Q+A: Starting out as a freelance illustrator in Malaysia – what do I charge?

Hi Amy,

I just graduated from design college, and got offers to do some illustration projects. Since this is my first one, how do you usually charge when you do a freelance job? Do you have any guide or advice? What is the standard price charged by illustrators in Malaysia?

~ Kat (via email)

Dear Kat,

I don’t have a straight forward answer on what to charge as it varies from client to client and also industries. For editorials in magazines, it can go anywhere from RM300 to RM1000 for an illustration (depending on factors I mention below), and the numbers are vastly more different when it comes to advertising.

What helps is getting a book like the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. The rates on there are a good indicator of what people usually pay, and it’s relatively accurate to assume that USD1 = RM1 in most cases.

There are a lot of factors that go into a tabulation of a fee, such as competition, experience, duration, size, and also ultimately, what you can live with. So here are some questions to ask yourself:


Are you the only one pitching for the job? If you aren’t, think of reasons why clients should go with you. With client work, while it can be complex, most of their decisions will weigh on price (high vs. low), experience (quick/slow turnaround) and also how pleasant you are to work with.


People with experience are able to charge more because of many reasons: they might be quicker, have more knowledge of the industry and what it demands, and also the network that they’ve built. A common strategy for those who lack experience is to offer a more competitive price to build their portfolio, and it’s one I advise graduates. But after you get your foot in the door, it’s time to knock their socks off! Too many people remain unhappy about the discount they give clients that they turn in sub-par work. Turn in anything less than stellar will ensure that your name will stay at the bottom of the pool – along with your price.


How long will the project run for? Is there a cut-off for delivery of artwork? Or are you going to be working on the project for a certain amount of time? This will determine if it’s going to be a one-off fee or a retainer – both of which can have different implication of deliverables.


Always, always know what size you’re going to be working on. The level of detail in an A4 sized artwork is going to be vastly different from an artwork that’s A1 in size. And that translates to more time used, which means more billable hours or a lump sum that takes into account the time you’ll need to spend. Don’t know how long you usually work? Measure, measure, measure. Here’s 10 apps you can use.

What you can live with

Some people need money right away. And some people don’t. I’ve personally done projects for free (mainly for charities) and I’ve gotten so many word of mouths and new projects from it that it pays forward many-fold. You’ll hear a lot of people say “don’t do things for free”, which is rather true. But what I advocate is to listen to yourself instead. A lot of people have worked for free (and have kept quiet about it) for a chance to break into an industry. It’s become a dirty little secret that the term working for free is an invitation to unnecessary vilification. Don’t listen to others. Only you know if it’s something worth doing – and if you’re doing something for free, make sure it’s your choice, not that you were co-erced into it. Strategy, long-term thinking and a focus on building relationships are things that will lead to more opportunities down the road, instead of just a one-off transactional affair. Here’s a great article to put things into perspective.

And as a bonus, here’s a brilliant article on how to land your dream job.

Lastly, here’s a personal tip for you: when someone answers your questions via email, remember take 2 minutes to follow up with a thank you. While I’m always happy and willing to dispense advice, it would be nice to get a reply! Communication is a big part of being a freelancer and you might just find yourself losing out to people who take the time to hone their PR skills. Make it a point to say thank you whenever you can. After your interview/meeting with clients/when you get your cheque. Write a thank you note/email. Make sure you follow up. I didn’t think it was necessary to mention it at first, but I think it bears reminding from time to time because it makes a world of a difference and it’s a learning opportunity for young graduates everywhere.

It’s always the little things that matter.


Do you have any tips you’d like to offer Kat or advice on what to look out for in terms of pricing? Let us know in the comments below! Also, if you’d like to send me a question, get in touch with me right here!

Artist interview: Lim Heng Swee of ilovedoodle

I want to introduce you to Lim Heng Swee, whose illustrations for his brand ilovedoodle has made him a bit of a celebrity within the Threadless community and on Etsy. He’s proof that it doesn’t matter where you live (he’s based in Malaysia) to be able to succeed as an artist – especially when you know what success looks like. I originally interviewed him for my course Work/Art/Play, and I wanted to share this interview with you because he’s one of the most inspiring and generous artists I’ve ever come across. I hope you’ll enjoy the interview – and feel free to send the link to this article to your friends!



Hi Heng Swee! I find it really interesting that you’ve created a name for yourself through illustration. Tell us a little bit about yourself!

Hi there! My name is Heng Swee and I’m an illustrator based in Malaysia. I studied mechanical engineering but within a few months after I graduated (and took on a job as an engineer), I quit and became a full time artist because I wanted to just draw.

How did you get your start? Did you study art before?

I didn’t study art – I studied to become an electrical engineer, so I’m a self-taught artist.


Tell us a little about how you arrived at where you are today.

In the beginning, I didn’t know anyone who needed an illustrator, so I flipped through a few magazines and newspapers and saw that none of them had any illustrations in them. So I studied what they lacked and came up with a proposal to each of these publications, and drew a few strips and illustrations for them to show them what I mean, and to show them what my style was like. I got a lot of jobs that way when I first started out. If you’re just starting out, this is a great way to vet clients because when you do the work first, they’ll know what to expect and will not ask you to change your style to suit them because they can see offhand what it looks like.

You are famous also through your Threadless submissions. Can you tell us how it all began? 

I was searching for opportunities for illustrators online as I was about to move to the UK for a one-year working holiday, and wanted to be able to still draw and make a living that way. When I found out that you could earn money illustrating a t-shirt, I was sold – the prize money back then was a big amount: USD2,000 for the winner. I came up with ideas and submitted my work diligently. I created a lot of illustrations on Threadless!


You project “Doodle Everyday” was a big hit – can you tell us the reasons behind it?

Before I started on Doodle Everyday, the only place where I submitted my work was on Threadless. I’ve done a lot of illustrations that were picked by the community in the 2 years when I first started, and it helped me build up my style through the experience I garnered there (the voting, comments, etc). But after 2 years of working on the Threadless platform, I began to feel that I was producing work according to what the masses had wanted, instead of what I wanted. So I started Doodle Everyday as a form of  daily challenge for myself to try out different ideas and themes, instead of merely thinking about what the customers at Threadless would want. I had a lot of exposure from that project – it got picked up by a few major blogs, including Swiss Miss. It was a period of major growth.

How do you come up with ideas for your illustrations?

I always like to think about things – often time mixing things together to form something new. For example, one minute I would think about a penguin, with it being black and white – and then I’d try to link it to something else that might share the same characteristic, which brings me to a piano, with its black and white keys. So then I try to combine these two together in a way, and figure out what do they have in common? What sticks out? That’s how I came out with the “Choir for Antartica” print. I just love to inject a sense of humor into my work.


Your Facebook page has more than 80K likes! Can you tell us how that happened?

It all happened organically – but the major growth was due to the Doodle Everyday project that I started in 2011. People signed up to get regular updates and to see what new doodles that I posted up.

Where do you sell your goods? And which outlet has garnered the most sales for you? Is this your main income stream?

So after illustrating for Threadless for 2 years, I discovered Etsy. And I was blown away by the opportunities that it offered artists. I had never ventured into print before, but after seeing how prints were selling pretty well, I decided to open an Etsy shop to sell my prints. Prior to that, I had to depend on winning the Threadless competition to make sure that I could support myself. With the Etsy shop however, I could have a regular income because I could now get my work printed up – I didn’t have to win a competition, and I didn’t need to be picked by anyone. The Doodle Everyday project has created a lot of illustrations that I could use for different items.


Do you print your items by yourself, or do you use a 3rd party service? What’s your advice for those who don’t know where to start?

I use my own printer to print, as I felt that using 3rd party services was unreliable in Malaysia. With this I could control the quality of the print as well as the type of paper that I could use. I did a lot of online research into which printer was the best, and I couldn’t get good quality archival, acid-free paper here, so I order mine online.

I saw that you also went into licensing – how is that working out for you?

It’s working out great – licensing isn’t my mainstay at the moment, but I have gotten offers for work from China and Hong Kong through being seen online.


How do you determine your licensing rates?

I usually go by my experience with Threadless (they now offer royalty instead of a prize money) – but it also depends on the scope of the project. I also refer to the book The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines.(via Amazon)

What sort of marketing efforts have you put into promoting your work? What has worked and what hasn’t?

A lot of my work has been through word-of-mouth and through referrals and repeat buyers. I haven’t been actively promoting myself, aside from regular posting on Facebook and updating my blog. I find that having fresh content up on a regular basis really helps to drive interest back to my work.

What would be your advice to other artists out there in carving out your own future and success? 

It’s really important to start with what you want out of all this. I like to share this story about a Mexican fisherman, which goes along something like this:


(Taken from http://bemorewithless.com/the-story-of-the-mexican-fisherman/)

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.  Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.  The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos.  I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”

“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part.  When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”

“Millions – then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire.  Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”


The story above goes hand in hand with a TED talk I watched about how Stephan Sagmeister brings his ideal retirement life into his current schedule, by taking an extended time off from work every few years to rejuvenate himself and to create a well of information that he could tap into for the following few years. And it goes on and on, like a cycle. He doesn’t believe in the concept of retirement as finite, or something you can only enjoy at the end of a grueling work life. It has to be hand in hand, because work is so engrained in our lives – it takes up a big part of our time, so why shouldn’t it be enjoyable at the same time?

So my advice is to know what you want, and spend your time planning your work, schedule and environment to mirror what it is that you want in life. For me, it was always about drawing – so my choices, and the path that I choose has got to align with my goals of being able to draw.


You can see more of Lim Heng Swee’s work through Etsy, Threadless and on his website.

Artist interview: Dawn Tan

I met the bubbly watercolour artist Dawn Tan when I was in Melbourne, and what a thrill it was! As a full-time artist with a part-time job teaching children art, she hails from Singapore but now calls Melbourne home. She’s a sweetheart for meeting with me on short notice (it was Chinese New Year eve) and we hit it off instantly! Read on to know more on how she started her teaching career as a gutsy 16 year old, and how her conversations with her mother resulted in the scrumptious watercolour food paintings that she’s well known for. You can follow her on Instagram (where I guarantee you’ll turn green with envy at her adventures!), and do check out her website for more of her in-person workshops and classes.



I was swooning over the pictures you took on your recent trip to New York! How was it?

I wish I was still there!

Right from the start, my husband Darren and I knew we wanted to go to New York for our honeymoon. We were even more sure of our honeymoon destination than the wedding venue itself! We wanted to go there for the artists, the makers, the studios and shops. Funnily enough though, we didn’t see enough small shops. We couldn’t find them over there because the place is so big! Unlike over here where the good stuff is clustered along streets (like Gertrude street), theirs is really spaced out and far in between. A lot of locals mentioned there wasn’t a street or neighbourhood that has a centralised indie shopping street. But we did managed to go to a few studios at Dobbin Mews like Odette (and I bought a few pieces!) and also MCMC Fragrances. I followed Jennifer of Odette on Instagram and it was great to see her studio to chat with her! I love her work, and have been a fan for many years.

I also managed to meet up with Helen Dealtry – I bought a scarf and had a great time talking to her. We both run workshops and we were talking about the business side of it. It was so much fun!

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How did you and Darren meet?

Darren came to Melbourne before I did. He completed his studies here and then he started working. We met at a pre-departure briefing at university; he was a senior and he was giving out advice to juniors who were about to go to Melbourne for studies. He was also my neighbour at my student accommodation and that’s we got close. We started cooking together and that’s how we fell in love! It’s now 7 years since!

Was there a reason you decided to stay on in Melbourne?

I didn’t plan to stay! I’ve always thought of studying for 3 years and then head back to Singapore. But before graduating I decided I really liked it here. I love the culture, the lifestyle, and I felt that it would be a  great place to raise kids. The school here has a lot more emphasis on play-based learning, while Asian schools are more geared towards rote-learning, like math and science. And while this may have changed over the years, I like the fact that in Melbourne the school system places emphasis on other subjects like sports, art, and music. Both Darren and I were not academically strong, so we both suffered a little under the system back home. For example, he wasn’t good in Chinese (a main subject in school) and I was terrible in mathematics and science. We were both below average and we don’t want our kids to feel the same way we did. Besides, I love the weather here too! While some might not like the unpredictability, I love it!

You do a lot of in-person workshops here. Do you do them anywhere else?

I did one in Singapore a few years ago. It sold out really fast. My family lives in Singapore so I just want to spend time catching up with them instead of doing work! Also there’s a lot of limitations when it comes to buying supplies. I can’t get them in certain places and it’s tough for me to haul them all the way from Australia. I like to have a bit of quality control when it comes to supplies.


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You run your workshops from home. Tell me a bit more about it.

I did it from home because of convenience. I used to do workshops at different places – at Harvest Textiles (now defunct), at restaurants (they provided the ingredients and pizzas, we drew the pizzas!) and we managed to promote my workshops as well as promote the restaurant. We also did them at schools, but when I hold my workshops outside, I found that I had to haul along a lot of stuff. I like to show people my work, and not just the prints – I love showing the originals. So while prints and originals look alike, people like seeing the texture, water and layers. So I would have to carry quite a fair bit and traveling with such a heavy load is no fun and tiring!

Doing it from home just makes more sense. It gives me more time. I have classes set up on Saturdays so I’ll set things up on Friday (which is when I work on my freelance projects) – I’ll tidy the house a little bit and get things ready for the workshop the next day.

How did you get into teaching?

I come from a family of teachers, so I’ve always loved teaching.

I knew that I wanted to be a teacher when I was in secondary school. People used to tell me that there wasn’t money to be made teaching art lessons in school. So instead of going the academia route, I studied graphic design, just to see how it all goes. Turns out, I didn’t really like the subject at all – but I like talking and sharing. So after my course, I told my mom that I’d like to come to Australia to experience a different country, a different lifestyle and culture, and to bring back home new ideas. But while I was studying graphic design in polytechnic, I was already teaching in a Japanese art studio as an assistant art teacher part time. They didn’t pay me, but they provided me with transportation.

How did that happen?

I volunteered. I just walked in one day and told them that I was looking for experience and so would be alright if I came in to help and assist with some of your classes? They said yes, but then felt so bad because they couldn’t pay me! Imagine a random, strange 16 year old who just randomly went into their shop – with no experience and was just a total noob – and asked for a job. But after a few months they started to pay me and also I started to teach my own classes. And through that, I realised that loved teaching. I like getting my hands dirty. Children inspire me (and I hope I inspire them!) I find that it’s a nice feeling. So ever since then, I started teaching on and off.

I used to be a traveling artist who taught kids too. I’d go into a child’s home and basically give moms 2 hours of freedom to do their laundry, cook and relax while I’m sitting there with their 3-year old kids! I stopped because lugging around supplies was really tiring after a while, plus there were requests to go to places that were a little too far out.

I’ve had people tell me – if you work hard, and you do as many job as you can and earn as much money as you can, you can retire early. Which can be true, but it takes the joy away from doing things.

In terms of sharing and teaching art, I feel there’s a limit on how much I can do before your body gives way.

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What’s your schedule like?

I teach art for children 3 days a week, I have 2 days where I concentrate on my freelance work and on some weekends I hold workshops for adults. So there’s that balance. There’s some who ask why not teach an adult workshop every weekend, so that you can earn more money? But they don’t understand that it’s tiring and I’d much prefer put my energy into creating quality classes and workshops rather than focus on quantity.

I also used to have a problem saying no. But over the years I’ve learned that your health is important. I was that kid who wants a spot on the deans list, so I said yes to anything. I had a partial disc protrusion because of the time I spent on art. Since then, I’ve had to be mindful of how I spend my time. My back is now my alarm clock – I can’t spend too much time sitting down because if I did, I couldn’t feel my legs! It just reminds me that I couldn’t take life sitting down – quite literally.

How did you discover watercolour and to decide to focus on it?

My mom and dad saw I liked art a lot, so when I was in kindergarten, I started doing weekend art classes.  When I was 12 my teacher said we were going to do watercolours. She whipped out a set of fancy, proper watercolour paints and brushes. So I started to realise that watercolour is pretty cool. But I didn’t really like it art first. So for the first 2 years of my watercolour learning, I started painting still life set ups. I loved the medium, but every weekend we had to paint the same things. A bunch of grapes, a bottle of wine, draped velvet, all in different positions. And we would paint it over and over again. For a 13 year old it was pretty boring. On a Sunday too! I’d rather spend the weekend hanging out with friends. I love art, but I didn’t mind it, but after a while I hated it. I couldn’t do perspective drawing so still life was a nightmare. I started hating watercolour and stopped using it for a year and half after because by then we were learning about acrylics.

But then in polytechnic for my final year project I found my watercolour palette again and found that it was really good because I could use it quickly, and it dried faster compared to acrylics. And since then it stucked and I really love it. The more I use it, the deeper I fall in love with it.

How often do you paint?

I paint everyday if I can, except for Sundays. Especially when I’m not teaching, I can paint from morning to evening. My husband would come home in the evening and I’d realise that I had forgotten to cook rice for dinner!


Why did you start painting food?

The reason why I started painting food was because I rebelled against my mom. I was never a skinny child – she used to call me all the time and ask about what I was eating. Because of that, I started to draw the food I ate, on an A0 size of paper. My teacher at the art school I was at (VCA) said that it was great – not many people painted food so they told me to take the idea and run with it. They were really great at critiques and were very honest. I love being straight to the point and to be told me what sucked and what didn’t. They were very encouraging.

I was looking at a lot of works by Andy Warhol and I was also doing a paper on pop art and consumerism. So I was wondering a lot about food and what we consume – so that’s how it all started, back in 2009/2010. I couldn’t stop until now. I wasn’t even painting food when I was younger. When I was in polytechnic, my final year project was painting a children’s book based around animals!

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Who inspired you when you first started?

When I was in polytechnic, I used to like Lisa Congdon’s work and also Kate Bingaman-Burt. The both of them were very cool. Both of them were trained in fine arts but their work had a very illustrative quality to it. It made me realise I could make a living out of illustration rather than having to paint portraits with oil paintings.

I find that art needs to me more interactive and funny, sometimes.

Like the David Shrigley exhibition.

Yes, exactly! That was so funny. The live drawing was so funny! I like that sort of stuff because it’s funny. So even if people can’t relate to it, it makes them interested in art.

Or at least question it. 

Yes. Rather than just a painting. There’s nothing much to talk about.

Any artist who’s a favourite at the moment?

These days, I don’t have a favourite artist though. Recently, I’m inspired by the old masters, like Henry Matisse and his paper cut outs – I didn’t really like his work until I saw his exhibition in New York. It’s pretty cool because his mind is interesting. I like the way he thinks and how he mixes his colours. And also Quentin Blake because his art is spontaneous. I love spontaneity. I love letting my mind wander. It’s also why I love the school that I’m teaching at – their curriculum is based on letting your mind wander, and to let nature inspire you.

That’s why I always take my kids out to be inspired by nature. To be inspired by things you see.


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What would be your advice who wants to get into watercolour to make it work?

Go for it and just try. Go out and buy books, or go to classes where people teach. Learn different styles of watercolours – there are different styles and techniques, and at the same time discover your own style. Like what I tell my students; I’m going to teach you the same things, I’m going to give you the same brushes, paint, and materials. But at the end of the class, you’ll all come up with different paintings. Not because of your skill, but it’s because of the way you hold your brush, the way you control the amount of water, and the colours you choose. It defines you and it’s your style. Be open to that and don’t be afraid to try.

My watercolour skills used to suck. It used to be cakey and dry. But over the years, I just kept trying. People always think that watercolour is difficult, because water flows everywhere. You just need practice. The more you paint, the more you’ll get better at it. You’ll know how much water to use, and that’s how you learn.

You’ll only get better the more you paint!

You’re happy where you are – was there any point in time where you wanted to become a full-time artist?

After uni I was working for myself for a year. I really liked it because I had a studio space and I was a morning person. I liked the life! I did a lot of work back then too. However, I was a worry-wart, and being Asian, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to sustain myself financially so I started looking for part time opportunities. I wanted a part time job as well because it can get lonely working in the studio by myself 5 days a week. So I started teaching and in many ways, I prefer the schedule and flexibility I have right now. In many ways, I am a full-time artist – and a part-time art teacher! I like being able to split my week up between my part time work and full time artworks. It helps my mind organise better.


Thanks so much Dawn!