Articles - 15th February 2019

Beginning your freelance illustrator journey

Words by Megan St Clair
Illustration by Jon McCormack

106 invoices sent, 5 years of working freelance, 2.5 years since graduation, 10,000+ archived drawings and 8+ temporary part-time jobs – I’m Megan St Clair, a freelance illustrator and I’m still just getting started.

You see, the biggest misconception about illustration is that ‘it’s just drawing’.  As the world continues to shift and shape with the help of technology, the multiple strengths illustrators need are growing.

I studied at London College of Fashion – BA (Hons) Fashion Illustration. Since then I’ve worked with, among others,, JW Anderson, Dolce & Gabbana and Swarovski, on everything from live portraits at events to animated ad campaigns.

I started my career when I was a student, drawing live at London Fashion Week. I saw this as an ‘in’. It’s the one time that all the people you’d want to work with and for are in the same room as you. It opened up many doors for me and has certainly snowballed my career. I still continue to draw live across European fashion weeks and those people whom I’ve met over the years have gone on to become clients, friends and connections.

Being a part of the community

Friends, acquaintances, contacts and community are what keep this industry afloat. The minute I graduated I realised that those people I’d studied with and those who’d taught me would be some of my direct competition for client work, never mind the wider industry. But, they were also some of the most important contacts I could wish to have. The community within illustration is really strong and whilst we are in direct competition we also have to support each other.

If I’m unavailable for a job and the client asks ‘could you possibly recommend someone?’ I’ll always have an option or two; usually someone who has proved they’re reliable, lovely and of course have great work. As situations like this arise every day, it works both ways – by making yourself one of the trusted, talented and more importantly nice illustrators in the community, you will gain work from just this alone, maybe not regularly but it pays off over time.

We’re all just trying to get by

After graduating, I was embarrassed to tell anyone that I had to work in a café to survive. I thought that others would think that I hadn’t made it if they knew that my living costs were being paid from endeavours that weren’t illustration related. It was only when I started to open up that conversation with fellow creatives that I discovered that almost everyone I knew, from designers to stylists and illustrators, had a bar/reception/retail job to pay the rent. It’s the one thing I wish universities were more realistic about with students before graduating.

I discovered, along with many others, that it is very difficult to be creative if you are constantly worrying about paying rent. The need sometimes to have a small and consistent monetary stream for me was key.

Whether you find that regular income with a regular client (lucky you!) or in a flexible part time job, as is the case for so many, I can tell you IT IS OK – in fact it’s more than OK. It’s something we shouldn’t have to feel embarrassed or nervous about. It should be normalised. We all come from different backgrounds and working freelance is tough.

I try to be open about the fact that I do temporary and part time work. I work in a variety of jobs including social media management, events coordination and teaching. These in turn have gone on to compliment the work I do as an illustrator. They have led to situations where I get to see the work of others and have encouraged me to learn new skills, which have enhanced my illustration work and the way in which I portray myself as an artist.

If you want to create great work you need to have the financial support to buy materials, work on projects and/or afford to live (especially in London) honestly, don’t stress over it.

The learning should never stop

The most hilarious part of all of this; is that at my first university tutorial I was told ‘you can’t really draw’ – you can imagine my reaction! I’d just signed up for a 3-year BA in illustration… After crying and thinking it wasn’t worth it; I worked my ass off to engage with the key skills I needed to excel on the course and then in the industry. I left university and realised how much I’d taken from that conversation. No matter your skill level as an artist you continually need to continue learning.

I’ve benefitted heavily from mentorship: having honest feedback and being advised to invest in learning more (even in the skills I didn’t think were relevant!). There is something reassuring in having those who are miles ahead of you and who’ve done some of this before, those who know the landscape, those who’ve made the mistakes and are a good ear for those ‘silly questions you were afraid to ask’.

As you work more in the industry you realize your strength lies in training; just like a boxer trains for a fight both physically and mentally, we train in life drawing or similar and have to invest our time in nourishing both our creative and crucial business skills.

It is expected that you will be fluent in the Adobe suite and I’m sure I’m not alone in that techniques requested by clients have been learnt by the many YouTube videos I’ve watched, rather than those I was supposedly taught during my £9,000 a year illustration course. University is great and I had the best experience as a student – but learning on the job is going to be a constant. Technology is constantly changing and those ‘I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING’ moments will never go away.

As a brash northerner I like to think that honesty is key. I’m very fortunate to have had a creative family who warned me of the struggle and hard work that was ahead of me. I would say, freelance illustration isn’t for the faint hearted but neither is it for those who aren’t willing to learn to juggle a myriad of jobs. So do come join the circus!

Looking for a free tool to manage your freelance business?

Sign here

Want to know about the UnderPinned Virtual Office?

Contact us

Related Articles

The Art of The Follow Up, or how to send that second email

When I first met my partner two and a half years ago, our first date was essentially the result of a follow-up message. Drunkenly DMing someone to ...

Read more
What do clients expect from a design portfolio?

A good design portfolio is about a lot more than pretty pictures. You also need to build trust with the potential client and demonstrate the commer...

Read more
Is it time for freelancers to give up on city living?

When we were forced to stay indoors for much of the spring, it quickly became apparent just how important home really is. For those with large gard...

Read more