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Both Hands On The Pencil

1. Introduction

This is the first of a blog series called Both Hands On The Pencil in which I am trying to make sense of freelancing. Prompted by fellow creatives asking for advice as much as a way to focus my own thoughts on my career, I was looking for a way to document what I think are key factors to a healthy freelance business. I took some time off last year to recharge and think about how to steer my work towards a more vision-driven practice and not merely sailing whatever waves freelance life happens to throw at me. Part of my motivation to begin writing comes from wanting to protect myself from some of the negative aspects of freelancing, hopefully helping others in the process.

I’ve been freelancing for as long as I can remember and that never was a planned career move. I went to graphic design college and landed an internship with someone I met and became friends with at a music festival. After my graduation we looked into ways of continuing to work together and the easiest way was for me to get registered as a freelancer, basically forming a casual freelancer-to-freelancer collaboration business model. I wasn’t trained to run a business – I was hardly trained to be a graphic designer – but there I was, trying to figure out what freelancing meant as I went along. The biggest step I took a couple years in was to focus my portfolio on illustration and throwing graphic design off my site altogether. It was something I felt was needed in order to grow and looking back it was the right decision. It helped me enormously to focus on one skill, one style and one portfolio because it gave me confidence to successfully pitch my story, do acquisition and promotion. Communicating only one illustration style on my portfolio also helped streamline the brief process: Clients started hiring me for my specific illustration style, eliminating a round of moodboards, the back-and-forth of inspirational images, and enabling a hitting-the-ground-running approach that I’ve come to really enjoy in my work. (Narrowing down the style of your portfolio is much talked about and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it. For me personally, focusing on one style has worked, but there are good examples of multi-style portfolios out there. More on this in a later post.)

A lot of self-help information for freelancers is based on practical steps, it often includes awkward software or productivity apps and it approaches a freelance career – or at least its marketing – too mathematically. You don’t always go from A via B to C and if someone has done it successfully it doesn’t mean it works for the next person. A successful career path is only successful in hindsight. That doesn’t sound right for a how-to freelance guide, does it? I hope there is good news, however.

You don’t always go from A via B to C and if someone has done it successfully it doesn’t mean it works for the next person.

Shortly after narrowing down my portfolio I landed a couple editorial clients in a very natural way, similar to how I registered my business: a freelance journalist friend of mine pitched my portfolio to a new client he was working for and they liked my work. One client led to another and still today the majority of my work is within the editorial field. In this blog I will focus on the special ingredient my two biggest career moves have in common: Both starting as a freelancer and landing my first editorial clients needed the help of a friend. An actual person. Someone I still know and talk to today. Of course there was a factor of luck involved: my work was seen at the right time by the right person looking for the right thing, but it started with me sitting down with a friend sharing our hopes and dreams.

I recently changed my studio name to Drip For Drip, a name I had been using for a while as the name of my side-project, an ongoing coffee cup illustration collaboration series. Quite relevant to the coffee cup project, the name of course literally refers to the trading of two coffee cups (“A Drip”, if you’re looking to order a plain black filter coffee). I grew fond of the name over time and have enjoyed doing promotional artwork for the project so much that I wanted to use the name for my illustration work as well. But then another meaning of the name struck me and it was so fitting that it changed the way I look at my business. Drip For Drip also stands for the exchange between freelancer and client. Not just the trading of money for artwork, but the actual relationship of creative back and forth, giving and taking, handling feedback. In other words, collaborating together to communicate a message. Tracing back the steps I took in my career and also looking at my day to day practice I realised this job is about people. The title for this guide, Both Hands On The Pencil, sums it up: Both the illustrator and the client get to hold the pencil, we’re in this together.

In the next blogs I will write about what this people factor means in the context of different aspects of a freelance career and hope this series will help you as much as it helped me writing them down. Get in touch if you have feedback and please share if you think it might help someone. Thanks!

– Wijtze


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