Becoming a freelance artist was one of the best things I ever did, and it’s opened up my life in so many ways.
But I’ll not lie to you, it isn’t without its difficulties too.
Besides making art, there are so many tasks that come with being a freelancer - some are much more enjoyable than others
If you aren't sure exactly what a freelance artist is, I basically get paid to make fantasy art. Read this article if you’d like to learn more
PROS of being a freelance artist
1. Paint for a living
I mean, it has to be said right up front - I paint knights and dragons for a living! More often knights than dragons I guess, but I love knights, so I’m not complaining.
If you like to paint something, you can probably find a way to get paid to do it; this is undoubtedly the best part of the job.
2. Work where you want to
Most clients have no reason to care where you get your work done,they just care that you do it. This gives you a lot of freedom.
Personally, I switch between working at home, working in cafes, and working in dedicated co-working spaces.
Each of these different places provides a slightly different environment and fits me better depending on my mood or what I’m working on.
Working in a co-working space means you’ll meet many other freelancers and people who work online on their own businesses, providing lots of opportunity for learning and good friendship.
- You are your own boss
No one tells you what to do. Of course, clients will want the work they've paid for, the government will want you to pay your taxes….but everything else is up to you.
This also appears in the list of cons, because not having a boss is definitely a double-edged sword. You’ll have to read on to find out why!
- Freedom to say “no”
If you don’t want to do a particular job, you can say no. If you work as an in-house employee, they approach you with tasks, and basically, you gotta do it.
“Hey Chris, this week I need you to design what the barrels and crates look like!"
As a freelancer, you can just say no. The more developed your career becomes, the pickier you can be about the jobs you take on, and the people you choose to work with.
- The freedom of working online
Work online as a digital artist means as long as I have access to my tools and the internet, I can work from wherever I want to.
In the modern era, artist and client can be in completely opposite parts of the world and still work together seamlessly, which is pretty amazing and provides some insanely good opportunities.
I frequently travel while working. Maybe I’ll be in Thailand, maybe I’ll work while visiting friends in Sweden; I wrote this article you’re reading while staying with relatives in the UK!
- Flexible schedule
I can and have to decide my own working hours. The number of hours I work on any given day changes wildly, depending on what kind of work. I don’t normally start my work day til around 1pm I may only get 2 hours of work in, I may keep working until the early hours of the morning. I’m just given a deadline for certain milestones and left to handle my schedule on my own!
- Take time off when you want to
Technically, you can take as much sick leave or holiday as you like, as long as you can afford to miss out on the income.
Practically speaking, the more time you take off, the less freelance you get done, the less money you make - you obviously can't take AS MUCH time off as you want to.
You can, however, be a lot more flexible.
I don’t take long holidays. I do tend to be on a perpetual working holiday though.
- Massive opportunity for Self-Discovery
Working freelance, your success is suddenly completely in your hands. You will learn a LOT about yourself when you only have yourself to blame, and really have to analyse your habits, your weaknesses, your strengths, your beliefs, in order to try to become a successful freelancer.
- The potential to Earn more
If you do things right, educate yourself, push yourself, operate with an entrepreneurial mindset - you can potentially earn more than you would in a standard 9 - 5 job.
- Increased Fulfillment
If you are interested in becoming a freelance artist, I would say chances are it's because art is something you love to do. When you do what you love and are self-governing, your days are usually more fulfilling.
Becoming a freelance artist was the first step of the most rewarding thing I’ve done with my life, and it’s led me towards doing some fantastic things, like this site, the discord, and my IP, The Nidean Legacy.
- Creative freedom
Sometimes you get incredible creative freedom with some clients and projects; other times - you get to bring someone's imagination to life. It’s not always creatively free, but knowing you give life to someone else's passion is a good feeling.
- Long term clients
As you freelance for longer, in time you'll end up working with the same clients over and over, and develop quite a unique relationship.
It's a really rewarding experience to be an integral part of a project, and work toward completing it and seeing it come into fruition, even if you are being paid to work on it as a freelancer and don't hold ownership over the project.
- Spread risk over multiple employers
Most of the time, you are not committed to a single employer long-term, and you'll work for multiple people at the same time. This means not all your eggs are in one basket; if one client has to pull out or disappears or etc, you still have the others to support you while you work on finding new clients.
- Opportunity to bend life to fit your needs
Since you have so much control over your own life and finances, you can take a lot of drastic steps if you want to to shape your life in the direction you want.
How about moving somewhere cheaper, where you can reduce your expenses, work less freelance and use that newfound time to make that comic you always wanted to make, become the youtuber you always wanted to be, or build a website like this one!
- Work with Cool clients on cool projects
It’s kind of a vanity pro, but you might get to work on some pretty cool stuff. Most people will NEVER work on a video game, board game or a film, but as a freelance artist you stand a decent chance.
Hearthstone, Magic: the Gathering, Warhammer, Dungeons & Dragons, Marvel…..you actually stand a good chance of working on a dream property if you keep working toward it.
- You get paid to Research things you enjoy
Since I am quite picky about the jobs I take on, I get to learn more about the things I want to learn about - for instance, things like how the joints in a suit of armour function, or learn the anatomy of a horse, so I can paint a cavalry charge.
- You can outsource and delegate
If you work in an office, you have to show up. When you work at home via the internet, you can actually hire other people to do work for you. You can delegate some of the work that you don't enjoy as you become more successful. Of course, that means you have to start managing people to some degree.
- Make time for Side Projects
When I don't need to take on as much work, I spend a lot of time researching and developing my own projects outside of client work, such as this site SelfEmployedArtist.com and NideanLegacy.com
This career will force you to build self-motivation and discipline.
It forced me to transform myself into a productive, effective person, to get my shit in order. When I self-reflect on my life and who I am, I feel myself slowly transforming into the kind of person I used to look up to. This career has given me the knowledge and determination to create this website you’re on right now.
- Listen to books all day
I’ve listened to A LOT of audio while painting - music, films, podcasts, audiobooks; being a freelance artist will give you the opportunity to listen to a LOT of stuff.
- Brings you closer with high value people
I’ve met some amazing people, and developed some extremely valuable friendships and skills that I simply don't think I’d have without being a freelance artist.
That was a whole lot of pros. Some of it is very tangible, some others a little more abstract, but perhaps more meaningful to me.
That said, let’s talk about the darker underbelly of freelance artistry, cos it certainly isn't all roses.
The CONS of being a freelance artist
- Low Security
Things are really unpredictable - how much money you'll make this month, how many clients you'll have, whether you'll be working 20 hours or 200.
If you do a freelance gig for a company, you can feel safe and then things take 180, the client can withdraw for any number of reasons and you'll end up on your own, with an urgent need to look for clients.
I started doing some fairly well paid work for a mobile games developer, and was hoping it would continue into regular work, when they suddenly got shut down by Disney!
So long plans, welcome back uncertainty!
- You’ll probably work more
One way or another, freelancers usually end up doing more work (despite having scheduled things out, this is exactly why scheduling and figuring out when you work best is crucial)
I have a lot of extra tasks that have to be handled as well as actually making the art, I can't just clock in my 37.5 hours a week and sit back.
Obviously, this is a trade off. You work more, but you do a job that you actually enjoy doing, that's on your own terms.
- You are your own Boss (again)
No one is going to force you to do anything, no one's is going to expect you to clock in in the morning and clock out in the evening, no one is going to expect you to show up on Monday and relax on the weekend.
Without some serious work on your productivity, not having a boss can be stressful, as your life and possibly your families is resting on your shoulders.
- Feast and famine
Your workload, and thus your pay, is going to be very up and down. Once the work is done, some payments will be late, some will take 90 days by design. A lot of the big boy companies have quite long payment schedules, so it may be a while between finishing work and getting paid for it.
One month you'll get loads of new client work, other months will be dry. One month you'll get payments in, other months you won't. This is a career of valleys and troughs. Pay is up and down; feast and famine.
- Responsible for all of your own finances
Freelance artists are responsible for sorting out your pension, business expenses, equipment, electricity etc.
- Also, freelance artists have to pay their own taxes
I could have lumped this one into the above point, but it deserves its own.
I file my taxes every year. Right now it’s pretty simple, but as income streams grow, things get more complicated, and more EXPENSIVE. I pay taxes once a year, and that is a large sum of money that is hard to give up.
- Potentially very, very isolating
You’ll probably end up sitting alone painting for hours on end, ALL THE TIME. For me, it’s the only way I can get a lot of painting done.
You have to build some sort of network or system to fight the isolation.
- Missing out on family / friends activities while I work, or am consumed by my job
Related to the above point, being a freelance artist can damage relationships, or cause you to not develop any. You may lose friends as you find yourself without the time for them any more. You might also have to miss out on things that the people around you are doing. It may be normal for your buddies to go out drinking on a Friday night, but if you do your best work in the early mornings, going out late and getting a hangover will literally cost you income.
- Having a family and working from home presents a lot of distraction - it's a tough one to manage
Since you will likely work from home, if you live with family you may find it hard to get to work, or work for long periods without being distracted.
It can be tricky for family to understand that you are working, and respect your work time and not interrupt you. And for you to not let yourself go out and see what they are up to, when you should be working at something a little more boring.
- You have to educate yourself in business
This is pretty much a necessity. You don't have to be a money guru, but there is a certain minimum level of marketing and money management you'll have to learn.
However this ends up being a pro in the end if you push through - it's always good to be money savvy, and the more you know about making money, the easier it'll be to make it.
- Multiple clients
This was listed as a pro earlier, but working for multiple people at once can definitely have its drawbacks. You have to get used to juggling multiple things with different people, and when one client suddenly has a change of plans, you may have to rejig things with other clients.
- The art is usually made to a client’s exact description
You will have to make the art the client wants. There is normally a certain amount of freedom allowed, and different industries and clients will want different levels of control, but at the end of the day what the client wants is what the client gets, whether you like their requests or not.
- No pay when taking sick leave or a holiday
If you get sick and can't work, then you don't make money. Simple as that, no paid sick leave, and no paid holidays.
You work, you earn money. You don't work, you don't earn money.
- Cover your own hospital bills, must pay for your own health insurance, like for example in the USA.
If you live in a place without a health service funded by the state, you have to cover your own insurance or pay your own hospital bills, which can be a hefty sum.
- If you host your portfolio on a website, you’ll have to keep that updated
And you will have to work on it to improve it over time. This can be very exciting, but it’s easy to pour a lot of your precious time and effort into this - it forces you to learn about web design, etc., and it can cost you hours that you could otherwise put into your actual work.
- Advertise regularly
You need to be advertising your work on social media and other online communities to continuously find clients.
No advertising = no clients
No clients = no income.
- Spend quite a lot of time in correspondence
You're probably going to be e-mailing and messaging people quite a lot.
After advertising on social media or in forums, you'll have comments, questions and inquiries to respond to.
You'll be conversing back and forth with potential clients, negotiating, feeling out whether you're a good fit for their project.
Once they become your client, you need to talk with them to keep them updated on progress, get feedback, and deliver your art.
- I often have to conduct research for specific projects
Most freelance projects will require some amount of research.
That may only be grabbing a few inspirational pieces of art for you to have nearby, to give you something to aim at, but often it's much more in depth. You may have to spend some time before every painting collecting references to help you during the creation process. These might be photographs, or diagrams of how something functions.
- Invoice my clients
Sending and tracking invoices isn't fun, it's only a little above taxes in the mind-numbing scale. It’s not very hard, and for a solo freelancer can be done just fine using Paypal, but it’s still document management and tracking, and very little can be done to make that not boring.
- Sometimes a client will need me to work at specific times for communication’s sake
Some projects will require you to be available for meetings at specific times, or to deliver work at specific times of day. Especially projects with multiple team members and a specific pipeline to follow, other teammates are dependent on you getting your work to them and deadlines are tight.
- Juggle deadlines yourself!
Often, I’m just given a deadline for certain milestones and left to handle my schedule on my own! If you haven't learnt how to juggle multiple projects or how to manage your own time well, this is a recipe for periods of doing way too little work, followed by periods of stressing out, cramming in painting and not sleeping enough.
- Self-motivation and discipline
On that note, you HAVE to learn to build self-motivation and discipline, and to manage your willpower. You will probably start off bad at all of this, and get burned and slowly develop your skills in these areas. It's a lot of painful lessons that you learn by trial and error.
- When I stop working really depends on the day
Somedays, I may really struggle to keep myself motivated and disciplined, and only be able to get 2 hours of work in. Then, the next day, I may have to keep working until the early hours of the morning. The hours of this job fluctuate so much for so many reasons.
Freelancing is not for everyone, but for those that suit it, it's a big opportunity.
Only you know which group you fit in. It's hard work that definitely pays off eventually.
As with every profession - the best thing you can evaluate is if you're ok with the struggles that your decision presents. Nothing is ever 100% great, so picking the bad stuff you will gladly deal with is a smart move.
Don't let other people hype you up about things - do your own research, work with yourself to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. You and only you can make the best (albeit guided and hopefully educated) decision for yourself.
Being a freelance artist is not a recipe for an easy life. It is a challenging road, that will push you, and reward you for rising to the challenge, preparing properly and thinking laterally.
Hey, I’m Christopher
I started making digital art in 2009, became a full-time freelance artist in 2016, and now I’m able to work on my own schedule from anywhere in the world.
I created this blog to help other artists make the same journey.