Should I freelance as an art student?

  • Hi all,

    I’ve been a freelance children’s book illustrator since high school and am entering my 3rd year of art college. I recently got into a heated debate on Twitter with Chris Do, founder of Blind and TheFutur (a popular design education platform — like SVS but more on the graphic design side) where he was discouraging students to freelance while in school and to instead solely focus on school projects. Is there a balance? Is it good to freelance to get experience in your industry while pushing your work and business skills forward before entering the workforce after school? Would particularly like to hear @Will-Terry and the podcast gang’s thoughts as educators. Chris invited me onto his podcast and I’d like to get some thoughts from the illustration world first. He has me questioning freelancing which is alarming because I’m halfway through college!

    My work:

  • As long as clients are not commissioning you at ridiculously low prices and undervaluing the work because you are a student, I don’t see a major problem.

    There are always exceptions to the “rules” it’s tough to blanket statement that “all students should not freelance”.

    For example, myself and majority of my fellow students during our illustration course days, would not have been confident, professional or skilled enough to take on freelance work whilst studying.

    Your work seems consistent and solid and it’s awesome that you’re getting an early start into earning a living , however if you’re still studying then I can understand an educator being concerned about allowing yourself enough time to explore and push your work forward as part of your studies. A lot of students aren’t mature enough to juggle this.

    On my course - our tutors were very much about breaking our perceptions of how we SHOULD draw, and wanted us to explore and expand our thought process, so much so that I feel some of my university work is still BETTER than a lot of my current freelance art because I was genuinely experimenting and not playing ‘safe’.

    And then on the other side, you’re actually making money and producing nice work which gives a whole other giant ton-load of experience which you would never get by “just” studying.

    That’s my personal opinion as a practicing creative. Would be awesome to hear from a teacher’s point of view.

  • I echo the sentiment that not a lot of people can handle the commission process at that stage in their life. The fact that you had done commissions since earlier on gave you a foot up. Your personal experience was significantly different from many of your peers.

    I think it's this experience that makes a big difference.

    Also, remember too, that everyone has walked a different path in life, have had different experiences, and thus their "filter" of "how to do things" and "what to do versus what not to do" is based on this. All said, this is true for everything in life.

    I don't like blanket statements, as it utterly ignores the outliers, the random bits of life that do not fit into any box.

    That said, my sentiments come from my own college experience. In, of all things, an Art History class, a teacher had us do a poster project. He wasn't grading us on the art, per say - but the process. 1 out of about 20 students in the class got the "A", and that art piece violated certain rules he had in regards to the project (like no printed out font, it had to be drawn). The piece was no where NEAR the quality of the others.

    The best individual piece in the class, got a D.

    There is a fine line between bowing to a client's whims, and doing what you know in your heart works best. It's a dance. Not a lot of people understand this dance, and either ego or fear ruins it. Most college artists don't have that experience, that insight, or that understanding. Those who do side commissions (like fan art work, or convention table work) will learn it eventually (or maybe not). Everyone is different.

    That's what he was testing us on, our ability to interact with a client. 1 out of 20, in ONE Art History class Mixed bag class of various majors, mixed genders, mixed backgrounds. He told me later that he only had two people get A's in the four Art History classes he taught that quarter, and he'd only had a handful in the last two years. Think about those statistics.

    My personal advice in regards to such things as taking freelance work is simple: If you know how to do it, and it's not too much on your plate, do it. If you have to choose, weight your options carefully base don your priorities.

    I had two fellow classmates who quit school as a freelance gig turned professional-long-term on them. shrugs One eventually came back and finished their degree, the other kept going with the company that hired them.

  • It's all about balance. As an art teacher, I would say if you are comfortable with your client and the work that they are requesting the go for it!

    As long as you are putting forth your best effort and can maintain a quality that you are happy with, I think working on freelance jobs as a student will put you on the path to success.

  • @andrewgthomas I'm in school right now as well, and I have only ever been encouraged to freelance (though I haven't had much time or opportunity to personally do so). What I've always been told by professors and recruiters is that personal projects and freelance work are always better in portfolios. They can usually tell when a project is school work because it doesn't always seem as genuine as a project you'd have done for yourself or as sophisticated as professional work. (My opinion is that personal projects are really like freelancing for yourself.) Gaining professional experience whilst in school can only help you understand your industry and begin navigating it so you aren't caught unawares once you graduate.

    From what you said, it seems to me that maybe Chris Do discourages students from freelancing whilst in school because they still need to learn a lot and he doesn't want their attention to be divided. But in reality, we never stop learning and once someone is willing to pay you for your services, you're professional whether or not you are still in school. School work is a great learning tool, but generic prompts rarely grow a professional, sincere, or interesting body of work that is attractive to consumers. What does he suggest recent grads put in their portfolios? Just schoolwork with the same assignments all your classmates have as well? And having actual industry experience can easily trump classroom rhetoric.

    The point of school is to train you and build the skills necessary to work. Nobody in the industry cares whether you are in school or not. They care if you can do the job. Some of my peers successfully freelance and do their schoolwork. Also the more experience you have, the more equipped you are to handle new things that come your way. It's really up to the individual student and whatever stage they are in their art journey, but I can't understand discouraging an illustrator or commercial artist from developing their business and gaining an income as soon as possible.

  • At some point, a person needs to figure out what is good for them and not worry about the opinion of another taste maker. If a person can handle both school and freelance AND earn some money while still enjoying school, whats the harm.

    Trail blazers just go and do what they want and make things happen. Why wait for someone else to say if thats ok or not?

  • @teju-abiola Very well said. 🙂

  • @andrewgthomas I graduated with a BFA in illustration about 6 months ago. While I was in school I took on a hand full of freelance jobs and honestly I think it was crucial. Not only did it build my confidence so that when I graduated and took on other gigs I didn't have that fear of "oh god, I've never really done this before", but additionally I had some really great supportive instructors who I was able to approach for their insight on various things. I showed thumbnails to one teacher before presenting them to the client to get his take on how I could present my best work in the early stages, and on a different project when I had some communication difficulties with a client, I had a teacher who was happy to listen and offer advice. If you're in a program where you're able to forge real connections with your instructors and be their genuine friend, they're often happy to lend an eye to look over things or make sure you're not going to screw yourself over with certain contract terms.

    The thing I imagine this fellow is saying is to not get ahead of yourself and think you're all that and a bag of potato chips just because someone is paying you. If you're able to remain humble, acknowledge that you're still learning, and it won't take time away from your studies then I would say go for it.

    The biggest thing I've learned since graduating is that I didn't feel like I was ready, and probably never will. We continue to learn and develop both our artistic and interpersonal skills the more we practice them, so I'm a big supporter of 'fake it til you make it' as long as you're putting your best effort into everything you do.