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How to Get New Freelance Illustration Clients

Do a quick internet search of “client chase” and you’ll come up with scores of articles exhorting, instructing, and sometimes downright pleading with you to stop trying to go to potential clients and to start getting them to come to you.

In theory, that’s great advice. It saves you a lot of time, it insures that you’re only working with people that truly want to work with you, and it gives artists the ability to negotiate the terms of the deal.

But it’s much easier said than done. What if your website is completely new, so it has terrible traffic? What if you live far away from the biggest creative hubs of NYC, LA, SF, London… or any larger city, for that matter? What if you didn’t graduate from an art program that not only granted you a degree, but also access to the larger network of working professionals in your field? (All hypothetical situations, of course.)

In short, how do you stand out in a massive crowd?

Apart from finding your niche and hoping people notice, which can take years, here’s the stupidly obvious answer:

Go look for the work.

It takes a lot of effort and discipline, but it’s stupidly simple. Here’s how we do it:

1. Build a relentless body of work.

You’ve got to balance volume and quality. Here’s a simple way to think about it: do quicker work for social media and save the best stuff for your website portfolio. Did we mention relentless? Work, work, work.

Spread your work everywhere. Every social media account you can get your username in; autosharing has made it really easy to move work across platforms. We just save our screen images at 1000 px, 72 dpi and that generally works well for everything. Host a WordPress site and slap a free portfolio theme up—there are a lot of them out there—or if you really don’t want to mess with the nuts and bolts, a tumblr account will do.

And if you don’t have clients, make up your own jobs. The best examples of our work, that paying clients have ended up referencing, is 95% made up of the stuff we made up. Only show examples in your portfolio of the kind of work you want to do.

You’re essentially giving yourself spec work. Is it hard to do unpaid work after hours, after a long day spent making enough to just keep your lights on and food in your fridge? You bet your sweet Cintiq it is. But your success is directly proportionate to how uncomfortable you’re willing to be. So the question is, how successful do you want to become?

 

2. Pass your best work around.

Assuming your social media accounts and website still have poor visibility and you don’t know a lot of people in your industry, you have to go find people. You’ve baked your delicious pie, but simply setting it in the window isn’t going to automatically draw crowds if they’re all partying three neighborhoods over. You’ve got to take your pie to the people.

Think of your inquiry emails as an invitation to your website.

And please, keep the invitation short. In the early days, we used to email whole dissertations expounding on why people needed to hire us. Nothing shouts “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING” (i.e. I’M RISKY TO WORK WITH) more than an email with 3+ paragraphs of more than 4 sentences each. Guys, art directors are extremely busy. Shoot, we’re all busy these days. As interesting as your life story is, they’re not going to read it because, well, ain’t nobody got time for that.

The sole purpose of a “cold call” inquiry email is to express your interest in working with someone and to get them to click your link. That’s it. Most of our emails consist of:

  • Quick greeting, giving our names — 1 sentence
  • “We’d love to work with you”-type sentence with a personal detail (e.g. “We love your magazine” or “We got your name from so-and-so”) — 1 sentence
  • The invitation: directly asking to look at our work for a minute, with our portfolio link (after all, we’re all busy, but everyone can spare a minute) — 1 sentence
  • Quick closing saying something genuine and nice (e.g. “Have a great rest of your week!”) — 1 sentence

Total: usually about 4 sentences. Here’s why this works: you’re looking for an easy win. All you’re asking them to do is to look at your pie. It’s the “free sample” mentality… how often have you gone by the Hibachi place in the food court and taken the sample on the little toothpick, even if you’ve just eaten? It’s free, it’s there, and it takes such little investment on both sides.

 

3. That’s it.

For real. It’s simple, but it merits its own blog post because it’s really easy to forget.

Now, there’s one caveat in all this: it doesn’t always work. Like Neil Gaiman said in his now-famous “Make Good Art” speech, relating to Secret Freelancer Knowledge: You get work however you get work. (The rest of the Secret Knowledge, how to keep working in a freelance world, is fantastic advice.)

You can offer your pie to people, and they can (and will) turn you down. Sometimes it’s because your pie isn’t that good yet; sometimes it’s good but they’re working with expert veteran pastry chefs; sometimes they’ll readily tell you that your pie looks amazing but they just ate, so they’ll keep your pie on file and will get back to you if the need for pie arises in the future.

To be completely honest, our email inquiry success rate is pretty abysmal. But we keep at it because we want the work, and we know that sitting around and passively waiting for client relationships to form isn’t going to make a career happen.

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