The cult section of the literary world

Alan M. Clark’s Advice for Aspiring Illustrators, Part 4

Working Freelance as an Illustrator

Many of us see the prospect of being a self-employed artist as a great adventure.  As young artists we often develop both a glowing, idealistic picture of what it is like to work freelance, and quite a lot of dread that in the pursuit we might become just another cog in someone else’s creative wheel.  These aren’t unreasonable ideas.  The reality is that working for oneself is as tough or tougher than any other job—and job it is, love it or not.  I had my share of unrealistic assumptions when I started out.  Much of those assumptions and quite a bit of concern on my part revolved around the issue of creative freedom.

If a client is paying me to be creative, they want to feel confident they’re making a good investment.  Therefore I must give my client a very good idea what they are paying for.  At the same time, I must do this before I actually produce and deliver the final product to protect myself from having done a lot of work that might not be right for the client.  At the very least, a client will want to see a sketch of what the finished artwork will look like.  Some will want more preliminary work, possibly several sketches to choose from and then a rough color rendering of the image chosen before the finished work is done.

This “pinning down” of the image can become somewhat mechanical and frustrating.  Making that part of the process interesting is entirely up to me, and sometimes that takes some effort if I’m not thrilled with the subject matter. If illustration is to be a creative pursuit, there needs to be sufficient spontaneity and discovery in my process to keep the work fresh and retain my interest in producing it. Many artists have difficulty reconciling the two.

I did too, once upon a time.

As young artists we often become interested in illustration because we see the imagination involved and are fascinated.  We too have powerful imaginations and want to express ourselves.  We develop our talents and become eager to display our wild imaginings.  Entering into the business of illustration, however, we find that the look of our work is subject to the whims of art directors or editors.  Sometimes, instead of feeling grateful that we are being paid to use our talents, we feel our artistic integrity is at risk.

I felt this way too, at first.

But just what are we talking about here? Could it be that once we produce a piece of work that is not entirely our own conception, we lose sight of our goals? Will our artistic vision be so compromised by the experience that we must wander the earth thereafter as broken imaginations, wasted talents, having become artists who have lost our grip on our own thoughts, feelings and convictions?

Hell no!

I discovered early on that illustration is just a job or rather a whole string of jobs. As a freelance artist, I can take what jobs I want. If I take a job I don’t like, I’ll complete the work to my client’s satisfaction, but I might not take another like it. It’s my choice. And in the meantime, I have plenty of time to create my own work, pieces of art that come exclusively from my own imagination, products of my own thoughts, feeling and convictions.

So when working with a publisher I show a willingness to work with them. It is not likely that my client would want me to do something completely outside my comfort zone, say, paint Elvis on black velvet or something—not that there’s anything wrong with that. The client is most likely familiar with my work, and once again, I have a choice of whether or not to take the job. Generally speaking I am chosen for a job by those who like my approach to illustration. This approach is demonstrated in my work—my choice of subject matter, medium and techniques. Therefore my rapport with a client has often begun through the body of my work even before we have met or spoken to one another.

The constraints that come with a job can be liberating, if I choose to see it that way. That is to say that they can liberate me from myself. Economy is not my first priority in creating a piece of artwork, but if a deadline is short, the job doesn’t pay well or I just don’t like the subject matter, I become very economical and deliberate in my approach to the work. I do not want to slight my client by turning in lightweight work, so the artwork must be simple but strong. This can result in pieces that are wonderful because of their simplicity. Working within constraints given by a publisher, I produce work that I would never have discovered any other way. This broadens my horizons, adds to my repertoire of techniques, helps me master new subject matter and hones my design skills.

If I find I really don’t like a job, I work twice as hard to create something I’m proud of so I don’t look back on the experience with bitterness. Most of the time I get jobs for which my work is well suited. A willingness to try new things has taken my work in exciting new directions.

I’ve learned not to fear reactions to my work—there will always be criticisms and rejections. To relinquish some control while working with another artist or art director is a chance worth taking. I have accepted that once my art is placed before an audience, it is no longer entirely my own.

Artwork: “Sideshow Surgery” copyright © 2005 Alan M. Clark. I threw painting in just to have a piece of artwork with this post. I chose it because it is a display of my wild imaginings. “Pin up” for Robert Steven Rhine’s graphic novel, Satan’s 3 Ring Circus of Hell, published by Asylum Press.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. He has created illustrations for hundreds of books, including works of fiction of various genre, non-fiction, textbooks, young adult fiction, and childrens books. Awards for his illustration work include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards. He is the author of 12 books, including six novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. His latest novel A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS was published by Lazy Fascist Press in the fall of 2012. Mr. Clark’s company, IFD Publishing, has released six traditional books and seventeen ebooks by such authors as F. Paul Wilson, Elizabeth Engstrom, and Jeremy Robert Johnson. Alan M. Clark and his wife, Melody, live in Oregon.

4 responses

  1. pat

    spot on, dude. my wife does are as well, but for clients looking to fill office spaces or homes with her art. She had expressed a lot of these types of feelings before. she needs to read this.

    April 15, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    • alanmclark


      April 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm

  2. Very well-stated, Alan! What you write about the balance of creativity/process is something I find to be true. I call it “finding the bit to love” about a particular job–if it’s a project I take primarily so my studio stays busy, or it’s something I don’t feel very close to at first, creatively, there’s usually something about the job that I can latch onto and make it interesting or likable. Your concept of “economy” is what I’m facing in some current projects–time constraints are forcing me to expand the manner in which I can work, so although it may sometimes be an uncomfortable process, in the end it’s educational and probably beneficial both to the client(s) and the artist too. Thank you!

    April 15, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    • alanmclark

      You’re Welcome!

      April 15, 2013 at 2:07 pm

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