How I made the jump to being a full-time freelance illustrator

on
27/01/2019


August 28th, 2008 was my last day at my part-time retail job and since then I have been a full-time freelance illustrator. It's been more than ten years, which is crazy and weird and also awesome! While I sometimes still feel like I'm just starting out - perhaps because my sense of time is skewed or because this industry is ever changing, I also now officially have a decade's worth of experience as a full-time, self-employed illustrator (just in case you were questioning my credentials, haha!)

So how did I make the initial jump? I was recently asked this by one of my newsletter subscribers and I think this is the kind of post I would have liked to read when I was starting out so here we go! (Disclaimer: there are many ways to do things in life and this is just one of them.)

When I graduated from the BA illustration course at Kingston University in 2005, I knew I wanted to become a full-time freelance illustrator, no matter how hard I had to work or how long it would take. In hindsight, I think this was the most important decision of my career. No plan b and a lot of stubborn determination.
I found myself a job in retail 4 days a week and spent all my evenings and days off working on my illustrations. I assumed that somehow, you slowly get more and more work until one day, you have a steady income as an illustrator and can quit your job. This is also the general advice for transitioning from being employed to starting your own business: Grow your business on the side until you make enough money to live off and then quit your job.

However, at the end of 2007, two-and-a-half years after graduating I was perpetually exhausted. Working 7 days a week (something I'd done throughout uni as well), wasn't sustainable in the long run. Not knowing how much longer I would have to keep up this pace made me feel burnt-out.

By that point I had done some cool commissions - a book, magazines, t-shirts, greetings cards etc. But usually work was unpredictable. I either had loads of work on at once, or nothing for a while. It certainly didn't feel secure enough to quit my retail job. At the same time I couldn't help wondering how much more illustration work I could get if I had more time and energy to dedicate towards promotion and making more work.

So I asked myself in what situation I would feel secure enough to leave my job. I didn't want to just quit, only to have to look for a new part-time job after a few weeks or months. That didn't make sense. Thinking it through, I felt that if I had 12 months worth of living expenses saved up, I could leave my job without panicking immediately if I hit a dry patch or a client paid late. And I made a new plan: In 2008 I would save all the money from illustration commissions and save up £12,000 by the end of August and quit my part-time job. There wasn't much I could save from my retail job income - I was making £680 GBP a month, which, after rent, council tax and bills, left me about £100 for food and anything else and even in 2008 was tight to live on in London). Setting a date when I was going to quit my job renewed my focus and energy. I worked and worked and worked and squirrelled away all the money I made from illustration commissions.
I didn't quite hit my savings goal of £12,000, but I think I had about £8000 and some commissions lined up when I left my job at the end of August in 2008. (I added to these savings whenever I could and think it's always a good idea to keep 6-12 months of living expenses in case of emergencies. That way you don't have to panic when a payment is late, you can create with less stress and you don't feel pressured into signing contracts that contain unfair terms.)

Ever since then, I've been illustrating for a living and I've never had to go back to having any other job! Thank you to my younger self for coming up with this simple and effective plan. And thank you to the power of spreadsheets and being super organised with finances.

Are you planning to become a freelance illustrator? Let me know if you have any more questions. And if you've already made the jump, comment and share how you did it and if you have any advice you want to share.