I Quit My Job To Become A Full-Time Illustrator
I get a lot of questions asking about how I was able to make the jump into full-time illustration, how I prepared myself, how many jobs I got lined up, how much money I saved, how my first three months went, and so on. There is a lot to say, so it made the perfect first blog post. I will also answer your frequently asked questions at the end.
A little disclaimer: I can only talk about my personal experiences - this is not a “How to” blog post, it is more of a “How I” blog post. Ok. Ready? Go!
If you don't know me: Hi! I am Sara, 25 years old and three months ago I quit my job to become a full-time freelance illustrator.
There are many artists who always knew that they want to become an artist since childhood - that was not me. In fact, I didn’t know it for a long time. I always loved to draw ever since I could hold a pencil and I taught myself more and more about it - practicing all the time, getting “How to draw” books, always wanting to become better at it. But I always considered it as a hobby, not believing that I can make a living with it. When I was around 18 years old I kind of forgot about drawing completely and was more focused on whatever teenagers do. At age 20 I moved to Berlin to study business communication and slowly but surely the desire to draw came creeping back at me after years of neglecting it. So I got myself some paints and brushes and oh boy let me tell you - it felt amazing to be painting again! By that time I followed some artists who shared their work on instagram and I thought: “Hey - I can do that too!” So I created an art account and started posting.
After graduating I landed my first full-time job as a product designer. My days always looked the same: Wake up, go to work, come back, dinner, paint at night, sleep (a little). It was exhausting. But what kept me going was the dream to become a full-time illustrator one day. After a few months of posting on instagram I landed my first freelance job - a book cover design! I was over the moon and this was the moment I realised that I CAN make money with my art. At the same time I was becoming more unhappy with my job because I already had a taste of what I really wanted to do - even though I had the best team and everything was great there. Besides that I was longing for more freedom - being my own boss, deciding what I wanted to work on, structuring my day how I wanted, working from where I wanted... and I do enjoy exactly this kind of freedom so much! This doesn't mean that I take days off all the time and relax in the sun - in fact, I work more than ever before! I always work on weekends, I work long hours every single day and I really have to force myself to take care of myself because otherwise I would only think about work all.the.time! But I love what I do and knowing I CAN take a few hours off when I don't feel well or stop working in the afternoon and start working at night again makes me feel free in my own decisions without having to ask for permission. I can go outside and work in a coffee shop if I want to. I can either start working super early in the morning or sleep in and work longer to make up for it (I prefer starting early) - nobody cares as long as I get my job done. I can go on vacation whenever I want and for how long I want - I can even work from anywhere in the world. This kind of freedom is what I appreciate so freaking much about my job. And this was a big part of why I took the step into being self employed.
I think it is very important to quickly touch on my situation when I started because I didn't decide overnight to quit and do something completely new - I prepared myself for that step obviously. I have already been sharing my art online for almost 2 years and have built up a following. I can't remember exactly but I think I had around 20K+ followers on Instagram when I started freelancing full-time. I think this is one of the biggest things that has helped me because people where already seeing what I do and I get the majority of my jobs because companies have seen my work online. I also already did a couple of freelance jobs before so I was not completely new to it. But I did not have a continuous flow of freelance jobs waiting in line by the time I started.
As you probably know I am married to my husband Dom, who is a founder himself and knows a lot about the nitty gritty business things, contracts, finances - basically everything I am scared of handling:) He helps me when I have questions and when I don't know how to handle certain situations - I am really happy and thankful for his help, I think without our talks I would be floating a lot more!
Many of you guys also asked me how much money I saved when I started. I always read that you should save up at least 6 months to pay your bills and I definitely think thats true. But I didn't save that much, I was too impatient to wait that long and I really don't suggest it hehe - but it worked out for me luckily. I saved about 2-3 months of what I needed to survive and pay my rent - but until now I did not need to touch it. Thank god!
So here I was - I quit my job and allowed myself one month to prepare for freelance life - getting my portfolio ready, setting up my website, figuring out how to handle invoices and taxes. I was really excited and motivated to start - until there where only a few days left of my "prepping month" and I started to panic. "Oh my god what is if I don’t get clients ever? Is my art ready yet? Am I ready yet? What if I can’t pay my rent? I don’t even know how to draw?" Haha let me tell you - I was questioning EVERYTHING! I was soooo scared! I spent hours talking to my husband, my best friend and my family and they all supported me and calmed me down and basically told me to just try it out - and if it doesn’t work out it is ok to get a “normal” day job again.
L E T ' S G O !
I had everything ready and was waiting for things to happen. Fortunately there where a couple of job offers coming in right in the beginning. So I gladly took them on and started working right away. In the meantime I was planning my Etsy Shop and the products I wanted to make. January went by super fast. In February I launched my Etsy Shop - so besides working on client jobs I was also packing orders now, which is a really nice and relaxing activity actually! And I love that I get to send something right to your doorstep, which makes everything so personal and I love that very much.
The first three months went by really fast and I didn't have time to even think much about it or to be scared or worried. I was completely focused on the work I had to do. I got some amazing opportunities for interesting jobs, I made prints and stickers for my Etsy shop, I packed orders (and wrote little personal notes to them), I created content for my Instagram and Youtube channel and luckily I was always able to pay the bills and amazing job opportunities keep coming in. I am so grateful that I get to do what I love and I hope I can do that for a very long time. (Fingers crossed!!) 🙏🏽
How long have you been doing art for? Did you study art at university?
No, I did not study art at university, I am completely self-taught. I think it can be helpful to go to an art school but I wouldn't change my path if I could. If I want to learn about something there are tons of tutorials out there nowadays. The business part of my job is what I learned in my previous job, at university (I studied business communication), and everyday while tackling new obstacles. But I think art school can be super helpful in getting to know people from the business and also if you want to work in a studio. I have been drawing ever since I could hold a pencil, but I completely forgot about it between around 18-21 years old. After that I started to take art really seriously.
Do you need to have a full-time job first before you become a freelancer?
You don't have to - I know many people freelancing right out of uni. I had a full-time job before as a product designer. For me it was a really important part, because I didn't know much about the "adult work life". It also made me realise what I want and what I don't want in my job. But that was more helpful in terms of "finding myself" - I can only speak for myself but I think working a "normal" job has made things a little easier for me, because it gave me some time to freelance on the side and build up my business without having the pressure of succeeding.
How do I get clients?
My answer to this question might not be really helpful. By the time I started freelancing full-time I already built up a decent following on instagram, so almost all of my clients approach me because they have seen my work somewhere around the internet or they have seen previous client projects that I made. In fact I have never approached a client yet. So I have been extremely lucky and fortunate and I appreciate this a LOT!
How did I chose watercolour and digital art as my preferred medium to work with?
This is a really good question, I actually had to think about it for a while. I started off with watercolour, because I LOVE how it looks like - it gives such a calm and quiet vibe and I love watching how the paint moves on the paper. Its hard to control and that is why every watercolour piece is super unique. I love how it relaxes me I guess. I started with digital art when the iPad Pro was released and because I had the feeling that I "have to" be able to paint digitally in order to become an illustrator. Turns out, you can become an illustrator without knowing how to paint digitally haha - but nevertheless I fell in love with it. It is so simple and clean and it allows me to make mistakes and I basically have every color on earth all stored in my little Apple Pencil. So actually I think these two are my favourite because this is how I got started. I tried Gouache because I love gouache paintings (they are so vibrant 😍) - but I found it super hard to handle so I gave up quickly ☺️ But I already know the day will come where I will try and learn gouache properly 😉
Did you get any help from friends and/or family? Where you living independently when you made that step?
I am really thankful you ask - because family and friends play a HUGE role in my decision. As I mentioned before, I was scared like crazy right before making that step into self-employment. I am living with my husband, who is a founder and has been running his own business since he was 17 years old. My parents are self-employed as well, both running their own businesses and also working together in one. Even my little sister has an online shop and she is only 15 years old! 😅 I have been surrounded by self employed people since I was a child and never really experienced how it is to be employed (until I was employed myself). Still, I was super scared because I am not confident at all but all the people I talked to - my hubby, my parents, my sister, my best friend, my girls from uni - supported me and cheered me up. Knowing your closest people support you makes you feel so strong and it is a big part of what made me jump into it, not knowing what would happen.
How confident where you at the start?
Not so much. I don't have much confidence anyways - I get nervous when I am around people, I am shy, quiet and I get really exhausted when I have to talk to strangers. I am also never 100% happy with my art, always seeing the things I can improve on. I really wanted to take that step, and I already did some freelance jobs so I knew that it CAN possibly work out. I am extremely grateful for every opportunity and I don't take anything for granted because I know tomorrow it can be over.
How do you use Instagram to get clients?
This happened naturally - I loved sharing my art and with time an amazing community formed (YOU GUYS! 😍) which made me love sharing my journey even more. I love interacting with you, helping you when you have questions, sharing my art and in return you give me so much support and love! So it happened naturally that I was (and still am) very active on instagram. When you do something with all your heart people will see that (and companies). I think it is very important to post regularly and to let your personality shine though. Once your work looks like you know what you are doing, people will contact you.
How was the beginning? Was it very hard?
I think it is important to say that I unknowingly prepared myself for 1,5 years prior to taking that step. I got jobs right away because I built up an online presence already. I was not starting completely fresh with nothing in hand, this would have been MUCH harder! So I would say yes, it was hard because it was a big change and it is not so easy as it might seem. But it could have been much harder without preparing for it. Big thanks to social media and some of my previous freelance gigs - it helped me a lot!
What was the hardest obstacle you encountered and either are overcoming or have overcome after you became a full-time illustrator?
Thank you for this awesome question! I had to think about it a lot too! I can't decide on only one thing so here are the two hardest things for me: 1. Actually taking the step: One of the hardest things for me was to actually do it! Handing in my notice of resignation and putting myself out there. I was actively deciding against comfort and for uncertainty. But it was all worth it. The second thing that is still hard and I haven't overcome yet is to stay on top of everything I want to do: Next to my ongoing client projects there are mails to reply to, invoices to sent, estimates to write, etsy orders to pack and ship, Youtube videos to film and edit, taxes to take care of, blog posts to write, personal paintings, keeping up with social media, oh and family life, friends and did I mention time for myself? Its a lot but I freaking love it!!!
That's it for now and I hope I was able to give you a little glimpse of how I started and answered a couple of your questions! I also wanted to say that I am by no means saying freelance life is better than anything else. There are definitely just as much cons as there are pros - for example no one pays you when you are sick, there is no certain income every month, you actually have to work hard all the time or otherwise you might not be able to pay the bills, you have to do everything yourself and you are coping with a lot of worries and stress. (Not to mention you have to pay for your insurance and handle taxes). It is not for everybody, but the "freelance life" is a whole 'nother blog post topic.
Are you also thinking about taking that step one day? Or maybe you are already a freelancer? Let me know in the comments - I would love to hear your story!