How To Succeed As A Freelance Artist

Here’s a bit of personal sharing: I’m actually a huge fan of Svetlana Chmakova’s Dramacon series. I find her writing smart, her characters compelling and her visual humor literally laugh-out-loud (something that’s rare for me). I also find her success and experience as a freelance North American manga-ka inspiring, so when I discovered a link to A Guide to Being a Freelance Artist on her Web site, I took notice. I’m glad I did — it’s stunningly excellent.

Written by Nickelodeon Magazine associate editor and webcomic creator Dave Roman, this article is one of the most thorough and helpful guides to making it as a freelance illustrator I’ve ever seen. Point by point, Roman covers portfolios, client expectations, Web sites, getting published, good work practices, the relevance of an art school degree, and building your career while keeping your sanity.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

Why You

For any one assignment there are thousands of artists that could potentially be hired. Why should an editor or art director hire you? You need to figure out what makes your art unique. Because when there are a thousand artists who would all like the same gig, often just being good isn’t enough. You have to have a distinctive voice. It’s not about whether you can draw a bowl of fruit, it’s about how bad-ass, or realistic, or cute you can draw that fruit and convince people that no one has ever drawn it that way before. This sometimes gets confused with “the hot style,” but really it comes down to making art that lots of people find appealing and want to see more of. Figure out what your strengths are and what adjectives people use to describe the way you draw. Is it elegant, surreal, old-fashioned, cute, edgy, hip, classy, pretty, dynamic, dramatic, soft, hard, or all of the above? You may not want to categorize yourself, but to a certain extent you will need to if you want to focus yourself and find the places that will actually hire you.

Whether Your Portfolio Should Include Disclaimers

When you send or show a portfolio to an editor or potential client, be sure to include only your BEST WORK. Ideally, that work should look “finished” or print-ready. Including a few samples of art that you’ve actually had printed somewhere (like a zine, comic, local magazine, etc.) is always a good idea. It helps editors visualize what your art will look like in THEIR magazine if they can see how it turned out in someone else’s. Always have a level of confidence in what you do. If you have to apologize for anything in your portfolio, you shouldn’t have included it.

Sucking It Up

If they ask you to change something, you have to do it–even if you don’t agree with the change. That’s why they are PAYING you. Complain to your friends and family all you want. But do whatever it takes to finish the job first. I’ve had to fire artists in the middle of big multi-page assignments because they had too many issues, constantly questioned the notes, or were just stubborn about having to pick up a pencil again. As an artist myself, I am usually sympathetic and try to make my freelancers’ lives easier whenever possible. But if I’m juggling too many stressful deadlines I can lose patience like anyone else, opting to continue with someone more flexible and easy to work with. I have freelancers who have redrawn entire characters or panels over several times because of wishy-washy editors or outside requests from legal departments of corporate heads–and they actually do so enthusiastically, and say things like “these changes have made the comic so much better now.” I’m sure the artist secretly hates my guts and wished that they got everything perfect the first time, but the fact that she/he UNDERSTANDS THAT THIS IS A JOB and is willing to do what we ask with a smile on their face (or email) makes me want to pay them lots and lots of money and recommend said artist to every person in the world. Mark Crilley, Scott Roberts, Jeff Albrecht, Stu Chaifetz, and Wes Dzioba, are examples of such artists. I hire them any change I get!

And there’s a lot more great insight where those came from. Insight that rings true to me both as someone who hires freelance artists for our comics here and also as someone who has worked as a freelance filmmaker himself for the past thirteen years — so even if you’re not an artist, believe me, you will find advice that it practical for any freelance career in the creative arts, but especially one in comics/manga.

Advice for building a career as a freelance artist and/or paid cartoonist

Check it out if you’re interested in doing this stuff for pay…

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