Work-At-Home Artist - From Hobby to Art School to Freelancing
I work from home as an artist.
Why blog about that?
I've worked for years as a freelance illustrator, without creating a proper online presence for myself. Even now, I still hesitate to write about my work as my 'business'...
... and that's a problem!
I know a lot of artists and creatives struggle with seeing their work (which most of the time evolved out of a beloved hobby) as a business, and treating it as one. Changing my attitude towards my work as an artist is my goal for 2017. This blog will show my (hopefully smooth, but who am I kidding?) transition from freelance illustration to creative business.
As a foundation for future blog posts on the business side of being a work-at-home illustrator, I'll be sharing the six stages of my artist life until now, from first sales to comic books, from freelance illustration to side-hustle business as an Etsy shop owner.
Drawing as a Hobby
It's where we've all started, right? No matter if it's drawing, painting, crocheting, cooking, making jewelry - at one point there was a passion for a craft. And lots of practice.
While I've always enjoyed drawing, I really got into it at about 15 years old. I sketched, practiced more or less seriously, and started publishing web comics. Without those hundreds and hundreds of pages, I'd still draw :-) faces and stick figures.
If you're not some sort of elusive genius, you'll probably be in that hobby phase for a couple of years before you decide you'd like to go one step further...
This was how I got my toes wet. Book fairs in Germany were my marketplace, and I sold self-published comics, mostly together with other artists. Still just a hobby, but the perfect place to try new things (and fail sometimes), develop an art style, practice more and more and make a bit of money on the side.
Competition entries were another focus (school? what's that?) of my younger self, and I actually won a couple of prizes and learnt how to deal with deadlines through those.
It might not be publishing for you, but maybe local art and crafts fairs,
small competitions in your creative field...
Challenge yourself and see where you need to grow and learn new skills!
Taking the Jump: On Art & Design School
Despite doing pretty much nothing else, drawing hadn't been my focus in high school. I was on track to go into Natural Sciences - but finally decided to instead try to turn my beloved hobby into an actual job.
I scrapped my university application for Biology, prepared a portfolio and made it into the 'Basics in Design' preparation year at the Basel School of Design (my hometown). As all my major classes in high school were focused around languages and sciences, that year-long class was necessary to apply to art universities in the future. Since it was an international course, all classes were in English for some much-needed practice, and through-out the year broadened my horizons: Typography, poster design, color studies (I'd mostly worked in black and white for manga/comic books), going back to drawing basics, project-oriented work...
For me with my hobby-comic-artist-only background, those classes were a challenge and I loved them all the more for it!
The drawing classes were still my favorites, though. And I was made aware of an art major that had previously flown under my radar: Science Illustration. The focus on realism, traditional painting and drawing and my old love for science/nature, united in one!
After the year at design school, I applied for the two Science Illustration majors in Switzerland, got into both, chose the one in Zurich - Scientific Visualization - since that one focused on digital media, too, and moved to a new city.
Notice a pattern there? Whenever I had the possibility, I chose classes, schools and directions that would challenge me and put me outside of my comfort zone.
- Hobby comic artist? On to learn about typography and design, which I knew zero about!
- Love drawing with pencils? Take color/painting classes.
- Staying in the country? Apply for international-oriented, English-language classes.
- Comfortable with traditional art supplies? Choose the major with more digital media!
Because, really, I knew I'd practice my 'comfort zone' skills on my own, in my free time.
Publishing Deal And Moving To Korea
Now, here's where everything went a bit crazy. In the middle of my first year at art school, I actually got a book deal from a major publishing house in Germany. I'd handed in my comic concept without much hope of this first try going anywhere, but all of a sudden I found myself juggling art school classes (Science Illustration being quite strict with its daily 9-5 routine), homework and projects, and drawing 180 pages in my free time.
While it was definitely a lot of hard work, I did learn a lot about focused working, productivity and creating content steadily, constantly. Also: I just love telling stories! And drawing! Yay! Dream come true!
After that first book, I took half a year to just focus on my Bachelor, but did hand in a new concept... luckily, both my degree and next publishing deal worked out, and I left with my Bachelor in Design and a two-book contract.
I moved to South Korea. Huh. Short version: I'd been in a long-distance relationship with my Korean boyfriend, and finishing art school and having a contract that would allow me to work from anywhere in the world was the perfect jumping point to finally move in together.
Working remotely for a publishing house was perfect for those first couple of years in a new country:
- I couldn't have found local work due to the initial language barrier.
- Since I wasn't a native speaker of English, the No.1 expat job in Korea - being an English teacher - wasn't a possibility.
- German teachers weren't needed in the rural area of Jeju Island where we lived,
- and even just working part-time somewhere would have been an exercise in get-used-to-being-stared-at-and-frighten-Korean-children-with-your-foreigner-face.
Going Freelance & Social Media as an Artist
Fast forward to two years later.
Because that's really what it felt like. Working on two comic books while getting the hang of a new culture, new language (I didn't have time to go to classes, so there was a lot of self-studying to be done), getting married and moving houses a total of four times had the months just flying by.
My books were finished. And now I had a problem: Money.
Comic books certainly don't pay well. While it was alright as a transition job, I already had to start accepting commissioned art on the side while still drawing comic pages to make my income work out.
Second problem: Location.
We were still living in the countryside, and while we owned a tiny cafe to earn money during the tourist seasons, there were still no local opportunities for me to work.
Third problem: No digital platform.
Drawing comic books is a bit of an isolated process, and I was just grinding out pages over pages, never stopping to really build an online portfolio or blog, or do more than a monthly post on my facebook page.
So, there I was again, needing to step out of my comfort zone:
- I started working freelance as an illustrator instead of going after another comic book deal. At least for the present, I had to prioritize financial stability over creative fulfillment.
- I worked digitally and internationally. After taking stock of all my past work - movie storyboards made during art school years, bachelor project illustrations, comic commissions, personal projects - I created a simple online portfolio with relevant categories, contacted old connections (publishing, book shops, anyone I knew in the art/design world) and sent out proposals. Wow, did and do I still hate writing those kind of mails. But I did get a couple of jobs to get me started! I also worked for some local businesses, creating menu cards, business cards and album cover illustrations.
3. - I started blogging and social media. Mostly Instagram. I just drew what I loved: Daily sketches inspired by diary/hobonichi entries, local scenery and Korean traditions, Korean beauty and skincare... luckily, that transformed into getting commissions for beauty blog illustrations!
I also made prints out of some of my illustrations and opened an Etsy shop.
WHAT'S NEXT? From freelance illustration to creative business.
Blogging on-and-off and doing a bit of a side-hustle business with my Etsy shop and commissions always took a back-seat to my actual freelance work. My client base grew, I had monthly recurring projects for storyboards and concept design, as well as several larger projects like children's picture books, coloring books and concept art. Thanks to the variety of work, I thought myself a wide array of new techniques, art styles and digital media.
But work-for-hire freelance illustration is a dead-end career.
There's a big difference between working on commissions that were ordered by people who'd found me via my social media or Etsy shop and wanted something similar, and working for a company in an art style they need - often with specific style guides. There's little creativity involved. After I've handed in my work, I can't really use it for anything else. Most of my storyboard/company work isn't really something I'd want in my portfolio. Deadlines are grueling when mixed with the time-difference I have to most of my clients' locations. And while I enjoy drawing and learning new skills in general, I of course love to work on my own projects, in my own art style, with my own ideas even more.
After a health-related breakdown in October 2016, I knew I needed to change directions. I hadn't taken a break in months. I didn't have weekends. Whenever there was free time between work-for-hire projects, I drew for private clients or my small side-business. I missed drawing just for the fun of it. Did I mention we'd spent the year building a tiny house, too?
Anyway, I was really, really tired.
I continued to work and finished up projects until January 2017, but then, I took two weeks off to just focus on smaller commissions in art styles I love (via Etsy) and revamped my whole online presence by switching from my mixed bag of a blogspot blog and a portfolio on another platform to this site, with my very own domain. I sketched and painted for my own projects.
Here we are now. I know every artist's and creative's story is different. Every opportunity is unique. But I'll be blogging about my progress from work-for-hire freelance illustrator to a creative business (or whatever you want to call it) during 2017.
I want to show both bad and good sides, share my experiences and get into the gritty details of income and finances as an artist, blogger and self-employed expat. Fingers crossed, and see you soon with my first monthly report: A recap of January, my starting point and my goals for February and the year as a whole!
If you're a work-at-home artist, or a creative business owner of any kind, I'd love to hear your story! How did you start out, why do you work from home, what are your goals? Feel free to share your blog below.