Definitely not “one and done”

Ahhh, the glamorous life of a freelancer. Everyone wants to be a freelancer right? Make your own schedule, sit around all day playing video games, wake up at 3pm and party until 5am, finally pursue that lifelong dream of learning how to make sock puppets with your free time…that’s what the life of a freelancer is like right?

Wroooooong. Well, mostly wrong, I do play a lot of video games. I must admit, I had some of these preconceived notions back when I was young and inexperienced. I’ve come across a lot of people that think freelancers can pump out one painting a month and just sit back and enjoy the rest of the month doing whatever it is they do…like I dunno, collecting coins and eating rice crispy treats. Ok ok, I do have a Domo-Kun piggy bank full of shiny coins and I do enjoy the occasional rice crispy treat, but you know what I mean.

I think Chuck said it best in his post about the life of a freelancer, although I have Chuck beat in terms of commute. All I have to do is sit up in bed, slightly move to my left and pick up my computer. I can then sit in bed for the next 12 hours working and then, you guessed it, put my computer back down and go to sleep.

I won’t repeat anything that he already talked about since he is 100% correct. What I do want to do is give students a better understanding of what the life of a freelancer is really like and give them a peek at my daily schedule.

Being a freelance artist is not easy, there is a lot of work involved. People always ask me how I balance my work life with my personal life, and the answer is I don’t have much of a personal life. If you want to be a freelance artist and be able to provide for your entire family, be prepared to give up a lot of your personal life.

There was one point where I went 6 months without playing a single video game. I can almost feel your sarcastic responses, but for me that is a big deal. I’m sure there are artists out there who make enough money from a couple paintings that they can sit back and relax, but I am no where near that status. If you are a regular Joe like me, you gotta work your ass off.


So behold! The all powerful freelancing calendar of doom.

All of the orange entries are paintings that I have to finish for that given day. One thing to keep in mind is that even though there might only be one orange entry, it can mean that several paintings are due for that project.

Today there are 3 orange entries, but in reality I have 8 paintings that I have to finish. The other day I finished 9 paintings in one day. I am currently juggling projects for 6 different clients.

Depending on my workload, my work week can be anywhere from 40-120 hours/week. Yeah you can make your own schedule, but you still have to put in the hours.

Chuck mentioned how he feels guilty about taking a day off, that is completely true. I think in the past 4 years I’ve only taken maybe 4 weekends off. Even when I’m on “vacation,” a.k.a. at a signing event, I am still drawing and signing cards all day long. Sometimes I have to take work back to the hotel because my playmat queue gets too long.

Some people may say “you should be grateful you are getting that much work, stop complaining,” or, “stop taking so many projects then.” Well, if I don’t take that many projects then I can’t pay my bills. I’m not trying to be ungrateful or complain, but simply show that freelancing can take up a lot of time. I actually count myself lucky that I get this much work and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

One good thing about this much work is that I can support my family, but the downside is that by the time I had reached 28 I had developed carpal tunnel in both wrists and cubital tunnel in my left arm. What really worries me is that it only took 4 years of working for me to develop that much damage. How much longer will my career last? What will I do if I can no longer paint? Just something to think about and to keep tabs on. Make sure you have good work habits and take frequent breaks. I’ve talked about this many times before, but it is really important. Take good care of your wrists. If I can prevent other artists from damaging their wrists then it is worth beating a dead horse…with a stick…with a nail on the end.

Now you may ask yourself, what is the moral of the story? If you want to pursue a career as a freelance artist be prepared to work, a lot. Don’t let people tell you being a freelance artists is a breeze or that it isn’t a real job or that you will starve as a freelancer. I know when I attended state universities if you mentioned that you were an art major people would stifle a snicker and turn their nose and probably say something like “art isn’t a major” or “ah, that must be an easy a.” If you have the drive and dedication you can live very comfortably as a freelancer, just watch those wrists.

14 Replies to “Definitely not “one and done””
  1. ” My work week can be anywhere from 40-120 hours/week. {…}
    Well, if I don’t take that many projects then I can’t pay my bills. ”

    You are doing something wrong.

    PD. Please, remove the need of register for commenting, it´s too much work just for post an opinion. If spam is your problem, place some kind of anti-capcha or so. 🙂

    • Saarer – I have many spam filters in place and it doesn’t help very much. I am sorry you had to go through the trouble of registering. Instead of me wading through 1000 spam replies I only have to wade through about 20, but if removing the register option helps you make a sarcastic reply more easily then I will be happy to remove it.

      As for me doing “something wrong,” I have many bills I have to pay. Also, have you had to pay medical bills for someone with cancer? If you have, you will know how expensive it can be. I have to pay rent, health insurance, two school loans, medical bills, credit card bills, utilities, two phone bills, food, car insurance, estimated taxes, business license tax, etc. etc. Just health insurance is $840/month. If paying for rent, health insurance, school loans, and all my other bills is “doing something wrong” then I guess I am guilty.

      I also forgot to mention, just because it takes me 40-120 hours doesn’t mean it takes someone else that long. Everyone paints at different speeds. If I was faster then maybe my work week wouldn’t be so long. It also depends on how many times the client asks for changes. I have some clients that approve my first sketch while others ask for 7-8 changes. I have some clients that approve my sketch but then a few days before the final they decide they want something totally different and I have to start from scratch. Maybe if I didn’t care about what my art looked like I would only spend an hour or two on something and call it done. So I guess I am guilty again for “doing something wrong.”

  2. Wow man, that’s intense. I had thought being freelance would be Hell, and I guess I assumed right. Seems like it would be easier getting a full-time gig at a game studio, or something…

    • Deadlyhaztard – Well, yes and no. Getting a gig as a concept artist for a video game company is much more competitive and harder to get. There are downsides to both, but I feel that freelancing, for me, is the better option. I worked as a full-time concept artist for Bioware Mythic for 3 years. As a full-time concept artist you are required to be creative and fresh every single day, all day long. Some days you just don’t feel very creative or inspired, but as a full-time concept artist you have to be. You might also get stuck doing things you don’t want to do. Maybe there is downtime and you have to do textures for a wall, create style guides, paint 75 icons, or something else that you don’t really want to do. As a freelance artist you can pick and choose your projects, just as you can pick and choose your own schedule. Being a full-time artist can be intense as well. You aren’t always going to be stuck with a 40 hour work week. It really depends on your position in the company and the company itself (along with milestones). There is always crunch time at one point or another. To be fair, concept artists do have fewer crunch times than say, an animator or modeler.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Daarken!

    I aim to get some sort of studio position after I graduate, because I can’t imagine being able to freelance successfully without some established contacts and experience. Already I find myself lacking free time, and I’m just trying to build a portfolio.

    You are doing something right, because you are able to produce stunning work under a tight schedule and still take the time to share knowledge with the community. Thanks!

  4. I have 2 major concerns, and would appreciate your opinion.

    I’m 23, and I consider starting to learn how to draw now (I have almost no experience), with the intention of becoming concept artist after several years (?), maybe freelancer. I don’t intend to have formal education. I’m following the art world for several years now, so at least I can identify the different qualities of artwork, and what makes one drawing great. I’m confident I have the “eye” for it. If I don’t enroll in the concept art/illustration world as a profession I would stick with it as a hobby (not getting into it too much) and with the, crappy… how is it called, no-education office work (?) for the rest of my life, which will probably be fine as well. The problem is that becoming pro requires complete dedication and if I set my mind to it I intend to become very good, else there is no point, so no stopping in-between.
    Am I thinking realistically – to start at 23 from the ground up and have very good chance of success?

    And the second thing is about freelancing – If I become concept artist, it will be for the freedom that comes with it, BUT I also want a lot of free time, which by your words seems to be a big problem, but the thing is I calculate I don’t need a lot of money – I don’t want to have kids, and a future wife (if any) will be able to support herself if necessary, and most probably. Also I would not need to pay a TON of money for bills and stuff since I don’t require as much from life as normal people (no car, no 2 phone bills, no insurances (not sure what is optional in my country though, I’ll have to look into that), no relatives to leech me, and if I get cancer or some such – I just die 😀 ) also I live in a country where you can get by with a little money anyhow, also what’s with your “$840/month health insurance”? That’s like twice the whole average monthly pay in my country O_O
    You see I want more free time, less money, and a fun job, so I can get food by drawing and then play a lot of video games and what not – fun simple life. Is that even a realistic idea for the future?

    I thank you if you find the time to respond with some concrete answer to this.

    • Sky – Haha, well that is the downside of living in America. If you want to be taken care of when you are sick you have to pay ridiculous amounts of money for health insurance. Health insurance companies are just out to make money, that is the bottom line. If you have a pre-existing condition most health insurance companies will not even cover you. They only cover healthy people, which defeats the purpose. The only reason I have health insurance now is because I am on Cobra, but that will run out soon. I’m going to have to find a new provider. Yeah there is this whole new Obama health reform thing, but if you read the fine print, it is still crap. If you have a pre-existing condition they require you to go without any health insurance of any kind for at least 6 months before you can be considered. They also require proof that you were turned down from another provider…BUT if the provider is willing to cover you for a ridiculous price, then you can’t be considered. I think it changes in 2014, so I’ll have to wait and see.

      Anyway, back to the matter at hand. It is never too late to start a professional art career. I know people who didn’t start painting until their 30’s and now they are awesome. If it is something you are really passionate about, then I say go for it. You mentioned the freedom that comes with being a concept artist, I am not sure what you mean by that. If you mean a freelance concept artist, then yes you have more freedom, but if you mean an in-house concept artist then you don’t have that much freedom. Also, I’m not sure if you mean freedom as in the ability to make your own schedule and have more time off, or if you mean freedom as in you are free to draw and paint whatever you want. Based on what you want (more free time, less money, a fun job) then I would say freelancing would be the way to go as opposed to an in-house position. I also wouldn’t be worried about not having an art education. The great thing about art is that you don’t need to go to school for it. Going to art school is strictly based on the wants and needs of the individual. If you like going to school and meeting people with similar interests, then take some art classes, but you are not required to go to school in order to become a professional artist. No one will ever ask for your diploma or even ask where you went to school, all they care about is your ability. Especially now with the internet and online tutorials and whatnot, it is extremely easy to teach yourself. The only thing about teaching yourself is that you need to be dedicated and focused.

      I hope that helps. Let me know if you have any other questions or concerns!

  5. That’s reassuring. Digital art is the only passion of mine that I would consider making into a career. But I’m not confident I’ll make it yet even though you said “extremely easy to teach yourself” 😀 Yes I don’t have that confidence.
    And by freedom I meant if I’m freelancing – schedule and more time off. You got it anyway. Also if I get an in-house position that means I have to actually GO there. That’s a bit of a problem and less freedom, and I don’t like traveling, except that I would like to go to Japan some day for a more extended period of time, and freelancing seems the only way I can pull that off.
    Also my main point about freelancing was that I was reading scary things about working more than 40 hours/week so that you can barely meet the ends, but with your big bills maybe you are making more than I actually need, so I’m having conflicting feelings about my free time, but if you say freelancing is the way to go, it gives me confidence I can try it. Thank you!

    Oh, and you are one of my favorite artists 😀

  6. I believe you are in need of a digital painting assistant sir!
    I am available. 🙂
    Really though, thanks for sharing this. It’s not often that an artist is so open about their process, woes, and personal stress concerning life and art. I have learned a lot looking at your work and watching your tutorials. You are doing a lot of things VERY well in my humble opinion. Too many artists out there are very talented but rely too much on ego and the “mystique” of being a great artist. I think an open and honest approach not only benefits other artists but the human condition itself.
    Keep up the great work, and take care of those wrists, you’re making wonderful images and we all appreciate it!

    • Jordan – You are hired! You can massage my wrists for me whenever I take a break. Thanks for the comments though, it is very much appreciated! I’m glad there are some people out there who enjoy my ramblings. Speaking of ramblings, I’m in the process of writing another huge blog entry about dos and dont’s in the industry and other tips of the trade. I’ll probably post it later today or maybe tomorrow. Thanks again!

  7. Hi,
    To start with, Your doing a great job! I love your work.
    I’ve taken the decision to become a concept artist. I’m 19 right now and just waiting to finish high school (finish at age 20) here in Iceland. Then I’ll move somewhere to study concept art. I don’t know if I’ll be going into transportation design or Cinema/video game designing. I haven’t decided yet and still have a year to do so. Until I make my final decision I will try to find some pros and cons for both. You are doing some valuable work here. Affecting lives of others with your work and knowledge 🙂
    Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next blog on some more tips! Any knowledge I can get on the subject before I start in the business are well appreciated.

    PS. I’m curious, did you to study art in school or are you self taught?

  8. HI Daarken,

    Thanks for pointing me in the direction of this blog… it was a really interesting read.

    I love the idea of starting a freelance company but at this current position in life I have to many commitments (financially) with my mortgage etc so I would probably need to stick to my 9-5 building websites, at the moment.

    Love your work Daarken, really inspiring pieces of art.


    • Warren – Yeah, freelancing can be tough at times if you have a lot of bills. Maybe you can keep your 9-5 and just start doing one or two freelancing jobs on the side. That way you can build up your freelance reputation so that one day you can make the move to doing freelance full-time.
      Royal Onion – By games industry I assume you mean as a concept artist in the video game industry. Heh, well my story won’t really help much because I never actually went out looking for jobs. I was sitting at home and I got an e-mail from Bioware Mythic asking me to fly to Virginia for an interview, so I did, and I got the job. All of my freelance work has been the same. My very first freelance jobs were from Fantasy Flight Games and Wizards of the Coast. They both called me at the same time and asked me to do some work for them. I think all of my work has come from either word of mouth or from my website. I post on a lot of sites too, so I think that helps a lot with marketing. Posting your work on or can get you a lot of attention and recognition. If no one knows who you are, you won’t get any work. Back in the day people used to have to send out mailers, but now with the internet that kind of tactic has pretty much become obsolete.

  9. I know the schedule of working freelance from experience. If it’s not at least a 40 hours week, one gets antsy and anxious because well bills and sometimes I even worry about food and a winter coat.
    You mentioned wristproblems. I have lost 60% of rotation ability already due to hypermobility, borrelioses and 10 years of martial art training. Still scares me, but I try not to think about it.
    I have a question, though:
    how does one get a job in the games industry? Did you get recognized for your work and then they asked you or did you apply for a freelance job they offered? How were your first steps?

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