Q+A: 6 tips on how to get your first freelance illustration job

Hi Amy, I just read your Q&A on landing your first job. I’m currently an illustration student but have no idea on how to get my first illustration job once I put together a portfolio. Any tips on how to get work as a freelance illustrator? Thanks in advance.

~ Stefanie (via email)

Hi Stefanie!

In my experience, a lot of first-time commissions come from word of mouth! When I first got started, I made sure to put the word out there that I was freelancing, and that if anyone needed a hand they can give me a call (or contact me via email.) But besides that, I find that being proactive about finding freelance work goes a long way – especially when you realize that those connections might take 2-3 years to fully materialize. It’s what has happened in my situation, and for many others too.

So here are few steps that you can do right now:

1. Tell as many people as you can about what you do.

Spread the word that you’re freelancing around, to family, friends, even the neighbours. You may find at first that this will land you some pretty weird jobs and questions – stuff like “can you teach my kid how to draw?” It’s totally up to you to take it on, or not. I always say that it’s no harm at all, especially when you have nothing better to do – so why not flex your creative muscles and do your best – even if it’s something that you whipped up for the neighbourhood kindergarten?

2. Get your portfolio on different websites

The thing with illustration and art is that it’s hard to be found visually. And what that means is that people don’t go to Google, type in a few strings of words that describe what you do, and then be able to see your artwork among other artists (well the famous ones do, but only because they’ve built up a really big following!) So the next best thing is to put your work up in front of people who are already looking. And that means in places where they go to look. Places like Behance and Dribble. On Instagram (with the appropriate hashtags – not one made up by you!)

The caveat is that it might take some time for others to notice you, especially with all the great work out there; but it pays to be persistent. There might be a few art directors and clients who might be checking you out on those websites, but the timing is not right just yet.

3. Don’t just hang out with your illustration buddies from college or uni – make an effort!

Spread your wings out a little and go to where you’ve never been before! There is more to you than just your ability to draw – what other stuff do you like doing? What’s your other hobbies? Do you love reading? Join a book club! Do you love cooking? Join a community cook-out! The more people you reach out to that’s outside of your normal comfort zones, the better your chances of making new connections, which will ultimately help spread your name far and wide.

4. Constantly add new work to your portfolio

Slapping on a couple of pictures from your school days or previous college assignment does not mean that your portfolio is complete! Unless your work back then was really good, or it showcased what you are capable of right now, I’d suggest to leave it out. First impressions mean a lot, and if what you’re putting out there can only illicit a “meh”, it’s time for you to think of self-initiated projects that you can add to your portfolio. That’s right – there is no client involved (unless it’s imaginary, in which case it’s totally fine), no cheque waiting for you at the other end, and no assurance that it will amount to anything – not just yet. Do your best, take pride in your work and pick up that pencil because you want to better yourself, not just because there’s someone on the other end counting on you to do so.

5. Send an email to your favorite blogger

Back in the day, I get a lot of emails from graduating students and illustrators who were just starting out. And if their work catches my eye, I post it up on the Pikaland blog (though I rarely do this anymore because better platforms exist for that these days – Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) What I found out was that other blogs were checking out my blog to get news on the latest talent, and they picked up these artists too and featured them in their blog and magazines, which then helped these emerging artists gain a lot more buzz. So it couldn’t help to try – especially if you can identify with the audience of the blogger, and it’s a place where your work wouldn’t look out of place. Here’s a tip: don’t just aim for the big blogs – go for smaller, niche blogs too!

6. Be super nice to everyone and anyone

You’d think that being nice to people was a natural instinct – but sadly it isn’t! I’ve met my fair share of nasty and rude folks, but they’re thankfully far and few in-between. What I’m talking about is going above minding your P’s (please) and Q’s (thank you). Be genuinely interested in other people – listening to them, asking them helpful questions, thanking them for their time, etc – if you think that these gestures are unnecessary in the days of 140 character tweets, think again. If anything, it only serves to show how attentive you are, especially when others aren’t doing it.

And there you have it! These are the things that I’ve personally done to get my name out there – and they’re virtually painless. All it takes is a bit of effort in the beginning, but when you’ve got your ball rolling, you’ll be able to see results very soon. Good luck Stefanie!


Do you have any tips you’d like to offer Stefanie that has worked for you in the past? Let us know in the comments below! Also, if you’d like to send me a question, get in touch with me right here!

Psst – if you like this post, then you might want to get in on our Work/Art/Play mailing list for our once-a-year online workshop for artists and illustrators that’s coming up in September!

How to draw Calvin & Hobbes

Calvin & Hobbes

The short answer is: You can’t.

You know why? I did. I tried when I was 13 years old. And boy did I try.

When I heard the news that Bill Watterson  would be retiring, I took it really hard. I felt my heart sank and it just wasn’t something that I could stomach. So I acted out – I bought the remaining anthologies of his book needed to complete my collection, and waited in eager anticipation of his last book. I cut out all the comic strips that was in the paper (because I wasn’t sure it would be collected in book form later on, so I had to hedge my bets – it was the era before the internet, after all).

And then I decided that the series should continue, with or without Mr. Watterson.

I would have to do it.

I began right away – I got my supplies ready. Ink, check. Brush, check. Drawing pad, check. It took me more than 6 months of drawing everyday to get Calvin’s hair almost right. But it never was. Hobbes hands would never look as slender, nor would his expression give off the charm that only he had – my version was always shorter and fatter, with none of the proud look of a tiger doll. The only time it looked almost similar to what Mr. Watterson drew was when I traced over his comics. Yes, I was a shameless copycat – but it was all in the name of learning, and I was just 13.

Those drawings never saw the light of day because they didn’t look right. I had dozens of notebooks with sketches of Calvin (I was obsessed with that hair!) and Hobbes (the only thing that came close to looking good was his tail) – most of them half-drawn and abandoned when I felt that it wasn’t turning out the way that I was expecting them to. I didn’t use an eraser because I thought those were for wimps (how hardcore was I?!) and I felt that there was something Mr Watterson wasn’t letting on about his process. I was frustrated. I felt like my hand wasn’t listening to what my brain was saying. Move here! Hit the curve right there! Darn it! I wished that I had a transmogrifier so that I can turn myself into someone who spewed out perfect C&H comics.

I gave up about a year in. I drew my version of Hobbes mainly on birthday cards for my parents – but that was about it. I didn’t get rich, and I certainly wasn’t able to convince my mom and dad that I was the next comic genius or one who could succeed Mr. Watterson in continuing the lineage of the Calvin & Hobbes series.

But what I did learn from the experience was that it’s super hard to copy someone else.

Even with all that effort (a year’s worth of time, ink, and lots of paper), I didn’t make a dent in the universe. I did try, but I was just making a really bad replica of someone else’s work (Mr. Watterson wasn’t just someone, IMHO, but I’m digressing) and I more importantly, I was always a step behind.

I was living in someone else’s shadow.

If you’re copying because you’re still learning, carry on. That’s what I advise students who don’t know how to get started, and I always end with a caveat: just don’t put it online! Now, if you’re done – how about you step away from the shadows so that you can shine bright on your own accord?


Pssst. Hankering for Calvin & Hobbes? You can read the comics right here. And also Bill Watterson’s interview with Mental Floss in 2013.

The stuff I say on other people’s blogs

Contrary to what you see here, Jeff doesn’t always get a seat on my desk. Only when it’s time to do a quick photo shoot, and it’s also so you’ll concentrate on him rather than my clutter. Shhhh! If you want to see more of them though – head over to my Instagram!

I realize that sometimes I don’t talk enough about my own experiences on this here blog – but honestly, it’s hard to talk about stuff that happened to me when I’m the one starting the conversation (true fact: I love asking people questions and I love it even more when they do more of the talking). So when I was given the opportunity to talk a bit more about myself to real people, I thought “why not?” Aside from the fact that it makes me look a lot less crazy (at least that’s what I think when I talk about myself too much here on the internet), it also gives me a chance to be on the other side of the table for a change!

And so this week, I wanted to share 3 interviews that featured little ol’ me and Pikaland:

>> Talkshop with Pikaland at the New Forward

I sat down with Keat Leong and Aizyl – 2 very fun, young, passionate guys who are going all out in the Malaysian scene and talking to creators old and new about entrepreneurship.

 I work for free sometimes. I do work for charities, designing logos and t-shirts, just to help out. I make money from somewhere else. But some artists are so hard up on the money. When people aren’t using your work, your work doesn’t get out there. It’s just sitting there. When you think about the cost of it, it’s giving your work for free and gaining publicity, versus letting your work just sit there and still not make money out of it. I know that people say publicity doesn’t put food on the table but neither does keeping your work at home. Click here to read more!


>> Happy Happy Art Collective

The amazing Lauren Minco of Happy Happy Art Collective asked if I would like to talk more about Pikaland and the work I do at Work/Art/Play, and I was thrilled to do it!

 Being an illustrator is no longer about just holding a brush and waiting for people to push ideas for you to execute. It’s time for you to execute your ideas! Click here to read more!


>> Enormous Tiny Art: Guest Curator

Deb, the founder of one my favorite original art sites asked me if I’d like to be a guest curator and pick out 12 pieces from their amazing roster of artists and I jumped at the opportunity! She asked a few great questions too to go along with my selection and I thought you might enjoy it as much as I did picking out art and answering her fun Q’s!

 I left my stable job not because I was convinced that I could earn a better living at showing up on Pikaland full time, but it was just something that made me excited to wake up to everyday. Click here to read more!


Ok, I think that’s enough of me for the week! If you haven’t entered our fun book giveaway, I suggest you hop over there right now and do it (it ends this Thursday!) And what if you’ve already have? Well I think it will do you a lot of good if you checked out our interview with Frane Lessac (which will help loads in flushing me out of your brain!)

Review: Low Tech Print & Walk the Line [GIVEAWAY!]

Low Tech Print

Low Tech Print

Low Tech Print


By Caspar Williamson / Softcover / 224 pages

There is always something intangible that jumps right out at you when you’re looking at something that’s printed by hand – and I’m not talking about the results of moving one’s cursor across the screen through the mouse. No. I’m talking about those that need an apron to keep the stains away, where paint gets deep under your fingernail and where the term “registration” isn’t about signing up for something online.

Low Tech Printscours the studios, artists and designers who are currently making contemporary hand-made printing hip again. The book captures the subtleties offered by printmaking in its full glory through generous spreads that contain not just the finished products, but also the process that goes behind them.

Divided into four different sections: screenprinting, letterpress, relief printing and other printing methods, the book is a visual feast of hand printed goodness of the best kind. Not only does it introduce you to lots of inspiring work done by current top designers and studios – it invites you to join in, first through its history and then a simplified guide to each printing process. Available on Amazon.

Walk the Line

Walk the Line


Ana Ibarra & Marc Valli / Hardcover / 320 pages

To tell you the truth, I’ve always been a little skeptical of the pencil. I think it has something to do with looking at a large amount of student work who uses the medium as a starting point, but never quite venturing very far with it. Heck, I’m guilty of that myself! But a flip through Walk the Line has changed my mind – and my perception – of what a pencil and an artist that wields it can do.

The book is an interesting mix and match of styles and techniques – whether it’s exploration of skills through pencil or charcoal, or how some of the artists have managed to turn other mediums (like watercolor and even chalk) to resemble works made by another medium; it’s an interesting browse into the subject of drawing. What I loved too was the brief but insightful interviews with each individual artists that sheds a light onto their processes and technique.

The subject of realism is touched upon here too – as a lot of drawing tends to stem towards capturing the essence of “real” things. While I’m not a fan of realism, the drawings that did capture my attention were the ones that detailed out imaginary landscapes and creatures, of objects and stories – things that could have just stayed in an artist’s imagination – but instead were brought to life via drawings. It’s a great book for artists who’s obsessed about pencil! Available via Amazon.


Here comes the best part! Laurence King Publishing is giving away a copy each of the books above to two lucky Pikaland readers! All you have to do is to leave a comment on which book you’d like and why. Easy peasy! The giveaway is open from now till next week (3rd of April) to anyone, anywhere; so hop on over to the comments to join in!

Winners will be announced on this post and also be contacted via email.

** The giveaway winners are: Kristin for Low Tech Print & Alessandra for Walk the Line – I’ll be in touch via email! Thanks so much for entering the giveaway folks!**

Both winners were generated via random.org – I deleted multiple submissions and then organized the commenters by the time they submitted their entry!