Making money from art: How to build a thriving freelance business

Aug 27, 2014

Is living off of your artwork a personal dream? You may be wondering how you can turn your illustrations into a thriving freelance business.

Marc Scheff is a freelance illustrator and Art Director at Drawn + Drafted, which brings clients and artists together though artist matching, project coordination, and art direction services, as well as by hosting Art Business Bootcamps. Here, he shares some tips on how he got his start as a freelancer.

Why did you decide to go freelance?

I suppose I could list all the usual reasons: I like working at home, I like the option of working in pajamas, I fear the outside. But the truth is when I went to school at Academy of Art, freelance was the assumed path and they taught to that. Staff illustrators are few and far between, and working in games was the only other way. Granted, I know there are more options now, but I didn't then so I worked in games for a few years. I learned a lot, and I also found that corporate culture didn't jive with me. To make matters more difficult I had read a lot about leadership, communication, and running a business and I had a fairly informed critique of how some of those ships were run (though there were notable exceptions).

So there I was with a fairly wide network of peers, colleagues, and friends and a mild distaste for corporate culture. Freelance was the obvious choice, and I've been lucky in that many of my former colleagues have helped me find work, sometimes lots of work.

What are 2-3 tips on how to build and maintain your portfolio?

In addition to being an illustrator, I'm also an Art Director. I see some portfolios, physical and online, that make the same mistakes over and over again. I have co-written a few cheat sheets that help avoid these basic mistakes, as well as find lots of ways to get found, hired, and get paid.

It’s hard to pick a top three, but here are some in no particular order:

  • Art Directors hire based on your worst piece. They need to know that on your worst day, you're good enough. So only show the best, even if that's 4 pieces.
  • For online portfolios, you want viewers to need as few clicks as possible to get to the image. Ideally one. Seriously, it's possible, go for one.
  • Don't watermark your images so large that people can't judge them, a small url in the corner will do (and do add one, so that people can always find you).

If you check out our bootcamp cheat sheets, there are lots more tips.

How did you find your first clients?

Friends recommended me. That's how I've gotten most of my work, and that's why networking is so important. But I think that word is often misinterpreted. Networking isn't about a rolodex of contacts. Meeting someone at an industry event isn't enough. In my experience, what gets you work is friends, real friends. People can smell it if you're trying to be friends just because it's business.

If I were to turn this answer into a piece of advice, it would be to go out and meet people, but treat it like a party with your friends and find people who you actually want to hang out with – who are also trying to kick ass as a freelancer – and then actually hang out with them!

... Then steal their credit cards. MWAAAAHAHAHA.

What tip would you give to a new freelancer or someone who is considering going freelance?

Look before you leap, it's not easy. Make a budget, know what your expenses will be, and make sure you can hit it. If you don't have the workload to do that for a few months, then keep another job or cut expenses until you do. Even the most successful have to work hard to keep the financial gears moving and if you aren't sure of that, I would hold off until you get sure.

I am currently co-writing a book called Make Art Work, all about the business of freelancing. It is largely geared towards artists, but there will be lots of stuff in there for anyone to use like advice on contracts, how and when to hire a lawyer, and how to present yourself online. We plan on Kickstarting it and you can find out when we do by getting on the Drawn + Drafted mailing list.

Freelance illustrators, what has helped you start your business?