"Practice is the difference between having to take a job and choosing a job to take."
Freelancing from the POV of the freelancer
Freelancers, there are a lot of us. Some taking commissions, some full on 9 month “extended stay” contracts but all share a common need for information and general guidelines. Here are my observations in my time spent doing this. Many clients over many finished and started ideas; hopefully the freelancers out there can gain some insight from this. Hopefully this guide will help you avoid missteps, problems, headaches, and general misconceptions of clients and our industry.
These terms are for Generalists and some Specialists. Generalists have a solid foundation across the board regarding designing characters, environments, color and light and general know how. Specialists have more prominent foundations and sometimes excel at one defining type like a character Artist or genre specific artist (medieval, sci fi etc). Know who you are and what you bring to the table. Some freelancers might be able to do everything, but if all they have are pinups to see, don't blame the clients for second guessing you. If you hate unicorns, don't put any in your portfolio because you should assume that's what the client will ask for.
Freelancers need to be responsive and Agile, a winning personality, know their limitations, need to leave their egos behind, and be a great communicator. I will breakdown each of these steps that I think are necessary. There are of course more and I will write more journals if necessary, but for now these I think are the most important ones.
Responsive: Every project, problem, and let's face it, personality is an individual snowflake of awesome sauce and frustration. In the game world they call this process agile development. Agile means that the ever changing landscape and scope of the project changes often; which happens. Not necessarily in card game art or manuals and commissions but in games, film, and TV things can change quickly. Your responsiveness to change will be rewarded with continued work and a good reputation which you want. Can you wrap your head around a steam punk remake of the Matrix and then turn that around and create steam punk Care Bears because the "moneybags" got scared of Sci fi and thinks kids are stupid? This is a dramatic, and to me traumatic, change but it's happened. Your ability to work within their guidelines and issues will help you drastically. Practice and preparing for these issues will enhance your chances of success and more freelance from this client. You will build a solid foundation of knowing what they want and they will be confident you can achieve big picture items.
A Winning Personality: The difference between an amateur and a professional is a professional only complains on the inside. DO NOT GET DEFENSIVE. When someone is paying you and they ask for changes, sending an email about why you made your choices or why you think you are right is juvenile and silly. Deal with the ego, it's there project and that's why you have your own so you can have an outlet. We all get frustrated. Slamming another artist, professional, or producer is disrespecting and all pride driven. We’ve all shared in bad art, we’ve all made bad decisions so I caution you not to throw your own stones. (What was their time frame? Who were THEY answering to? There’s just so much happening on any project everyone just does there best.) Here's what I do, I type it all in email form alllll the things I really want to say. I read it and then delete it. I usually keep the first and last sentence as they are both generally nice and warm. We all have bad days, but a professional works through it and figure a way to make it work. To a client which all he sees is artwork, ask for changes, and changes to make it look the way they want it, that's a winning personality and will get you more work. (By the way, this is really hard)
Limitations: Limitations come in all types. We can speak of limitations of the project (budget, game type, etc) If the characters you are making is for an IPhone MMO you now have limitations on what you can make. Working within the games guidelines is essential to making it work. You can't just start putting tentacles on it because you like that freaky deak stuff. If there are only 4 bones in a character or only 5 props to make, how do you fix the problem given the limitations? A different limitation is introspective and less about the client. Where are you at? Do you see the other people doing what you do? Are your prices competitive? Are you actually able to provide what your client asked you for? Did you bite off too much? If you have never done textures, don't take a job until you feel like you've earned the right to be paid. Artists generally have a hard time assessing where they are. It's a harsh reality to know there are 1,000's of us who can do it. Stay competitive, practice, and work hard on your inconsistencies and weak points. This will help you in the long run, maybe not the short term. But at this point we're talking career not job focus.
I am going to break this up into 2 types of communicator; both are needed for you to thrive as a freelance artist.
Great Communicators: Artists are generally not good at communicating real information. We can all nerd out on our favorite TV shows, ask why Hellboy 1 and 2 were so vastly different, and who shot first? Artists tend to believe that this is communicating. Most freelance clients out there are necessarily nerds. They are driven and focused people and although can hold their own in a Plants Vs Zombies conversation on who would REALLY win they are in that position because of professionalism. Know when to talk straight and when to joke. They are separate but both needed. Great communicators, especially over emails, know what questions to ask. Asking about expectations, laying out how you will work together, if the client came to you ask what images grabbed their attention and disassemble why THEY liked it. Was it color choices, style, or Pen and ink? They could like the character because he's cute but not want anything to do with the heavy ink lines you used. This is up to the freelancer to hear the client and determine what they are after. They are paying you and that's the deal. They pay, you do your best to make them happy. Its art, but it's a job as well and figuring out what your client wants, understanding THEIR needs, and applying it will be a better reputation and will mean more work. Communication on what both parties want to see. I cannot stress this enough to understand what the relationship will be is effective communication. (I call it a relationship because that’s what it is. It’s not one sided. You need to trust they will take care of your needs as well. When you talk that first time, it’s awkward. Do you like each other? Should you call back, no, wait 3 days right? Don’t look eager…. It sounds like a new relationship to me.)
You need to understand the client, you don't have to agree, love, believe in the client’s project but you HAVE to understand them and vice versa. (Some clients want you to love their idea and that’s up to you if you feel like acting/lying or telling the truth. I’ve lost jobs from speaking honestly but I don’t like lying/ acting). They have to know what to expect from you. Show the client a Breakdown how you work and don't leave anything to chance. Clients will always ask for more and more and unless you state how you work and what you provide it's your own fault if you get dragged down into working that many hours for that little pay. That's the world; people will get whatever they can for what they need it for. You have to be a bit of it yourself. The only way to do that is be up front and truthful and it will serve you well. A good friend of mine said the most powerful word a freelancer has at his disposal is the word, “No.” It may cost you that job but that is shortsighted and you’re in this for the long haul. Most clients will meet you in the middle. Standing your ground and not being walked on is also part of the relationship, boundaries (Nice tie in I know). This is a soft rule as some clients are wicked awesome and if you like them do favors, have fun etc. Just know that you have to communicate effectively or burn out, fatigue, and general malaise will set in of you continually get abused. A disheartened artist is of no use to the world.
Stay happy and stay sane. Good luck and I hope this helps at least one person out there.
“Be happy with how far you’ve come, but not satisfied with where you’re at.”
-Brett “2D” Bean