Finding myself abruptly 'self employed' - portfolio critque and advise much needed

  • Hello everyone, sorry this is a long one!

    I have been thinking about quitting my job to start freelancing illustration whilst working a parttime job for a while now, but was not sure yet of the idea, when last week the mobile games studio in which I was employed as an artist was shut down and we all were made redundant!

    So I got the sudden opportunity to now build up my portfolio and give this thing a shot. I am not as prepped for this sudden change as I hoped I would be, and as a result the future is a little scary and i need to find a way to pay bills. Search for a parttime job is high on the agenda! I really want to use this time I suddenly have to try and make a career for myself from home, I'm in no great position to be commuting to london, which would be the nearest city at two and a half hours away.

    Before I get ahead of myself, I wanted to just ask for a portfolio review from you guys to see if you could imagine my work finding any audience out there commercially, what might be glaring obstructions in my way to there, and if you have any tipps for how to hit the ground running in this scenario. I'm still a little dizzy from the news of sorts, and need to make some valuable action points.


    I threw this website together just a few days ago, attempting to bring some order to the chaos of my work. I'm doing research into where to best secure the domain name and get this running under a real domain.

    My biggest issue is that I haven't fully honed in on a market. Currently, I think I am interested in either children's books or games/entertainment, and im hoping to do some work towards both. I know games isn't the main focus here, so might be a little outside of the SVS community.

    Action Points for my portfolio currently include creating:

    • a few sequential narrative pieces showing the same characters in different scenes, interacting. (include some text here to show how it wraps around in a book format)
    • character/prop concept art sheets (to show some animal characters as well)
    • a few interiors, painted in different lighting conditions
    • a breakdown of a 2d side scrolling platformer with a number of background layers and repeated props
    • paintover landscape of a hectagonal grid level (graveyard level, mystical forest, etc)

    I also wondered if looking at my art, some trend towards a market might be more obvious to someone other than me?
    Any feedback is super-duper appreciated. I'll be fine for about four months before money really becomes an issue, but hopefully i'll find a partime job to cover bills within now and then.

    Thanks to anyone who stuck through this very long post ๐Ÿ˜ƒ


    Edit: Really should have checked the category before I posted.

  • Moderator

    I can't speak from experience, but I can speak from outside observation. So take this advice for what it's worth. Sometimes being on the outside can be good and sometimes it can be bad.

    My 2ยข worth of advice is be prepared to go down the rabbit hole learning a couple different avenues for income streams. If you want to have a part time job and work freelance, devote yourself to Children's Illustration as much as you can but don't ignore other possibilities where your talents may be viable. Because the face of illustration keeps changing a LOT. Decade by decade. Year by Year. And to be honest, it seems to me that most of the successful artists nowadays may be eating from the pie in front of them but have their fingers in a couple of others at the same time.

    Schoolism and Gnomon are really good for Gaming and Entertainment education in my opinion. There are lots of online self-guided education sites like New Master's Academy and Proko that speak to the Fine Arts if that interests you. There are many MANY artists that have dabbled in video teaching in some way/shape/form/venue (Skillshare, Udemy, and even SVS for example, but let's not forget ArtStation and Gumroad as marketplaces for individual courses).

    What you won't find out there is much about the specifics of what you need for a portfolio in specific fields in the way that Lee, Jake, and Will articulate it here at SVS. This podcast is a good one for explaining what needs to be in a Children's Illustration portfolio.

    I'm feeling what you're feeling right now--I'm exploring new fields trying to find part-time work myself. So I empathize. It's never a comfortable feeling to have your life shift like that. But it sounds like you have a very very clear action plan--which is SO much more than so many other folks have. You're gonna do this. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Pro

    @Nathalie-Kranich Hi Nathalie!
    Your post really speaks to me, as I had a similar experience last year! I was working in mobile games too, and when I had to quit to move to another city and couldn't find studio work in my new city, I found myself in a "sink or swim" situation where I just HAD to make this freelance thing work! A year later though, I've now been supporting myself solely on freelance work for a year and can honestly say this was the best thing that happened to me. I think your studio closing down may be a blessing in disguise that will give you the little nudge you need to kickstart your freelance career!

    My 2 cents if it's worth anything, is that because it can be hard to find consistent work at the beginning of a freelance career I would advise you to look for "recurring" type contracts at first. Your experience in mobile games may be EXTREMELY useful here. There are plenty of smaller or indie studios who need some art, but not enough to hire someone full time. Soon after I left my job, one of the first things I found was a work from home contract from a small mobile game studio that gave me around 40 hours of work per month. While not enough to cover all my expenses, it was a damn good start and a recurring income that I could count on. It covered about half my expenses meaning the amount of other jobs I had to find to cover my entire costs was much less than if I didn't have that. A couple months later I found another recurring gig that gives me another 600-800$ per month, every month. That's a huge stress reliever to have this covered while I continue soliciting publishers and art directors to find book deals, which are a lot more few and far between. You can find "recurring" type contracts on places like Linked In, Monster, etc. and you can also directly contact studios. Keywords to look for: remote artist, remote illustrator, illustrator contract, part-time artist, work from home, etc.

    My second piece of advice: you already have a really nice portfolio and while it can always be improved, I would focus on starting a personal project that's exactly the type of work that you want to be doing. It will provide you with with many different things: portfolio pieces, social media attention, and a concrete project to show art directors what your art would look like in the kind of project you want to do.

    Best of luck! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Thanks so much for the encouragement guys, and the helpful advise!

    @Coreyartus yeah totally! I am personally more than happy to work in various fields, as all of them sound to an extend fun to do. I'd be happy to make patterns and small illustrations for licensing for example, but Im worried my portfolio would get so dilluted by me trying all sorts of things that I'd ward of success for larger contracts. Hmm!

    @NessIllustration thanks so much for commenting, keywords like that and direct career-approaches are SUPER helpful, i was struggling to find the right keywords to identify distributed development studios for example, so i am hoping this will give me some new pointers. I had wanted to get in touch with you sometime anyway as I had read you came from a similar background ๐Ÿ™‚ I'm super pleased to hear you've been able to support yourself of this, that's amazing! and exactly the kind of success story I needed to hear ๐Ÿ˜ƒ Did you know much about the bussiness side of freelancing when you started out?

    In a few months time, I just need to cover around 900$ to live relatively comfortably, so I am really hoping that is an achievable goal for this year.

  • Pro

    @Nathalie-Kranich I'm glad I was somewhat helpful and if you have any other questions, don't hesitate! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I really didn't have any prior knowledge of the business of freelancing AT ALL when I started all this haha... You're like 10 steps ahead of where I started, really. I never had any intentions of being a freelance illustrator at first, I wanted to work in animation and game studios all my life. The studio that hired me part-time for remote work originally said they were going to give me about 25 hours every week, but after a month or 2 I quickly realized they weren't delivering and I needed to find myself some commissions or other contracts in the side to get extra income. Before that, I was considering myself to be a part-time studio contractor and was still looking for a full-time job.

    Before I knew it I found myself a freelancer, and it turns out I really loved it. That's when I started to learn more about the business side of things and found SVS. I was really bad at it at first haha! I just took my studio illustration portfolio and sent it to a bunch of agents and publishers. Obviously, that didn't work lol. But some of the agents were nice enough to give me pointers like "show more characters in your portfolio" and "focus on storytelling and emotions, not just random scenes". At that point I found my second recurring gig, so with the money part taken care of for a minute I took a couple months to completely overhaul my portfolio and build my website. The next time I sent out portfolios, I scored an agent and a book deal! So there really was a learning curve there. I didn't really improve my skill, I only improve my subject matters and my strategy and the results were night and day. You seem to already have a lot of skill and knowledge so with a game plan, I see no reason you wouldn't succeed ๐Ÿ™‚

  • SVS OG

    Hi Nathalie,

    I'm far from being able to consider making illustration my job (although it is the ultimate goal) but I wanted to give you my instinctive reaction to your post.

    First off, it's obviously a bit of a bitter-sweet situation, in the sense that you weren't mentally prepared to make the leap but now that you have been forced into it, it opens up a world of new possibilities and may be the beginning of your illustration career! Exciting and scary all at once!!

    I think you're right to aim for a couple of markets, and I can see how your art lends itself really well to both actually. I can definitely see some of your mystical drawings being usable in cool RPG games, or equally to illustrate dark fairy tales. Love it!

    As for your website, I think the site itself is really good. Love the illustration you chose as your banner. I like how you've created different categories, like sketches, children's books, digital paintings, etc too. I think this makes it easy to find what you're looking for.

    One suggestion I had was to maybe be a bit more selective in your digital painting section? I hope this doesn't cause offence at all but so many of your digital pieces that have characters in them (I adore 1,4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 to name just a few) are so great that I feel the one of the man with the knives or swords in his hands kind of brings it down a bit? Make sure to really just include your best pieces, even if that means having one or two less.

    Your style is really cohesive too so I don't think removing a couple of pieces will damage your portfolio at all.

    I hope this helps you and I hope you keep us posted on your new adventure!! GOOD LUCK!!!

    PS If you need a hand with Wix, lemme know cos I create all of the websites for my partner's company using Wix and have gotten fairly proficient in it.

  • @ShannonBiondi Thank you! No offense taken at all, it can be difficult to pick which pieces are the best and portfolio worthy when you've been staring at them for a while, and there is some personal stories attached to some, so it's really helpful to have the lack-luster ones pointed out ๐Ÿ˜ƒ I removed a couple now to go back down to a nice square gallery, and fingers crossed i picked the worse quality ones. Hopefully better pieces will follow soon regardless!

    I did wonder if wix was a good one to go with for the first year regarding hosting and domain, as I had also been looking at godaddy. Can you recommend just going with their basic premium plan?

    Thanks for the website feedback again, really appreciate it.

    @NessIllustration It's so cool this worked out for you! Though I've seen your graduation animation backgrounds and clearly you were pretty awesome from the start! ๐Ÿ˜› it's daunting to message lots of game studios, but i guess it's just a case of sending lots of 'hey i'm looking for work'-kind of emails out there? So much research yet to do on studios that even work with or even specialize in 2D!

    Would you recommend Etsy as an early-career endeavour?

  • Pro

    @Nathalie-Kranich It can be daunting indeed! But we have to take a chance, because doubt and inaction are truly the biggest obstacles for artists. I really believe that!

    I also suggest you look into animation studios: even if you don't animate, they are looking for people to do character design, prop design, background design, drawing backgrounds (this is more often called layout), and coloring. Lots of jobs there!

    Etsy is a great endeavor is you are really passionate about it, but I'm not 100% I'd recommend it for early career or not. I'm in my early career and trying Etsy, and it's been really challenging and has yet to really bring in money. I started last fall with a nursery prints shop, but it was honestly a complete failure sales wise and I realized later nursery it wasn't a good match for me. That was 2 months and about 200$ investment down the drain. I really enjoyed the experience though and discovered a passion for entrepreneurship, so I decided to try again and this time open a clipart shop, I spent the next 6 months reading up and really learning about branding, marketing, product launches, etc and at the same time building my inventory of clipart and building my social media and email list. I launched my shop May 27th and have made 111 sales so far, so it's a much better success than the first shop!

    That being said, I made about 150$ so far and invested about $400. So I haven't yet made my money back and this took me a significant amount of time the last 6 months, time that wasn't spent furthering my freelance career. I don't mind because I've discovered this is my true passion and I want to build my own shop, my own brand, to where it can become my full-time income. However if that is not a focus for you and you simply want to have a little side hustle, Etsy might not be a good fit for you. It's not really beginner friendly, as you really need a lot of knowledge of business and marketing to make it work and it's a big investment of time. I'd say right now, I spend at least half my time on my shop, sometimes more. If you don't have a lot of time to spend on it, it will be very unlikely to take off, that's the sad truth. An Etsy shop is a LOT of work. So I'd say only worth it if it's a big passion of yours, if you're willing to read up on business and spend a lot of time weekly on your shop.

  • SVS OG

    @Nathalie-Kranich I usually buy my domains with GoDaddy and then just link them to Wix. It's fairly straight forward and in fairness to Wix, their 'help' guide is pretty thorough and simple to understand. I don't know why I favour GoDaddy though. I guess there's no real reason for that so if Wix offers the free domain as part of one of their premium deals then go for it. It'll make everything a lot more straight forward.

  • Thank you both ๐Ÿ˜ƒ super helpful, gave me loads to think about and I feel a bit more optimistic about my portfolio and start on this journey now! I'll not bother with online shops for now, it's good to know the kind of effort it takes to take it seriously. Hope the shop works out for you and pays tiself back soon @NessIllustration !

    I'll go with wix for now to get my site properly online. That will make me feel more official I think :3

  • Hi Nathalie,
    I can't speak from experience either as i'm working towards going freelance full time too, but when I first left Uni I found that having an illustration agent was a BIG help, so maybe it's worth sending your portfolio to a few to see what response you get?
    If you have no luck at the moment, then it's not a big deal as you can definitely make it work without one, but they might take some stress off your shoulders by finding you bits of work here and there. I started off with my old agent doing lots of educational books, which are quick and easy, they don't pay that well, but it's enough to keep you ticking over and once the educational publishers know your work then you'll get more and more.

    In terms of your portfolio, you have so much talent and the finish on your work is wonderful. You also have a good selection but the thing that I noticed (only in childrens illustration) is that all of your scenes seem to be from the same distance, so maybe add some more interesting compositions and close ups/spots/vignettes/spreads with text?
    I'd also say to maybe add more interaction between characters because at the moment when you have more than one character in a scene, there's not really a story being told and I can't tell what is going on? Like your cat and the boy with the torch, such a great idea and i'm so intrigued by the giant cat character, but I also don't know how i'm supposed to feel looking at it, is it scary or just a big cuddly cat looking for a friend?
    You're so good at producing environments and lighting though!
    All the best with it, I really hope you can get your illustration career off to a great start! Ooh also look into sending your work to Storytime magazine, they're always looks for new illustrators to produce work for them ๐Ÿ™‚

    ALSO, the AOI provide a portfolio review (for a cost) which might be something you'd be interested in to get some more suggestions!

    GOOD LUCK ๐Ÿ™‚

  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    @Nathalie-Kranich I took a look at your work and really like what you have going on there. I'd like to offer some advise for you if you like. It's subjective and just my opinion, so take what you like and leave what you don't.

    1. The Work: Your work is good. Good technique and solid color choices. I think the overall themes might lean a little dark for entering the children's book world. Most have a "ghost story" or "grim's fables" type theme. This will make it hard to get work. I know because my work out of school looked exactly like that too! It's fun to paint that stuff, but it's catering to a much older market than you are intending. I would think about including images of kids doing all kinds of kid things. Kids interacting with each other and focus on them having a lot of different interactions. Having fun, being sad, being curious or mischievous, etc. I would look to different magazines such as Cricket or Lady bug (or any kid's magazine) and start illustrating some stories to get more variety in the work.

    2. The Plan:

    a. Expenses: I don't know your finances and situation, so I'm going to speak very generally here. With losing your job, try to get into a situation where you expenses are EXTREMELY low (I know this sounds obvious). Move in with family/friends. Avoid high rents, car payments and all that kind of stuff if you can.

    b. Job: Get at least a part time job that has income. THat can be driving an uber, delivering pizza, working at another game studio, etc. The illustration business has an extremely slow trajetory and takes a long time to actually build to a working sustainable income. The chance that you can do it relatively soon is probably not realistic. You need to build your portfolio (which takes time) and then start getting clients (which takes a LOT of time). Getting a part time job will help you balance things out and take the anxiety out of going down this path.

    c. Business Plan Come up with a realistic business plan that encompasses your 1st year all the way up to 4-5 years. You need to list your expenses and income and things you will need along the way. How do you plan to get clients? How will you advertise? You are becoming a business, so you need to think and operate like one. This needs to be a written plan and needs to be workable. How much money will it cost to be in business? Do you have at least a years worth of money saved up for the first year if you don't have any clients (that is my recommendation)? These are all questions that you need to think about in order to become a full time illustrator.

    I am wishing you the best of luck in your new career direction. Let me know if you have any specific questions. : )


  • @hannahmccaffery hey, thank you for that feedback and the encouragement! ๐Ÿ˜ƒ You're absolutely right, perspective is still one of my weaker points and I only recently really started to focus in on story telling, so I hope with some classes on SVS and some more focused portfolio pieces, I might be able to start improving on those!

    @Lee-White woo! Thanks so much for the feedback and advise, really appreciate it. You're absolutely right, my work currently definitely leans towards adults. I'm still not sure chrildens books is the market for me. I might work on more child-suited pieces to see how I feel about them, but tempted to say my passions might be dragging me elsewhere!
    With my current expenses, I should be fine for 7-9 months and after that time only have very low expenses, so once I get a parttime job as intended, I should be absolutely alright and able to focus on building a career ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Wow it can be really hard to face a situation like you find yourself in, but it looks like you have a great plan in place! Everyone's given excellent advice already, so I'll just add my own experience.

    I'd love to be able to quit my part-time writing job and have more time for freelance art, including writing/illustrating my own stories, so here's a bit of a chuckle to maybe brighten your day: each week when I haven't been fired, I'm happy because that's money coming in and the job is actually pretty decent. Each week when it looks probable that my publication will go out of business and fire me, I'm happy because if I get fired I can DO MORE ART! haha So I love the attitude and determination you're bringing to the situation. A bright side to everything. I wish you the best of luck in making these big decisions on direction, and a smooth path forward these next 6 months or so!

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