ME in my business suit

Starting your career as an Artist on the Internet

Loose thoughts from the battlefield

I get many questions from students, graduates, & generalists looking to know how to kick start their careers online. I thought I should consolidate my advice here. This is the shit they never teach you in school. I’m a college dropout ape, and managed to be successfully self-employed for over 7 years. I’ve seen a lot of shit!

So how does one go from nothing, to flourishing?

It’s a steady progression of stages. At any point, there should be a goal to shoot for — and it’s not just money or recognition. It’s a set of goals based around self-growth.

1. The beginning sucks. Just make some art.

You’re not going to get your best client work right away. Don’t over think it. Don’t wonder why you’re not getting work. You need to make good work to get work. Set up a portfolio on a service like Carbonmade. Make ideas you love and share it online. Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, F***book. It’s as simple as that.

My work on Carbonmade

Your immediate goal should be getting a good foundation of work in your portfolio. You don’t have clients to report to yet. Learn as much as you can. Experiment. It’s freedom, embrace it.

2. The transition to $$

You’ve made enough great art you care about. Nice! If you’ve been diligently exporting the ideas from your brain to the internet, someone would have reached out to you by now.

…If not, go out of your way to find people who need help. It could be a family member, a friend, a friends’ friend. Your dad’s restaurant has a crappy sign that needs a facelift. Your friend needs album art. Your Aunt needs a new logo for her strip club’s website. Be ok with doing some work for free when you start. Do it really well, because these people will be your first referrals.

With that being said, an important tip: Don’t do work for dirt cheap as a favor. It might seem like a good idea to make some money doing what you love, but it’ll bite you in the ass. Do it for real money, or do it for free. Money attached to a project seems to give people an entitlement to squeeze as much work as they can out of you. If it’s free, it’s a favor. You can’t be manipulated and you can walk away from it if it sucks. You have to watch your back.

3. Communication & Workflow

If you didn’t screw up, you’ll have some referrals that converted over to people who want to work with you (for real money).

Chances are, you have a few emails outlining some projects.

DO NOT respond and tell them how “excited” & “over the moon” you are for the “great opportunity”. You have to wear your business suit for this part (silly, I know). Don’t do things to come off sounding like an amateur. Instead, ask for the brief in detail so you know the scope of the project. You’re going to end up sending this same email a bunch of times. For me it got to the point where I made a generic template to send back.

Communicating with clients is probably the most boring part of the freelance thing, but you have to get really good at it.

Organize all of your project files diligently. Back that shit up. Put it in Dropbox so you have it forever. Not enough space? Harden the fuck up and buy a pro account. Business expense it. It’s probably your most valuable assets as a sole trader. I’ll personally call you on the phone and convince you how important it is if you don’t believe me. There’s no excuse.

Make sure you have freelance contracts in place before you begin work on significant projects. Always cover your ass. They can be in plain English. It’s really easy to find some base templates to help you get started:

Be very clear about how you’ll charge for the project. Sometimes you have to develop an estimate. You need to get good at knowing how long it takes you to complete a project. Is it a fixed price, or an hourly rate? It’s very common to ask for a security deposit to make sure you don’t get stiffed with a client who bails on paying.

Be clear on what you’ll deliver. It could look as simple as:

  • 10 concepts
  • 3 revisions
  • Final art render
  • Source files

If you have the first 3 parts down, the rest should be easy to digest

4. Know your worth

You’re growing! If you want to turn the freelance thing into full-time freelance, be more aggressive about your rates. Increase your rate periodically. You’ll see some clients fall off the radar because of this. On the other hand, you’ll notice higher bidding jobs start to come through if your rate increase is proportionate to your ability.

Learn to say no. You’ll have to start turning down jobs that are more trouble than they are worth at this stage ( Those jobs are for the new,new freelancers now!)

5. Establish & Maintain your presence

Your portfolio is a big part of your voice as an artist. Don’t put EVERYTHING in there. Put your best foot forward and show your best work first. Be brutal and prune out the stuff that doesn’t fit in. Only show the type of work you enjoy making, so it’ll attract people who want that type of work. Keep posting stuff to tumblr and other places. Reach out to artists & be involved with the art community online.

Give this article about building a great portfolio a read (by Carbonmade creator Dave Gorum):

I could continue to talk you ears off about these points, but I wanted to pen down just enough to answer the questions I’ve been neglecting to address in my car pile of an inbox.

Further questions?, or @pasql on twitter.