Becoming a Freelance Concept Artist: Everything You Need to Know

Becoming a Freelance Concept Artist: Everything You Need to Know

Howest University graduate and Freelance Concept Artist, Veerle Zandstra, offers insights on establishing a freelance art career, sharing tips for starting, managing workloads, and finding inspiration in this interview.

Veerle Zandstra, a graduate of Howest University of Applied Sciences - Digital Arts and Entertainment and now a Freelance Concept Artist, shares valuable insights into establishing a freelance art career. In this interview, she provides top tips for getting started, maintaining a balanced workload, and finding inspiration along the way.

‌‌How did you decide to become a freelance concept artist, and what inspired you to pursue this career path?

Before I started freelancing, I worked as an in-house concept artist at Media Monks. I had an amazing time working there, making concepts for a range of projects, but mostly for advertisements. After some time I realised that I preferred to work in the gaming industry, rather than the advertisement industry. Finding an in-house artist position is very difficult in the Netherlands, because we don't have many gaming companies here. Freelancing was the best option for me. I was also looking forward to the freedom that freelancing would bring along, such as working from home and being able to work with all kinds of different studios.

Personally, I believe uniqueness is not something you can force. Your art should represent who you are as a person and be inspired by the things you love.

‌‌What steps did you take to build your portfolio when starting out, and how did you showcase your skills to potential clients?

The first step for me was to level up my ArtStation portfolio by making sure my portfolio represented me as an artist. My portfolio used to be full of my old student work, which was not necessarily the work I wanted to make professionally. I spent a lot of time figuring out what my strongest and weakest skills were, and decided to only showcase my best works. I quickly realised that I don't need to be able to draw every topic well, and that it's totally fine to have a specialisation in a certain topic or art style. Companies will approach me based on the work I have online, so I mostly get job offers that suit my skills well. A big challenge for me was to get my portfolio seen in the first case. I made sure to put links to my portfolio wherever I can, such as on Instagram, LinkedIn and facebook.

What strategies did you use to find and attract your first clients as a freelancer in the concept art industry?

My main strategy was using word-of-mouth "advertisement". I would tell all my artist friends that I was looking for work, and they started recommending me to their clients. This is a very strong strategy because my friends would send me job offers that they received, but couldn't accept because they were too busy working on other projects. They'd tell the recruiter that they knew someone who would love to take on a project and get me in touch with them.

Another strategy of mine was to simply send as many emails as possible to different gaming companies, telling them that I am a freelance artist available for work. Most of the time they replied that there was no work for me to pick up, but that they would add me to their freelance database. Some companies sent me a mail months later asking me if I had time for a short project.

In the competitive field of concept art, how did you differentiate yourself and establish a unique personal brand as a freelancer?

Personally, I believe uniqueness is not something you can force. Your art should represent who you are as a person and be inspired by the things you love. Whether that be nature, science fiction, architecture, etc. I combine all my biggest inspirations into my drawings, which makes my work visibly "mine".  By drawing hours and hours, my unique artistic brand developed naturally.

What platforms or networks did you find most effective for finding freelance opportunities, and how did you go about building a professional network in the industry?

My main platforms are ArtStation and LinkedIn. I only realised how useful LinkedIn actually is for attracting clients this year! I absolutely recommend everyone to update their linkedIn profiles and to make connections with recruiters and art directors. The problem of not getting any work is usually not due to your drawing skills, but simply by not being seen online. By connecting with people on these platforms you create an opportunity for them to click the link to your portfolio and go "ah, this artist is really good!", while otherwise not even knowing your work. ‌‌

Can you share any advice on time management and balancing multiple freelance projects, deadlines, and client expectations?

Personally, I have not been in the situation yet where I needed to juggle multiple projects at the same time. But time management is very important nonetheless, especially if you're working a short-term project. The first thing I always ask a client is when the deadline of the project is and what they expect me to finish before that time. There have been situations where I was asked a big amount of work in a short time span. In this case I would explain that it is not possible within the time given and discuss an alternative plan. It is never a good plan to take on a project if the workload is too much, especially because you have to take in account the time you'll spend on feedback rounds and iterations. ‌‌

For aspiring freelancers, what would be your top three pieces of advice based on your own experiences as a concept artist?

First of all, find a good online programme for your accounting! I use an online service that allows me to make and send invoices, see which ones are paid and which ones are still pending. it is also linked to my bank account so I always have a clear overview of all my business finances. This makes my life as a freelancer so much easier. Secondly, make sure you thoroughly read any contracts you are sent, before signing them! You want to make sure you are on the exact same terms as the client. If there are any parts of the contract you don't agree with, you can express this to the client. Lastly, make sure you have enough money saved up before you start freelancing. In my case, it took months before I got my first job, so you need to make sure you have at least a few months of rent and groceries saved up so you can financially bridge the periods of time where you don't have work. ‌‌

I only realised how useful LinkedIn actually is for attracting clients this year! I absolutely recommend everyone to update their linkedIn profiles and to make connections with recruiters and art directors.

Can you share any strategies for maintaining a healthy work-life balance as a freelance concept artist, and how do you prevent burnout?

A piece of advice I have is to plan in enough free time and not work more hours than you're paid for! Working day and night, just to impress a client will quickly take it's toll and ends up in loads of unpaid overtime. Another thing I do, is making sure I keep making personal artworks. Sometimes, working for clients can get tiring, and you might lose your excitement or motivation. Creating personal artworks makes sure that drawing stays fun! ‌‌‌‌

What role has social media played in your freelance career, and how do you leverage platforms like Instagram to showcase your work and attract clients?

Social media has played a pivotal role in my freelance carreer so far. I have received job offers from art directors that follow me on Instagram.I was lucky that I started my Instagram account years ago, before the new algorithm when it was much easier to gain a following. However, it is not impossible to grow your account now. I have noticed that accounts tend to do well when they regularly upload reels, so perhaps I might consider posting speed-paint videos or do short tutorials to keep growing my account. I also learned that it is important to show both finished artworks as well as rough sketches on my account. This shows to people that you can both sketch very well and work out ideas too. This also results in a well-balanced feed with some artworks "popping out" because they are rendered nicely in-between the sketches. ‌‌

Looking back on your freelancing journey, is there anything you wish you had known or done differently when you were just starting out?

‌‌Absolutely! The first year of freelancing is always the time you make mistakes, and that is totally okay. The first months I wasn't very well at promoting myself, and was simply waiting for clients to reach out to me for work. It took me a while before I started actually reaching out to companies myself, so I definitely wish I had started doing that sooner.

I also would have liked to know that there was going to be a lot of no-work time, so I could have planned out my finances better or even taken a little side-job. I saw my savings account drop by the thousands, which I could have prevented. But most of all, I wished I wouldnt undervalue myself so much, which I still sometimes do. It is important to be confident and really understand your self-worth as an artist when doing this job.

Check out Veerle's student work and contact her via her Rookies profile here.