Q+A: 6 tips on how to get your first freelance illustration job

Hi Amy, I just read your Q&A on landing your first job. I’m currently an illustration student but have no idea on how to get my first illustration job once I put together a portfolio. Any tips on how to get work as a freelance illustrator? Thanks in advance.

~ Stefanie (via email)

Hi Stefanie!

In my experience, a lot of first-time commissions come from word of mouth! When I first got started, I made sure to put the word out there that I was freelancing, and that if anyone needed a hand they can give me a call (or contact me via email.) But besides that, I find that being proactive about finding freelance work goes a long way – especially when you realize that those connections might take 2-3 years to fully materialize. It’s what has happened in my situation, and for many others too.

So here are few steps that you can do right now:

1. Tell as many people as you can about what you do.

Spread the word that you’re freelancing around, to family, friends, even the neighbours. You may find at first that this will land you some pretty weird jobs and questions – stuff like “can you teach my kid how to draw?” It’s totally up to you to take it on, or not. I always say that it’s no harm at all, especially when you have nothing better to do – so why not flex your creative muscles and do your best – even if it’s something that you whipped up for the neighbourhood kindergarten?

2. Get your portfolio on different websites

The thing with illustration and art is that it’s hard to be found visually. And what that means is that people don’t go to Google, type in a few strings of words that describe what you do, and then be able to see your artwork among other artists (well the famous ones do, but only because they’ve built up a really big following!) So the next best thing is to put your work up in front of people who are already looking. And that means in places where they go to look. Places like Behance and Dribble. On Instagram (with the appropriate hashtags – not one made up by you!)

The caveat is that it might take some time for others to notice you, especially with all the great work out there; but it pays to be persistent. There might be a few art directors and clients who might be checking you out on those websites, but the timing is not right just yet.

3. Don’t just hang out with your illustration buddies from college or uni – make an effort!

Spread your wings out a little and go to where you’ve never been before! There is more to you than just your ability to draw – what other stuff do you like doing? What’s your other hobbies? Do you love reading? Join a book club! Do you love cooking? Join a community cook-out! The more people you reach out to that’s outside of your normal comfort zones, the better your chances of making new connections, which will ultimately help spread your name far and wide.

4. Constantly add new work to your portfolio

Slapping on a couple of pictures from your school days or previous college assignment does not mean that your portfolio is complete! Unless your work back then was really good, or it showcased what you are capable of right now, I’d suggest to leave it out. First impressions mean a lot, and if what you’re putting out there can only illicit a “meh”, it’s time for you to think of self-initiated projects that you can add to your portfolio. That’s right – there is no client involved (unless it’s imaginary, in which case it’s totally fine), no cheque waiting for you at the other end, and no assurance that it will amount to anything – not just yet. Do your best, take pride in your work and pick up that pencil because you want to better yourself, not just because there’s someone on the other end counting on you to do so.

5. Send an email to your favorite blogger

Back in the day, I get a lot of emails from graduating students and illustrators who were just starting out. And if their work catches my eye, I post it up on the Pikaland blog (though I rarely do this anymore because better platforms exist for that these days – Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) What I found out was that other blogs were checking out my blog to get news on the latest talent, and they picked up these artists too and featured them in their blog and magazines, which then helped these emerging artists gain a lot more buzz. So it couldn’t help to try – especially if you can identify with the audience of the blogger, and it’s a place where your work wouldn’t look out of place. Here’s a tip: don’t just aim for the big blogs – go for smaller, niche blogs too!

6. Be super nice to everyone and anyone

You’d think that being nice to people was a natural instinct – but sadly it isn’t! I’ve met my fair share of nasty and rude folks, but they’re thankfully far and few in-between. What I’m talking about is going above minding your P’s (please) and Q’s (thank you). Be genuinely interested in other people – listening to them, asking them helpful questions, thanking them for their time, etc – if you think that these gestures are unnecessary in the days of 140 character tweets, think again. If anything, it only serves to show how attentive you are, especially when others aren’t doing it.

And there you have it! These are the things that I’ve personally done to get my name out there – and they’re virtually painless. All it takes is a bit of effort in the beginning, but when you’ve got your ball rolling, you’ll be able to see results very soon. Good luck Stefanie!


Do you have any tips you’d like to offer Stefanie that has worked for you in the past? Let us know in the comments below! Also, if you’d like to send me a question, get in touch with me right here!

Psst – if you like this post, then you might want to get in on our Work/Art/Play mailing list for our once-a-year online workshop for artists and illustrators that’s coming up in September!

How to draw Calvin & Hobbes

Calvin & Hobbes

The short answer is: You can’t.

You know why? I did. I tried when I was 13 years old. And boy did I try.

When I heard the news that Bill Watterson  would be retiring, I took it really hard. I felt my heart sank and it just wasn’t something that I could stomach. So I acted out – I bought the remaining anthologies of his book needed to complete my collection, and waited in eager anticipation of his last book. I cut out all the comic strips that was in the paper (because I wasn’t sure it would be collected in book form later on, so I had to hedge my bets – it was the era before the internet, after all).

And then I decided that the series should continue, with or without Mr. Watterson.

I would have to do it.

I began right away – I got my supplies ready. Ink, check. Brush, check. Drawing pad, check. It took me more than 6 months of drawing everyday to get Calvin’s hair almost right. But it never was. Hobbes hands would never look as slender, nor would his expression give off the charm that only he had – my version was always shorter and fatter, with none of the proud look of a tiger doll. The only time it looked almost similar to what Mr. Watterson drew was when I traced over his comics. Yes, I was a shameless copycat – but it was all in the name of learning, and I was just 13.

Those drawings never saw the light of day because they didn’t look right. I had dozens of notebooks with sketches of Calvin (I was obsessed with that hair!) and Hobbes (the only thing that came close to looking good was his tail) – most of them half-drawn and abandoned when I felt that it wasn’t turning out the way that I was expecting them to. I didn’t use an eraser because I thought those were for wimps (how hardcore was I?!) and I felt that there was something Mr Watterson wasn’t letting on about his process. I was frustrated. I felt like my hand wasn’t listening to what my brain was saying. Move here! Hit the curve right there! Darn it! I wished that I had a transmogrifier so that I can turn myself into someone who spewed out perfect C&H comics.

I gave up about a year in. I drew my version of Hobbes mainly on birthday cards for my parents – but that was about it. I didn’t get rich, and I certainly wasn’t able to convince my mom and dad that I was the next comic genius or one who could succeed Mr. Watterson in continuing the lineage of the Calvin & Hobbes series.

But what I did learn from the experience was that it’s super hard to copy someone else.

Even with all that effort (a year’s worth of time, ink, and lots of paper), I didn’t make a dent in the universe. I did try, but I was just making a really bad replica of someone else’s work (Mr. Watterson wasn’t just someone, IMHO, but I’m digressing) and I more importantly, I was always a step behind.

I was living in someone else’s shadow.

If you’re copying because you’re still learning, carry on. That’s what I advise students who don’t know how to get started, and I always end with a caveat: just don’t put it online! Now, if you’re done – how about you step away from the shadows so that you can shine bright on your own accord?


Pssst. Hankering for Calvin & Hobbes? You can read the comics right here. And also Bill Watterson’s interview with Mental Floss in 2013.