How Illustrators Find Their Business Position?

May 4, 2023

For illustrators to transform into freelancers, it is essential to find out their own business positioning and continue to cultivate in the corresponding subdivided fields. So how do you complete the first step and find your own unique position in this already highly introverted industry?

How I’ve landed illustration jobs

People regularly ask me: how do you actually get illustration work? Sometimes these questions come from people who are not at all involved in this field, but are curious to know how it works. Sometimes they come from students who cannot yet imagine how they can land illustration jobs.

Below you will find a number of concrete examples, anecdotes of how I, as a Dutch illustrator, got certain assignments. I also asked colleagues if they had any interesting stories to add.

First off: there is not one, singular way (we illustrators are not Mandalorians). You are the independent illustrator. See what suits you, your interests, services and products. The things I mention here are just a very small part of all possible ways. This blog is more meant as inspiration, to show options. And: results from the past do not guarantee the same result in the future. Keep trying and developing yourself, I do that as well.

General notes

As a general tip I can say that it is best to make a lot of work and to be visible. Know who YOU are, how YOU want to express and show yourself. But remember: it is also about knowing where/who your client is — do not ask “how do I get assignments” but “how do clients find me?” Hang out where your target audience is. An example: I emailed many editors at the beginning, for courtroom sketch jobs, with no response. It’s way more useful for me to meet journalists while I’m working at a court so they can see right away what I can do.

Perhaps your clients are more likely to be on LinkedIn than on Twitter or Instagram. Or who knows, Tiktok or Discord. Or maybe they don’t like social media at all and would rather talk to you at a trade show. Maybe you could attend an event regarding a certain theme that you would like to get started with. Try to make a list of the people who could offer you a job: are they individual consumers? Art directors at agencies? Communication advisors at a municipality? Independent wedding planners? The greengrocer two blocks from you? Try to make it as concrete as possible. How should they encounter your work?

Landing jobs and clients is called acquisition. For some, this is something that comes naturally (at some point), but like other skills, this is something that you can become better at, that you can practice. Also, treat it as an important part of your to do-list and invest in it. For example, there are account managers at larger companies, whose main task is to build and maintain good relationships with (potential) customers.

My very first job ever, after registering with the Chamber of Commerce on 1 September 2014, came from the agency I’ve had an internship at, Funk-e. I did an extracurricular internship there in the summer of 2014. At the academy I only did a ‘freelance’ internship. During such an internship you mainly work on your own projects. At the time I did a few assignments. For example, I made an animation for Sesame Street as a ‘shadow’ assignment; you get a taste of how it works. You do get feedback but your work is ‘next to’ or ‘after’ the real job that someone else is doing or has already done. Through Funk-e I have often illustrated artwork for short animations as a starting illustrator and I have also animated many explanimations myself. Thanks to the internship they knew me, and I knew how they work.

Sowing networks

You can find clients anywhere. You do not have to push and push, recommend your work to everybody, but I do “sow” in a friendly way. You’ll never know if it will ever bring anything, and expecting something in return ALL THE TIME is also not good for your mental health, haha. But think along with someone else without obligation for once, see if you can help them with something, link them to someone. You’ll see later whether that actually led to something, and being able to help others is also a nice feeling. In addition, it can also take a while before that boomerang hits back. Maybe that person is interested in your work, but simply does not have a relevant project for you right now. But if that moment comes, you are at their top of mind.

Fellow illustrator Luc, for example, was barbecuing one day with a befriended sound designer. While they were relaxing in the garden, his friend received a phone call. Whether he knew an animator? “Well, I happen to have one sitting here across me!” Wherever you are, you are always your business. You need to have some luck with those moments, so I would especially recommend spreading your chances.

You can decide for yourself how intensively you approach and use your friends and connections. For example, I don’t just accept everyone on LinkedIn, but I am fairly active on that network. If I don’t know you, at least send me a message if you have a question or if you find my work interesting or something like that. I want to be able to sincerely recommend people. Everyone chooses for themselves how they use what.

An example by Eileen and Max, they work together and often speak with (advertising or communication) agencies. For they designed a number of GIFs. They informed the outside world through a newsletter that they had recently made those. Their customers and contacts responded positively! One even said something along the lines of “oh shit you’re the ones that made it! What are the odds, I was just showing them to a colleague and then I got your e-mail ”. That’s one way things can go. You’ll notice from these kind of events that your own network is already quite large, and that many agencies know each other and follow each other.

Eileen thinks it’s a waste if two large agencies don’t even know about each other’s existence: “because you can create really beautiful collaborations if you look around a little and keep your eyes open. I am always very pro working together, not thinking in competition”. If you help someone, they will remember that and you can count on their support; “some kind of karma points”.

An example from my own network: I have been an active member of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) for many years (help help, yes, I am a social democrat, quickly click away if you cannot handle that haha). Through the party, I had already spoken to Hester from the national office, from the communication department, at informal events. She had also seen work by me before. When she was looking for illustrations for tote bags, she thought of me — so nice — and that became my very first job for the PvdA. Later, I also drew live portraits at several party events nd illustrated other promotional material.

You could think of a network club. I have been a guest at two chapters (departments) of the BNI — Business Network International. Now, I have carefully considered a membership but it does not suit me — but that does not mean that something like that may not suit you. The principle is that people get to know each other well and open up their network to you. Following my first visit, I had a nice request for a live drawing job! I just couldn’t go on that particular day, haha, but I was able to link the applicant to a colleague and she has already been able to draw several times through this person.

For an illustrator, I relatively blog a lot, on my own website (okay, not as much as I used to). Even before I was admitted to the art academy, I’ve always been showing my processes and insights. I’ve shared sketches, explained why I or the client had made certain choices. In this way my readers get confidence in what I do and trust my experiences. It’s a lot of information that can always be found online, which people can click through if they want to know more about a certain type of job. Apparently that is called soft selling, I recently learned: people get to know what you have to offer in a very accesible way and I don’t push them.

An example, about how I got my very first courtroom sketch job: a journalist I know read my blog with sketches of the Open House in Breda. I had been working towards a relevant courtroom sketch portfolio for quite a while and was allowed to sketch during the Open House. I explicitly said in that blog that courtroom sketching is something I want to do. The journalist saw my blog and knew that I would be able to make such a sketch. He called me up and gave me my first courtroom sketch job for the next Wednesday, my birthday, haha. A lot of effort and practice preceded it, but if I had not expressed what I wanted to do — how else should people have known what direction I want to go?

Social media

Nazrina told me about another example that is also about expressing your goals. She started her own project in 2018; a book for which she illustrates all kinds of portraits. She shares these on her Instagram. Someone from London called her about those portraits and wanted to hire her for Stories for South Asian Supergirls. Nazrina visualises themes she considers underrepresented. The lady from London recognised the focus on queer and South Asian representation in her work. Expressing you this way, that resonates with potential customers! Clients are often looking for people whose ideals, interests and goals are in line with theirs.

I could write a few blogs about social media alone, haha. I have also attended a workshop by Loish once at the BNO (the Dutch Association of Designers) on this subject. Let your social media work for you. Maybe Instagram doesn’t suit you, but you do enjoy working on your own website. Whatever you do, make sure that you tackle one platform properly and then possibly look at other platforms later. If you do not know where to start, I would recommend looking at what your customers / target group are mainly using and focus on that platform.

My first job for Cirkellab (a Dutch organisation with a focus on sustainability) came through Twitter. I responded to one of their tweets (they were looking for an illustrator). I have worked with Cirkellab several times since then, for example, as a live visualiser. Thirza, one of the founders, also linked me to her connections a few times when they were looking for a (live) illustrator. Your client probably knows more people from their specific field than you: people often interact with people with the same interests — athletes know many other athletes, entrepreneurs know entrepreneurs, directors know directors, activists know activists. So if, for example, you want to work in a field where your type of client is active, it is nice if such referrals are sent to you.

The best advertising is formed by satisfied customers! So make sure that if you have a job, no matter how big or small, you do your job well and communicate properly with the client. I’ve actually wanted to put testimonials on my website for a while. Maybe I need to fix that soon, haha.

Sometimes jobs come ‘naturally’; people who have found my website and approach me themselves. Or well, of course, that website wasn’t suddenly there, haha. To be honest: I could inform how people ended up on my website more often. But in general I am told that my website is easy to find on Google, which is very nice of course. I think my blog and work descriptions contribute to that. I’ve also had a contact form for a few months so that people can immediately check whether I am available and interested. I did not think in advance that it would work so well; after all, my email address is also mentioned on my website. But on mobile (and more and more people are scrolling through sites on their phone) it helps if you can enter your question right away, so you don’t have to open any mail app.

Open calls and questions

I think going to an art academy was one of the best decisions I could make to become an independent illustrator. You are exploring your artistic side and skills, under supervision, and you can take bigger steps more quickly than you could possibly take as an autodidact. Another advantage of my academy (St. Joost in Breda, the Netherlands) is that some employees form an office which processes collaboration enquiries and requests for interns. For example, I came across a call from Ageeth through the academy’s network, and I was introduced to Getekend Verslag. I am now one of the artists and every now and then I visualise live on location (together with colleagues).

You can be loud about the fact that you are available, but you actually weaken your position for negotiations. Never try to negotiate out of desperation. I would rather advice to post a message with some examples of your work and information about what you can do. And you can also spread open calls yourself; there is nothing wrong with asking your network. An example: I had been painting on various locations for a while. I had some experience with live painting at weddings and other parties, and I wanted to do that more often. That is why I placed a message on my own social media, some time ago, that I wanted to get in touch with event / wedding planners. This has resulted in, among other things, a collaboration with Feest op Doek (‘Party on Canvas’). On behalf of Feest op Doek I have already been able to paint live at various weddings and parties. They do the marketing, client contact and ensure that applications are linked to a painter.

Create your own opportunity

Ok, let’s talk about courtroom sketching once again. I actively follow the news about crime and justice, out of personal interest. For example, the news by the Public Prosecution (OM in the Netherlands). Through their social media I saw an announcement about a competition for law students. The date for the finale was announced. It was kind of like a mock trial competition; the students had to pretend they were the prosecutor and argue what a suspect had done and why that person deserved what kind of punishment.

I took the iniative to contact this organisation. Our deal was: I would make a quick sketch of all the students on paper (it took about 15–20 minutes per person). The winner was handed over my drawing of them as a price. I myself had also brought a frame for that drawing — slightly more festive to hand over as a framed drawing. The rest of the finalists could, if they wanted, buy their drawing for a small price, so I still earned a few hundred euros on that day. In this way, the students could obtain the very first court drawing with them in robes, for a student-friendly price. A physical reminder of an exciting competition. If that does not ignite some ambitions, haha.

Another example: with Cultuurnacht Breda (‘Culture Night’ in Breda) I drew live portraits at a local bar. Quick and cartoony. Visitors paid per portrait. Something like that is not interesting for me when only few visitors are expected, but is certainly profitable at a busy event such as Cultuurnacht. The bar (Brandpunt) has another activity that costs them almost nothing — I just need some space and sometimes an icetea — and I control how much I work. Visitors were allowed to choose how long I would draw them, so even with a small budget they would be able to get something fun.

Through colleagues

In this context I would like to introduce you to Corona. She has sometimes passed on a job to me and I’ve also send some her way. Through her, for example, I was able to portray 26 employees for an IT company, because that is more up my alley than hers. She got her very first big job from an illustrator whom she only knew through Twitter, when he didn’t have time for that job. Remember that forwarding is about the ‘granting’ factor. Of course, you have to be able to DO the type of job. But how you deal with the client also reflects on the person from whom you received the job. Reliability, professionalism and fast communication, that is what Corona finds important, for example, if she is looking for an illustrator because she herself has no time for a specific enquiry.

For many entrepreneurs, it is also normal that you allow each other a part of the commission for passing on such a job (think of a small percentage). And another tip from Corona: “I have never received paid work that resulted from free work.” So do not fall into those traps with “we can not pay you now, but if it goes well…”.

You don’t expect to get a job for a label design when you email a company about illustrations for children’s rooms. But that is what happened to Eline. Her work had strung a cord with the businesswoman and when she received a request for a label for a refreshing drink, she thought of Eline. A cheerful and tropical design ensued.

This is an example of how ‘sowing’ can sometimes produce surprising results. For example, I visited a museum once to talk about my memory game. It turned out that my game wasn’t very interesting to them, but after talking a bit we also talked about live drawing. That appealed to them, so I will be working there a few times in a few months’ time. Getting an assignment from that conversation was not my intention, but hey, always nice.

Through interviews

Not only do I sometimes work for media, sometimes they also work to my advantage, haha. Let’s talk about a very nice example. I’ve mentioned that I often draw live portraits. Each year in the Netherlands, we celebrate the Crown (now it’s King’s Day but we had a queen before). It’s an official holiday and there are a lot of activities, including a market/fair. Drawing portraits live is a very fitting activity at such an event.

Slightly before King’s Day, I was interviewed by a big Dutch newspaper about drawing live and I even had a professional photoshoot. Shortly after the publication a lady contacted me and asked if I also do this at parties; she would soon celebrate her 80th birthday and she thought it would be a nice addition. That interview, led to a pleasant afternoon on a boat where I was allowed to draw lovely and pleasant people, among other things.

In any case, interviews help with reaching new target groups and profile you as an expert in the field. If you are curious about what I am sometimes interviewed about, you can look at the “in the media” section on my website. New publications, large projects or, for example, crowdfunding are also good examples of things that you can use to promote yourself. For example, you can prepare a press release yourself. Often, editors are open to press releases or tips. And they will contact you if interested. Also consider making a number of images available as a press kit.

Seeing with your own eyes

I often work live and always have some postcards with me that I can give away to people that are interested in my work. People have seen what I can do, have been able to speak to me personally. Face-to-face, having seen it with your own eyes, often leads to more confidence and trust than just an online story. And it’s always nice to talk to people who are interested in what I just made. For example, I will soon be working with a gentleman who saw me sketching at an event a while back.

You could also build this kind of trust by, for example, making (or hiring someone to make) videos that show how you draw or paint. People want to understand how you approach jobs, and want to know that you can deliver the quality they are looking for.

Some clients also hold portfolio days. For example, I attended various meetings of the BNO where publishers, art directors and studios viewed portfolios. Or take a look at portfolio reviews at major events such as the Playgrounds festival — this is in the Netherlands, but I’m sure there are events like this in your country too. Prepare yourself for the art director / organisation you want to speak with and select the work that you think best suits them. Keep an eye out for the events that fit your interests!

Small freebies or products can lead to larger jobs. An example of Linda: she draws Floris the Frog, a frog she designed herself, in all kinds of situations. At various fairs and cons (for example Dutch Comic Con) you can find a booth with her and her products. A client who had often bought something from her at some point asked her for a very special illustration, one with Floris, to propose to his girlfriend with it.

Small steps can lead to larger jobs. For example, you sometimes have coaches who offer a free (Skype) conversation of half an hour to see if you match and if they can help you. People must be able to trust you, know your (visual) work. Do you offer good quality every time? It can be ‘scary’ to give an assignment, clients also take on a risk. It often takes a while, they must have seen your work more often, before they proceed to a purchase or assignment. That’s okay, and you can respond to that.

Three comments to conclude:

1. I strongly advise against free pitches, spec work and competitions. Do you miss those type of stories in this text? I mainly know stories of malpractice during competitions, and I have heard enough from colleagues about those type of ‘clients’ and ‘jobs’. Cheap potential clients, artists that act all desperate, offer work for way too little. That cannot possibly improve the overall quality of the work and the market? I don’t know of one professional illustrator who has ever landed a decent job through competitions or free pitches. As a supplier and professional, you must take yourself seriously. There must also be room for your terms and conditions.

2. Consider what the customer journey is for your (potential) customer. How does someone end up with you? How can they submit an application, and what does that person experience during such a process? Every time the person has to make an effort, that is another step they have to take, a bump in the road. Consider how you would like to be treated and make it as easy as possible for someone to engage you. For example, building trust, a clear website, easy to communicate with, etc.

3. To put things into perspective: it is completely OK if you do not get a job out of every application or enquiry. An application is a kind of introduction. Can you do this, the thing I am looking for? Do the conditions and your schedule match? A large part of the enquiries I receive is canceled. I’d rather have a few decent jobs that suit me and my skills, then to overwork myself with a LOT of little shitty jobs that don’t make me happy and that are underpaid. Dare to say no, even if you are really eager to take on work. The quality of the end results are way better if the artist has a genuine interest in it and if that person can take the proper amount of time to do so.