It's a new day and thanks to Twitter I have a wonderful topic to share! Over the past couple of weeks I have seen several tweets about popular artists with endless queues that continue to take on new work, but rarely ever post finished commissions. If I'm completely honest, I can name a few different artists that I waited over a year to get a commission from. In this time I also watched as they continued to take on extra work; but rather than point fingers or jump on a bandwagon, I'm just going to say this:
Working as a freelance artist is a lot more difficult than you might think.
To give an idea, a freelance artist plays many roles on a daily basis. On the upside, they are their own boss! They set their own schedules, decide what they're going to do that day, and plan out their week in the way that is most convenient for them. On the downside, they are also their own marketing agents, time managers, accountants, and several other things I haven't even considered as a freelance writer. Right from the get-go, the idea of being a freelancer can be intimidating, but we're not done yet!
Along with all of these roles comes the pointy-end of the freelance artist's multi-edged sword: their workload. This may go without saying for those who have been in the industry for a good while, but I believe it's a message that can be repeated without harm: Understanding how to balance the amount of work that is taken in with the pace of work that goes out is absolutely critical to your success as a freelance artist in the Anthro community.
As a former professional turned freelance writer, I know what it's like to balance several different priorities while trying to maintain good mental health. My background in project management helps, but it's not necessary! Anyone can learn to manage their workload in a healthy way. Finding a system that works for you will help you balance your income against how quickly you are able to produce new work, this way you don't become completely buried by an endless queue; or end up in a situation where you constantly need to open up "emergency commissions" just to make regular bills.
Since I am not a freelance artist, I reached out into the community for some advice from real, working artists who are currently, or have at one point, taking commissions as their main source of income. Hopefully the information in these interviews will provide some insight to those who are starting out, and if you're currently buried you can always reach out to me personally! Take a look at my recent Letter from the Editor to learn exactly what I do as an Independent Anthro Art Consultant.
The first artist I sat down with is Foxy, she has been doing commissions for the last eight years and also has a degree in Illustration and Entertainment Design. I asked how she balances her workload against the money she needs to make in order to survive; and her system is nothing short of brilliant.
"Once you have budgeted all of your expenses and you know how much you need to make, you can go from there to balance your workload. I know exactly how much I need to make each week, so I only take enough commissions to meet that goal.
The way I manage my work is by having a wait list that is separate from my active queue. Over time and through advertising on multiple platforms, I have built an "interest list" of people who would like to have a commission from me. I get their information and put them in the wait list, but I do not invoice them! This way I am not spending any money that I have not earned.
When it's time to set up a week's work, I will pull from my wait list, contact the customers, get their payments, and only do the commissions that have been paid for. This means I am taking in only a handful of commissions at a time and I know I can complete them in a week. The wait list allows me to have a queue that is always full, but I am never overburdened by taking on more work than I can do in a given amount of time."
By deploying a wait list, or "interest list" as Foxy called it in our interview, she is able to backlog multiple potential commissions without ever taking payment for them. This strategy provides many advantages and can be used by literally anyone! Here are just a few of the benefits from a project management standpoint:
Time Management: By only taking in a set amount of commissions each week, you can pace yourself each day. There is no need to open for 20 slots at the beginning of the month, and hope that you will be able to finish them all, just so you can pay your bills. By working consistently and planning the week ahead, you will also be better at avoiding things like art-block and burnout.
Potential Income: By building a wait list you are establishing a system of potential income. Everyone who signs up has expressed interest in your work and wants to pay you! You can always advertise your wait list without any repercussions since you are not taking payments or entering into a contract to draw. This is merely gathering and cataloguing interest.
Budgeting: When you set weekly goals for yourself and only take in a limited number of commissions, it will be harder to overspend! Imagine opening 20 slots and bringing in $2,000 for a month's worth of work in just a couple of days. Now imagine you only took 5 slots for the week and had $500 in hand. It's a lot easier to hold onto $500 when it's all you have; and it makes saving more natural because you are less likely to spend it!
Up next, I sat down with a long time friend and veteran of the Anthro art community, Siroc. He started out doing commissions a while ago, but has since moved on to subscription services to provide the bulk his income. He now produces webcomics for his subscribers rather than focusing on commissions, and has found great success in doing so. I decided to pick his brain about both aspects of freelancing to see just what he had to say about managing his workload.
"Back when I was still doing commissions, I realized that subscription services were really the way to go if you can handle it. For example, with my comic work I can do one page a week and make just as much as doing eight or nine commissions. The biggest advantage is that I listen to my subscribers, see what they like, and then pick what I would like to draw best from a much wider range of topics. It's often more fun than doing a single commission at a time.
When I switched from taking commissions to a subscription service, my income was stagnant for nearly the first year. But once I began to produce comics, that's when things really started to take off. Granted, comics are considerably more work than individual commissions. You have to consider things like panel layouts, the composition of each individual panel, drawing multiple characters; it definitely keeps you busy. I can say though, my comics are what really grew my subscriber count, and in turn, my monthly income. It really is a lot of work though and it requires some thought before jumping in.
I manage my work by setting a weekly schedule and sticking to it as best as possible, while still allowing a little leeway just in case I have something to catch up on or another project going on the side. Even with all of the work I put into my comics, I keep my side projects to help me avoid burnout and that feeling of 'doing the same thing over and over.' If the side project happens to be a commission, I won't let customers pay until I start work. It's easy to mentally check out on a commission if someone has already paid months ahead."
As you can see, there are already some similarities beginning to develop in the working habits of freelance artists who actively manage their queues to ensure that they don't become overwhelmed. Just like Foxy, Siroc also accounts for his time on a weekly basis even though he has made the transition to a subscription service rather than working from a waitlist for commissions. Another similarity can be found in how they budget by not invoicing until they start work on the commission at hand. This prevents them from spending money that they haven't yet earned. Though Siroc's approach with his comics is different from Foxy's commission waitlist, the work ethic and self discipline required to be successful as a freelancer directly translates between these two money-making styles.
The last artist I spoke with, Reign-04, does commissions regularly but also has a subscription service that he participates in, generating income from both avenues every month. I sat down and talked with him about how he manages his workload and he brought up some additional points that I thought would be great to share.
"I balance my workload by taking on five or six commissions at a time and I get through at least two of them a day, at a minimum. By only taking on a limited number of commissions at a time, it allows me to work at a comfortable pace and helps me avoid burnout. Since I work quickly, I can pause between batches to take time to myself if I need it. Not to mention my biggest problem is usually communication; which is something I want to stress real quick.
As a commission artist, communication is incredibly important and it is so easy to miss a text, or chat notification, and forget to reply. No one likes being ignored, especially when money is involved, and timely replies are important to prevent things like distrust and frustration, or even situations where people don't want to work with you in the future. Word of mouth can travel fast and treating your customers right will keep them coming back.
When it comes to managing money and your queue, the best advice I can give is this: If you've got a huge line-up and still can't make ends meet, you should adjust your pricing so you're making more on your commissions, or work on your speed so you can smoothly get through your workload in a timely fashion. I would also set aside money for emergencies from every commission, and do your best not to live above your means."
Just like our first two artists, Reign takes on small batches and sets a pace for himself that he knows he can accomplish on a weekly scale. While doing so, he also wanted to share the importance of communication and some tips on how to make some adjustments if your queue is already a little long. These are three successful artists who have been making their living in the Anthro community for several years, so they must be doing something right!
For the record, I don't want to say that creating a waitlist, taking small batches, or joining a subscription service and diving into webcomics are the only ways to make it as a freelance artist in the Anthro community. These methods are also not guaranteed avenues to success either, but they are at least something to think about.
There are literally thousands of artists out there that would love to make a living off of their artwork. I can't tell you how many that I have personally spoken to that have told me that their art is their dream career. There are many different ways to make it, and I hope that all of the artists out there keep following those dreams.
I'm thankful for every artist that has ever worked with me and I hope to continue commissioning when I have the extra income again. If you're a creator in the Anthro community, be you an artist, crafter, podcaster, writer, or anything in between; thanks for doing what you do and sharing it with us! There are a bunch of different ways to balance your workload against the money you need to live, and I hope you find the system that works best for you~