freelance illustrator help and advice going freelance self employed artist

how to be a freelance illustrator

Adrian Cartwright is a freelance illustrator based in Derby in the UK, and currently working from his illustration studio in Derby.

In the past he’s provided an illustration service working in-house in Advertising & Marketing agencies in London and more local in Nottingham, Leicester, Derby and Birmingham.

Please take a look at the illustrations on the home page to see samples of his past commissions. Below is an article from Digital Arts magazine, followed by his advice on how to be a successful freelance illustrator. Author: Adrian Cartwright

Derby illustrator Adrian Cartwright
adrian cartwright aged 6
adrian cartwright in cornwall

Interview with Digital Arts magazine and Adrian Cartwright about how to be a freelance illustrator. Drawing from his personal experiences since 1990 to 2010.

"Ever since Art college, freelancing seemed the way to go – back then our lecturers used to brag how much they made. One of the most important things to do before becoming freelance is to plan it out financially. Usually, you’ll wait between 60 and 120 days for payment, which is a lot of time to have to balance the books. Unless you have a nest egg, you’ll need to put aside at least two months’ living expenses. In the first four years, I worked under my own name from home in a spare bedroom, but I found that renting office space at a local Advertising agency gave me studio experience, and it’s also cost-effective if it brings you work. Usually you can rent somewhere on a short-term basis, but be careful not to pay too much. The art director at the Ad agency and I started a new company, Planet Design, which didn’t last very long, but I kept the name, because we’d invested time and money in it. While freelancing as an individual using your own name does get your name about, it also shouts “I’m a freelancer”. The downside to presenting yourself as a company is that it sounds like a bigger deal, and clients with small budgets may be scared away.

tyre illustration

Deciding how to market yourself is a tough one. I’ve tried lots of different approaches. One of the best – and cheapest – is to knock on doors; you need to let people know you’re there, and meet them face-to-face. I also email existing clients, and keep them updated about new work I’ve done. Honesty has to be paramount in your working relationship, and that’s never more important than when you’re really busy. If work dramatically increases, as it does at times, I’m honest and quick to approach my clients to see if deadlines can be extended. My clients trust me to give them the best possible service. I think the best aspect of being freelance is the sense of accomplishment – the fact I’ve managed to survive this long, when the odds of survival were five per cent in the first year, and two per cent in the second. I love being an illustrator, and it’s part of me now. Author: Adrian Cartwright

Questions and answers to the most common enquiries and please feel free to contact me if you have a new question. by Adrian Cartwright

Advice about going freelance and being a freelance illustrator are the opinions of Adrian Cartwright and his experience as a freelance illustrator since 1990.

Can you describe your role as a freelance illustrator ?
My role as an freelance illustrator is to provide imagery that will compliment or help describe a thought, product or message. My work is quite varied and challenging. The diversity of commissions is a good thing, as it keeps things fresh and I can transfer ideas from one area or style over to other areas of illustration.

info graphic illustration

How do you find clients ?
I've been a freelance illustrator for over 23 years. I started freelancing in 1990, finding work by knocking on doors. This is time consuming, but there's nothing better than face to face contact to be remembered. I also spent a lot of time "cold calling" calling potential clients asking to meet up to show my folio. This is even tougher, and you have to be thick skinned to do this, as you'll get knocked back time after time. I use to call about 25 companies in a day, and usually get 2 appointments to look at my folio. Needless to say, it's hard, but sometimes it's the only way. Now clients find me, usually from word of mouth or my web-site.

How do you come up with ideas for illustrations ?
Clients usually know what they want (usually bad news if they don't) so I listen to what they want. I then talk to them about any ideas I have to help improve the effectiveness of the illustration. I also use the web, and draw on my experience as input into the project. Recently I was working on a large illustration project where it was vital that the viewer understood the illustration/map straight away. So a lot of time was spent developing how the illustration would work, and be perceived by the voyeur. I like this sort of illustration, because I'm not just illustrating a pretty picture, but the mechanics and it's affect. Illustration should give an emotion or instruction "knowledge" to the person viewing it.

cat eyes illustration

What tools do you work with ?
I would say that 95% of my work is now digital, increasing over the years. Without going into too much detail, I use Software like Adobe, Cinema 4D, Google and Hardware like the wacom tablet, 3DConnexion Spacenavigator and Apple products. The other 5% of my work is usually work in progress related to a digital illustration. I us pencil for speed flexibility and ultimately this avoids the limitation creativity suffers when working completely digital.

illustration thumbnails

What stages are involved in an illustration commission ?
Stage 1: Contact:
A prospective client will contact me normally by phone or e-mail. I try and find out as much as possible about the project, usually because a client will want a ball-park cost and estimated production time prior to a meeting or briefing.

Stage 2: Meeting:
Take samples of work that might be relevant for the project and make notes (A MUST)! Remember to ask as many questions you need, some typical ones are listed:
What's the illustration for?
Who will the illustration target?
What's the finished size of the illustration (ie print size)?
What size is suitable for the client to use to scan for artwork?
What style is the client looking for?
Use of the illustration and copyright.
Ask about payment, but this can be a sticky subject and most times the person briefing you will not be the person paying you. However if you keep it light and say "Once you're happy with the finished illustration, when can I expect to be paid?" will usually be answered with "I'll find out for you". Remember that this is a two way business, and your part is to provide an illustration on time, and their's to pay on time.

Stage 3: Brief:
Discuss the finer details of composition and if you're supplying a "scamp" visual of some sort for approval prior to completing the finished illustration. ( the last thing you want is to deliver the illustration and it's not what the client wanted )

Stage 4: Budget:
Confirm a cost with the client (this can be done later after you've considered the illustration project. Most clients will have a budget or price in their mind. Usually the client will not give you this, but it's worth asking, as it can help you to determine if you're wasting your time. Clients who expect a very low price, are usually trying it on and don't really care about the project. Think of it like this… if they were buying a car they wouldn't normally buy the cheapest car on the market would they?

Stage 5: Visual:
I normally provide the client with a line stage of the illustration, this normally will eradicate any misunderstandings regarding content and composition. Sometimes this will involve a second set of visuals. Keep this up until the client is happy with it.

Stage 6: Finished illustration:
Deliver the illustration on time (Never miss a deadline, and if you fear you're going to deliver late. Let the client know as soon as possible.) No body likes to be let down, so be professional and discuss it with your client.

Stage 7: Feedback:
Always make sure you check with your client that they're happy with the illustration on delivery day, and ask for feedback at a later date. A happy client will return to you again and again.

Stage 8: Invoice:
Good idea to have an accounts system so you can track your invoices. Allow up to 90 days credit. But most clients will pay within 60 days from the end of the month you invoice.

Stage 9: Chasing payment:
Clients normally pay 30-90 days from the end of the month the invoice was issued. If the client hasn't paid after this time, it's worth speaking with them, as sometimes there's a simple reason. Over the years I've heard a few reasons, some just plain stalling, and others have a good reason. If you think your client is having difficulty paying you. Try and help them, (ask for half this month and the other next month) getting half your money back is better than none. But remember that the longer you leave it the easier your client will feel about not paying you. As a freelancer we're at the end of the food chain, so suffer the most from ups and downs in the market, so cash-flow is so so important. Be polite but firm and remember they're human, and will understand your situation too if you're considerate to theirs.

Stage 10: Good ideas:
Contact your client a few weeks later and ask for a Testimonial/recommendation. Keep in-touch. Author: Adrian Cartwright

What qualities do you need to be a freelance illustrator ?
Obviously artistic skills are the most important, but other skills are also needed, being able to understand a brief and not to deviate from it, a friendly personality and a desire to work hard for what is a rewarding but lonely profession. Ultimately you need to be professional as you're selling a professional service. I would recommend that you get some general business training like accountancy, marketing, how to take a brief and legal issues. All of which I cover on this page.

eye illustration

What do you like most about being an illustrator ?
I've been doing this for such a long time… it's the norm now I guess, but I think it's being my own boss, and doing something I love and know I'm good at. Being recognised for my work is nice and I think I really like the challenge of illustration now. You learn lots of things as an illustrator, especially if you do technical work that you wouldn't normally know. Such as, how oil wells work, and golf stretching exercises for example.

Adrian's freelance tips
Before you start save as much money as you can, at least 3-4 months living expenses.
Get a folio with about 8-12 of your best illustrations in it. Think quality rather than quantity.
Get desk space in a design group or work experience in a commercial studio.
Get an on-line folio.
Keep updated with new software and hardware.
Get out and network.

Consider all the Illustration related jobs available listed below.
Architectural visualizer
Editorial illustrator
Fashion visualizer
Graffiti Artist
Medical illustrator
Technical illustrator
Textile designer
Video Game artist

watercolour map

Adrian's route to becoming a freelance illustrator
I studied Art and 3d-art as high as possible at school, and then continued in higher education, choosing the best commercially as well and artistically focused courses. There's no point doing a 3 year degree in French fine art if you want to go into Computer game graphics.

Income for illustrators
This varies according to ability, reputation and the employer.
Income for new illustrators is around £14,000 per year. ( circa 2010 )
Experienced illustrators earn £20,000 to £29,000+ per year.
Well-established illustrators might earn £40,000+ per year.
Illustrators who work independently and those with recognised ability may earn more.
Freelance illustrators charge a fee per illustration. Occasionally, they charge a day rate, which could be in the region of £150 to £250+, based on experience. Agents may take up to 30 per cent as commission. But are likely to get a higher price in the first place.
How to become an illustrator
If you think you've got the skills and prepared to study and explore different mediums to find your inner illustrator. I highly recommend you go to college and get a qualification in that field. There are many different Degree courses that cover illustration. Some include animation and other visual disciplines. Fine art will focus more on the artistic and less commercial side, so business training will be needed. National diploma courses in the past have focused on a more professional step into the big wide world of illustration. Once qualified you'll find that everyone wants experience, so get work placement. A good folio is important, as there's lots of other newly qualified illustrators out there. So try to be the best at what you do. At the end of the day only you will know if it's what you want, and if it suits your expectations. Good Luck and feel free to link to this advice for all freelance illustrators pages.

Who can help me, so I can get on with what I'm good at ?
There are some companies that can help freelancers, for instance Workology are a website company that can deal with a lot of your admin like chasing invoices (never a pleasurable task), and a community of other freelancers for networking is always a good resource. I've found that us illustrators can be quite shy when it comes to other illustrators. Perhaps it's a competitive thing. But more and more are working in different areas nowadays. So getting to know other illustrators is a good way to share and learn from experience. Ultimately getting an Agent who will negotiate commissions, and protect you from being exploited and help to promote your work, but all for a commission of course. Normally their cut is 30%, which might seem a lot, but remember they could get twice the price for your work. So it works both ways, but getting an Agent is another thing. I know illustrators who've been on an Agents list for a year and not had one commission, they can also include clauses that prevent you from signing up with other Agents and you'll have to notify them on any commissions you get directly too.


Good equipment is essential if you want to be a professional freelance illustrator. Keeping an eye on new advancements in a product range is worth doing especially with fast moving technology like software and computer hardware. The more traditional materials tend to move slower as they've been established for years, well hundreds of years with some old materials, but even development in paper and paints are always developing, so perhaps now is a good time to get re-aquatinted with your art supply shop. It's a great way learn about alternative tools and will have like-minded people, and perhaps a future client!

Computers and software:
This area is moving so fast at the moment as the market opens up, but there are some big names that have been around for years, and I would suggest you seriously consider them. This is partly because the majority of clients and suppliers of services will have the same software. I would however look at software that might suit your particular type or style of illustration, especially if it's unique.
I would also be careful with the latest software, as I've been caught out in the past with newest version. I would wait a little while after it's been released, as sometimes issues arise that could cause problems, and can take days to correct or work around it. Check on the internet for any issues that users of newly released software have encountered.
Tablets are a great but very expensive peripheral for a computer rendering illustrator. I've used one since 2004, and would never go without it. I would recommend the Wacom range for professional use. I also use an additional monitor, giving me more workspace. Other items that are useful are the essentials... I think a list is needed here, but please let me know if you think of any other items I should include.

1: Telephone (most people have mobiles, but a landline gives a more professional impression and say you're established and reliable.

2: Studio or place of work with a suitable desk.

3: Computers are so helpful for running a business, but mostly allows access to the internet which is a must nowadays.

4: Software, Using applications for Accounts, illustration, e-mail, internet, client database and accessing digital files.

5: Good furniture, this sounds a bit over the top, But you're going to be sitting most of the day. THINK ergonomics !

6: Filing your artwork and materials will help to keep your workspace workable.

7: A diary is handy as things can get busy at times, and believe me, you'll forget!

8: A secure backup system for all your computer files and artwork. I would also recommend you back up remotely too. In other words use an on-line back-up service. If your computer gear is nicked, including your backup drive… you'll be glad you've got it all safely stored on your remote backup.

Please feel free to let me know of any additions you think should be added... thanks Author: Adrian Cartwright

10 tips for client loyalty:

1: Find out as much as possible about your customers requirements and encourage feedback as detailed as possible.

2: After a year or two analyse your clientele, and focus on the clients needs as a guide to your future market.

3: Work with them to find the best working methods to make their job easier to commission you.

4: Let your customers know what to expect, avoiding confusion and disappointment.

5: Keep regular contact with clients, with information useful to them and give your appreciation for their business.

6: Keep an easy to update database of all clients contact details and notable info, as this could be valuable.

7: Make it easy for customers to contact you and answer phone calls and reply to letters or e-mails promptly.

8: Deal with complaints quickly showing concern and your efforts to correct any mistakes.

9: Keep to deadlines and try to excel in your clients expectations, providing notice as early as possible of any issues.

10: Use the internet to find out more about your clients, allowing you to focus on their needs more affectively.

Author: Adrian Cartwright


1: Find out as much as possible about your customers requirements and encourage feedback as detailed as possible.
(sometimes this is difficult as a potential customer will be in a hurry or not very clear what the details are, so keep your quote open and make sure they understand that until you have certain details like quantities or complexity that you can only give a basic estimate).

2: After a year or two analyse your clientele, and focus on the clients needs as a guide to your future market.
( I suggest making notes from the beginning about the commission enquiries that come your way, so at a later date you can categorise them and see what type of customer is the most common and cost effective ) NB this is usually the jobs you enjoy the most, which is a good thing! )

3: Work with them to find the best working methods to make their job easier to commission you.

4: Let your customers know what to expect, avoiding confusion and disappointment.
( Give them a schedule and update with any changes or ideas you have, this will make them feel special and looked after ).

5: Keep regular contact with clients, with information useful to them and give your appreciation for their business.

6: Keep an easy to update database of all clients contact details and notable info, as this could be valuable.

7: Make it easy for customers to contact you and answer phone calls and reply to letters or e-mails promptly.
( I learnt earlier this year that the average person starts to get twitchy if their email isn’t replied to in 4 hours! ).

8: Deal with complaints quickly showing concern and your efforts to correct any mistakes.

9: Keep to deadlines and try to excel in your clients expectations, providing notice as early as possible of any issues.

10: Use the internet to find out more about your clients, allowing you to focus on their needs more affectively.

Author: Adrian Cartwright


You'll need to open a business bank account when starting up a business. This will provide you with a business cheque book and a business manager, but in recent years this isn't always the case. Banks the last few years have reduced down the service provided to small business. This is somewhat disappointing considering that it's a perfect opportunity for a bank to build a lifelong relationship with a possible captain of industry. They also helped to guide freelancer's, and be understanding with a cash-flow situation. But nowadays it's more common that your bank manager of old is now called a "relationship manager" they're normally in my opinion a telephone only account manager who will note down your requirements and enter them into a piece of software that's primarily designed for self employed hair dressers or small shops. Giving no consideration to the business we're in and the ups & downs that go with it. My bank relationship person, covers over 4000 customers. So don't expect much in a way of a relationship.
Chances are you'll need a loan or bank overdraft when starting a business. Unless of course you've been saving up or have a very understanding and wealthy relative. Normally freelancers have a month or three without any or little income due to a delay in payments. This is because once you've done the work and invoiced, it takes time for the gears of industry to process and pay you for your hard earned money. This is where a good and realistic cash-flow forecast is needed, not just for yourself, but it will also show to your bank you're serious and any moneys lent planned to be paid back.
Choosing a bank can be daunting, and I suggest shopping around. I recommend prioritising what you'll need, rather than going for the cheapest or easiest. In my opinion, I'd consider: Do I have a bank manager who I can speak with and meet up with, On-line bank services, do I have a local branch for paying in cheques and typical bank charges.
Remember that Banks are business's that make money from charging you. So remember that when you approach a bank, you're bringing business to them. You're the customer. Author: Adrian Cartwright


This is very important, you need to really be honest with yourself!
The best and quickest way is to note down your outgoings (costs to run the business) and incomes (money coming in from commissions). Now you could add the incomes together, which will give you a gross income. Then subtract the total of you outgoings to give you a net profit or loss. Remember the more details you include the more accurate the forecast should be. But let's be honest, it's far easier to add up what your expenses are because you can get costs before you start. Guessing what you're going to earn is normally, well guess work. That's why it's so important to have savings or money aside to support you during the first year.
Now back to your cash-flow. A spreadsheet software like Apples "numbers" or Microsoft "excel" and I think Google offer a free one too. These are great as you can amend and update it on a regular basis. I personally use one all the time as most completed work isn't usually paid for 60 days so it's good to plan my finances. The beauty of a spreadsheet is you can forecast by months and then add on the necessary months unusual costs like road tax if you drive or quarterly bills like electricity & Gas. Cash-flow forecasts are always work in progress, but so long as you're honest with it, it will help to show if your in a good position to go freelance and continue to be freelance. Author: Adrian Cartwright


Don't get too focused on this, but it's a really good way to get yourself known! I don't really go out to social events to network. But I know some who do. I think it's swings and round a-bouts really. The important thing here is building relationships with people in the business. If you're at college or school you're already networking with people of your own age. It might not seem anything to you now, but years to come that all important job could come down to if you spoke to the quiet chap who sits in the corner. It costs nothing to be nice, and a lot to be mean. I've just recently started a MeetUp group, and have found it to be a really positive way to meet others in my profession. I keep it just social, as I can't stand those professional networking meetings… it's just full of people passing their business cards about. People recommend you because they know you, not because they've got your business card. Waste of time I think, but perhaps other would say differently. Author: Adrian Cartwright

Credit check:

Be careful where you go, many checks don't really give you any comprehensible info. If you're unsure ask for payment upfront or on delivery at least. Alternatively see if you can get a deposit if it's the first time you've done work for them. I can't see why a company can't pay 50% up-front for your service, after all you're just a freelancer, and they should be a far cash richer partner in the project. I do it with new customers… Trust your instinct... if you feel like you're taking a risk, then you probably are.

Tax and VAT:

Tax is a silent bill that'll catch you out every year unless you put money aside (difficult for freelancers). I could write for ever on income Tax and VAT, but I'll give you the basics to start with. You pay income Tax one year in advance witch is estimated, then on your next year tax bill any differences in the actual income and expenses are adjusted considering your previous years estimated bill.
It's not the same with VAT. You can pay VAT on a "Cash accounting" setup. Instead of paying at the end of the year (one big bill taken from what you've invoiced), you can pay every 3 months, but only for money you've received instead of what you've billed.
For freelancers the biggest issue is informing the tax office the amounts. If you keep a good and honest record of your incomes and expenses, you'll have all the information you need to fill out the self assessment form. I've used accountants for 19 years, and I decided to do it myself in 2010. One of the main reasons was my accountant was asking me to provide my accounts in a format to make it easier for them to transfer onto the online self assessment. I realised that apart from them checking I'd not missed something, they simply took my figures and input them online. There's plenty of free advice on the internet regarding self assessment, and the sooner you do it the better.
Look at accounts software for small business's as this could make the inputting easier. I think HMRC web site have a list of suitable software, and they are very helpful and informative. Author: Adrian Cartwright

Bad Clients:

Yep the rotters are there waiting for you...
It's easy to get paranoid about being taken for a ride as an illustrator, especially when you first start out freelancing. The main worry is not getting paid. But the truth is that it doesn't happen that often. And if you're professional, produce the work on time and follow the brief, you shouldn't have any trouble. Exploitation of your talent by what I can only describe as lesser talented individuals, is more common, but even more difficult to avoid. We are very eager to get a commission when we start off freelancing, and often underestimate the real value of our work.
I find it happening all the time, and I've been doing this since 1990. What you have to think is… normally illustration is commissioned by a middle-man or woman. Usually a design company working for the end client. Now they will normally add a percentage on top of your illustration costs, and pass that onto the end client. This is where the middle man can get quite creative… I've known people charge their client up to 400% more than what they've paid me. Now I don't have an issue with people making a living, and charging their clients a bit more for the knowledge of finding a suitable freelance illustrator, but quite often a project doesn't go-ahead because the budget was too small… or was it the mark-up the greedy middle-man was adding, that made it too expensive? You'll never know.
One thing though is the middle-man might ask you to give the lowest possible quote, because there's very little in the budget for the illustration. This could be the truth, or they could be trying to get the biggest profit margin from you. It depends on that person, and how they do business, and lets remind ourselves, this is business and people do it to make money.
I find that most gifted illustrators aren't great at business, and this is where they get exploited… Agents are great at getting the best price for your skills. Usually they'll take 30% commission, but will charge you out at 200%, twice what you might charge. At the end of the day this is an area that you'll have to learn yourself.
People will charge what they think and what they can get away with. So there's food for though on your prices too!
Finally, just to get back on track with regard to "Bad Clients", it's a judgment call you have to take when dealing with clients. If you've never worked with them before, ask for a 50% up-front payment, seeing as you're giving them credit. Check them out on the internet, but a web-site only really indicates that they've gone to the trouble of uploading a site. Get their landline number and call it firstly during working hours and then later too if you're still not satisfied. Another is to contact other suppliers to that company. Obviously, contacting another freelance illustrator probably wouldn't give you impartial feedback, as you could be muscling in on their client.
One that I've never had, but has crossed my mind is a person/client working on your greed. Think of it this way, a client who has no intension of paying you, will easily agree to pay you lots of money for a job. Now even if you think there's something not quite right or they don't check out. The more money they offer you, the more you'll think, this is such a big earner, I'll risk it. Especially a big job can entice you with the thought of such a big commission. It clouds your judgement and you're hooked!
Now don't get me wrong, as I feel I've been writing quite negatively on this subject, but we're talking about "Bad Clients" I guess. A bad client can be because of other things too, and not just the financial side of freelancing. Other areas of business that can place people into the category are poor briefings, so make sure you get the info you need, and be assertive. Another area, and I'll make this the last one, is Clients who change their minds. This area is call Author changes and the client is responsible to pay for any additional work required. This is important to let the client know about this straight away, and if possible before they change their mind. It's a good way to motivate the client to seriously think about what they want, and prevent any changes of heart or new ideas at a later date that could impact on cost and delivery dates.
So don't have nightmares, as it doesn't happen very often, but you can partly protect yourself, by keeping focused and professional, this will help you to survive as a freelance illustrator. Author: Adrian Cartwright

Market research:

Find new ways to improve your clientele and the best methods to promote your skills. Remember that it works both ways, you will also need to look at what your market is asking for to keep up with the market trends and needs.

Google AdWords is a great way to study the trends to your site, and it helps you to apply the most cost effective design to your Pay per click advertising.

SEO research on your site. To do your own Market research regarding how effective your site is working on Google, bing and any other search engine sites listings is a time consuming thing. There are websites that will the hard work for you, but you’ll nearly always have to pay for it. I’m currently using BrightLocal for my local directory listings, and Google Analytics is very informative, but your web host’s software is the most accurate.

I’ve been extensively working on my marketing in 2013-2014 and I must admit it’s an enormous task to do everything. After about 2 months of marketing, I decided to calculate how long it would take to set up all the marking I wanted, and realised that it would take me 13 months to complete. This is not realistic, so I suggest you focus on the big one, and that’s YOU ! simply promote yourself on a personal level. If you have time to spend sat on a social media site, promote yourself there.You’re 10 times more likely to get a commission from someone you know or met than a random find on the web.
I wish I knew this about 18 months ago, but hey if this helps it’s not been a complete waste of time…. donations to the nerdy but poor illustrator are welcome.
Author: Adrian Cartwright

The future...

The future is where you will be working, so it makes sense to be prepared for it. Ultimately if you love what you do, you'll succeed, and have the best job in the world.
There's nothing better than living a full life doing the job you love.

I currently work in my Studio office at Friar Gate Studios in Derby, where there are many creatives working in a central hub of creative businesses.

Please follow planet & Adrian's blogs plus social media by clicking on the graphic links below.


facebook link
planet illustration illustrator blog rss feed link
twitter link to illustrator4u
google plus link
linkedin link
pinterest link