Career Advice - Working as a Freelance Illustrator and Visual Artist

Career Advice - Working as a Freelance Illustrator and Visual Artist

Whether you’re already at school, looking to find a new school or even considering moving overseas to study, nothing beats hearing from the students themselves! We speak to Robin Raaphorst about the ins and outs of studying HKU University of the Arts Utrecht.

Want a successful career working as an freelance Illustrator and Visual Artist? Robin Raaphorst, HKU University of the Arts Utrecht alumna, sits down with us to share her journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.

The Journey

What's your current role and what does it involve?

Since last summer, I have been working as a freelance Illustrator and have a job as junior visualiser at The Roughmen, a creative agency in Amsterdam. In fact, I am responsible for everything involving visuals. For example, in the last year I have made concept art, posters, animations, storyboards and illustrations for children's books.

Why did you decide to freelance?

During my secondary school time and my internship at Guerilla, I realised I had difficulty keeping to a routine. Now, as a freelancer, I have a lot of freedom and autonomy. It gives me a lot of 'nice' surprises like rare projects or people I would otherwise not meet. Freedom and being able to choose for myself has become very important to me.

Why did you choose to study at HKU?

Both of my parents graduated from the art academies, but it wasn't a given that I would also go to art school. I spent my secondary school years at the Coornhert Grammar School, a categorical gymnasium where you are completely prepared for university. But, because of my dyslexia and ADD it was a constant struggle to pass my exams. When I  eventually earned a diploma full of 5.5s and 4s, I was fed up with the endless grind and decided to study game art at HKU University of the Arts Utrecht.

Image Courtesy of Robin Raaphorst

How does your education fit your current role?

I graduated from the HKU, in game art. Although I don't currently work in the gaming industry, there are many similarities with my current work. Both game art and illustration work are a visual means of communication. In addition, as a freelancer I have to be able to work practically and fast. Traits that are also important in game creation.

What did you not expect when you first started working?

That social media would play such a big role in my income. When I was a student, I didn't really believe in instagram and things like that. But now I see how important it is for others to be able to find you online. At the moment, instagram is even more lucrative than my online portfolio site.

Day in the life

How do you collaborate with clients?

Depends! It is important to learn to assess what sort of person you're working with and what the project needs. Some clients want you think with them, other want results as fast as possible. There's a big difference between commercial sketches and designing a birth announcement card.

Things I always try to do is listen well to feedback and show that I understand the customer, for example, by coming up with an alternative. Good communication is important both for companies and individual clients.

Describe an average working week?

Actually, I don't have an average working week. Sometimes I do nothing at all for a week, sometimes I work on 5 projects at the same time. Sometimes a job takes several months sometimes only 1 afternoon and sometimes suddenly a lot of things are scrapped.

What does your workflow look like?

The way I work is fairly analytical and calculated, I think I learned that at grammar school. First I read the brief carefully, I jot down what is important or interesting and then begin with the first iterations or sketches (depending on the type of job).

Once I have a rough design I usually send it to the client right away; this ensures no work gets lost. As soon as I get the go-ahead or feedback, I continue. This way, I communicate back and forth until I and the client decide on an end product together.  

What software do you use for your work?

Because my work is so varied and speed is important, I use several software programs. For illustration and animation I mainly use Photoshop and After Effects. But for some projects with a lot of use of perspective, for example, I also use Zbrush and Blender.

How do you combine commercial work with your own creative work?

That's tricky! Sometimes I catch myself doing nothing except work. If you're working on boring sketches for months, it's important to make time for personal work, work where you can be creative. It does not have to take up much time, just 1 illustration per month for yourself is enough. And sometimes I'm lucky and I get to work on a really nice creative job.

What are your favourite jobs and why?

My favourite jobs often make the least money and cost the most work. These are often more creative jobs with more freedom and nice surprises. In addition, the customers themselves are often quirky creative types, which results in a nice collaboration. Being able to have fun at work just as important as being able to make ends meet.

Image Courtesy of Robin Raaphorst

How do you find jobs that suit you?

Actually, I never have to look for work, the customers find me.

I get the big commercial jobs through my agency and the more creative and quirky jobs through my personal network and instagram.

I only have 600 followers on instagram but have already been able to make 2 children's books, 4 magazine covers and much more through this channel. Social media should not be underestimated, it makes it possible for people to always find you online!

How do you know what jobs you should accept?

Because I have only been freelancing for 1 year, I always try to take on as many jobs as possible. The kind of job, doesn't really matter to me.

I think it's important to broaden your prospects as much as possible in the first few years. Eventually, when your network is solid enough, you will be able to pick and choose your jobs yourself.

The first years are mainly about building a network and making your name known in the industry. Unfortunately, that also includes the tedious jobs.

What do you do if you think a job is too much for you?

If I get intimidated halfway through a project or if the brief is very complicated, I try to split the project into several steps. Instead of the whole thing being scary, it is about concrete obstacles within the project.

It is also important to have a clear idea of what your role is within the project and to communicate this with the client. For example, an illustrator is not a DTP and vice versa, these 2 roles are often confused with each other.

Career Advice

Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you implement this in your own work?

I get my inspiration from everything I find visually interesting. This may be anything from architecture to film, comics or things from everyday life. But my guilty pleasure will always be anime from the 90s such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell. I'm also a huge fan of some more off-beat animations like Nova Seed or Junk Head. And how do I implement this? I get inspired and then start drawing.

Image Courtesy of Robin Raaphorst

Describe your attitude to your work as a designer.

I believe that although my work can sometimes seem airy fairy, my work attitude is quite thorough and analytical. I always try to approach my projects practically; I am someone who prefers to work smart rather than hard. However, this does not mean that I don't put emotion into my work.

In my personal work (and sometimes jobs) I often try to base my work on a central emotion or abstract thought and then portray this as effectively as possible in my illustrations.

What tips do you have for people who want to start freelancing?

Learn about tax and know what you are entitled to as a self-employed person! The tax office can be your best friend, provided you know what you can get.

What important traits should you have, that have nothing to do with being able to visualise?

In addition to being able to draw well, communication and presentation are also very important. People also hire you for the collaboration. Make sure you are neat and tidy, come across as interested and assertive. Furthermore, you also have to be able to handle uncertainty and stress. Freelancing comes with a lot of freedom but also with risks and an uncertain vision of the future.

How do you make sure the work pressure doesn't become too much?

Dare to say no! Especially as a starting freelancer you quickly get the feeling that you have to accept every job because you do not know what your income will be in the coming period. Try to identify what your limit is, because you will miss out on a lot more money if you end up burnt out. You don't have to take on anything; the good thing about freelance work is you get to choose what you do and don't do.

Image Courtesy of Robin Raaphorst

What do you do if there's no work?

If I am in a quiet period, I try to stick to my routine. This means getting up early every day, putting on clean clothes, continuing to draw and honing my skills.

This way you avoid getting into a rut and the busy periods feel less intense.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Not a clue. I even find it difficult to imagine where I will be in 3 years. But 1 thing I know for sure: I want to publish my own artbook before I'm 28. I'll see what happens next. I do think I will continue to work as a freelancer for the time being.

You can find more of Robin Raaphorst's work on Instagram and ArtStation.