So you want to be a freelance illustrator?

In his new book Champagne and Wax Crayons, illustrator and art director Ben Tallon offers some wise advice for students, graduates, and creatives interested in freelancing. Below are a series of extracts from the book, offering some helpful tips on charging for work, choosing an agent, building your network and finding your style.

In his new book Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the madness of the creative industries, illustrator and art director Ben Tallon offers some wise advice for students, graduates, and creatives interested in freelancing. Below are a series of extracts from the book, offering some helpful tips on charging for work, choosing an agent, building your network and finding your style.

Champagne and Wax Crayons is a funny, honest reflection on Tallon’s struggle to become a full-time freelance illustrator (he now produces editorial illustrations and set designs for clients including WWE, the Guardian and Manchester United, and co-founded Manchester creative agency Quenched Music).

The book documents his time at art school and university, his struggle to find work after graduating, his experience of working in temporary jobs while illustrating at night and trips to London to promote himself to potential clients.

Packed full of personal anecdotes and constructive advice, it’s both a look at the highs and lows of working as a freelance creative – from the joy of receiving your first commission, to the struggle to keep motivated when projects are thin on the ground – and a reminder that finding a job in the arts and making enough money to live on requires a great deal of time, hard work and perseverence.

While the book highlights the many challenges graduates face when leaving art school, it’s message is an optimistic one, suggesting there is hope out there for those who are willing to put in the effort and learn from their mistakes.

Here are some of Tallon’s top tips on getting paid, finding an agent and getting your work noticed:


Don’t work for free

One of the problems with early freelance pressure is that you leave yourself wide open for the vultures with no budget. There are plenty of them out there; clients who know that for every creative who will not work for free, there are plenty who will.

Compromising financially is very damaging to the business. There’s this long-standing perception of the arts, held by those outside of it, that its services should not be chargeable. The same people will not bat an eyelid about paying for a water cooler or a taxi on the company’s tab, but if they need an artist? We’re not sure we can justify paying for that.

Once someone has had something for free or very cheap, the value of that service is decreased in the same way you snatch up the ‘buy one get one free’ deals at Tesco and never return when the product offer ends. The vultures often use their reputation to seduce freelancers into working for free with their vast readerships and the otherwise unaittanable experience that only they can provide. Charity, collaboration with other artists and skill swaps are all valid avenues to channel your talents without payment and they come with creative freedom seldom found in commercial areas.

Right before [being commissioned by When Saturday Comes and the Guardian], I received an email from a mainstream culture magazine. They were overly friendly, complimentary and detailed the brief they had in mind for me, but at the foot of the email, they slipped in the killer detail. Unfortunately, there is no budget for this feature. I put the kettle on and fell quiet.

Danny [Allison, a friend of Tallon’s and freelance illustrator] sensed my dilemma hanging in the air and asked me what was wrong. I told him the score; that I was weighing up the possibility of doing the work without payment.

He asked me how the long the job would take. It was a double page spread, so I said anywhere between two and three working days. My working days were rarely eight hours, usually a minimum of ten and up to 16. He told me you have to consider what else you could do with those two days, for example, run with the two Guardian commissions [he had just taken on] and spend two days showing them to prospective clients who would pay for my services.

Turning them down, I set about marketing and 10 days later, in the space of a few hours, I was commissioned by two magazines to illustrate two lead features and they paid me a combined total of £650.

I work for free when the client or project is a worthy one. If I have to drop my prices and do a deal, I highlight the discount on the invoice. Otherwise the clients will never pay more than the initial benchmark.


Tallon’s type for Channel 4 programme, Skins

Agents are great, but choose them with care

You have to be careful with agents. As with anything else, there are good ones and there are cowboys…you’ll hear stories detailing some agents demanding that you must put all work through them, even your own clients that you worked hard and invested your own money to attain when you were alone in the wilderness.

Confirm all terms of anything you sign in writing and have it looked at by someone who knows about media-based contracts. Some will try to tie you to quite unfair contracts. Written legal documents are necessary for the protection of both parties, but I don’t agree with the ‘we want everything you have policy’…Do your research and check what you are signing 10 times over.

The right agency will stand by you and be patient, provided you meet them halfway and work hard to improve things.

If you don’t ask…

Aside from the illustrations, Russell Brand’s hilarious and whimsical Articles of Faith columns in the Saturday edition of the Guardian had been another reason to part with the £2 to buy the newspaper and I looked on with envy as illustrators created images for his weekly piece….I really wanted to have a go at it myself. I called up the sports art director and told her I would love to be given the opportunity to illustrate Russell’s words. She consulted her diary and told me it was fully booked for the time being, but since I had asked her, the next time someone let her down, she’d be in touch.

Only two days later, I received a call asking if I wanted to save her bacon by illustrating this week’s article…to this day, that job is my personal fast turnaround record.

Russell, they told me, was notorious for sending the entire place into chaos by filing the copy with no time at all for them to go to press. Whatever time remained, that would be how long I had to do the job and deliver the print ready file.

At 6.05pm, it landed and left me with 50 minutes to think of an idea, sketch a rough, send it, wait on approval, craft the illustration, send the file and await final sign-off. I shook throughout the whole 50 minutes, drawing then Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp and made a gutteral noise I have been unable to repeat since the file transfer dispalyed that green tick. [Then] I went straight out to the pub and got very drunk to decompress and celebrate.

I took my hangover to the newsagent the next morning and this time, bought just one copy of the paper with my work next to Russell’s bearded mugshot. It was one of the most satisfying feelings I have had to this day.


WWE Legends wrap around magazine cover art/design


Enjoy your process…

It’s so important that you enjoy your working process…If you don’t like it, try loads of other mediums until you learn what works for you. It sounds simple, but degrees and even the arts, are full of people restricting themselves to one discipline, who stick to what they’ve been doing because they’re scared to change direction, even though they might not be particularly enjoying that one thing.

…and experiment

The common belief that you have to find a distinctive ‘signature style’ of working before you graduate is misguided. [At university] we were all starting to learn that one of the most fundamental differences between graphic design and illustration was that illustrators were chosen because their recognisable style was right for a creative job, while designers were expected to be diverse and versatile. This started to make a lot of folk panic. What happens is, somewhere between second and third year, the fun is supplanted by the fear that you will fail and be condemned to a horrible death because you have not yet found your own signature style, when the only way to find it is to have the fun you just abandoned.

Premier League set design artwork for Manchester City v Arsenal


And some other words of advice

You have to start somewhere. Get stuck in. Your portfolio can always be better. It will never be perfect, so pick up the phone, email and visit people. Let your market know you exist.

Workflows change fast and not always for the better. Keep promoting yourself, even when you’re stupidly busy.

Assume a potential client has no vision. Put things on a plate for them; put your work in context and show them the example. They’re busy people and don’t have hours to decipher your work.

Talent is crucial, but only part of the battle. People respond well to hard work and desire. They are more inclined to help those who are passionate and willing to listen and learn.

The cut off from years of tutorial input is difficult, surround yourself with people off whom you can bounce ideas. Ideally, hire an affordable external space to work from.

Listen to criticism. If you have someone in your world willing to provide honest feedback, take it all on board and act on it. They are invaluable people to have, not the enemy. An iron chin is a part of the freelance starter pack and taking offence is futile.

If people pay you money to carry out a skill, you are a business, no matter how creative or arty that service is. Act like one.

Be sociable and network yourself to death. People who know people are good people to know, but you have to meet them first.

Always confirm any job in writing, with no exceptions. This is for your own protection. Don’t blindly trust anyone, ever.

Check the client is happy with your ideas before starting final artwork to avoid wasting time and effort.

Do not assume that because someone is not already using your service, they will have no need for it. it may be that they just never thought of it, until you showed up.


Artwork for album produced as part of campaign, Xpress, on behalf of male suicide prevention charity the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), by Tallon’s music company Quenched

Champagne and Wax Crayons is published by Lid. The book costs costs £12.99 and is available to buy here.

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