This past week I was asked to speak at Gravitate, a local co-working space in Des Moines about my transition from a full-time graphic designer to a freelance illustrator.
Certainly, the fellow freelancers in attendance could school me on a thing or two I have yet to learn, but if I’ve discovered anything these past couple of months, it’s what a quick learner I really am. In April I left my full time corporate job as a graphic designer at a marketing agency for what I hoped would be a sustainable full-time freelance illustration career.
Now, ask me in a few months if this is still sustainable- I’m still working out the finer details of keeping myself afloat on only my illustration work (and a few hours teaching barre at PowerLife!) each week, but if one thing is for sure, for me, there is no going back.
I had originally joined the Meredith Corp. workforce as an intern at Traditional Home magazine during my senior year at Drake University. The summer following graduation, I split my time between Trad Home and what would by the end of the year become my full-time gig at Meredith Xcelerated Marketing (MXM) designing for brands such as Publix, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Volkswagen.
Ironically, I had sworn to myself as a graphic design student that I would never work in marketing. Easier said than done, right? Well, I’m a person with lofty goals and strong drive. Since I was in elementary school I knew I wanted to be an illustrator and thus have always felt at home with a paintbrush or pencil in hand.
While working at MXM taught me valuable skills such as dealing with difficult clients and working against expedited deadlines, I had to balance that fast-pace environment by working on my own illustration projects at home. It was then that I found watercolor to be my medium of choice and developed the good habits that keep me drawing every day, even if that’s only for 15 minutes before I dash out the door to teach a barre class.
However, as I neared my third full year working at MXM, those stolen hours, or rather, minutes of illustrating simply were not enough. The more I painted, the more I craved to paint, and the good illustrator practices I had cultivated in my free time translated to less than great work habits at MXM. My heart, if it ever was in the work I did 9 to 5, simply was not there any more, and I knew I needed leave on my own impetus.
It’s easy then to chalk up what happened next to good luck, but it wasn’t simply serendipity. The two philosophies that drive me to work each day are simply “Do the Work” and “Good Things Take Time.” Believe me, it’s a fail-proof combo. You can’t have one without the other. You can neither expect immediate results from the work you do today, nor can you sit there biding your time without doing anything.
In the three years after I graduated college, I built an impressive (if only in size!) portfolio of illustrations and finally, finally, my hopes and dreams were answered by an email in my inbox one morning from a woman in Australia. At the time, it seemed too good to be true, but Katie, a PR Specialist in Melbourne, wanted to commission me to create the cover art for a podcast she is launching called Spotlight Shy to highlight unsung female entrepreneurs.
Suddenly, I needed to learn how to write a contract, what it meant to sell someone the rights to my artwork, and how price it. In the end, it was a great project; Katie was a pleasure to work with and I hope to do more illustrations for her in the near future. What really mattered though was less the work itself (the podcast will be officially launched in July), but the timing.
The knowledge that someone in the world liked my work enough to pay me a significant sum for custom work ultimately gave me the confidence to walk away from my full-time job. Certainly, it wasn’t an easy break. I was about eight months away from a fully vested retirement fund, I had great health insurance, and I genuinely liked the people I worked with.
It’s been just over two months since I cleaned out my desk and I have looked back only with sighs of both relief and revelation when I pass by the building where I spend most of my day five days a week for three years. For me, there is no going back. I dipped a toe in to the freelance pool with my first illustration commission for Katie, and today I just signed a contract to illustrate a children’s book for the Blue Manatee Press. I have known for almost 20 years that I wanted to be an illustrator, but until now, I had no idea how much I wanted to be a freelancer.