How to Find Work Online as an illustrator
Finding Work Online as an Illustrator is Hard
But you don't need me to tell you that, do you?
There are a few things I have learned along the way that have helped me earn my modest living. And while I am always looking for better methods, I want to take a minute to help my brothers and sisters get a hand up! So let's take a look at some of the things I have learned to be important:
1. You have finite resources.
2. Trust me, you don't even want every job you could get.
3. Clients who pay less, expect more.
4. Getting your work seen.
You Have Finite Resources
You have finite time. This is important because it takes time to get work done. As an illustrator there is a cap to the amount of work you can do, and thus a cap to the amount of money you can make as a service professional. Sure, you can improve your skills, and slowly you can get quicker, but it's a long game.
If it takes you 15 hours to do a good job on a piece of card art, then you can't sell it for $100.
That's 3 pieces per week in an unbalanced lifestyle, for the total gain of $300 per week. (Or you can rush through your work, not get repeat clients, and certainly not be building towards the quality expectations of higher paying clients).
Can you live on $1,200 a month? So crank it up to $300 per piece and you might do alright, if you have constant work, good clients, live in a cheap environment, and within the bounds of humble lifestyle choices. We'll get to more constant work in a minute, but here the thought you need to take away from this point.
There are certain markets that won't pay you the money you need. So maybe you don't need to work in them in the traditional capacity. It might be beneficial to find a marketplace that values what you do, so you can continue to do it.
You Don't Want Every Job You Could Get
The biggest reason Bid-freelancing sites are terrible in my opinion is because, as a whole, the sites are presenting you as a commodity. "Are you alright at what you do, and affordable?" Whether your style fits is only of moderate importance as the system presents you. And you want to please. So you pull a piece together in the style dictated...
They are not happy with it because you are not the person who created their dream 90's Saturday morning cartoon that you are modeling after, and it takes you twice as long! IT TAKES YOU TWICE AS LONG and you have finite time, that means a low paying job is now of even less value to you. Take jobs that are outside of your illustration wheelhouse at your own expense.
Instead, try to find places that present you as the valued service, and let the client come to you.
In this scenario you are in charge, but more importantly, the client has already looked through a whole list of people, and has decided that your style is the best. They haven’t seen your price, and already they have bought into the idea of working with you.
They aren't engaging with you because you are cheap, they are engaging with you because you are what they need. And you do you best! So you can afford to charge for the service that they fulfills what they need.
Clients Who Pay Less, Expect More.
(and are terrible... this includes friends or family).
Don't ask me why, but I am yet to be proved wrong. Freelancing gets easier the more your client pays.
Getting your work seen.
I put myself out there on a lot of platforms (Unity connect, Unreal engine forum, Board game geek, Good reads…), but those who get my high attention and practical upkeep are few.
HAI (Hire an Illustrator)
HAI has been immensely useful to me. I can't tell you how much work I have received through there, because it's been a LOT. It costs $1 a day to be up there. For a lot of people that's a deal breaker, but I can tell you that its the cheapest way I have ever advertised, and I know for certain I have received tens of thousands of dollars through there in my time on it. The dollar a day is the last piece of cash they will ever see from you. No commission, no cut, just $1 a day.
On average I get about 1 inquiry a week. That often actually looks like 2 weeks silence and then a number of inquiries in a week. The people who run it will absolutely go out of his way to get you work, will help you set up your portfolio if you are having problems, and help you identify why your portfolio isn't currently working at its best.
They have a "News" system where you post your most recent works and that guarantees you get on the front page of the whole website, as well as get shouted out on social media.
There was a period where I wasn't getting much action through there and I talked to him about it. They redid my portfolio, bio wording, and then organised to have me as a "spotlight illustrator" for a month. They are very generous and invested in your success.
I have a friend that I convinced to get an account who had no action up there for a few months and was about to quit when he got approached by a university who needed art for an educational game... That ended up being something like a $30,000 commission for him!
Last thing to say on the matter: they receive a lot of inquiries from people who don't know which illustrator they want to go with. So the owner sifts through the inquiries every day and makes suggestions. THAT MAN NEEDS TO KNOW WHAT YOU DO! You need to be clear about your intentions with your bio and your portfolio so that every time a pirate-riding-a-shark inquiry comes in he can send it to you, the pirate-riding-a-shark guy.
Reedsy is an online community built around making it easy for independent authors to create their works. You are on the site as a marketplace professional. You don't pay for it, they just take a cut (10%?), and (nearly) everyone who is there is expecting you to charge good rates. In fact, the people who run it will ask you to raise your rates if you aren't charging enough.
They do have pretty high standards, so it's a lot harder to get into. They suggest that they let in less than 5% of the applicants. You need a relatively large body of work and they require you to have a published book. So if you have any client who has actually set up their book on amazon you are good.
Again, I get about 1 or 2 inquiries a week.
Twitter.com & LinkedIn.com
What? twitter? linkedin? No way!! yes way!...Three words.
Search. Your. Market.
I must admit, I don't like to do this all the time because it becomes a source of habitual anxiety for me, to always be on the search. But it never fails to provide good leads. It’s all about searching your market.
Let me give you a good place to start.
"Looking for illustrator"
"Looking for concept artist"
"Looking for twitch banner"
Here's what happens. Before people take real hard action, they throw it out to the universe on twitter or linkedin in hopes they can find the perfect person without all the effort of going through official channels. Ignore the trash (portrait commission for $10 please), because there is gold out there. I have scored thousands of dollars doing pre-vis for production companies that had lots money and no experience. thousands working for games companies made up of single professionals who didn't know what to do with all their real big-boy money. They gave it to me.
One Last Word
Working within the established channels for companies that undervalue you can be difficult. You need to find people for whom your work holds high value, because they will pay well for it, and treat you well.
Starting out will be difficult. Because the independent creators who have a lot of money also take time to produce their product (books, games, movies...etc.etc.), even if you have a repeat customer it might be a 9-18 months before you see them again. So expect that your goal of building valuable repeat customers for consistent work will take a while.
These are some things that have personally helped me on my journey, and hopefully you might find value in them. I would love to hear about what else you guys have found that works!
Justin Donaldson is a freelance fantasy and science fiction illustrator by day and also by night. Sleep, what sleep? No seriously, he has two kids under 3 so sleep is a dream... Good sleep, doubly so. He does a lot of work in book covers and world building for independent authors, and in his time off he builds the world of “the Unforgotten Forest”, a fantasy about what it means to grow up find yourself.