Moira Zahra


Freelancing 101

My workspace

I've decided to reopen my blog and now the layout's a little messed up because I changed the whole website format. A post called 'Visual Communication' doesn't have a featured image ironically enough, but I'll get to it eventually. 

Anyway, the subject of this post is Freelancing; I had mentioned briefly in my last post (September - quite a while ago I know... what can I say? Visuals>Words) I found myself living in Edinburgh and decided to give freelancing a shot. This is my first full year of freelancing and I'm aware that I'm still in the honeymoon period. I have already learned quite a bit and I realise I still have a lot of barriers to cross.

When I was lecturing, many of my students wanted to do freelance work after graduating, but most did not know where and how to begin. In this post I will be sharing a few points that I've learned from freelancing as an illustrator so far, and other questions that I've yet to find a solution to.

No 1. Social Media presence: Self-promotion can feel a bit dirty, but it has to be done, just watch the tone.

I started sharing my work online ages ago on Deviantart, a social art website that is now mostly used by anime and fantasy artists. Nonetheless, Deviantart showed me how many artists liked (and disliked) my work, exposed me to other digital artwork and I got some constructive feedback from there. My work was quite bad in my Deviantart days, but everyone needs to start somewhere.

Since then I've never stopped putting my work online. I share my work on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I would say 80% of my work comes in via social media and people / companies who come across my work on my social media pages. I think a freelancer would find it challenging to survive without social media in 2017. There are so many fantastic artists around that you have to keep reminding viewers that you exist, without spamming their feed.

Self-promotion on social media does tend to feel a bit dirty. It's very much a 'me, me, me!" world, but that's why you need to think about what to post. Keep it active but interesting, informative, pretty at least! Aside from bringing in clients, being active online encourages production.

No 2. Create Projects not single drawings/sketches (I’ve stolen this one from Will Terry, too good not to share!)

If you're a budding freelance illustrator, you must subscribe to Will Terry's videos. There's a wealth of knowledge in there. Click here to be redirected.

Shortly after I arrived in Scotland and was still getting started with freelance work, I had a good free few weeks. I was ecstatic that I had all this time to draw for myself (after working full-time for seven years) and so, a project was born. Above is a cover from a book about native Scottish Leaves and Trees that I created specifically for my nephew and niece in Malta. The project required some research, illustration, layout, printing and all the work that goes in creating a finished book. This project was a great start to my full-time freelancing as it provided me with inspiration, motivation and a new thing for my portfolio.

Projects tend to be more meaningful than single drawings, and show potential clients that as a freelancer, you are capable of creating something from start to finish. A single pretty drawing might get you a few likes and perhaps even a commission, but it won't be any good for your portfolio usually. Projects can also serve as adverts for your services. 

No 3. Don’t be a d*ck

There's this brilliant book for designers called 'Please, don't be a dick' although you'll need to email then to get an eBook.

'The customer is always right' how many times have you heard that one? I for one have heard it countless times given that my parents have their own business. I can now confirm it is (mostly) true. Being nice and polite is usually more important than anything else. If you're a d*ck, clients will not return, will not recommend you and might even cost you other clients. Politely decline when you don't wish to work for free, send *kind* reminders when the pay-cheque hasn't arrived (yes reminders - plural. Sometimes you have to do it more than once). I've always regretted losing my temper with clients, even when I was right to do so. Ultimately, if you're a d*ck, you'll suffer along with the customer.

No 4. Give each project the time and attention, even if it’s low-paid.

When you're desperate for work, especially in the beginning, you can easily fall in the trap of saying yes to work that doesn't pay enough, then hurrying it up because you don't want to waste too much time on it. Guess what? Now, not only have you not been paid as much as you should have been, but you have nothing to show in your portfolio. When I was still studying I was guilty of agreeing to do low-paid projects and in return creating low-quality work. In the end it just made me feel worse about myself and my work. If you agree to do a low-paid job (ideally you don't), do it well anyway and try to enjoy it, at least you'll have something to show online later and hopefully get better work in the future.

The illustration above is part of a series that I created for 'Glamourosity' a website that included a cancer-survivor's journal. I did this work for free because the website aimed to help people in need find sponsorships, so it made sense that I would sponsor my work. I still gave it the same attention as I do to other paid projects. I had fun with it and I love how the drawings turned out.

No 5. Think hard before saying yes (unless you’re literally just starting out)

At the moment I am working on many different projects and struggling to finish them all on time, but I'm enjoying every minute of it because I've said yes to projects that I want to do. Saying no to projects can be hard when you're trying to make ends meet - if you're not sure whether you want to say yes or no, check out Point No.6.

Saying yes to everything just turns your portfolio into a big mess and fills up your time with work that you don't want to do. Do experiment with your style but do it for yourself and to improve your own work. Don't say yes to a logo if you can't work with Vectors, don't say yes to a storyboard if you work slow, don't say yes to huge projects that you simply do not want to do. When a good project does come along, you'll want to have the available time and energy to do it. Sometimes you're just better off doing your own thing.

 I've read somewhere that as a designer, you're only as good as your worst piece of work. One odd project in a portfolio might be ignored by clients, but if 50% of your projects are incoherent, you're not going to look professional, and guess who wants to work with people who aren't professional? You've guessed it - those who have a very low budget.

The only exception here is if you're just starting out and you might not know exactly which direction you would like to take. Doing a variety of projects might help you realise what you enjoy doing, and eventually say yes to those projects only. I've said yes to music videos in the past, I still love the results - but now I leave them to the pros :)

No. 6. How to know whether you should say yes or no to a project - also stolen from Will Terry
Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 16.13.26.png

This point is from a Will Terry youtube Video and I've found these three points very helpful when deciding on whether or not I should go for a project:

1. Will I enjoy the project?

2. Will I get paid enough?

3. Will it be good for my portfolio?

If you answer no to all three, then the project isn't worth doing. If the answer to any of these is yes, then go ahead. Obviously give priority to projects that tick all three. Will Terry makes an exception for when it comes to family asking you to do something for them. Say yes, but with caution. If it's something you can do quickly, do it (do you really want those awkward moments during family Christmas parties?). If it's a task that will take up a big chunk of your time, be nice & politely explain why it doesn't make sense for you to do this project.

To these I would also add: give priority to repeat clients. Repeat clients are essential for freelancers and sometimes they might have a project which might not pay enough or might not be interesting enough, but it's meaningful to them. In this case, it's worth reconsidering whether you should do the project or not.

No 7. Learn the tricks of the trade

'Ugly' art is very fashionable at the moment. I've seen a book at Waterstones about contemporary illustrators who choose to draw as if they can't draw (can't for the life of me remember the name!), as a response to the 'pretty' media overload that they experience everyday. How long will this movement last? Hey... maybe for a good few years! I quite enjoy some 'ugly' art myself. Purposely badly-drawn illustrations can be fresh although I do tend to appreciate work that has at least SOME good use of formal elements... say a badly drawn line but a cool colour scheme & some interesting texture, a good story / concept at least!

My advice to up and coming freelancers is to learn the tricks of the trade first. I'm sure I'm not the first illustrator to say this, but it's because it is vital especially in these times where everyone wants instant success/fame. You will have time to create ugly art if you want to, just as Picasso and many other artists started to experiment with their work after they were traditional painters. Resist the temptation of taking shortcuts. If you're a young artist, take the time to learn artistic skills inside out - then smash them to pieces if you really want to. There are always exceptions of one-of-a-kind artists who create amazing work without training themselves in a traditional sense, but an exception is indeed that - an exception.

No 8. Look at other work.
Sir Francis Grant's painting of his daughter, Daisy (painted in 1857) at the National Gallery of Scotland

Sir Francis Grant's painting of his daughter, Daisy (painted in 1857) at the National Gallery of Scotland

The other day I posted the above two pictures side by side on my Facebook Page. I explained how when I visit art galleries, I take note of colour schemes, composition, textures and then apply them in my own work - very differently of course, but they would have been my very important starting point. The colours chosen in the dog pattern were inspired by the painting above, can you see it?

I've had students presenting their own work when asked to present contextual research, and at first I couldn't comprehend why this was happening. I later realised that some artists just don't enjoy researching. There is great work out there, spend the time to look around. Collect images, watch videos, play games, consume the right kind of media. Go to a gallery on your way home from college/work. Make the effort to find new artists. This will influence what you create, in a positive way.

No 9. Skill isn’t everything
One of my drawings for SARTO multi-luxury boutique in St.Julians, Malta

One of my drawings for SARTO multi-luxury boutique in St.Julians, Malta

A some sort of counter-argument to No. 7. I tend to notice that sometimes skillful illustrators don't bother with an interesting concept for their work. They just draw whatever comes to mind first, random people or environments... (I do it as well sometimes, hey I'm not perfect!). No thought is seemingly present behind the work, not much to discuss. Why does this happen? My take on this is that skillful artists will get hundreds or thousands of likes/promotions just by posting a great drawing of a nose. People in general appreciate skillful drawing because it's not something they are able to do themselves. 'Ugly' art artists often produce more thought-provoking work because their artwork is meant to focus on the idea rather than the skill.

I do wonder why skill/idea aren't combined more often in illustration. Of course they ARE combined sometimes and that's what, in my opinion, makes a truly great piece of work. If you're a skillful artist, just pause for a second and think of what you're going to draw before drawing a pretty eye. Try to provoke people, just don't go overboard. Just because you're a 'commercial' artist doesn't mean your work shouldn't be more introspective. The best work is often simple, skillful and thoughtful. 

No. 10. Have a plan B

Let's put our feet on the ground for a second. Freelancing means there might be times where you don't have any work. Are you able to survive? When my husband was freelancing, I was working full-time. Now that I'm freelancing, my husband works full-time. Thankfully I have consistent work but I know that if I get a dry spell, I will survive. Your Plan B doesn't have to be your partner of course, you might still be living at home with your parents. You might already own a house and not have a massive loan or have to pay large rent expenses every month. You might need to get a part-time job to help you kickstart your venture, or you might just need to save some money before you start freelancing.

Before I moved to Scotland, I visited Andrew Diacono's (a brilliant Maltese sculptor whom I greatly admire) studio. My husband and I met him by accident when walking by his studio and he was nice enough to invite us in. We talked about many things but one thing I will always remember is that he told us that an artist cannot create when he doesn't have money to eat and survive. I cannot agree more and I personally would not be able to create any decent work as a so-called 'starving' artist. Have a plan B if you can afford to have it, and your freelance work will be better because you won't be desperate to survive.

No 11. Reflection

Perhaps you do this without thinking but it's truly essential when you're freelancing. Reflect on your work. Reflect before you start, evaluate when you are done. Allocate time for reflection, spend some time to think about the way forward. Look at your website (make sure you have one!) does it represent you? Do you need to eliminate a few things and add new work? How can you improve? What's holding you back? Reflection can help you stay on track and find your way when you feel a little lost.

No 12. Get out there!
Launch of 'Politicks' Card Game by LogHob games

Launch of 'Politicks' Card Game by LogHob games

Seriously, get out there! Socialise, take part in projects, game jams, comic cons, talks, workshops. I cannot tell you how many great projects I've been involved in by stepping out of the house every now and then and making an effort to meet likeminded people, and I'm not even a great socialiser. More sociable freelancers must get tonnes of work just by getting out of the house! As great as social media is, it will never replace face to face communication. Actual socialising is more genuine than social media. It will get you more work, you will make contacts and hopefully new friends as well.

Illustrators can be solitary. I know because I love working on my own, in a quiet room without any distractions, but networking is essential when you're working for yourself. Find a way how to incorporate it in your life, it can be very rewarding and a lot of fun.

No. 13. Don’t give up

Here's a feel good one for you; Don't give up. I wasn't a great illustrator when I started out. I'm not saying I'm the best illustrator out there, but I like my work and I'm happy with what I do. I'm confident about it but it's taken me a while to get here. Often, harsh (& constructive) feedback is the best way to move forward, so don't be afraid to put your work out there and ask for feedback. 

If you're not getting work remember to create your own projects, do your own work. Nothing will get you work faster than actually working. The best projects I've been involved in have always come through self-initiated projects, which is why I keep doing my own thing.

I started A Space Boy Dream comic with my husband and parter-in-crime, Mark Scicluna. It was an intensive weekly project that took so much of our time. That said, it was also one of the most rewarding and it brought our work to the spotlight.

I started A Space Boy Dream comic with my husband and parter-in-crime, Mark Scicluna. It was an intensive weekly project that took so much of our time. That said, it was also one of the most rewarding and it brought our work to the spotlight.

And here are the things I'm still figuring out as a freelance illustrator.

1. Knowing I can work when I'm on holiday sometimes means I actually work on holiday. I tell myself that it will be 'just a couple of sketches' and that 'It'll be fun, just like drawing for myself'. It really doesn't work that way. Client projects require time, effort and lots of idea generation, basically stuff you really don't want to be doing when you're sunbathing.

2. Creating my ideal timetable just isn't happening at the moment. I work office hours, ok maybe I wake up a little later but I can't shake off the 9 - 5. (I didn't even work office hours before so this baffles me to no end) How do I do it? I'm sure there are better work hours out there.

3. Working remotely from cafes, pubs etc.. I do spend time sketching outdoors and in cafes sometimes, but I work so much better at home. I will be trying this thing called 'Shoal' this friday. Shoal is an Edinburgh-based start-up where freelancers work at each other's homes. It's an interesting way to socialise and create a 'work' environment. Excited to see how that will work out.

That's all from me for today, hope some of these tips have been helpful to budding freelancers out there!