Woop! Well I just finished up an 8 painting project with a new client a week early and turned in 3 other paintings yesterday along with 12 armor sketches for another client. Now I just have 9 paintings to finish by the 11th (5 paintings now, I wrote this a few days ago).
In keeping with the previous entry I figured I would talk a little more about the freelancing industry: dos and don’ts, expectations, common sense, and just plain common courtesy. Now I realize I am still probably considered a relative noobie in the industry considering I only started in 2004, but I have experienced some things that I wish people had told me back when I was in school.
Disclaimer – All of these things are my opinion and you have to take them with a grain of salt. As with my other post about workload, everyone is different and not everyone has the same amount of bills. People also come from all over the world and therefore have different bills, different government requirements, different healthcare plans, etc. Some people can get by with only a few projects a month while others need more to support their family. You have been warned!
I love going to conventions because I can meet artists that I admire and buy cool loot from their tables. There are a few things to keep in mind though when you race up to an artist and plop down your treasured items to be signed.
- Running and screaming is a good way to show your enthusiasm, but it might make the artist a little uncomfortable and dive for cover under his/her table.
- If you have 100 cards you want signed, only ask the artist to sign a few and then get back in line for the rest. I honestly don’t mind signing 100 cards at a time, but the other people in line might get a little upset…especially if the next person in line only has 1 thing they want signed. Update – I’ve actually had to change my policy to a 20 card limit due to my carpal tunnel, waiting time for my line, and other reasons like flippers telling me the only want my autograph so that they can make money off of me.
- If you tell an artist to draw whatever they want, don’t get mad if they draw something you didn’t want.
- Say hi and thank you, especially if an artist says hi to you. I know some people are shy or nervous, but usually when someone says hi you should say hi back.
- If you have a specific request for a drawing, try and bring reference for the artist. I know what Wolverine looks like, but do I remember enough details from memory to make an accurate drawing? Probably not.
- Don’t get mad if the artist needs to take a break.
- If you say you will be back later to pick up your drawing, don’t forget.
- If you have an artist do a drawing for you and the artist is charging for it, do NOT run off with the drawing without paying. I had someone who worked AT the event steal one of my drawings.
- If you ask an artist for a drawing, be polite about it. Here are things that I have heard that an artist never wants to hear:
- “If you do a drawing for me, will you actually put some effort into it? I don’t want to pay for something that you don’t put any effort into.” Just because an artist makes drawing look easy, doesn’t mean it is for them. Drawing takes years of practice and experience, and part of the job of a professional is to make it look easy.
- “Artist x does drawings for free, so can you waive your fee and do a drawing for me for free?” Some artists may feel bad about charging for drawings, but keep in mind that an artist makes his/her living from selling their art. Artists also have to cover their travel costs, hotel, materials, etc.
- “Can you make sure your drawing looks good?”
- “I had artist x draw this for me at another show but I’m not sure if you will be able to draw it as well as artist x.”
- “Your drawing isn’t detailed/good enough. Can you please work on it more?”
There are some things an artist needs to keep in mind too. I have been guilty of a few of these things myself. I know at my very first Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix I was really nervous and not comfortable at all with drawing in front of a large group of people.
I think the very first drawing I did for a fan I actually said “sorry it isn’t better.” Now that I have some more shows under my belt and I am getting more comfortable drawing in front of people, I don’t have as many problems.
- Say hi, be polite, and answer or fan’s questions. Many fans are probably already nervous or shy, so greeting them with a grimace and a knife in your fist probably isn’t a good idea.
- Never apologize for your drawings and always be confident and proud of the sketches you make for fans, even if you aren’t. If your fans know you don’t like your drawing, they won’t either. You would be surprised at what a good attitude can do.
- Try and be as accommodating as possible with your fan’s requests. If a 5 year old girl asks you for a drawing of a unicorn, don’t be a jerk and tell her you are too cool for that.
- Don’t complain. No one wants to hear you complain about how you don’t want to draw a jeep full of green pigs wearing cowboy hats. If you really don’t feel comfortable with a fan’s request, you can always politely decline or suggest something else.
- A first impression is the last impression. If you act like a jerk to a fan, you can be sure that fan will spread the word. Besides, it is never fun to finally meet a person you admire only to find out they are a jerk.
- Don’t forget your pens! The first show I went to I didn’t bring anything. I didn’t have pens, prints, cards…yeah I was a noob. Dan Scott had to teach me the ropes…and let me borrow some pens.
Dealing with Clients
Whether you are a freelance artist or an in-house artist, you are going to have to deal with art directors, producers, and just people in general. For some introverted artists this may be a challenge since their communication skills might be a little lacking.
Just remember that as an artist your job is to meet the needs of your client. You aren’t hired to draw/paint whatever you want (although there might be some clients that allow you to do this), you are hired to bring the client’s ideas to fruition. You also have to realize that each client has a different goal in what they want to achieve. Some may need to target a mass market and therefore need a cookie-cutter idea that will be sure to sell, or is less likely to fail. Other clients may want to push the envelope and ask for something completely crazy. Your job is to be prepared for any scenario and complete that project in a professional manner.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be a robot and always follow orders without question. If you have concerns or suggestions, make them. If you disagree with a client’s idea or you think you have a better one, just explain to them why you think idea x would be better or why it might work better given the parameters of the illustration/concept.
Sometimes you will be working with a client that isn’t an artist. If they ask for something that you know won’t help the project, let them know. Maybe their suggestion destroys the composition or maybe their color choice doesn’t fit the mood they are aiming for. This is where an artist’s knowledge can help create a stronger piece.
Each project is going to be a negotiation and a collaboration between many parties. Students or aspiring artists who aren’t in the field yet may not realize that what you create won’t be completely your own. To think anything you create is solely yours is a little naive. Again, you are working to meet your clients needs. You may physically paint the piece, but you are working from the ideas and direction of another person.
This is especially true if you are working in the game or film industry. Not only are you working from the direction and input of the art director, but you also have other artists that might work on your painting. You then have modelers who may change things in your concept, texture artists that might change things, and animators that might animate your concept differently than what you may have envisioned.
This is true with illustrations as well. Covers will have to pass through art directors, possibly editors and graphic artists, maybe even the CEO of the company. If you have problems taking orders or allowing others to change your painting, then art probably isn’t the ideal career for you.
What a lot of players and fans don’t realize is that the illustrations/concepts they see aren’t always what the concept artist/illustrator envisioned or even wanted to do. All the player sees is “oh look, another female warrior with big boobs and hardly any armor.” What they don’t realize is that the artist has art directors telling them they have to make her boobs bigger, or you have to make her wearing skimpier armor, make this look more like game x, make everything super bright and saturated, and so on. Since working in the game industry I’ve had to face a lot of this criticism. So the next time you see a big breasted female warrior in a chain mail bikini, don’t be so quick to blame the concept artist.
Learn to take criticism. If you can’t take it, then you better find a new career. I have no problem with constructive criticism, but when someone doesn’t have anything good to say and they give no suggestions as to what you can do better, I admit, I tend to be a little defensive.
The thing you don’t want to do is argue with a client, especially if it is a client you have never worked with before. Once you’ve worked with someone for awhile you can gauge how much you can push back and how well they will take your suggestions.
What you really don’t want to do is tell your client to go screw themselves. The art world is surprisingly small, so you don’t want to burn any bridges. If a client wants a change, you need to find a way to make the change whether you like it or not. I admit, I used to have a problem with this when I first started my career, but I chalk that up to inexperience and just a plain misunderstanding of how the industry works. When I was in school my teachers always told me that whenever a client wanted a change you were supposed to charge extra for that. Sadly, that is not how the industry works…at all.
But that idea is dumb!
At some point in your career you are going to receive a brief that you think is stupid or silly. Part of your job, and probably one of the most challenging, is coming up with a way to take that stupid idea and make it cool. Instead of telling the client they are dumb, just smile, nod, and find a way to inject something you like into their idea.
As an artist you can pretty much take any idea and make it cool. Your attitude also plays a big part in this. If you start a project saying “this is so stupid, this illustration is going to be dumb,” then you are going to cause yourself a lot of stress and frustration and you may produce something that isn’t very good. You have to say “this idea is dumb, but I’m going to find a way to make it awesome.” Maybe you receive a brief that tells you to paint a pink hippo that is riding a bike. Depending on your lighting, composition, and execution, you could find a way to make that into a really cool illustration. Remember, attitude is everything.
Hurry Up and Wait
You will quickly find that part of your job is to hurry and finish, only to wait for feedback before you can hurry up again. Yet another aspect of freelancing that you will have to juggle. You may think you have plenty of time for a deadline, but you have to take into account the time it will take your client to give you feedback and the number of times they might want you to make revisions. Now multiply that by every project and illustration you have under your belt and you’ll begin to understand the balancing act you are about to undertake. Sometimes you may only wait a few hours for feedback while other times you can wait up to two weeks. In other words, don’t procrastinate.
Speaking of deadlines, many people wonder how long it takes me to complete a painting or how long I am given for each project. Deadlines can vary anywhere from a few hours to a month. I’ve had some cover work that had a 3 day deadline; that is from the time I am contacted by the client for the job and the time I have to turn in the final painting. I think I was contacted on a Friday and I had to turn in the painting Monday morning.
Other times I have a week to complete a cover. Concept work can have even faster turnaround times, often times they want something after one day. The other week I had to do 9 character concepts in one day. Each one took about 1.5 hours to complete, so that is still 13.5 hours of work for one day.
Although typically with freelance concept work they give you easier things to work on since they don’t have you in-house. They save the more complicated things for the in-house artists since they know it will have to go through more revisions and filter through more hands. Freelance concept work usually consists of armor designs, weapons, icons, and texture swaps for armors. These things are fairly easy in terms of approvals.
I remember back in school people would moan about a two week deadline for one painting, but in reality, that is pie. I’ve been to three different universities, and I must say, college homework is a breeze compared to work in the real world. Just something to keep in mind if you feel your college workload is too high.
Freelancers live or die by their paychecks, so make sure you have enough clients and projects to spread your income around. You don’t want to go one or two months with no income. This can be tricky since you never know when new deadlines might come up.
In the beginning of your career you might not have the freedom to turn down projects that may not seem that interesting or that may not pay as much as you had hoped. Your goal is to make enough money so that if there is a dry patch, you can handle it. I would say save enough for at least 3-4 months worth of bills.
How may you ask can you achieve this? By learning to become independent. By that I mean that you don’t depend on one or two sources for income. What happens if your primary source of income doesn’t give you any work or they reduce your workload? The way you can create a safety net is by making sure you have many sources of income. Maybe you have an online tutorial that trickles in some side income, 4-5 clients that give you steady work, an iPhone app, DVDs that you sell online, conventions that you attend where you sell prints and drawings, an art book, there are countless possibilities. I’m not saying become a marketing whore, but just be smart. After all, your job as a freelance artist is to go out and find work.
Now that you have clients and projects, you need to invoice. I use a Mac for all of my work (yeah yeah, you PC users are probably groaning) and I invoice with a program called Billings. It is a great program that allows you to keep track of your clients, projects, invoices, and it has the option to time how long you spend painting if you are charging by the hour. You can customize your own invoice templates too. I tried another program called Macfreelance, but it wasn’t nearly as good as Billings.
Paint with Integrity
Always strive to do your best. I have been a firm believer in always producing the best work I can given the circumstances, regardless of the pay. Maybe I’m a sucker for this belief, but when the audience looks at your work all they are going to see is the work. They aren’t going to say “hmm, I bet artist x didn’t spend a lot of time on this piece or put much effort into it because the pay was lower than some of his/her other projects.” All they are going to see is a crappy illustration and think you are a crappy artist.
I put the same amount of effort into a painting no matter what the pay is. Of course it also depends on the deadline for each project. If I am given 2 days to complete a painting I will obviously not be able to put as much time into it as opposed to one that has a month deadline.
All I am saying is do your best with what is given to you, leave the pay at the door. Again, this is just my opinion. One drawback from this type of thinking could be that clients receive a certain standard of quality for a lower price, and therefore, they continue to expect artists to reach that same level of quality for that same price. If you feel that something isn’t worth the pay, then maybe you should just decline and look for other projects.
Death and Taxes
Everyone’s favorite subject, taxes. As you may know, everyone has to pay taxes. Paying taxes has been drilled into our brains since birth. The same is true with freelancers, although it is a little different. As a full-time employee you have taxes taken out of each paycheck automatically, not so with freelance. Since nothing is taken out of a freelancer’s paycheck, you are required to pay quarterly taxes called Estimated taxes. This is something the IRS expects you to figure out on your own. I love how important life lessons like knowing how to pay taxes is never talked about in school. They just expect you to know everything automatically.
Figuring out how much to pay in estimated taxes can be tricky since, as the name implies, it is an estimation. You have to try and guess how much money you will make in the coming year and base your estimated taxes on that amount. As a good rule of thumb I save at least 30% of each paycheck and put that aside for my estimated taxes. Estimated taxes are due on April 15th, June 15th, September 15th, and January 15th of the coming year.
Ok, let’s put this to an example. Right now it is March 3rd, 2011. So far this year I haven’t paid any estimated taxes for the 2011 tax year because the first payment isn’t due until April 15th. How much will I pay on April 15th? Well, I have to guess how much money I will make this year, take roughly 25% of that amount and divide it by 4. That is how much you should pay each quarter. This is only a rough guess. You probably won’t owe that much since you have to calculate your deductions and whatnot. Save all of your receipts. As an artist you can write off a lot of things, like art supplies, health insurance, computers, software, art books, etc.
Now this is very important…get an accountant! The best advice I can give is to just hire an accountant. Figuring out taxes, deductions, paperwork, and all that is a lot of time and stress. Time that can be better spent working or taking a vacation. The price of an accountant is definitely worth it in my opinion. They can also help you figure out a more accurate amount for your estimated taxes.
Oh, and you have to pay estimated taxes for federal AND state, don’t forget. Not to mention if you sell products, like prints or DVDs, you are required by law to have a seller’s permit in your state and also a business license in the city you live in. Every state and city is different, so be sure to check.
Back to School, or Not
This is another topic that everyone asks me about. Do I need to go to art school to become a professional artist? The short answer is no, hell no. I’m sure all of my teachers are shaking their heads right now, but it is the truth. Basically what it boils down to is do you want to experience going to an art college or would you rather just stay at home? Everyone is different in what they want to experience or achieve and everyone learns differently.
As for myself, I graduated with a BFA in traditional illustration from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco back in 2004. I had a great time there and I learned a lot. Did I need to go there? Absolutely not. Did I want to? Yes. You have to ask yourself, do you want to experience the college life? Things like living in dorm rooms, meeting and hanging out with people that have similar interests, going to class and being pushed to be a better artist by your fellow peers, meeting and learning from industry professionals, attending figure drawing workshops, making industry contacts, the list goes on and on.
The downside, of course, are school loans. Art schools can be very expensive and it is very common to go $100k in debt. Do you want to spend the next 20 years paying that off? Some people think it is worth it while others think it is a waste. Again, it is up to the individual.
I will say this, you will never be asked for your diploma or even where you went to school. Clients are only interested in your ability, not where you came from. I’ve worked with almost 20 different clients, and none of them ever asked me about or required that I have a degree.
I also know tons of industry professionals that are either self taught or they dropped out of school. With the internet at our fingertips we have the ability to learn anything and everything. The amount of reference material, online tutorials, online classes, and just plain information in general is staggering. You can go to an art forum or social networking site and talk to legends like Brom or Todd Lockwood.
What I’ve noticed over the years is that people are getting better at a younger age, and I think it is because of the amount of learning material that is so readily available on the internet. Nowadays you can find 18 year old artists that are freaking amazing, and I’m not talking about this being a rarity, but rather this is becoming commonplace. Just go to CGHub and look at people’s profiles, it can be very daunting.
BUT, and there is always a but, teaching yourself requires a lot of dedication and focus. Are you the type of person that will push yourself to draw everyday, all day long? Are you going to go out of your way to learn and better yourself, or are you going to sit back and play video games? Some people need the motivation and inspiration a school can offer. They need that outside force telling them they have to finish their homework by 3:oopm tomorrow.
My free YouTube tutorials
Feng Zhu’s YouTube tutorials
Dave Rapoza’s Livestream
I know everyone says this and it sounds so cliche, but your college days are probably some of the best days of your life. Do I sit around and reminisce of my college days? Sometimes, yeah.
Let’s think about it. You are probably around 18-19 years old, you move out of the house for the first time to a new place, possibly a new state, you are meeting new people and going to school for something you love, and a lot of people aren’t worrying about rent or jobs.
Most students will probably get a school loan, while the rest might be lucky enough to have a college fund. Either way, you probably aren’t worrying about how you will pay your bills. If you have a student loan, yes you have to pay it back with interest…but seriously, how many 18 year old kids are sitting around stressing about paying back their school loan, not too many. I know a lot of people who were excited about their school loans because that meant they could take that money and buy a new computer.
So you are now in this new place, going to a new school, meeting new people, living off of a school loan so you don’t have to worry about rent and you probably don’t have to worry about a job right now either (most of my friends didn’t have jobs, including myself), sounds pretty good right? If you do go to school, be sure to take advantage of it. Ask questions, make friends, make contacts, attend every workshop possible, and go to class with a good attitude. What you put in is what you will get back. Oh yeah, try to find out which teachers are the good ones. Every school has good and bad teachers, so you definitely don’t want to get stuck with the bad ones.
Whew, longest post ever. If I think of any other good tips I’ll try and post them on here. I hope this helped! Thanks!
No I don’t mean hitting for more damage, I mean asking for critiques. As an artist I am happy to critique other people’s work, but please be sure to understand that it may take me a few weeks or maybe even a few months to get back to you. I always try to reply to every e-mail, but sometimes I become distracted or I forget. If you haven’t received a reply, just send me another e-mail, but please don’t send another e-mail if it has only been a few hours or a day since you sent the first e-mail.
If you are sending an attachment of your work, please be sure to resize your images. My inbox can only hold a certain amount of space, so please don’t send 10 meg attachments. Make sure all of your files are 72 dpi. It is also much easier for me to critique a piece if I can see the entire image without scrolling. Opening an image and only seeing a knuckle is a bit unreasonable.
I’ve also had people get mad with my feedback or tell me they don’t care about what I have to say and that they are going to continue doing what they want. If you can’t handle constructive criticism, don’t ask for it. If you plan to be a professional artist, you are going to receive criticism ALL the time.