Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Chris Oatley & Noah Bradley on Freelance Illustration

I've known about Chris Oatley's site for a while as I'm aware that he gives a lot of great advice to beginner artists on how to become a successful practitioner, either freelance or working in the industry.

I recently was intrigued by some posts he'd written about 'the death of freelance illustration'. He and artist Noah Bradley recorded a video debating the current state of the freelance illustration industry, and how with contemporary social media it is possible to succeed as an artist without having to resort to poorly-paid freelance work you'd rather not do. I've never really thought about going freelance as being a reliable long-term plan, let alone quitting freelance and only earning from the work that you, personally, create. But with sites like Kickstarter, Etsy, Zazzle, etc. and with some clever additional income from programs like Amazon Affiliates, it is possible with time to realistically earn around $100 (or around £60) a day, which is a perfectly comfortable income.

I listened to all 2+ hours of the video and plan to explore their other podcasts as well. I've taken key ideas and quotes and paraphrased them to keep in mind.

The first and most important thing is to make good work. 'You have to give people something that's worth sharing. Trying to build a fan base off something mediocre is really, really hard,' says Noah Bradley. This is something I'm acutely aware of, and my own perfectionist habits mean I'm generally not happy with sharing my work unless I feel it is my best standard. It is also why I don't want to start trying to make it as an artist before I've fully learnt the skills and theory required. I would rather be recognised for work I feel shows me at my best rather than work which I feel to be mediocre.

When asked if they'd change anything about how they started in the industry, Noah Bradley said: 'Maybe I'd have waited until I was a little better until I started freelancing. So I could avoid doing the really, really bottom barrel jobs. I didn't learn much, I didn't make much money, took time away from producing exceptional work that could have pushed me to a higher, better paying tier.' I had never really thought about this before, but it makes a lot of sense. I feel like creative energy only comes in limited supply each day, and I see no use in using it all up on poorly-paid, uninspiring freelance commissions when you could be creating work that you want to create, and earn just as much, if not more, by selling prints, originals, merchandise, etc.

The important thing here is to create a fan base. They suggest aiming for around 1000 'true' fans if you are relying on them for income. This is a reference to an article written by Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine. The article contains other valuable advice and information on different ways to make a living as an artist. Gathering 1,000 'true' fans, who will buy anything I create and support anything I do, seems like a fairly far-fetched concept at the moment, but Kelly puts it into perspective saying it's the addition of one fan a day for three years. I am sure that if I became much more active in posting and sharing my work, I'd be able to gather more followers on my various social networks. However it is important to keep in mind that these fans generally only remain 'true' if you keep direct contact with them, and this is something which doesn't really come naturally to me and I struggle with. In this case someone else can do the job, some kind of manager, handler, agent, etc. (although I would like to change my approach and become the sort of person who is comfortable communicating with large numbers of people each day).

A large obstacle for me when it comes to creating and sharing work is my general fear - fear that me or my work is not, or ever will be, good enough, or popular, or motivated enough to succeed, etc. In response to this, Noah Bradley said how fear is crucial. He said: 'Fear is what inspired me to do as well as I did. You're going to be a failure if you don't work twice as hard as you think you need to work.' Learning to see fear as a positive thing - an opportunity to become stronger and prove to yourself you can do it - is definitely something I'm working on.

Chris Oatley offered as some final advice: 'Don't get derailed. There's a ton of work for people who can paint well, who have a certain level of professionalism and excellence... keep chasing and pursuing it, be honest with your own work. There are a lot of pretty good painters, but to notch up to Noah Bradley's level, there's a certain level of polish and intensity there. I'd have gotten to a higher level of professionalism earlier, with painting specifically, if I'd known that. I'd have had more boldness, confidence and intensity if I'd known that.' I like to try and see my perfectionism as a positive thing, as it's what is stopping me from being comfortable at my current more mediocre level. I want to strive for that extra level of polish and professionalism... I want my work to be dynamic, intense, visually engaging, and a demonstration of my skill - I don't want it to 'do the job', and no more than that. I will be striving for this throughout my entire career, and want to work really hard at it now that I'm graduated and have more time to explore my art.

There was also a small section on networking. Chris Oatley and Noah Bradley largely work online. Someone asked for advice on how to sell your personality online like how you can in person-to-person networking. Chris said: 'Everything is getting more video-centric - like we're doing this on Google hangouts. The line is now blurry between online experience and in person experience. Help people, answer their questions, be there for each other.' He repeated this advice throughout the video, really emphasising the importance in building camaraderie with your fans and fellow artists and helping to keep the community positive and fruitful.

Some more general tips:

  • Network and find fans - there are many, many ways to do this now. In order to appeal to a niche audience, Noah suggested Reddit, which has countless subreddits where you will no doubt be able to find potential fans and clients who like what you do. 
  • Learn web design - even the basics. This will save you a lot of money and give you valuable additional skills you can use when creating your own website. You can also use these skills to earn extra money doing web design jobs. 
  • Amazon Affiliates, Zazzle
  • They recommend Wordpress as a beginner's website as it is very flexible and customisable.
  • Be articulate - write with good English. 
  • Help people via Twitter, Youtube and other social media, try and get an edge on the countless other tutorials by offering advice on more newer/obscure software and techniques.


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