Chronicles in Ordinary Time 20: Freelancing

1950's fashion models

The images above are for a fashion-industry product launch that is supposed to happen in the near future.

A long time ago, in what seems like another lifetime, I was involved with a direct sales organization. While I had some talent for selling alarm systems and water treatment systems, it wasn’t a way of life that interested me. I had aspirations for the potential lifestyle, but in order to have that lifestyle,  I was trying to be someone that I  really did not want to be. I did gain some valuable insights into Life, and the experience changed me in a positive way.

One of the things I found most valuable was to find out whether or not an ‘expert’ really has any experience with the subject being taught, or whether the information comes from books and classes; and has never been practiced. I once met a man who was teaching a college class in Small Business. When I asked him about his experience, I discovered that his only ‘Small Business Experience’ was the Small Business classes he had taken in college. He’d never owned nor operated a small business. He didn’t have any life experience to pass on to others. But he was getting paid to teach students who wanted to learn how to run a small business. This doesn’t make sense.

When I started this blogging gig [a form of marketing], I decided that I would only write about things I’ve experienced; rather than attempting to present a picture of myself that isn’t real. The other night I spent a couple of hours retouching some images for a client– removing some unwanted inches and some unsightly cellulite. She’s using the images on a personal website; but the reality is that her published appearance will be an illusion. In our media-rich world of the present, it is very difficult to separate illusion from reality.

Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, it never occurred to me to do much research regarding college and career paths. In high school I drew; and enjoyed technical illustration. I assumed that since I could do that in high school, I would be able to do the same thing in college. Bad assumption. When I arrived at Oregon State University, my only options for drawing as a major were architecture and art. I didn’t really want to spend my life drawing houses [I never had grand aspirations], and I’d always heard the term “starving artist”. Majoring in ‘starving artist’ seemed like a waste of time and money, so I chose architecture.

My first career, after my 5 years of college and my professional degree in Architecture, was construction. I soon learned that all that was needed for being a contractor was a pickup, a Black Labrador, a hammer and a Skilsaw. I never did find a Black Lab. I had children, instead.

In between careers #1 and #2, I worked briefly for an architect; and confirmed that I didn’t want to spend my life drawing houses– more specifically, apartments. And yet, career #2 found me reviewing house plans for Building Permits. I eventually ‘graduated’ to high-rise buildings and block-square commercial developments. Life is humorous…

On doctors’ orders, after 14 years with the City, I moved on to career #3–that of a Building Code/architectural consultant; and freelance commercial artist/illustrator. My self-description varies with the month and the nature of the work I’m doing. At present, “commercial artist” is the favored description. Partially because no one uses that terminology anymore…

I really can’t recommend the life of a freelance commercial artist. Generally, it sucks. I spend far more time marketing myself than actually earning any money. The images above were ‘pro-bono’–the only income I might derive is from referrals somewhere down the road. Someone else, in theory, will earn some money because I created the images. However, I volunteered for the opportunity,  so I’m not really justified in complaining. I would prefer a world where I got paid for the hours involved in creating the images.

I never have tried to get a job as an illustrator/commercial artist. I’ve learned that I really don’t make for a good employee; I’m too opinionated about my work. I don’t like being told to create something I disagree with. Sometimes I have to make design decisions I don’t like, but I do it voluntarily, rather than by being told to, ‘do it, or else… ‘ I prefer the option of choosing to decline the opportunity.

I was paid for the images below. They are images that are in the background of a much larger composition– “extras” in Hollywood terminology. The scene in which they are present is based on  a scene from the movie “Titanic”. The cast was selected from people in my portfolio; images created for other purposes. I wasn’t paid much for these particular images, but I was paid to draw while watching a movie. Can’t beat that.

I spend 2-3 hours per day trolling Craigslist; looking for ‘creative gigs’ across the country. I often spend an hour or two adapting a prior illustration to fit with a particular job description that interests me. When I was a Building Contractor [CEO of a corporation, for that matter], I was taught that a 4% return on a mass marketing campaign was a good return. 4 out of 100; more accurately, 40 out of 1000. One might have to go through 900 rejections before the first positive response is received. That’s a lot of rejection, if one looks at in that manner. It’s better to simply regard it as valuable information, and the cost for a success.

My experience with freelance illustrating is fairly similar. I think I get more favorable responses than 4 our of 100 jobs I inquire about.  It might even be as high as 10%. I don’t do the math; it can be discouraging. Out of the jobs I do get responses for, I probably earn something similar to minimum wage, if I count every hour I invest in a project. However, not every hour is a justifiably billable hour. Sometimes I have to do a lot of experimenting to finally arrive at an idea that works. Billing a client for experimenting is probably justifiable, but at the end of a day of experimenting, I might not have anything of value to show the client for that day’s work. I try to base my fees on what I think an outcome is worth, rather than the amount of time invested on my part. Not necessarily a smart way to do business, but I rarely have clients who complain about my work.

It would be smarter to get a job; and I’m continually thankful for the retirement income I earned from my 14 years working for the City. We manage; and we’ve had to live a limited lifestyle. We don’t travel, we don’t eat out much; we rarely go to concerts or do activities that cost money to attend. We don’t buy stuff that we really don’t need.  For some, this would be intolerable. For those who want to live the lifestyle advertised on television: don’t become a freelance artist.

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