The creative life is like driving down a desolate road encroached upon by ominous trees on either side. There are no street signs to indicate twists and turns, the sun is blotted out for long stretches at a time and you can never be sure where you will end up.
That last part is kind of why I am writing this article. When I finished studying abroad at the Academy of Art University in 2012 and returned home to Perth, WA to finish my last semester and receive my Bachelor’s degree in Illustration from Curtin University, I was unsure about what to do next.
Illustration sits at the intersection of design and art and choosing to enter a particular niche on a professional level is daunting. Most others I had known in my graduating year either kept on in the jobs they already had and hope to land somewhere in the industry. But eventually I made up my mind to set up my own business venture.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I want to share some things I’ve learned over the past five years in my search for a balanced and meaningful existence as a freelance pre-production artist and creative consultant.
You Cannot Work On and For Your Business
There is a lot of setup involved in creating a business, and it hardly ever gets easier. Getting an Australian Business Number, registering a domain name, setting up web hosting and creating multiple social media accounts is all necessary and can be quite tedious.
Worse still is maintaining everything. You have to make sure to log and keep all your receipts for accounting purposes, give your potential customers or clients a reason to keep coming back and put out regular social media updates.
In doing all of this I found I was spending a disproportionate amount of my time working on things that kept my studio rolling along, but didn’t generate any kind of real benefit. There was always a new banner to create, a new page to add to the website or another element to add to my marketing mix.
I have since learned that attempting to increase your online presence to ensure a first page Google ranking is not as important as putting in the work to further your portfolio. It may sound like a given, but you can’t present a package to a potential client if you don’t have the skills and know-how to actually pull it off.
Pivoting is not the Same Thing as Quitting
As some might know, between 2013 and mid-2015, I was self-publishing my own comics and running the now defunct Drawing Borders podcast, until the costs of booking a table at the various exhibitions and trade shows made it impossible to break even. So I switched to film and started a pre-production blog.
It would be two years before my writing would receive attention in Feedspot’s Top 50 Screenwriting blogs and things would begin to take off in December 2017 and the start to the New Year did a lot more to lift my outlook. Clients started coming in via my website and I was able to work on projects I really cared for.
This just goes to show that you as a professional illustrator and a person can evolve as your interests change and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do the same if you’re ever feeling lost or trapped during the early stages of your career.
You Can Make Going Your Own Way Easier on Yourself
I have, unfortunately, had many friends move away from the city we all started out in to pursue work in the Australian film industry. For them, the allure of stable full-time work in an agency-style environment is greater than exhilaration of entrepreneurship.
Of course, this will depend on people’s individual circumstances, responsibilities and wants and needs. I do think everyone with a creative passion should spend time looking inwardly to pinpoint what they want to get out of life.
My experience is atypical of most others who graduated from art school, and while I do not covet the expensive car or fancy house, I recognise that freelancing as a means of generating income is a perilous act.
People who are engineers, architects and lawyers seem to have their path in life laid out for them and I cannot say this about freelancing at all. In fact, I would go as far as to say I don’t think anyone can. The path is often lost before our eyes, but I promise you it is there.
Even as I am typing this I believe being able to do what you love, even if you make a career out of what you love to do, is something worth pursuing. And that’s what I think we should all continue to do.