The Pros and Cons of Being a Freelance Illustrator

The Pros and Cons of Being a Freelance Illustrator

14 min read
Top view of a desk with hands drawing on an iPad

"What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?" These are Alice's thoughts before she meets the white rabbit on her adventures in Wonderland.

And you've probably asked yourself a similar question if you're an artist or illustrator. Illustrators are visual storytellers - this is your main superpower!

But illustration encompasses so much more than making attractive illustrations for books. A career in illustration offers a wide range of specializations for illustrators who aspire to freelance full-time.

"It's more than just drawing pictures for books. It's about reaching out to many different audiences with pretty much any material you can think of." - Georgia Salisbury, UK-based freelance illustrator

Are you currently part of an internal design team or in an entirely different career and looking to pivot to freelance illustration? You're probably wondering how to put together a freelance illustrator resumé, build your client base, how stable the source of income is, and a rabbit hole of other questions.

Today, we're looking at the pros and cons of going freelance and how to prepare for a career as a freelance illustrator. We also asked a handful of freelance illustrators to share their insights with us, which we'll share with you!

Freelance Illustration as a Career

Most illustrators have an educational background in illustration, graphic design, visual arts (including printmaking), visual communication, motion graphics, or animation.

Some illustrators also have experience in marketing, education, and writing.

But many professional illustrators are self-taught and stumbled into their career path because people liked the cartoons they drew in their schoolbooks. And others pivoted later in their careers to pursue their custom illustration side hustle.

"We used to sketch a lot in college, and I slowly started cartooning people instead of making them realistically... Soon people started liking the caricatures I made of them, and I got into illustrations." - Akshita Nandanwar, India-based freelance illustrator

What Do Freelance Illustrators Do?

An illustrator is a commercial artist and designer and may work with analog and (or) digital media. These materials range from pencil and paint to sophisticated effects created with design software.

Illustrators are highly skilled artists who have perfected their craft to convey information in easily digestible visualizations, such as children's book illustrations or corporate illustrations.

If you're working as an illustrator at a company, you've probably already been exposed to various techniques.

But if you're leaning into freelance illustration for the first time, it's good to know what kinds of projects and specializations you can pursue.

Lisa Congdon, who pivoted her career to become a freelance illustrator, says in her Skillshare course on Professional Practice in Illustration that even though illustration is fun, it's still a job. And the job of an illustrator is to produce work that makes clients happy.

Let's look at a few different illustration specializations for you to consider:

Digital Illustrator

A very broad term for any illustrator that works with digital media, digital illustrators tend to add a specific style or flair to their artwork. This is because digital illustration takes full advantage of all the tools and effects that design and animation software has to offer.

Digital artists work in various industries, such as digital art, typography, game design, graphic design, 3D illustration, and even 3D printing.

Because digital art is so accessible, versatile, and rising in popularity, many freelance illustrators launch their careers in this specialization or incorporate it into their illustration skillset.

"Initially, freelancing made sense for me since I was living away from home and wanted to be able to work as I moved about. Today, I prefer freelancing because it allows me to work on a wide range of projects and with a variety of clients." - Joe Baraka, Kenyan freelance illustrator

Book Cover Designer or Book Illustrator

Some illustrators specialize in bringing authors' books to life with the art of illustration. If you choose book cover illustration as your specialization, you'll have the opportunity to carve out a niche for yourself as a go-to for authors publishing new books.

Sometimes authors will know exactly what they want the book cover and illustrations to look like, but more likely, you'll be working very closely with your clients to interpret the narrative into its visual form.

This can be very stimulating and enriching because you'll need to familiarize yourself with the author's content and style, often learning new knowledge and techniques along the way.

Surface or Textile Designer

Traditionally, textile design encompasses how fibers are woven together to form fabrics and how patterns are created on them.

More recently, the term "surface pattern design," or surface design, has started being used, incorporating all the new ideas, techniques, and textures available in the textile world for mass-produced items, such as T-shirt designs and packaging designs.

Being a surface designer means changing the surface pattern of a material with variations in texture and color.

Fabric dyeing, painting, printing, embroidery, quilting, weaving, knitting, felting, and other embellishing forms part of surface design. Other techniques include papermaking, fabric-based wall art, sculptural basketry, and collage.

As you can see, creating illustrations for surfaces and textiles offers experience with a wide variety of materials. Freelance illustrators who move into this specialization work with design software to create illustrations and patterns and become experts in preparing artwork for printing on different surfaces.

Fashion Illustrator

If you've always loved fashion and putting together ensembles for your family and friends, fashion illustration is an excellent option for the next step in your career.

Unlike the technical sketches created by fashion designers ("flats" for patternmakers and clothing manufacturers), fashion illustrators are free to make beautiful standalone artworks that highlight the model’s pose and the flair of the fabric.

You can develop your style and choose the proportions of your model (sometimes three heads taller than the standard proportions!) to convey the look and feel of fashion items.

Concept Artist or Character Designer

Many illustrators realize they want to pursue a career in illustration when they create cartoon characters in their own style. You can specialize in character design as an illustrator working in the animation, gaming, and film industries.

Character designers form part of the preproduction teams for films, meaning that they do the preparation work before shooting or animation begins.

Similarly, concept artists are illustrators who imagine and visualize environments, objects, characters, vehicles, and other details for animated movies, video games, and film sets.

The role of the concept artist is vital, as their illustrations bring the director's ideas to life and guide the clay modeling, visual effects (VFX), and set design teams when they create the characters and sets.

Sites like ArtStation are dedicated to showcasing character designs and concept art.

Educational Illustrator

In education, informative and entertaining illustrations are often needed to teach complex concepts or recorded history.

Educational illustrations also provide decorative visual elements for textbooks and online lessons to grab the learners' attention and motivate them to learn.

Few people feel motivated to learn when they're faced with a block of monochrome text. Creative illustrations can be used to enhance the learning experience and make it more dynamic and memorable.

As an educational illustrator, you'll focus on important details for the learner to remember the information. You'll also tailor the illustrations to the demographics of the learner group and the subject matter at hand.

Scientific Illustrator

Closely related to educational illustrations, scientific illustrations are precise and detailed.

Also known as natural history illustration, these illustrations focus less on concepts and more on accurately representing the anatomy of organic specimens.

With medical illustration, the focus is on human and animal anatomy, especially organs, tissue, and cells that are not generally seen. With botanical illustration, every part of a particular plant is illustrated to make it possible to recognize the specimen based on certain characteristics.

Scientific illustration offers a long history to draw from, and illustrators who specialize in this area are often passionate about anatomy and botany.

Technical Illustrator

When detailed, technical information needs to be conveyed in an image, companies hire a technical illustrator to make drawings for them. This person has a firm grip on three-dimensional space and effectively conveys a sense of volume and distance.

Technical illustration
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Technical illustrators can have a background in art and design or engineering and specialize in technical drawings to show the parts of machines or inventions. Technical drawings are measured and precise, such as:

  • Line drawings to show the shape and measurements of objects
  • Isometric, orthographic, and axonometric drawings
  • Perspective drawings
  • Exploded views and cutaways
  • Illustrations for instruction manuals
  • Animations that show how machines work
  • Pictorial maps

In the case of pictorial maps, these don't necessarily need to be to-scale and can be more artistic and fun.

Signwriter

A well-respected job with a rich history, signwriting requires a high level of design and lettering skills applied on a large scale.

Signwriters are illustrators who decorate buildings with elaborate designs and hand lettering, make chalkboard menus, and paint murals for marketing and advertising purposes.

Back in the day, before sophisticated large-scale vinyl printing, a signwriter would use chalkboards, glass, gilding, enamel paint, or wood to make the signage for businesses' shopfronts, vehicles, and interiors.

Today, you can plan and design your signs and murals using software and then transfer these to the building or shopfront with CAD/CAM.

Traditional hand-made signage is increasing in popularity, with many businesses choosing to support their local artists instead of buying vinyl transfers.

Editorial Illustrator

Remember how you used to cut out cool illustrations from magazine stories? Editorial illustrators make those illustrations.

Editorial illustrations differ from cartoons because they provide striking visuals for newspaper columns, magazine stories, or blog platforms. The purpose of these illustrations is to grab the reader's attention and provide some context for the surrounding text.

Cartoonist

If you want to create short, punchy visual stories or illustrate them for clients, cartooning could be the right fit for your freelance illustration career.

There are many cartoon styles, ranging from comic strips (the "funnies") to comic books and graphic novels. Find your own style to make your cartoon characters eye-catching and memorable.

The difference between editorial illustration and cartooning is that cartoons tell a story in a couple of frames and most often include speech bubbles and other text to signal sound effects and motion.

Stock Image Illustrator

This is not technically a job title, but there are many freelance illustrators who sell stock illustrations on sites like Freepik and Shutterstock.

These will often be vector illustrations of characters and icons, sold in SVG file packs that you can open in design software to edit and customize to your heart's content.

Many in-house illustrators and graphic designers working at companies rely on these stock images for faster turnaround time on customized corporate designs.

3D Artist

Another specialization that's becoming increasingly in demand is 3D illustration. 3D artists use 3D design software to create characters, objects, and environments that can be explored from all angles.

If you're ready to venture into the three-dimensional digital world or want to create realistic, believable illustrations that can be scaled and screenshot from different angles, then you can look into 3D art and everything it entails.

3D illustration is also a great primer for moving into an animation career if that's the trajectory you're pursuing. You can try your hand at some animated projects to build these additional skills and create an online portfolio.

Can You Become an Illustrator without Studying?

To be a freelance illustrator, you don't necessarily need to go to design or art school.

Do you possess artistic or design talent and have completed a couple of personal projects to build a strong portfolio? Then, there's no reason why you couldn't put yourself out there as a freelance illustrator.

Some of the most influential illustrators and animators of all time were self-taught, namely Beatrix Potter (The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other classics) and Hayao Miyazaki (Co-founder of Studio Ghibli), respectively.

So, don't let a lack of formal tertiary education prevent you from launching your freelance career.

Here are some pro tips to gain experience and build a portfolio of freelance artwork:

  • Enter drawing and design contests
  • Take part in drawing challenges like 36 Days of Type on social media
  • Find a few small freelance illustration jobs on freelancing platforms such as Dribbble and Fiverr
  • Learn multiple design software packages and showcase your skill
  • Take online short courses in illustration and design

We've looked at the various illustration specializations, now we'll consider the pros and cons and your next steps to going freelance.

Pros of Being a Freelance Illustrator

Did you know that in Old English, a "free lance" was a medieval mercenary? In essence, a freelancer was a 'knight for hire' - an independent soldier that could help out a lord who needed extra fighters in his army.

Today, much as in medieval times, when you freelance, you can choose your battles and your lords (and your fee).

Work from Anywhere

There's a reason why the word 'free' features in 'freelancing'! A freelance career gives you the freedom to travel and take vacations as you'd like.

Of course, it's all about balancing your workload and free time, but you don't have to be tied down to an office or co-working space if it doesn't suit your work style.

Motivated to Learn

Each type of project you tackle will be an opportunity to learn new skills and grow as a freelance artist and illustrator.

"I eventually branched out into doing other projects. Some of these commissions included podcast cover art, technical diagrams for a tech company, book illustrations, and poster designs." - Georgia Salisbury, UK-based freelance illustrator

Setting Your Own Rates

You can decide how much to get paid and whether you want to work on a project basis or ask for hourly rates.

"I advise young freelance illustrators to learn a bit about how to make contracts and what terms you should put in the contract to safeguard yourself. And always get a contract or memorandum of understanding (MOU) before starting work." - Akshita Nandanwar, India-based freelance illustrator

Close Collaboration with Clients

One of the best things about freelance illustration is choosing your clients and working very closely with them to produce your best work.

Taking care of your client relationships and striving for client satisfaction is a major part of a freelance job.

"I soon made a connection with a forestry company, which hired me to design graphics for their operations guides and training materials... I have freelanced for companies, agencies, and brands around the world, including Google, Campari, Ogilvy Africa, Kiwi Kenya, Have You Heard (ZA), and more." - Joe Baraka, Kenyan freelance illustrator

A Level of Artistic Freedom

Every illustrator has their own unique approach or style that makes their work stand out. When working for a company, you’ll often be expected to follow its branding rules, including colors, shapes, and stylization. As a freelance illustrator, clients will choose you for their project because they want you to create illustrations for them in your style.

"Being a freelance illustrator is really rewarding as you have the freedom to pursue projects and work that interest you, as well as basking in the knowledge that the client came to you specifically because they liked your work." - Georgia Salisbury, UK-based freelance illustrator

Making Money with Your Passion

As a freelance illustrator or digital artist, you can engross yourself in projects that you’re passionate about and find ways to sell your designs without the need for client briefs, etc.

For example, you can display or sell your work on stock image sites, NFT marketplaces, and online shops to diversify your source of income and let the money come to you.

Few things beat the feeling of others appreciating your work and being willing to pay for it!

Cons of Being a Freelance Illustrator

Okay, let’s be realistic. A freelance illustration career is not all rose-colored.

It's important to consider the potential downsides of going freelance so that you're 100% sure it's the right path for you.

Initial Setup Costs

If you don't have the hardware and software you need to create and sell your illustrations, it can be pretty expensive to set up.

These are resources that a company would normally provide if you were working as an in-house illustrator, but remember that you don't need to have everything right from the start.

A laptop should be good to start with, and later (as you earn money from your work), you can procure an iPad and Apple Pencil, or other illustration equipment you may need to develop in your career.

How to draw on an iPad - freelance illustration
How to draw on an iPad

Limitation of How Much Work You Can Do

As a freelancer, you're essentially a one-person band.

If there's high demand for your work (yay!), you may need to postpone or say no to some projects because you can only do so much.

In this sense, it's also good to know your limits and pace yourself. If clients love your work, they'll be willing to wait or put more lenient deadlines in place.

Unsteady Income

When starting out and building your client base, your income will fluctuate in the amounts and how often you get paid compared to receiving a monthly salary at a company.

You can prepare for this by saving up at least three months' salary to ensure you can pay rent and bills if work slows down.

Handling Admin Yourself

Depending on your skills and personality, this might not be a con, but it does put extra work on your plate.

Running a freelance business adds additional responsibilities, such as maintaining client files, correspondence, setting up contracts, quotes and invoicing, paying your own salary, etc.

You could consider hiring an agent to help build your client base, take care of the sales and marketing side of things, and rely on a bookkeeper to keep your finances in check.

"There are no higher-ups to report back to, and you need to have the perseverance to keep putting yourself out there, create efficient work schedules, and be aware of the administrative side of the business. Don’t forget you’re also the one calculating profit margins, creating budgets, filing tax forms, etc.!" - Georgia Salisbury, UK-based freelance illustrator

It Can Get Lonely

Working as a freelancer often means working alone, which can affect your mental health. You can find artist communities to plug into or opt for a co-working space where you'll meet and interact with new people daily.

Take care to maintain a good work-life balance and make time for hobbies, seeing friends and family, spending time with your pets (or plants), and cooking meals.

Are You Ready to Go Freelance?

The big question. Are you ready to take the leap to a full-time freelance illustration career? Here's our quick checklist to ensure you have everything you need:

  • Primary skills: Drawing (analog and digital), a basic understanding of color theory and design principles.
  • Secondary skills: Project management, professional communication, basic bookkeeping.
  • Equipment: Digital illustration software such as Vectornator, iPad and Apple Pencil or laptop, high-resolution scanner.
  • Places to sell your illustrations: Freelance websites, fine art prints at brick-and-mortar shops and markets, publishing your own books, selling NFTs, etc.
  • An online portfolio: Instagram, Pinterest, Behance, Dribbble, your own website. The bonus is that you can use Instagram Shopping to sell your work.

Your Next Steps

Freelance illustration can be an exciting and rewarding next step in your career, even if it means you'll need to pivot from an entirely different current job.

As whimsical as it may seem to follow your dreams, it's wise to put safety nets in place to ensure you can fail forward when you start freelancing. Consider the pros and cons, list your non-negotiables, and if you decide to go freelance, throw yourself into it and give your best.

"The field can feel pretty overpopulated sometimes and there will be a lot of competition. Figure out your niche - what can you offer that others can’t? This could be having a specific style or specializing in a particular subject." - Georgia Salisbury, UK-based freelance illustrator

Whether you decide to focus on specialization or to broaden your skillset as much as possible, your relative success will depend on your dedication to your craft and the grit to stick it out when the going gets tough.

A last piece of advice from Emma Gannon's Skillshare course on pivoting to a freelance career: Don't feel pressured to put everything in place all at once. Start small and see what works for you.

Vectornator can be the perfect design software for your freelance illustration career. We offer a freemium version with super powerful tools like Layers, Auto Trace, and Shape Builder Tool.

Download Vectornator to Get Started

Take your designs to the next level.

Top view of a desk with hands drawing on an iPad
Top view of a desk with hands drawing on an iPad

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