Spring is a romantic time of year. It’s also one of the best metaphors for change and transition. The flowers start to bloom, everyone wants to be outside enjoying the sun, but for some it’s above all a time when students graduate from various universities and art schools. Then comes the challenge of starting a business in the arts.
I completely understand the fear so many graduates are sulking in. I finished myundergrad in 2009 when the economy was completely tanked. Every teacher I had said the sky was falling, that it’s impossible to make a living in editorial illustration alone. I wanted to work as an editorial illustrator so badly that I put the blinders up and just focused on making the absolute best work I could. I started sending out postcards every other month with a new image and updated my website with even more images. Six months later I started to get some work—but not enough to make a living. I emailed a few illustrators I admired to get their opinions and took the advice with a grain of salt. I pushed my work further, even evolved my style so that it was truer to me.
Before long I started taking on a lot more client work, about two years after sending out my first promotion. I was now making a living as an editorial illustrator, completely off of my illustration work. A big change in my promotion was because of getting an Agency Access account. Getting a subscription to a list expanded the number of magazines and book publishers from the contacts I’d gotten initially at the newsstand and from book shelves. Another game-changer for me was that I started sending emails on top of sending postcards.
Sure, in those first two years I had paid internships and a job working at an art supply store. I even spent a few months working as a production designer at a corporate consulting firm (and hated it). In the end, that was all a stepping stone to build toward the career in the arts that I wanted. Personally, I knew I wanted to do this no matter what. A lot of my success has been built on having blind optimism that everything will work out, keeping a schedule, creating new personal and client work, and persistently putting my work directly in front of potential clients every six to eight weeks. This could be in the form of a postcard, an email, or even something alternative like buttons, a zine, a calendar, etc.
If you just graduated from school with a degree in the arts, why not use it? You spent four years building your craft and learning about theories of how to get your career going. Why not test those theories out and figure out what’s best for you? Every career is unique in both the direction of the work and the markets you want to work in, so dive in head first and start swimming. Some artists hit the ground running and have a successful career right out of the university gate, while other ones—like me—get day jobs, building toward eventually making a complete living off of an artistic career.
Working as a freelance artist is hard, but it’s also not a race. Just make great work, be persistent about putting it out there, and believe that the effort you put in will eventually be rewarded.
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