The pros and cons of being a freelance illustrator (2023)

The pros and cons of being a freelance illustrator (1)

"What good is a book without pictures or conversations?" These are Alice's thoughts before meeting the White Rabbit in her adventures in Wonderland.

And you have probably asked yourself a similar question if you are an artist or an illustrator. Illustrators are visual storytellers - this is their main superpower!

But illustration encompasses much more than making attractive illustrations for books. A career in illustration offers a wide range of specializations for illustrators seeking full-time freelance work.

"It's more than just designing images for books. It's about reaching many different audiences with almost any material imaginable."- Georgia Salisbury, UK-based freelance illustrator

Are you currently part of an in-house design team or are you in a completely different career and want to focus on freelance illustration? You are probably wondering how to put together a freelance illustrator resume, build your client base, what is the steady source of income, and many other questions.

Today, we take a look at the ins and outs of freelancing and how to prepare for a career as a freelance illustrator. We also asked some freelance illustrators to share their ideas, and we'll share them with you!

Freelance illustration as a career

Most illustrators have a background in illustration, graphic design, fine art (including print), visual communication, motion graphics, or animation.

Some illustrators also have a background in marketing, education, and writing.

But many professional illustrators are self-taught, and they stumbled into their careers because people liked the cartoons they drew in their school textbooks. And others switched later in their careers to pursue their custom illustration sideline.

"We drew a lot in college, and little by little I started drawing people instead of making them realistic...Soon people started liking the caricatures I made of them and I started getting too deep into illustrations."- Akshita Nandanwar, freelance illustrator from India

What do freelance illustrators do?

An illustrator is a commercial artist and designer and may work with both analog and (or) digital media. These materials range from pen and ink to sophisticated effects created with design software.

Illustrators are highly-skilled artists who have honed their craft to convey information in easy-to-digest visualizations, such as:children's book illustrationsocorporate illustrations.

If you work as an illustrator for a company, you've probably come across different techniques.

But if you're new to freelance illustration, it's good to know what kind of projects and specializations you can pursue.

Lisa Congdon, who made a career as a freelance illustrator, continues her Skillshare courseProfessional Illustration Practicethat while illustration is fun, it's still work. And the job of an illustrator is to produce work that makes clients happy.

Here are some different illustration specializations to consider:

digital illustrator

A very generic term for any illustrator who works with digital media. Digital illustrators tend to add a certain flair or flair to their artwork. This is because digital illustration takes full advantage of all the tools and effects that design and animation software has to offer.

Digital artists work in various industries such as digital art, typography, game design, graphic design, 3D illustration, and even 3D printing.

With digital art becoming so accessible, versatile, and increasingly popular, many freelance illustrators start their careers in this specialization or incorporate it into their illustration skills.

“At first, freelancing made sense to me since I lived far from home and wanted to work remotely. Today I prefer to work as a freelance because it allows me to work on a wide range of projects and with different clients."- Joe Baraka, Freelance Illustrator from Kenya

Designer of book covers or illustrator of books.

Some illustrators specialize in bringing the author's books to life with the art of illustration. Choosing book cover illustration as your specialization gives you the opportunity to establish yourself as a go-to place for authors publishing new books.

Sometimes writers know exactly how they want their book cover and illustrations to look, but they are more likely to work closely with their clients to translate the narrative into visual form.

This can be very challenging and rewarding as you become more familiar with the author's content and style, often learning new skills and techniques in the process.

Surface or textile designer

Traditionally, textile design has involved how fibers are woven into fabric and patterns are created on it.

More recently, the term "surface pattern design" or surface design is used to encompass any new idea, technique, and texture available in the textile world for mass-produced items such as t-shirt designs and packaging designs.

Being a surface designer means changing the pattern of a material's surface with variations in texture and color.

Dyeing, painting, printing, embroidery, quilting, weaving, knitting, felting, and other fabric embellishments are part of surface design. Other techniques include papermaking, fabric-based wall art, sculptural basketry, and collage.

As you can see, creating artwork for surfaces and textiles offers experience with a wide variety of materials. Freelance illustrators who advance to this specialization work with design software to create illustrations and patterns and become adept at preparing graphics for printing on a variety of surfaces.


If you've always loved fashion and create looks for your family and friends, fashion illustration is a great option for the next step in your career.

Unlike technical sketches (“blueprints” for pattern makers and confectioners) created by fashion designers, fashion illustrators have the freedom to create beautiful, stand-alone works of art that emphasize the pose of the model and the style of the fabric.

You can develop your style and choose the proportions of your model (sometimes three heads larger than the standard proportions!)

Concept artist or character designer.

Many illustrators find that they want to pursue a career in illustration by creating cartoon characters in their own style. As an illustrator working in the animation, game, and film industries, he can specialize in character design.

Character designers are part of the pre-production team for movies, which means they do pre-production work before filming or animation begins.

Likewise, concept artists are illustrators who imagine and visualize environments, objects, characters, vehicles, and other details for animated films, video games, and film sets.

The role of the concept artist is crucial, as their illustrations bring the director's ideas to life and guide the clay modeling, VFX, and set design teams in creating characters and sets.

Sites like ArtStation are dedicated to showcasing character designs and concept art.

educational illustrator

In education, informative and entertaining illustrations are often needed to convey complex concepts or recorded history.

Educational illustrations also provide decorative visuals for textbooks and online classes to grab students' attention and motivate them to learn.

Few people are motivated to learn when faced with a monochrome block of text. Creative illustrations can be used to enhance the learning experience, making it more dynamic and memorable.

As an educational illustrator, you focus on important details so that the student can remember the information. You will also tailor the illustrations to the demographics of the study group and the topic at hand.

scientific illustrator

Closely related to educational illustrations, scientific illustrations are precise and detailed.

Also known as natural history illustrations, these illustrations focus less on concepts and more on accurately depicting the anatomy of organic specimens.

Medical illustration focuses on human and animal anatomy, particularly organs, tissues, and cells that are not normally visible. In the botanical illustration, each part of a specific plant is represented to identify the specimen by specific characteristics.

Scientific illustration offers a long history to draw from, and illustrators who specialize in this field often have a passion for anatomy and botany.

technical illustrator

When it is necessary to convey detailed technical information in an image, companies hire a technical illustrator to create drawings for them. This person has a firm grasp of three-dimensional space and effectively conveys a sense of volume and distance.

The pros and cons of being a freelance illustrator (2)

Technical illustrators may have a background in art and design or engineering and specialize in technical drawings to show machine parts or inventions. Technical drawings are measured and accurate, such as:

  • Line art to represent the shape and dimensions of objects.
  • isometric, orthographic and axonometric drawings
  • perspective drawings
  • Exploded views and sections
  • Illustrations for user manuals
  • Animations that show how the machines work.
  • the image map

In the case of illustrated maps, these do not necessarily have to be to scale and can be more artistic and fun.

sign writer

Signmaking is a respected profession with a rich history and requires a high level of design and widely applied signmaking skills.

Signers are illustrators who decorate buildings with elaborate designs and hand lettering, create chalkboard menus, and paint murals for advertising and marketing purposes.

Once upon a time, before fancy large-format vinyl printing, a sign maker used chalkboard, glass, gold, enamel paint, or wood to create signs for storefronts, vehicles, and commercial interiors.

Today you can plan and design your signs and murals with software and then transfer them to the building or store with CAD/CAM.

Traditional handmade signs are becoming increasingly popular, with many businesses choosing to support their local artists rather than purchase vinyl decals.

publishing illustrator

Remember how you used to cut cool illustrations out of magazine stories? Editorial illustrators create these illustrations.

Editorial illustrations differ from cartoons in that they provide compelling images for newspaper columns, magazine articles, or blogging platforms. The purpose of these illustrations is to capture the reader's attention and provide context for the text that surrounds them.


If you want to create short, powerful visual stories or illustrate them for clients, caricatures might be the right choice for your freelance illustration career.

There are many styles of animation, from comics (the "fun") to comic strips and comics. Find your own style to make your cartoon characters attractive and unforgettable.

The difference between editorial illustration and cartooning is that cartoons tell a story in just a few frames and, in most cases, contain speech bubbles and other text to indicate sound and motion effects.

Illustrator stock image

This isn't technically a job title, but there are plenty of freelance illustrators selling artwork on sites like Freepik and Shutterstock.

these oftenvector illustrationsof signs and symbols sold in bundles of SVG files that you can open in design software to edit and customize however you like.

Many in-house illustrators and graphic designers working in corporations rely on these images for faster turnaround times for custom corporate designs.

artist 3D

Another specialization that is increasingly in demand is 3D illustration. 3D artists use 3D design software to create characters, objects, and environments that can be explored from all angles.

If you are ready to venture into the three-dimensional digital world or want to create realistic and believable illustrations that can be scaled and projected from different angles, then you can get into 3D art and all that it entails.

3D illustration is also a great foundation to start a career in animation if that's the path you're taking. You can try some animated projects to build those extra skills and build an online portfolio.

Can you be an illustrator without studying?

To become a freelance illustrator, you don't necessarily have to go to art or design school.

Do you have artistic or design talent and have you completed a few personal projects to build a strong portfolio? So there's no reason why you can't introduce yourself as a freelance illustrator.

Some of the most influential illustrators and animators of all time were self-taught, such as Beatrix Potter (The story of Pedro Coelhoand other classics) and Hayao Miyazaki (co-founder ofstudio ghibli), respectively.

So don't let a lack of formal higher education stop you from starting your career as a freelancer.

Here are some pro tips for gaining experience and building a portfolio of independent artworks:

  • Participate in drawing and design contests.
  • Address design challenges like36 days ason social networks
  • Find some small freelance illustration jobs on freelance platforms like Dribbble and Fiverr
  • Explore various design software packages and test your skills
  • Tomashort online coursesin illustration and design

We've looked at the different illustration specializations, now we'll look at the pros and cons and your next steps towards self-employment.

Benefits of being a freelance illustrator

Did you know that in Old English, a "freelancer" was a medieval mercenary? In essence, a freelancer was a "soldier," a freelance soldier who could assist a lord who needed additional fighters in his army.

Today, as in medieval times, as a freelancer you can choose your battles and your masters (and their fee).

work from anywhere

There's a reason the word "free" appears in "independent"! An independent career gives you the freedom to travel and vacation whenever you want.

Sure, it's all about balancing workload and free time, but you don't have to commit to an office or coworking space if it doesn't suit your work style.

motivated to learn

Any type of project you tackle is an opportunity to learn new skills and grow as a freelance artist and illustrator.

“I ended up specializing in other projects. Some of these works include podcast covers, technical diagrams for a tech company, book illustrations, and poster designs.- Georgia Salisbury, UK-based freelance illustrator

Set your own rates

You can decide how much you want to pay and whether you want to work by project or request hourly rates.

“I advise young freelance illustrators to do some research on how to sign contracts and what terms and conditions to include in the contract to protect yourself. And always get a contract or memorandum of understanding (MOU) before you start work.”- Akshita Nandanwar, freelance illustrator from India

Close cooperation with customers

One of the best things about freelance illustration is choosing your clients and working closely with them to produce your best work.

Maintaining client relationships and seeking client satisfaction is an essential part of freelancing.

"I soon connected with a forestry company who hired me to create graphics for their operations manuals and training materials...I've freelanced for companies, agencies and brands around the world including Google, Campari, Ogilvy Africa, Kiwi Kenya , Thou hast heard (ZA) and more."- Joe Baraka, Freelance Illustrator from Kenya

A measure of artistic freedom.

Each illustrator has their own unique approach or style that makes their work stand out. When you work for a company, you are often expected to meetbrand rules, including colors, shapes, and style. As a freelance illustrator, clients will choose you for their projects because they want you to create illustrations in their style for them.

"Being a freelance illustrator is really rewarding as you have the freedom to pursue projects and work that interest you and enjoy the knowledge that the client came to you specifically because they loved your work."- Georgia Salisbury, UK-based freelance illustrator

earn money with passion

As a freelance illustrator or digital artist, you can dig deeper into the projects you're interested in and find ways to sell your designs without the need for client documentation, etc.

For example, you can display or sell your work at stock photography agencies, NFT marketplaces, and online stores to diversify your income stream and keep money coming your way.

Few things beat the feeling that others appreciate your work and are willing to pay you for it!

Disadvantages of being a freelance illustrator

Okay, let's be real. A freelance illustration career isn't always a bed of roses.

It is important to consider the possible disadvantages of freelancing to be 100% sure that this is the right path for you.

Initial setup costs

If you don't have the necessary hardware and software to create and sell your artwork, setting it up can be very expensive.

These are features that a company would normally provide if you were working as an in-house illustrator, but remember that you don't need to have everything to get started.

A laptop should be fine to start with, and later on (when you start earning money from your job) you can get an iPad and an Apple Pencil or other illustration devices you may need for your career.

The pros and cons of being a freelance illustrator (3)

Limit the amount of work you can do

As a freelancer, you are essentially a one man band.

If your work is in high demand (yes!), you may have to put off some projects or say no because all you can do is do it.Alsoa lot of.

In this sense, it is also good to know your limits and measure your pace. If clients like your work, they will be willing to wait or set slower deadlines.

floating income

As you start and build your customer base, your income will vary in the amount and frequency of your payment compared to a monthly salary at a company.

You can prepare for this by saving at least three months of salary to ensure you can pay your rent and bills when work slows down.

Manage yourself admin

Depending on your skills and personality, this might not be a handicap, but it will put extra work on you.

Running an independent business adds additional responsibilities such as: B. maintaining client files, correspondence, drafting contracts, quoting and billing, paying your own salary, etc.

The pros and cons of being a freelance illustrator (4)

You might consider hiring an agent to help you build your client base, handle the sales and marketing side of things, and hire an accountant to keep your finances in check.

“There are no superiors to report to and you have to have the guts to continue standing out, working efficiently and knowing the administrative part of the business. Don't forget, you also calculate margins, prepare budgets, fill out tax forms, etc.!"- Georgia Salisbury, UK-based freelance illustrator

can feel lonely

Being self-employed often means working alone, which can affect your mental health. You can find communities of artists to connect with or opt for a coworking space where you meet and interact with new people on a daily basis.

Maintain a good work-life balance and make time for hobbies, meeting friends and family, spending time with your pets (or plants), and preparing meals.

Are you ready to be a freelancer?

The great question. Are you ready to plunge into a full-time career as a freelance illustrator? Here's our quick checklist to make sure you have everything you need:

  • Primary Skills:Design (analog and digital), a basic understanding ofTheory of colormidesign principles.
  • Secondary Skills:Project management, professional communication, simple accounting.
  • Gear:Digital illustration software such as Vectornator, iPad and Apple Pencil or laptop, high resolution scanner.
  • Places to sell your illustrations:autonomous Sites,art printsin physical stores and markets, publish your own books, sell NFTs, etc.
  • An online portfolio:Instagram, Pinterest, Behance, Dribbble, your own website. The advantage is that you can use Instagram Shopping to sell your work.

your next steps

Freelance illustration can be an exciting and rewarding next step in your career, even if it means moving on from a completely different current job.

As whimsical as it may seem to follow your dreams, it's wise to set up safety nets to ensure you can fail when you start freelancing. Consider the pros and cons, list your non-negotiables, and if you decide to become self-employed, jump in and do the best you can.

“The field can feel quite crowded at times and there will be a lot of competition. Discover Your Niche - What Can You Offer That Others Can't? This could be a particular style or specialize in a specific subject.”- Georgia Salisbury, UK-based freelance illustrator

Whether you choose to focus on specializing or expand your skills as far as possible, your relative success depends on your dedication to your craft and the courage to persevere when the going gets tough.

One last piece of advice from Emma Gannon's Skillshare course on transitioning to a freelance career: Don't feel pressured to set everything up at once. Start small and see what works for you.

Vectornator could be the perfect design software for your career as a freelance illustrator. We offer a freemium version with super powerful tools likelayers,auto tracking, mishape creation tool.

Download Vectornator to get started

Take your designs to the next level.

The pros and cons of being a freelance illustrator (5)
The pros and cons of being a freelance illustrator (6)


What are the benefits of being a freelance artist? ›

Being a freelancer is rewarding in many regards: you can set your own hours, maintaining a flexible schedule that can be set around other responsibilities. You can also take on more work when you are free, and take on less work when you are busy!

What is it like to be a freelance illustrator? ›

Freelancing as an illustrator can be a rewarding career, with opportunities for flexible working hours and locations. It also means you have to be your own boss, manage your own deadlines, produce work to tight specifications, and find new clients on a regular case-by-case basis. It's not easy.

What are the biggest challenges of being a freelancer? ›

5 common challenges for freelancers
  • Finding clients.
  • Increasing pay rates.
  • Maintaining productivity.
  • Meeting unrealistic demands.
  • Getting paid on time.
  • Working alone.

What is the most difficult part about being a freelancer? ›

Our freelancers noted the following issues as the most difficult part of being a freelancer: Organization (23.5%) Lack of consistent work (17.6%) Uncertainty (11.8%)

How stressful is freelancing? ›

It's not uncommon for freelancers to burn out quickly. Whether it's too many deadlines to handle, poor time management skills, or just taking on too much work, the stress is real. It's just different from what most people are used to.

Is being a freelancer stressful? ›

As freelancers, there are so many things that can make us stressed that when I started thinking of a list it felt never ending! There's money – and having to generate our own income – and dealing with all the things that come with that (invoices, taxes, chasing late payments).

Why is freelancing difficult? ›

Managing yourself is also hard

Freelancers don't have a boss to keep tabs on them, so getting tasks done on time requires a greater deal of self-control. You'll never know how tempting a bed is in a cozy rainy afternoon until you have to choose between snuggling up or finishing a task.

What are two reasons why people choose to freelance? ›

Here are some of the top reasons people choose to freelance:
  • Work-Life Balance. ...
  • Desire to Choose When I Work. ...
  • Freedom. ...
  • Desire to Choose Where I Work. ...
  • Desire to Be My Own Boss. ...
  • Desire to Choose My Own Projects. ...
  • Family. ...
  • Commute Stress.

What is the key to success in freelancing? ›

Consider the experiences and expertise you have and how that can help shape and mold your freelance career. Background knowledge or expertise in particular subjects, experience working with clients or companies in particular industries, or even certifications can make you an appealing professional.

How do freelance artists survive? ›

10 Tips for Becoming a Successful Freelance Artist
  1. Register a Creative Business. ...
  2. Come Up With a Business Plan. ...
  3. Create a Website or Online Portfolio. ...
  4. Form a Dedicated Creative Space at Home. ...
  5. Acquire a Few Recurring Clients. ...
  6. Sign Up for Job Boards and Directories. ...
  7. Market Your Services on Social Media. ...
  8. Sell Your Art Online.

How do I become a successful freelance illustrator? ›

10 Tips On How To Become An Illustrator
  1. Delay “Job Quitting” As Soon As Possible.
  2. Take Your Time.
  3. Work Hard.
  4. Build A Strong Portfolio Early On.
  5. Specialize In One Industry.
  6. Take Advantage Of Your “Free Time”
  7. Offer Online Courses To Develop Your Skills.
  8. Research Potential Clients.

How do freelance illustrators make money? ›

How to become a freelance illustrator and how to make money as...
  1. Research your audience.
  2. Try digital art platforms.
  3. Create a portfolio and find freelance work.
  4. Find companies that value digital art.
  5. Become an Illustration Apprentice.
  6. Earn commission as an Ad Artist.
  7. Conclusion.

How much do freelance illustrators make? ›

While ZipRecruiter is seeing annual salaries as high as $129,000 and as low as $19,000, the majority of Freelance Illustrator salaries currently range between $40,000 (25th percentile) to $72,500 (75th percentile) with top earners (90th percentile) making $102,000 annually across the United States.

What are your strengths as a freelancer? ›

No two freelancers or entrepreneurs are the same, but the best and most successful do share some similar characteristics. The ability to work hard, professionalism, communication skills, persistence, passion, self-discipline and initiative are some of the most important characteristics.

What makes beginner freelancers fail? ›

When a freelancer fails, people often think it's due to a lack of skills, but that's not always the case. Usually, they fail because of a lack of business acumen or the discipline required to become a successful freelancer.

What freelancers should not do? ›

8 Common Freelancing Mistakes You Can Avoid
  • Thinking like an employee; limiting your work hours. ...
  • Performing minimally; merely following directions. ...
  • Looking randomly for clients; accepting every project. ...
  • Settling for low pay; ignoring the income aspect. ...
  • Not communicating enough; leaving things unsaid.

What is the most important soft skill to become a freelancer are? ›

Soft skills like communication, thinking creatively, and teamwork all have their place in the work environment. Just because you are a solo professional doesn't mean you work alone. These are the best soft skills to learn as a freelancer.

Why are people afraid of freelancing? ›

It's not fun. And, a lot of people never start freelancing because they're afraid they'll one day face a demanding client who just can't be pleased. OR, they're worried they'll have to keep hounding someone down to get paid. Whatever the scenario it all centers on conflict.

Can freelancers get fired? ›

You can't fire a contractor like you would an employee because they are self-employed, not your employee. But you can terminate your relationship if the worker fails to deliver according to the terms of your contract–if you have one.

Can you get fired from a freelance job? ›

This provision allows the employer to fire an independent contract or an employee without any reason. That said, there are laws that can prevent businesses from taking advantage of employment-at-will provisions. These laws include public policy, employment rights, and contractual rights of the 1099 workers.

When should you quit a freelance job? ›

No gig is forever, and sometimes, you'll be the one to decide that the job no longer meets your needs.
  • When to Quit a Freelance Job.
  • You're Not Making Enough Money.
  • You Wouldn't Use the Work You're Doing in Your Portfolio.
  • You Can't Communicate With Your Primary Contact Person.
  • You Feel Disrespected or Abused by the Client.
Jan 30, 2022

Is it a good idea to be a freelancer? ›

You have unlimited earnings potential

Unlike working for someone else, working as a freelancer allows you the freedom to decide your worth. You can determine your pricing and make adjustments along the way. It's not unrealistic that, at some point, you could be earning more money than working for your current employer.

Is freelancing worth doing? ›

In 2022, companies prefer freelancers because it is cost-effective, and the fact that freelancers are experts of their own niche. The quality of work isn't compromised because the output delivered is satisfactory or sometimes beyond expectations.

Is it worth working as a freelancer? ›

Freelancing Can Also Be Worth it While Job Searching

Freelancing also has big benefits if you're looking for a full-time job but want to work and earn money in the meantime! It shows employers that you're staying active and keeping your skills “fresh,” while also providing you with some side income.

Is it worth paying for freelancer? ›

When freelancers are new to the platform, they will most likely not be making the amount of money that they are worth—often much less than minimum wage. The fees are high for hourly projects. Freelancers have to pay fees even before they are paid. Freelancers can only apply for 8 jobs a month on a free membership plan.


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