How to Become a Freelance Illustrator

I used to think that freelancers are the happiest working people because they work for themselves until I was a freelancer myself a couple of years ago. 

Sure, you’re working by yourself and you have the freedom to work anywhere you want without a boss pointing fingers at you. However, you do not work FOR yourself, you actually work for multiple companies (your clients), for a short period of time. 

Is that what you’re up for? I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, it’s definitely not an easy start. There are quite a few struggles, especially for beginners. But it’s going to be a fun journey, and once you’re on the right path, you’ll love it.

In this article, you’re going to learn the essential skills and tips for becoming a freelance illustrator.

5 Essential Skills a Freelance Illustrator Should Have

Whether you’re a fresh graduate looking for a job or doing freelance illustration as a hobby, check if you have the following skills that are essential for a freelancing illustrator. 

Don’t worry if you can’t say yes to all on the list, because they can be trained and developed step by step. 

1. Drawing/sketching skills

That’s what you do, so of course, drawing skill is important. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing digital or print illustrations, you need to know how to draw. Some people are better at drawing with brushes, others are good at sketching with a pencil or using drawing tablets

It also depends on what type of freelancer you are, for example, sketching skill is essential for fashion illustration, and if you illustrate for children’s books, you should also know how to draw with color pencils, crayon, watercolor, etc.

In the beginning stage, I would say try all mediums to figure out which one you’re best at. Working as an illustrator, you need to convert your thinking into drawings/ illustrations. 

2. Creativity

Many people believe that creativity is a gift, but I think everyone is creative in their own way, and creativity can be learned and developed. 

Some people are good at brainstorming ideas while others have more knowledge in practical skills. The more mediums/tools you know, the better you’ll express your creative ideas. Actually, by doing more by hand, your brain gets more active. 

So if you know how to use different tools but consider yourself less creative, you can start drawing, brushing, splashing, etc without thinking too much. It’s a good way to train your creative thinking. 

From my personal experience, pushing to think while doing nothing at all is the worst way to get inspired. Whenever I get stuck, I start drawing different random things, and the ideas come naturally. Give it a try 🙂

3. Software skills

Knowing some basic design software skills is essential for freelance illustrators because most likely you’ll need to create a digital version of your work. 

If you work for a design agency and have a team, maybe software skill is not a must for illustrators, but as a freelancer, I’d say it is because you probably don’t want to pay someone else to digitalize your work.

For some projects, you might need to scan your work to the computer and trace it. Okay, that‘ll require a bit of practice using some digital drawing tools. 

Sometimes you simply use the software to make slight adjustments to your illustration. For example, when you finish an illustration for a book cover, you probably need to use the software to add the name and other text on the book cover. 

Some popular software that illustrators use is Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, CorelDraw, and Procreate

4. Communication skills

You need to work with clients, so you must be able to understand their needs and present your ideas to them clearly. It’s also important for negotiating your payment methods because you should sort things out before starting the project to avoid unfair situations. 

Good communication skill is important because if you know how to talk to your clients, you can make a good relationship with them and they are more likely to hire you again. 

5. Stress handling

This is an important skill for every career. Some of you might think that being a freelancer equals stress-free. Believe me, it’s not. You might get more stressed if you don’t manage your time well, or when you ran into trouble and there isn’t a team or college to help you out. 

Being a freelancer is basically working alone on a project, so it can be quite stressful. Another thing is that your customers might not always like your work, and they are likely to ask you to make adjustments, sometimes even re-do your work. 

It has happened to me a couple of times, and to be honest with you, I even gave up the first time I did a freelance project because I spent three weeks on a project and the client didn’t like it, I felt like my work wasn’t respected. 

But then, I learned to handle situations like this. Yes, it’s still stressful, but try to give it a moment to think, and then make a decision. Well, don’t give up. 

How to Become a Freelance Illustrator (4 Tips)

Besides the must-have skills above, you should also consider the following tips if you want to become a successful freelance illustrator.

Tip #1: Build a strong portfolio

A strong portfolio is the key to success. Your portfolio should include five to eight of your best projects using different mediums like pencil, watercolor, crayon, and even digital work. This will show the diversity of your work. 

It’s also recommended that you include more than just one style of illustration in your portfolio because it’ll give you more job opportunities rather than just one niche. 

For example, you can put a project of fashion illustration, another pastel style for children’s books, or even your hand-lettering if that’s what you like.

Tip #2: Promote yourself

Being present on social media is a good way to promote your work. It can take a while to get famous, but it doesn’t hurt to keep posting your work because people will appreciate your awesome work and share it. 

You never know, maybe one day a company sees your work, or someone recommends you to their connections. This is how you get opportunities step by step. Actually, it happens quite commonly.

Besides posting your work on social media, you can also reach out to creative directors, or some online design marketplace to see if they are hiring freelance illustrators. 

Tip #3: Find the right niche

Finding the right niche is super important because it will not only show your skill at your best but also make you happier doing what you do. Some of you might be better at fashion illustration, others might be better at using mixed mediums to create abstract illustrations. 

For beginners, you might not be sure about what you like or are good at, just explore different options, find your styles, and then decide what type of illustrator you’d like to become. 

I don’t suggest going for the niche that you’re not familiar with even if there is an easy opportunity. Being patient and looking for what you have passion for and are good at doing is a better option.   

Tip #4: Charge a reasonable price

You shouldn’t do any work for free as a freelancer, because illustrating is how you make a living. You’ll probably run into situations when your friends ask you to do a “quick thing” for free, but remember, there is no such thing as a “quick favor” for freelancing. 

On the other hand, you shouldn’t charge a crazy price either if you know it’s not going to be that much. It’s true that it can be hard to evaluate or decide how much to charge at the beginning, so you can ask advice from other illustrators or refer to some job-hunting sites. 

As a new illustrator, I think an average of $80 per project is pretty reasonable, but of course, it depends on the difficulty of the project. I suggest you have a couple of different projects with different price ranges ready.


You might also be interested in the questions below that are related to becoming a freelance illustrator.

How much does a freelance illustrator make?

There’s a large range of salaries for a freelance illustrator because it all depends on your experience, work project difficulty, and your clients. According to ZipRecruiter, the average salary of an illustrator is $132,138.  

Do you need a degree to be a freelance illustrator?

As an illustrator, your portfolio and work experience is much more important than your degree.  It would be nice to have a degree, but it’s definitely not mandatory for a freelance illustrator to have one. 

How long does it take to become an illustrator?

If you’re starting from scratch, it can take you more than one year to become an illustrator because you’ll start from basic drawing, making a portfolio, building the network, and finding clients. 

If you already have some drawing skills, I’d say in 3 to 6 months, you’ll be able to adapt to the field of illustration you’re getting into. 

How do I get clients in illustrator? 

Networking is the best way for freelancers to get opportunities. Joining some publishing events if you want to become a book illustrator, go to portfolio review if you’re a fresh graduate, or make connections with businesses online. 

You can also use some freelancer sites like Fiverr, Upwork, freelancer, etc. It doesn’t hurt to give it a try, but from my experience, the pay rate isn’t ideal. 

What jobs can freelance illustrators get?

There are many job options for freelance illustrators. You can do illustrations for commercial ads, restaurants, fashion illustrations, packing illustrations, children’s book illustrations, etc. You can also choose to do digital or hand-drawn illustrations depending on what you’re best at.  

Final Words

Being a freelance illustrator is not easy in the beginning. Besides all the skills you should have, you really need to build a good relationship with professionals and businesses. 

You should also be prepared that sometimes you might get overwhelmed with the project working alone, and other times, you might be stressed about having no stable income. 

Luckily, there’s a high demand for illustrations, so being active in job hunting and making connections will get you the opportunities!

About June Escalada
Graduated from Creative Advertising major, worked more than eight years as a graphic designer focusing in branding and Illustration. Yes, Adobe Illustrator is my best friend and I’m passionate about art and design.

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