Freelance (illustrator) Etiquette


Last friday I was at the annual Flow Magazine freelancer's breakfast and spoke with very inspiring fellow freelancers. Funny was how we all experience the same hick ups now and then, doing our job. Issues with payment, responding to mails (or not) and such...

With this in mind I think this monday is the perfect day to write a bit about freelance etiquette for the (starting) illustrator and also a bit - do I dare to say this?- for clients. Let's say it could be a sort of guide line or 5 rules to keep things friendly and pleasant for both parties.

1. general work attitude
There are only a few simple words to say about this: be kind, be friendly, be polite and do not complain to clients (this is something different then addressing a problem,  more about this in point 3). Also when a commission is finished, thank the client for giving you the commission/ the great collaboration and express that you're looking forward to work with them in the future/ what you liked about this job. ('I very much enjoyed drawing those...').

2. deadlines
NEVER EVER cross a deadline (both parties)! This is annoying and unprofessional. Be open and honest about the amount of work you can do in a specific periode of time, no one will benefit from you taking on to much work - no, not even the client.
A solid tip if you're not the best planner: when estimating how long a commission will take you, do not include evenings or weekends in your calculations, these are for family or (only in extreme cases) extra time in case of a commission emergency/ urgent commission for that super interesting client you always wanted to work for. Also, add two extra days to your calculations. This way you do not have to stress when your child/cat/you suddenly gets hit by the flu. And, even better, you will probably finish your commission earlier than expected = a happy client!
By the way, this also goes for the VAT, make sure you're on time (your bookkeeper knows the dates) to prevent stress and - god forbid -a fine. 

3. addressing a problem 
Sometimes communication between you and a client can be a bit of a bumpy ride. Try to be honest and clear (but polite) about expectations. Be sensitive to the clients point of view without losing your own position. If there is a problem with deadlines, agreements, payment or something else, give your client a ring (or send and email) and communicate the issue in a friendly, calm and professional way. This means that you do not involve any personal issues or explanations ('sorry that I'm so emotional on the phone, it's my time of the month/ my boyfriend left me/ my quinnea pig died...').
Most of the time things can be solve in a simple way and you can happily go on with doing your work.
if things can't be fixed though, then there's three options (depending on how insuperable the issue is):
1. don't accept the commission (only if you haven't started yet)
2. finish the commission but never work for this client again
3. get legal help (only in serious cases and if it's worth the hassle)

4. payment and fees
In the Netherlands we're experiencing a serious drop in honorarium the last few years, due to recession and economical crisis. Clients have less and less money available for illustrations (and other editorial features) and could ask you to do a job for 50% of the price you'd normally got paid. This is frustrating because you  still have to pay the same bills and it may feel like your work is less worthy. This partly is a thing we just have to deal with but on the other hand, you do not have to accept everything.
The first and most important rule here is: do NOT work for free (or like clients bring it: we'll promote your work/ you'll be able to build your portfolio in exchange). Even if you're a starting illustrator, don't do it, you're bringing the market down!
The only exception is when it does bring you something you really need or want (a free subscribtion, products you can sell, or, ok, real real seriously good exposure of your work).
This rule does not go for interviews by the way, this you can do for free and is indeed good exposure of your work/you.
If someone asks you for work you already made, you can give it for free but only if this is somthing you already sold elsewere. But even then it would be better to ask for some payment for it. Be your own judge in this but keep in mind not to ruin the market for others by selling your work too cheap.

Also, the price clients offer in the first briefing often isn't the price they can pay (which is often higher). Be honest about how much time you'll expect to work on a commission and how much that will cost. If the budget is too high for the client, consider the following:
1. how important is it for me to work for this client? (is it a step up?)
2. what is the lowest amount you would be comfortable with?
3. can the illustration be sized down/ made more simple and therefor will take less time?
4. offer to meet each other in the middle

What to do when you've send an invoice (after finishing the commission) and the client is not paying? First send them a polite but clear mail that you have an open invoice from them. Ask if they will check if this is correct, if something might have gone wrong, and if they will be so kind to pay it within 14-30 days (what you're comfortable with).
If they still haven't payed by then, send them a reminder invoice with the solid promiss that you'll add 10% to the invoice if they do not pay within 14 days.
If they still do not pay (I've never experienced this myself, the reminder invoice mostly works) send that +10% invoice with again a 14 days notice and a promiss that you'll take legal actions if they do not pay. That should do the trick ;-)

5. responding to email
Be quick! Respond to mails withing 3 days, preferably 1 day.
Again, be clear, polite, friendly and kind. Even if you have to turn someone down, thank them for their email/ interest in your work. Also if you've mailed someone for an interview, inquiery, etc, always, always respond to their answer. Say Thank You, even if you decide to not accept an offer.
I cannot address this enough, it very often happens that someone askes me for an interview, I take the time to write answers to their questions and they do not even respond with a thank you for taking the time! Same goes for wholesale or costs inquieries, respond respond!

Good luck and feel free to share this post!


  1. Great post, I agree with all of this. I do more design than illustration and in most cases I say that the final payment is due before I hand over final files, so that they pay me in full before we're done. This helps to avoid payment hassles, but with some clients it's not possible.

    1. That's an interesting approach Fatima, I never thought of payment before the commission is finished. But I must add here that that is quite uncommon in illustration (as far as I know), but still interesting ;-)

  2. Thank you Kim, such a lovely guideline to read. En zo leuk om je even te spreken laatst! ;-)

  3. Ja vond ik ook Maartje, was gezellig!


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