Sometimes I receive emails asking for advice on how to do what I do: Draw pictures for money. Recently a new-to-the-game illustrator named Patrick聽reached out to me. I asked him if I could post my (adapted) response here because I think it can help other aspiring illustrators too. Here it goes.

I love what I do.

But it鈥檚 tough.

(We all knew that was coming.)

I assume the advice you鈥檙e seeking is how to make money (find clients and know what to charge)鈥? Those were my questions when I first started.

First of all, it鈥檚 okay to not know what you鈥檙e doing. When you鈥檙e new, you should be especially fearless about asking questions. I say this because when I was new, I felt paralyzed (in terms of asking for help) because I thought that working for myself meant I was supposed to be an expert. How silly! I could have had a much easier time if I was comfortable asking lots of questions (including asking for work and asking people how much they charge). Speaking of questions, make sure your questions are specific.

Email & Reaching Out

Next time you email someone seeking advice, ask that person what you really want to know. You don鈥檛 really want advice, you want answers. Is it how to make money? How they found their clients? How they built up their internet presence? What are three things they wish they knew/did before they started working for themselves? Did they have a breakthrough moment or has it been slow and steady? I remember so desperately wanting someone to tell me the magic formula. But there isn鈥檛 one. It comes with a lot of work and curiosity. In those brain picking emails, just ask a couple of easy-to-answer questions, and I鈥檓 certain you鈥檒l get more replies than asking for general advice. We鈥檙e all busy. If I鈥檓 in over my head for work, a well-intentioned advice-seeking email from someone I don鈥檛 know can easily get pushed back because it takes me a minute to think, 鈥淗mmm鈥 how do I summarize all of my experiences and lessons learned into a concise email?鈥 vs. 鈥淲hat are three things I wish I did differently 鈥 that鈥檚 easy!鈥 Specific questions are less daunting. Unfortunately, I have emails from four months ago that have still gone unanswered because they came at a time when I was slammed and every passing day pushes them further back in the inbox. I feel awful about this. On that note, it鈥檚 nice to check in if you haven鈥檛 heard back from someone a week later. They probably want to respond, but they鈥檙e busy. If you pop in quick, it will probably be a nice reminder. At least that鈥檚 how I feel when people check in.

Stay Curious

Absorb, absorb, absorb. Read all the books, articles, TED talks, etc. that you can. Invest in meeting people in the field and becoming friends with them. Start with one conference a year. Go into it with the expectation that you want to walk away with friends in the industry. If you can鈥檛 go to a conference, go to a Dribbble meetup,聽AIGA event, Under the Radar (if you鈥檙e in Austin), conferences, lectures, etc. There are tons of places where artists/designers/makers gather. I promise this gets easier in time. Take it one day (or event at a time). If there are zero get-to-know-your-local-illustrator happenings in your area, what鈥檚 stopping you from starting up a monthly Happy Hour? (It鈥檚 called Drink and Draw.)

A big turning point for me was when I made the kind of close friends where I could just text things like, 鈥淗ey, do you think charging X-amount is good for this project?鈥 or, 鈥淗ow do you handle it when a client wants a project really fast? Do you do a rush fee? If so, how much?鈥

Finding Clients

Now let鈥檚 talk about the long game.

It takes time. Share your work and share it often. Don鈥檛 be afraid to ask for help every step of the way. Email your friends and family and tell them that you鈥檙e doing this big thing (pursuing illustration as a career) and you鈥檇 like them to keep you in mind for work.

Encourage them to help you spread the word. Make sure to give them specific examples of what you can do since most people don鈥檛 really know what illustration actually entails (other than children鈥檚 books).

You can also email other illustrators you know and tell them you鈥檙e looking for X-type of work and keep you in mind in case their plates get full and they need extra help. That email alone could move you to the top of someone鈥檚 list (they may have a lot of illustration friends but we鈥檙e all busy. It鈥檚 easier to refer a client to the first person that comes to mind that feels like the right fit).

I鈥檓 also a big fan of projects like the聽100 Day Project. It helps establish your credibility (lots of output in a short amount of time) and gives you a great backlog of work.


There鈥檚 a lot I could say here (perhaps another post another day!), but I鈥檒l keep this one brief.

One way to learn what to charge: If you feel completely incapable of knowing what to charge or how to price your work, reach out to someone who鈥檚 doing what you want to be doing and ask them what their rate is for a one hour Skype consultation. Paying them for an hour of their time ensures that neither of you means funny business. That is your time for real talk and real answers. Walk through your projects and tell them what you charged and see what they think. Did you charge too little? Should you have done fewer revisions before kicking in the hourly rate? How would they have quoted the project? Hopefully, this person will either give you the peace of mind knowing that you鈥檙e on the right track or they鈥檒l help you understand what you鈥檙e worth (and what the market actually pays). Best case scenario: You learn a lot and now you鈥檙e friends with someone you admire.

Handy resources having to do with money/pricing:

And finally鈥

You can be doing everything right and it still feels like you鈥檙e swimming upstream. It takes time. Or you can just be doing everything wrong. That鈥檚 possible too.

But that鈥檚 why community is so important. When we鈥檙e in dialog with other people in our industry, we kind of develop this barometer for what 鈥渞ight鈥 looks like (I know I know, there isn鈥檛 one right path blah blah). You鈥檒l make it harder on yourself if you just wing it. Be proactive about this dialog.

It鈥檚 okay to be the first (or only) person in your circle who is really honest about stuff like money.

Why not? What do you have to lose? When my friends and I told each other what we make, we suddenly felt more invested in each other. We had a bond and a trust. This doesn鈥檛 have to be your approach, but sometimes it just takes one person to ask the honest questions and everyone else follows suit.

And finally-finally鈥

Don鈥檛 be too proud to get a job. There is dignity in all work. I can鈥檛 decide if I did the right thing sticking to the freelance life even when I was barely getting by. It鈥檚 all fine and dandy now, but I missed out on a lot of life (and money) just because I was too stubborn to get a job. It doesn鈥檛 have to be permanent (but it鈥檚 okay if it is). You are not a failure if you decide to go back to the office. You are wise and taking care of yourself.

Well, that concludes this installment of, 鈥淪o You Want to Be an Illustrator?鈥 or whatever I titled it (I can鈥檛 remember, and if I scroll up, I will lose my place).

I hope my mistakes and 鈥渟cenic routes鈥 can give you a shortcut or two on your own journey.

Sally forth!

You have a few of Becky鈥檚 freelancing tips. Now learn more about her design skills in our Digital Illustration in Adobe Illustrator online class.

This article was originally published by Becky Simpson on Medium. All illustrations in this post are by Becky Simpson and some can be found in her store, Chipper Things.