Sunday, March 30, 2014
The Secret Life of a Freelance Illustrator
I find it interesting that most people don't know much about freelance illustration. I think most people assume you have to be crazy to be a freelancer - they're probably right. Interestingly enough back when I had my highest earning years back in the late 90's my wife would get comments from women at the park like: "Has your husband found a job yet?" or "It must be hard being married to an artist". My wife would say, "you have no idea!" I think she enjoyed messing with them.
Back then being a freelancer was a much easier feat than it is today. I've talked at length about the current state of freelance illustration on some of my youtube videos- you can watch them here. Today the freelance markets are fractured and constantly evolving. I know illustrators who are now bankers. I know editors who are teaching school among other jobs. I know editors who are trying to become illustrators. I know illustrators who are now graphic designers. I even know art directors who have been laid off and re-hired by the same companies to freelance graphic design. I know art directors and editors who have lost their jobs to down sizing and are still looking for their next job.
The world has probably changed more in the past 10 years than it ever has. That probably sounds naive and over-reaching but can you imagine any other technology that has changed the world in such a short time as the internet? Remember the last time your internet when out and you sat in fetal position sucking your thumb waiting for the horror to end? We can't do anything without it!
But I digress. Let me divulge some of my secret activities! Sometimes I don't get dressed until the afternoon. I've skyped without pants- maybe with you! - but I promise, not with your daughter. I go shopping on weekdays while the world is at work. I work longer and harder than most people with a job. I can't remember the last week that I put in less than 70 hours sometimes over 90 - BUT - they were the funnest hours I could imagine putting in. Most days I wake up pinching myself that I get to do this. It wasn't always like this however. It took me about 15 years to learn that my life is so much better off when I say no to bad freelance jobs. What are bad freelance jobs? The kind that have you cringing when you wake up. I can't tell you what they are because your bad jobs will be different than mine.
I've wished I could stand around the water cooler and catch up on the latest chatter. I used to get really lonely painting all day and got hooked on General Hospital for about a year back in 1993. I've called other illustrators randomly from the old directories just to strike up conversations. I worked on Christmas day once because the client had to have it two days after or they were going to go with someone else. I was paid $13,000 for that Sprint job. It took me about a week to complete. I could do it now digitally in a few days and enjoy Christmas with my family. And I once earned $20,000 for a phone call (remind me to go into detail on this one on another blog post).
I've learned to spend less than I make. This is probably one of the most important skills you can learn. Stress is a killer...no really...STRESS WILL KILL YOU. I've had about 3 really stressful times.
1) Back when I was stupid I got down to about $800 in my account for the entire month and I didn't have any assignments! I was so nervous I made a few calls to art directors I had worked for in the past. A few of them gave me work and then of course I got a deluge of assignments the week after.
2) Back when I was really really stupid - we were spending more than we were making because we were making lots of money. It was right after a year where I turned down over $70,000 worth of freelance work because my plate was already too full in 1998.Yep - we spent all the money in our account and couldn't get paid from any of my outstanding accounts for about 3 weeks. (Please don't think I'm seeking any sympathy - in fact you should leave a comment with your best synonym for dumb ass)...Luckily I had been saving quarters, nickels, and dimes in a jar. I got that puppy down off the shelf and counted out $90. Later that day I had my car filled up and groceries in the fridge. I Kept checking the mailbox but each day there were NO checks. We stopped driving unless it was absolutely necessary. Did I mention that our two credit cards were maxed? The following week when the fridge was empty I went for the back up plan - the penny jar! SHOOWEE - $20 later and I was back with groceries again - amazing how far you can stretch your last $20 bucks. Eventually we got paid - crazy thing was that I was owed about $28,000 in outstanding checks but this is the lesson: Don't spend it until it's in your account and even then - DON"T SPEND IT!
3) Back when I was Ultra Mega Stupid - we got in over our heads again. (notice a pattern here? some of us have to learn the same lessons over and over) I had about a year when we were going through a really really dry spell for freelance - this was also a transitionary time -it's a long story - but basically I had to learn all over again how important it is to save money. We survived! We downsized. We learned what we needed to have to be happy and what we could live without.
The good news is that in the past 5 years I've had more money than I did when I was earning much more. We wasted so much money back then. Now I keep enough money in the bank to pay all of our bills for about 9 months. This is enough time to really make drastic changes if things aren't working out.
So there you go - the secret life of a freelancer isn't so secret anymore - it's the best job I've NEVER had.
I painted the image above a few months back for National Geographic Learning. It was one of about 8 paintings I completed for an educational project they had for ESL students. I was given the assignment from Cynthia Currie - an art director I hadn't heard from in about a decade. It was really neat to get a job from her again - I hope she reads my blog so she can see how exciting it was - hint hint! :)