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When and How to Transition from Day Job Worker to Full-Time Illustrator

Some illustrators are able to jump headfirst into a robust career from the get-go. However, most illustrators need to work a day job while pursuing illustration on nights and weekends for a number of years until they’re prepared to make the leap. While each circumstance is unique, here’s what I’d suggest for transitioning from my own experience:

Client Roster

In order to make the leap to full-time illustrator, you need clients. Sure, you could quit your job without any clients and then scramble to find some, but that would be a very poor decision. Instead, you need to already have built up a decent-enough roster to provide steady work. Think of your client roster as a health indicator. The smaller and more obscure the clients are, the less dominance you have in the market and the shakier your business probably is. The larger and more prominent, the better your standing. Once you find that you’re getting steady work from clients with solid name recognition (and budgets), that’s a good indicator that you’ve reached a high-enough status to explore illustration full-time.

Frequency of Work

If the assignments you’re getting are few and far between, you’re not yet ready to take the plunge. Your work has to get to a point where you’re getting regular gigs with enough frequency that you can guarantee recurring income once you leave your 9–5. If you’re spending almost as many hours working your freelance illustration job as your day job, that’s a pretty good gauge that you’re ready to actually do this full-time.

Nest Egg

Getting paid as a freelance illustrator is not like working a day job—instead of receiving a check every two weeks, you’re getting paid thirty days after each assignment is completed (if you’re lucky!). And let’s not mention the “dry times” when, for whatever reasons, work is slow. In order to ride out the bad weather, you need a nest egg. So, how much exactly? Well, everyone will differ on this, but for me personally, I’d suggest at least a year’s worth of living expenses. That gives you plenty of cash and time to pay all your bills and find a new job should your foray into full-time freelance become an epic failure. It also gives you enough security that you don’t have to take every gig that’s offered to you. You can be more selective and only do work that will advance your career, rather than taking on jobs just to make ends meat.

A Plan

As a freelance illustrator, you’re actually a small business owner. Thus, it would be insane to not have some kind of business plan. While you can certainly wing some things here and there, at the very least you need to have some idea where you’re headed and how to get there. That requires you to figure out business expenses to keep your career afloat, living expenses to keep a roof over your head, health and dental insurance now that your employer will no longer provide them, and projections on how you’ll actually grow your career. So come up with a plan that you know will ensure your success before quitting the day job.

Making it all Work

I’m not going to lie, transitioning from a full-time day job to a full-time freelance career is not easy. The year(s) you decide to do it will be a lot of work. You have to basically work two different jobs (day job and freelance) independent of each other until you’re ready to make the switch. This requires long hours, lack of sleep, and will most likely strain any relationships you have (unless you have a very supportive partner). But, once you’ve committed and you can see the path opening up, it’s well worth it. And, if you’ve done your planning as I suggested, you should be equipped for a successful transition. So, buckle down and put the nose to the grindstone. There are no shortcuts for this part. It sucks and it’s definitely hard. But you can get through it.

Final Thoughts

Transitioning into full-time freelance illustration takes a lot of work and time.
The average illustrator requires six or seven years to fully get to the point where they can make the leap. But, if you stick to this guide, when you do decide you’re ready, you’ll be in a great starting position and all that work will have been worth it. So, good luck and get working!

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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