together to develop what works and what doesn’t work. This is a photo of Kati and one of her illustrations. Photo courtesy of Kati D.

4. Do Good Work

If you want to stay in business, you should probably do good work.

But in a business as subjective as art, what does that actually entail?

Start with communication, Kati advised.

“I ask questions if their instructions aren’t clear, I ask them to provide references that may give me a clearer desire of the end result,” she said.

It’s also smart to provide options, Kati added.

“I’ll show the client a variety of concepts and we work together to build off of what works and what doesn’t,” she said.

5. (Don’t) Quit Your Day Job

Building a freelance career takes time.

In the long run, it takes time to build a roster of clients who add up to a decent wage. And in the short term, it takes time out of your week to actually do your illustration work on top of whatever else you have going on.

It’s totally doable to start freelancing while working or studying. But don’t set yourself up for failure by jumping off the deep end too soon.

“Have at least a few months worth of bills plus additional savings to the side before telling your boss that you’re a lone wolf,” Kati said.

In the meantime, it’s okay to start small.

“You are only human, you can only get so much done,” Kati said. “Mental health is incredibly important. Be kind to yourself.”

Contributor Ciara McLaren is a freelance writer with work in HuffPost, MoneyGeek, and The Penny Hoarder. You can find her on Substack (@camclaren).