Whenever I tell people I’m a freelance artist, they usually don’t understand what I actually DO. Frequently they will respond along the lines of:
“So you’re like, a graphic designer?” or perhaps they’ll say “Illustrating children’s books, that sort of thing?”
I’ll normally just nod and reply “Yeah, that sort of thing”
That second one isn’t so far off - I have made art for books, though they were mostly for fantasy novels and role-playing games.
A freelance artist is self-employed, and creates art for clients in exchange for a fee. They typically have multiple clients, work from home, and especially in the case of digital artists, may interact with their clients entirely online. The art is usually made to a client’s exact description, as it will be needed for a specific purpose.
In my case, 90% of my work has been painting science-fiction and fantasy illustrations for clients, whether that was for a book cover, for a video game, or for a wedding present.
And I’ve been able to do this amazing job from home - even while traveling around the world!
Let me tell you more about being a freelance artist, and why it’s such a unique and varied opportunity!
What does it mean to be ‘freelance’?
Freelancers are very common in the creative industries, including music, writing, acting, graphic design, and of course art.
As a freelancer you are self-employed, you own your own business, and are hired by clients to work on particular tasks, projects, services, or assignments. Unlike being employed, you are not necessarily committed to an individual employer long-term and may work for multiple people at once.
Because you own your own business, you must handle your own taxes (or hire a freelance accountant to handle them for you!) and cover the cost of maintaining your own equipment and office.
Freelancers are also unpaid when taking sick leave or a holiday. You must also cover your own hospital bills, and in a country without a national health service, must pay for your own health insurance, like for example in the USA.
The upside of this is that freelancers can take as much sick leave and holiday as you like, as long as you are fine with not making any freelance income.
You also get to choose whether or not you work with somebody, and get to decide whether to accept or turn down any job that comes your way.
Freelance artists work for loads of different kinds of clients
Clients in all kinds of industries need art for their products - to be used in the product itself, to advertise it, or to help plan out how the product will look or function.
Often these clients don’t need art all year round, but only at specific times.
Some clients simply don’t need to have an artist on hand all the time - instead of employing an artist to sit around in the office and twiddle their thumbs all day, they hire a freelancer for a short time.
Alternatively, some clients might need LOADS of art suddenly, and need to temporarily increase the number of artists working for them.
A great example of this is Wizards of the Coast and their card game, Magic: The Gathering.
Once a new card set is designed, suddenly they need art for around 300 cards as quickly as possible! It’s easier to outsource the work to a load of freelancers temporarily than to have a small group of full-time artists work on the cards all year round.
The kinds of clients hiring freelance artists is really broad:
- Video game developers, from small indie developers like Team Meat, creators of Super Meat Boy and Binding of Isaac, to massive AAA studios like Blizzard and Naughty Dog
- Boardgame developers, such as Stonemaier Games, creators of the Scythe boardgame
- Card Game developers, like Magic: the Gathering by Wizards of the Coast
- Tabletop and roleplaying games, like Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons
- Fiction publishers, like the Science Fiction and Fantasy publisher Tor Books
- Authors, like V. E. Schwab Bestselling author of the Shades of Magic series (here is a tweet of her seeking to hire a freelance artist sadly I didn't get that job)
- Film companies like Marvel and Disney
- Tabletop gamers seeking art for their character
- …..the list goes on!
I’ve obviously concentrated on the kinds of industry that interest me - games, fiction, that sort of thing. What can I say, I’m a nerd!
The point is, freelance artists are being hired left and right; if you see art on or in a product somewhere, odds are it was made by a freelance artist.
Usually these kinds of clients are seeking digital artists, as the art can be e-mailed instantly between the artist and the client, so it can be made and tweaked much faster.
This also means the artist and client can be in different parts of the world and still work together, which is pretty amazing and provides some insanely good opportunities.
What else do freelance artists have to do, besides make art?
As I mentioned earlier, as a freelance artist you are self-employed and have to run your own business, which means you wear a lot of hats.
If you host your portfolio on a website, you’ll have to keep that updated and work on it to improve it over time. This can be very exciting, but it’s easy to pour a lot of time and effort into this, which means sacrificing the hours that you could spend working.
You have to regularly advertise your work on social media and other online communities to continuously find clients. Running out of clients means running out of money, so this can be a large part of your workload.
Once you've attracted potential clients to your work, you then have to spend quite a lot of time speaking with them , to see whether you are a good fit for their project, negotiating the transaction. Once they become your client, you need to talk with them EVEN MORE to keep them updated on progress, get feedback.
I often have to conduct research for specific projects. I usually take on projects that really excite me, so the kinds of research I have to conduct are things like how the joints in a suit of armour function so I can draw it properly, or learn the anatomy of a horse so I can paint a cavalry charge.
I spend some time before every painting collecting references to help me during the creation process. These might be photographs, or art I feel inspired by, or diagrams of how something functions.
Since I’m a one man show, I also have to invoice my clients, keep a close on my income and expenses, and file my taxes every year.
You might be able to outsource and delegate some of this work as you become more successful. Of course, that means you have to start managing people to some degree.
I also personally spend a lot of time researching and developing my own projects outside of client work, such as SelfEmployedArtist.com. It’s extremely common for freelancers to have their own projects, for something to pour their energy into when the client work is thin, and hopefully earn additional income with.
What a freelance artist’s day looks like
Freelancers typically work online, and from home.
I personally cycle 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.
Sometimes if I’m struggling to concentrate at home, I’ll grab my stuff and head over to a cafe or co-working space filled with other freelancers and people who work online on their own businesses.
Speaking of adjusting things for work, I 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.
Sometimes a client will need me to work at specific times for communication’s sake, but more often than not I’m just given a deadline for certain milestones and left to handle my schedule on my own!
As you can imagine, this is a blessing and a curse - I get to take time off whenever I want to, but it can be easy to fritter away the days taking things a bit too easy, and suddenly need to cram work to make your deadlines.
Self-motivation and discipline go a long way in this profession. I’m a bit of a night owl, so I don’t normally start my work day till around 1pm. I have a feeling this is typical of freelance artists ;)
When I stop working really depends on the day. I may only get 2 hours of work in, I may keep working until the early hours of the morning.
Also, I’ve listened to A LOT of audio while painting - music, films, podcasts, audiobooks; being a freelance artist, you can feel a little isolated sitting by yourself for hours on end, so having something to listen to while you work is a godsend.
Since I work online I frequently travel while working. Maybe I’ll be in Thailand, maybe Sweden, maybe I’ll be staying with relatives in the UK. This ties in with freelance providing you with an opportunity to bend life to fit your needs, reducing expenses to work less, and spend that extra time doing other things (family, hobbies, side hustles and building business etc).
The last but not the least thing that needs to be mentioned is the fluctuating pay. Besides the work itself being irregular and unpredictable, payments can be late, payments can be delayed, some payments take 90 days by default. I am always prepared that pay is up and down. Feast and famine.
How do you become a freelance artist?
I know the appeal of this job is in creating art for a living, and I’ve just listed off loads of other work that you have to do as well.
I need you to know that becoming a freelance artist was the first step of the most rewarding thing I’ve done with my life; it’s led me to be able to travel around the world while painting pictures of knights and dragons for a living.
It also made me develop some extremely valuable friendships and skills that I simply don't think I’d have without it, and it’s given me the knowledge and determination to create this website you’re on right now.
If you’re interested in a career like this, the first step to becoming a freelance artist is to learn some type of digital art.
The type of art I do myself is called digital painting. There's a whole host of other types of digital art, like sculpting or animating, but they aren't really my expertise so I don't feel qualified to teach them right now.
Who knows, maybe in the future!