Freelancing for beginners

27th July 2012
20 min read
11th August 2022

Fig Taylor describes the opportunities open to freelance illustrators and discusses types of fee and how to negotiate one to your best advantage.

Fig Taylor

Full-time posts for illustrators are extremely rare. Because commissioners’ needs tend to change on a regular basis, most artists have little choice but to freelance – offering their skills to a variety of clients in order to make a living. Illustration is highly competitive and a professional attitude towards targeting, presenting, promoting and delivering your work will be vital to your success. Likewise, a realistic understanding of how the industry works and of your place within it will be key. Without adequate research into your chosen field(s) of interest, you may find yourself approaching inappropriate clients – a frustrating and disheartening experience for both parties and a waste of your time and money.

Who commissions illustration?

Magazines and newspapers

Whatever your illustrative ambitions, you are most likely to receive your first commissions from editorial clients. The comparatively modest fees involved allow art editors the freedom to take risks, so many are keen to commission newcomers. Briefs are generally fairly loose though deadlines can be short, particularly where daily and weekly publications are concerned. However, fast turnover also ensures a swift appearance in print, thus reassuring clients in other, more lucrative, spheres of your professional status. Given then that it is possible to use magazines as a springboard, it is essential to research them thoroughly when seeking to identify your own individual market. Collectively, editorial clients accommodate an infinite variety of illustrative styles and techniques. Don’t limit your horizons by approaching only the most obvious titles and/or those you would read yourself. Consider also trade and professional journals, customer magazines (such as inflight magazines and those produced for supermarkets) and those available on subscription from membership organisations or charities. Seeking out as many potential clients as possible will benefit you in the long term. In addition to the titles listed in this Yearbook, the Association of Illustrators (AOI) publishes an Editorial Directory which gives specific client contact details, and is updated annually.

Book publishing

With the exception of children's picture books, where illustration is unlikely to fall out of fashion, many publishers are using significantly less illustration than they once did. While publishers of traditional mass market genres, such as science fiction and fantasy, still favour strong, representational, full-colour work on their covers, photography has begun to predominate in others, such as the family saga and historical romance. However, the recent fashion illustration renaissance has strongly influenced packaging of contemporary women's fiction, where quirky, humorous and graphic styles are also popular. A broader range of styles can be accommodated by those smaller publishers specialising in literary, upmarket fiction, though many opt to use stock imagery in order to operate within a limited budget. Meanwhile, although specialist and technical illustrators still have a vital part to play in non-fiction publishing, there is less decorative work being commissioned for lifestyle-related subjects as photography currently predominates.

Children’s publishers use a wide variety of styles, covering the gamut from baby books, activity and early learning, through to full-colour picture books, covers for young adults and black and white line illustrations for the 8–11 year-old age group (particularly for boys, who tend to be more reluctant readers than girls). Author/illustrators are particularly welcomed by picture book publishers – though, whatever your style, you must be able to develop believable characters and sustain them throughout a narrative.

Illustrating for children’s books

Some children's book illustrators initially find their feet in educational publishing. However, all ages are catered for within this area, including adults with learning difficulties, those learning languages for business purposes and teachers working right across the educational spectrum. Consequently, a wide variety of illustrators can be accommodated. With the exception of educational publishing, which tends to have a faster turnover, most publishing deadlines are civilised and mass market covers particularly well paid. There are numerous publishing clients listed elsewhere in this Yearbook and visiting individual websites is a good way to get a flavour of the kind of illustration they may favour. In addition, the Association of Illustrators publishes a Publishing Directory, which is updated yearly and gives specific client contact details.

Greeting cards

Many illustrators are interested in providing designs for cards and giftwrap. Illustrative styles favoured include decorative, graphic, humorous, children’s and cute. For specific information on the gift industry which, unlike the areas covered here, works on a speculative basis, see Winning the greeting card game on page Winning the greeting card game.

Design companies

Both designers and their clients (who are largely uncreative and will, ultimately, be footing the bill) will be impressed and reassured by relevant, published work so wait until you’re in print before approaching them. Although fees are significantly higher than those in editorial and publishing, this third-party involvement generally results in a more restrictive brief. Deadlines may vary and styles favoured range from conceptual through to realistic, decorative, humorous and technical – with those involved in multimedia and web design favouring illustrators with character development and flash animation skills.

Magazines such as Design Week, Creative Review (both published by Centaur Media Plc) and Grafik will keep you abreast of developments in the design world and help you identify clients’ individual areas of expertise.

Meanwhile, The Creative Handbook (also published by Centaur), carries many listings, which can also be found on its website. Individual contact names are also available at a price from database specialists File FX, who can provide creative suppliers with up-to-date information on commissioners in all spheres.

A similar service is provided by Bikini Lists, an online subscription-based resource that specialises in providing categorised mailing lists for single or multiple usage.

Advertising agencies

As with design, you should ideally be in print before seeking advertising commissions. Fees can be high, deadlines short and clients extremely demanding. A wide range of styles are used and commissions might be incorporated into direct mail or press advertising, featured on websites, hoardings or animated for television. Fees will vary, depending on whether a campaign is local, national or even global. Most agencies employ an art buyer to look at portfolios. A good one will know what each creative team is currently working on and may refer you to specific art directors. These days many art buyers are open to being approached by freelance illustrators, providing the illustrator has some published work.

Creative Review and the weekly Campaign (published by Haymarket Business Publications) carry agency news, while the Association of Illustrators also publish an Advertising Directory, updated yearly. Portfolio presentation In general, UK commissioners prefer to see someone with a strong, consistent, recognisable style rather than an unfocused jack-of-all-trades type. Thus, when assembling your professional portfolio – whether print or digital – try to exclude samples which are, in your own eyes, weak, irrelevant, uncharacteristic or simply unenjoyable to do and focus on your strengths instead.

Should you be one of those rare, multi-talented individuals who finds it hard to limit themselves stylistically, try splitting conflicting work into separate portfolios geared towards different kinds of clients. A lack of formal training need not be a handicap providing your portfolio accurately reflects the needs of the clients you target.

Some illustrators find it useful to assemble ‘mock-ups’ using existing magazine layouts. By responding to the copy and replacing original images with your own illustrations, it is easier to see how your work will look in context. Eventually, as you become established you’ll be able to augment these with published pieces. If you are presenting a print portfolio, ideally it should be of the zip-up, ring-bound variety and never exceed A2 in size (A3 or A4 is industry standard these days) as clients usually have little desk space; portfolio boxes are also acceptable, though you could run the risk of samples going astray.

Alternatively, you may choose to give a laptop presentation, in which case strive to keep it simple and well organised. Always ensure that you bring your own laptop or borrow one with which you are familiar. (Also make sure it is fully charged and that you have emergency back-up such as a power brick, memory sticks, DVDs, etc. If your presentation involves talking a client through your website rather than files on your hard disk, check you will have wireless internet access.)

Complexity of style and diversity of subject matter will dictate how many samples to include but if you are opting for a print portfolio presentation, all should be neatly mounted on lightweight paper or card and placed inside protective plastic sleeves. High-quality photographs, computer printouts and laser copies are acceptable to clients but tacky out-of-focus snapshots are not. Also avoid including multiple sketchbooks and life drawings, which are anathema to clients. It will be taken for granted that you know how to draw from observation.

Interviews and beyond

Making appointments can be hard work but clients take a dim view of spontaneous visits from passing illustrators. Having established the contact name (either from a written source or by asking the company directly), clients are still best initially approached by letter or telephone call. Emails can be overlooked, ignored or simply end up in the company spam filter. Many publishing houses are happy to see freelances, though portfolio ‘drop-offs’ are also quite common. Some clients will automatically take photocopies of your work for reference.

However, it’s advisable to have some kind of promotional material to leave behind such as a CD, postcard, broadsheet or advertising tearsheet. Always ask an enthusiastic client if they know of others who might be interested in your work. Personal recommendation almost always guarantees an interview.

Cleanliness, punctuality and enthusiasm are more important to clients than how you dress – as is a professional attitude to taking and fulfilling a brief. A thorough understanding of each commission is paramount from the outset. You will need to know your client’s requirements regarding roughs; format and – if relevant – size and flexibility of artwork; preferred medium; and whether the artwork is needed in colour or black and white. You will also need to know when the deadline is.

Never, under any circumstances agree to undertake a commission unless you are certain you can deliver on time and always work within your limitations. Talent is nothing without reliability.


There are many ways an illustrator can ensure their work stays uppermost in the industry’s consciousness, some more expensive than others. Images can be emailed in a variety of formats, put onto CD, posted in a blog, or showcased on a personal or hosting website. Advertising in prestigious hardback annuals such as Contact Creative UK’s Contact Illustration and the AOI's Images – which are distributed free to commissioners – can be effective but doesn’t come cheap and, in the case of Images, only those professionally selected are permitted to buy pages for their winning entries. However, these publications have a long shelf life and are well respected by industry professionals. As commissioners increasingly turn to the internet for inspiration, websites are becoming an essential and affordable method of self-promotion (see Setting up a website, page Setting up a website). Make sure your website loads quickly, is simple and straightforward to negotiate and displays decent-sized images.

Advertisers in Contact Illustration automatically qualify for a web portfolio of 20 images with links back to individual websites. It is also possible for illustrators to promote their work on the Contact website without appearing in the annual ( Currently, both AOI members and non-members can promote their work online at, though members can do so at a reduced rate.

Free publicity can be had courtesy of Boomerang Media Ltd, who will print appropriate images to go in postcard advertising racks. Distribution includes cafés, bars, cinemas, health clubs, universities and schools. Be organised Once you are up and running, it is imperative to keep organised records of all your commissions.

Contracts can be verbal as well as written, though details – both financial and otherwise – should always be confirmed in writing (an email fulfils this purpose) and duplicated for your files. Likewise, keep corresponding client faxes, letters, emails and order forms. The AOI publication The Illustrator's Guide to Law and Business Practice offers a wealth of practical, legal and ethical information. Subjects covered include contracts, fee negotiation, agents, licences, royalties and copyright issues.

Money matters

The type of client, the purpose for which you are being commissioned and the usage of your work can all affect the fee you can expect to receive, as can your own professional attitude. Given that it is extremely inadvisable to undertake a commission without first agreeing on a fee, you will have to learn to be upfront about funds. Licence v. copyright Put simply, according to current EU legislation, copyright is the right to reproduce a piece of work anywhere, ad infinitum, for any purpose, for a period ending 70 years after the death of the person who created it. This makes it an extremely valuable commodity.

By law, copyright automatically belongs to you, the creator of your artwork, unless you agree to sell it to another party. In most cases, clients have no need to purchase it, and the recommended alternative is for you to grant them a licence instead, governing the precise usage of the artwork. This is far cheaper from the client’s perspective and, should they subsequently decide to use your work for some purpose other than those outlined in your initial agreement, will benefit you too as a separate fee will have to be negotiated. It’s also worth noting that even if you were ill-advised enough to sell the copyright, the artwork would still belong to you unless you had also agreed to sell that.

Rejection and cancellation fees

Most commissioners will not expect you to work for nothing unless you are involved in a speculative pitch, in which case it will be up to you to weigh up the pros and cons of your possible involvement. Assuming you have given a job your best shot – i.e. carried out the client’s instructions to the letter – it’s customary to receive a rejection fee even if the client doesn’t care for the outcome: 25% is customary at developmental/rough stage and 50% at finished artwork stage. (Clear this with the client before you start, as there are exceptions to the rule.)

Cancellation fees are paid when a job is terminated through no fault of the artist or, on occasion, even the client. Customary rates in this instance are 25% before rough stage, 33% on delivery of roughs and 100% on delivery of artwork.

Fixed v. negotiable fees

Editorial and publishing fees are almost always fixed with little, if any, room for haggling and are generally considerably lower than advertising and design fees, which tend to be negotiable. A national full-colour 48-sheet poster advertising Marks & Spencer is likely to pay more than a local black and white press ad plugging a poodle parlour. If, having paid your editorial dues, you find yourself hankering after commissions from the big boys, fee negotiation – confusing and complicated as it can sometimes be – will become a fact of life. However you choose to go about the business of cutting a deal, it will help if you disabuse yourself of the notion that the client is doing you a whopping favour by considering you for the job.

Believe it or not, the client needs your skills to bring his/her ideas to life. In short, you are worth the money and the client knows it.

Pricing a commission

Before you can quote on a job, you’ll need to know exactly what it entails. For what purpose is the work to be used? Will it be used several times and/or for more than one purpose? Will its use be local or national? For how long is the client intending to use it? Who is the client and how soon do they want the work? Are you up against anyone else (who could possibly undercut you)?

Next, ask the client what the budget is. Believe it or not there’s a fair chance they might tell you. Whether they are forthcoming or not, don’t feel you have to pluck a figure out of thin air or agree to their offer immediately. Play for time. Tell them you need to review your current workload and that you’ll get back to them within a brief, specified period of time. If nothing else, haggling over the phone is less daunting than doing it face to face.

If you’ve had no comparable commissions to date and are an AOI member, check out the going rate by calling them for pricing advice (or check out their report on illustration fees and standards of pricing on the AOI website, which is only available to members). Failing that, try speaking to a friendly client or a fellow illustrator who’s worked on similar jobs.

When you begin negotiating, have in mind a bottom-line price you’re prepared to do the job for and always ask for slightly more than your ideal fee as the client will invariably try to beat you down. You may find it useful to break down your asking price in order to explain exactly what it is the client is paying for. How you do this is up to you. Some people find it helpful to work out a daily rate incorporating overheads such as rent, heating, materials, travel and telephone charges, while others prefer to negotiate on a flat fee basis. There are also illustrators who charge extra for something needed yesterday, time spent researching, model hire if applicable and so on. It pays to be flexible, so if your initial quote exceeds the client’s budget and you really want the job, tell them you are open to negotiation. If, on the other hand, the job looks suspiciously thankless, stick to your guns. If the client agrees to your exorbitant demands, the job might start to look more appetising.

Getting paid

Once you’ve traded terms and conditions, done the job and invoiced the client, you’ll then have the unenviable task of getting your hands on your fee. It is customary to send your invoice to the accounts department stating payment within 30 days. It is also customary for them to ignore this entreaty, regardless of the wolf at your door, and pay you when it suits them. Magazines pay promptly, usually within 4–6 weeks; everyone else takes 60–90 days – no matter what.

Be methodical when chasing up your invoice. Send out a statement the moment your 30 days has elapsed and call the accounts department as soon as you like. Take names, note dates and the gist of their feeble excuses. (‘It’s in the post’, ‘He’s in a meeting’, ‘She’s on holiday and forgot to sign the cheque before she went'), and keep on chasing. Don’t worry about your incessant nagging scuppering your plans of further commissions as these decisions are solely down to the art department, and they think you’re a gem. Should payment still not be forthcoming three months down the line, it might be advisable to ask your commissioner to follow things up on your behalf. Chances are they’ll be horrified you haven’t been paid yet and things will be speedily resolved. In the meantime, you’ll have had a good deal of practice talking money, which can only make things easier next time around. And finally… Basic book-keeping – making a simple, legible record of all your financial transactions, both incoming and outgoing – will be crucial to your sanity once the tax inspector starts to loom. It will also make your accountant’s job easier, thereby saving you money. If your annual turnover is less than £70,000, it is unnecessary to provide the Inland Revenue with detailed accounts of your earnings. Information regarding your turnover, allowable expenses and net profit may simply be entered on your tax return. Although an accountant is not necessary to this process, many find it advantageous to employ one. The tax system is complicated and dealing with the Inland Revenue can be stressful, intimidating and time consuming. Accountants offer invaluable advice on tax allowances, National Insurance and tax assessments, as well as dealing expertly with the Inland Revenue on your behalf – thereby enabling you to attend to the business of illustrating. See Income tax on page Income tax, Social security contributions on page Social security contributions and Social security benefits on page Social security benefits.

Fig Taylor initially began her career as an illustrators’ agent in 1983. For 26 years she has been the resident ‘portfolio surgeon’ at the Association of Illustrators and also operates as a private consultant to non-AOI member artists. She lectures extensively in Professional Practice to illustration students throughout the UK and is the author of How to Create a Portfolio and Get Hired (Laurence King 2010).


If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at:

Do I need an agent?

Copyright law for artists

Marketing yourself as an artist

Writing stage