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Both Hands On The Pencil

2. Focus

Freelancing in general is a very isolated job. Often, we work from home, we don’t have the social environment of co-workers, an office or commuting. We work at a computer screen all day, or at least a very large portion of our day is filled with digital tasks. If your work is focused on editorial illustration, like me, projects are too small to meet up over in person. The deadline is too tight for friendly phone calls (except maybe for a first job for a new client) which means a lot of these projects happen entirely via email. We like to be alone when we work, we like being sucked into the unique little worlds we’re creating, we like spending hours without distraction on the smallest details of our artwork. But at the same time, without the interaction of actual people, this job can start to feel robotic, empty, removed from yourself almost. The client pushes some buttons to send you a project, you push some buttons to make the artwork, and on to the next.

I really like the feeling of being so deeply concentrated working on an illustration – in particular a big scene with lots of detail – that a work day goes by in a flash and my family asking me to join them for dinner almost wakes me up from a day dream spent in a world I’ve created. I love creating small stories in the background of bigger illustrations, or putting jokes on the t-shirts and hats of my characters. Feeling absolutely connected to my illustration like I’m six years old building a city from Legos, playing along as the project grows. Me in my own little studio. It’s the romantic view a lot of people have of the freelance creative: “You get to draw pictures all day!” Of course, drawing pictures is only a part of our work day. There’s a lot of non-illustrative tasks involved getting a new project started, just as there’s a lot of boring stuff involved signing the project off, sending it to print, for instance. I think it’s safe to say the drawing bit isn’t even 50% of an illustration business. If not spent in the zone, fully concentrated on the process of drawing, what’s our focus in the other 50% of our work day? And is that part even fun?

This is what helps me in my job whether I’m spending time in the zone or out: the work is for and about people. The illustration you’re making is for an article written by a person and is created to be seen by a person. The art director you’re working with is a person. The magazine or website that publishes the illustration is run by people. The clients’ audience are people. The focus of your freelance career needs to be people, not the work. Your focus should be to be fun and good to work with, to handle feedback well. Your work needs to be able to speak to people.


The people part is more important than your work process, skills or style.


Your computer is only a tool in your work process, it’s not the product itself. On a side note: Determine early in the process of taking on a new client if they’re looking to work with you as a creative or if they’re looking for someone that happens to know how a piece of software works. Are they after your brains or after your hands? Learn to say no to the latter as those jobs are going to make you miserable in the long run. It’s not about the computer, it’s about the idea and the idea should be a collaboration between illustrator and client.

If you have never been good at interacting with people, or when you’ve become so busy or your work process has become so digital that it’s been a while since your last face-to-face with a client, I challenge you to pick up your phone and talk to a client about one of your current projects. See if you have a client who is within reasonable traveling distance from you that you haven’t yet met in person to see if they have time for coffee. Make time for some form of human interaction in your work day.

Sure, this is scary and sure, this takes time. But when you start to focus on the fact that this job is for and with people, and when you actually get to know these people, the communication part of the job is going to feel less scary. It is going to be a lot easier to be confident about pitching your ideas, fighting for a certain creative direction, doing contract negotiations, and in general just enjoying your work a lot more if you focus on the person or persons you’re doing the project with. While working alone in your home studio, be aware of the fact that you’re part of a community, that you’re part of a small team of clients, illustrators, manufacturers, publishers et cetera. That you’re part of a bigger community of creatives, in your city, your country, worldwide. That you’re in this together and that your part of the project matters. Your feedback matters, your ideas matter.

An obvious part of focusing on the human element in your freelance business is money: the nicer you are to work with, the more repeat projects you will get. Be nice to work with, make the communication process easy and open and people will be wanting to work with you and work with you again.The other aspect of this focus is even more important: it will make you feel better about your job and making it less likely to get burned out.

In the next blog: How to incorporate Both Hands On The Pencil on your portfolio and in your presentation. Get in touch if you have feedback and please share if you think it might help someone. Thanks!

– Wijtze


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