Arts Craft & Culture

Top tips for illustrators weathering unsettled climates

Illustrator Bee Willey explains what all artists and illustrators need to pack in their creative toolkits
Cultivate your garden – as Candide would say.

As Candide says: “we must cultivate our garden.”

Whether preparing for inclement or challenging weather conditions, the gardener or farmer is focussed on the preparation of the terrain, consistently fine tuning and adapting to any changeability with remarkable ingenuity: to ensure the survival of plants from one year to the next, to give the care necessary for the nurturing of seeds, the blooming of flowers and harvest of crops.

Caring for the creative spark and honing the skills to fuel and sustain any creative output is not dissimilar.

The same ingenuity is a required feature within the freelancer toolkit, which I will itemise further down.

The digital age has facilitated a number of tasks, making it easier to promote oneself or one’s projects, while also helping to establish contact between clients and illustrators across the globe. Yet in the maelstrom of the digital babble, it can be a challenge for artists to establish genuine two-way communication with prospective clients amid the blizzard of visual content and other material, as everyone seems to be consistently bombarded with stimuli from all sides.

So, just what do freelance illustrators need in order to establish these genuine connections and cultivate their creative gardens?

The tool kit:


Step one: research.
  • a/ collating information and narratives, the ‘fertiliser’ for the work to transform and develop
  • b/ research of the market and specifically the clients, the companies, organisations, interest groups and individuals, as potential fertile ground
  • c/ research of the cultural terrain, the wider context in which the work can grow: use social media as a barometer for ideas to remain in touch with target markets/cultures/concerns
  • d/ collect visual material that speaks to you, whether through photography or printed matter, surfaces, objects and places
  • e/ glean visual or idea treasures from wherever you go, in a notebook or on a phone
  • f/ discover new media, new drawing tools, material and surfaces you have collected, in exploration and play

*Collaboration: participation with, and support of others, leading to the blossoming of ideas: a journey of creative transformation, with its own momentum and energy.

Collaboration helps join together synapses; leading to creative transformation and building creative energy

*Documenting the processes and exchanges involved: this is so easy, especially now with digital technology

*Identifying ideas and concepts shared by others, this is at the heart of effective communication

*Communication and sharing: not only to targeted clients but also to others in the wider creative family and audiences.

Make it your mission to locate and approach clients and businesses where your work is appropriate. You might have to do this at specific points or in specific ways.

Follow this up with a call or email.

Always remember: you are trying to build a working relationship, which needs nurturing from the very beginning. One impersonal email won’t cut the mustard.

*Curiosity: observing, and treasure-hunting

*Method: exploring and researching, finding a kernel of something, which can grow into a new body of work or enable new connections and collaborations, and eventually widen your circle of contacts, as in the next point…

*Volunteering during quieter times: it extends not only your learning but your insights into areas of life, work and people that you might not interact with.

It enables you to distance yourself from your freelance work, with a more reflective/critical perspective.

Crucially, it maintains a sense of purpose and keeps the demons of insecurity at bay.

*Learning new skills and honing existing ones: identifying these, whatever your context, is enriching, purposeful.

Longer term, evaluating your skills with objectivity means you will be more confident in presenting them to potential clients.

Learn new skills, hone existing ones, and solve problems creatively – just as our ancestors did.

*Problem solving as applied creativity, a matter of principle which needs celebrating and acknowledging at every opportunity: it can open doors and save you money: for example, recycling material or spending time streamlining your workload, processes or group tasks. (Narrative is often being used as a collaborative tool to solve or improve services:, or Bobette Buster on

*Effective or appropriate ways of sharing your material

Remember: protect your own intellectual and creative property; as well as that of others.

Do not cast everything to the wind, giving everything away in the hope that you have nothing to lose.

Absolutely hold onto copyright and keep reserves of material, making sure that what you do share is not wasted by being shared to the wrong person at the wrong time (this refers back to section c) .

Keep aware of what else is going on in the world at any given time and in a given culture.

Remember to only use images on the web that you have obtained the rights for.

Preserve your own rights by ensuring that you contractually retain the full ownership of your work when choosing which digital platforms to publish on.

Some of these platforms have underlying contractual terms as soon as you publish anything on them: you might consider keeping the dpi resolution of those images low – in any case, there is also the possibility they could get lifted off the computer and used elsewhere without your permission or knowledge.

For this reason, some creatives use watermarks or share selected ‘sections’ of the image rather than the whole piece, particularly on Facebook and Instagram.

The Association of Illustrators is a fantastic hub of events, a resource for information, workshops and expertise in these areas.

They issue contract models and other essential material for freelance illustrators, providing and ensuring good practice in contractual agreements, and minimising exploitative and potential costly agreements between clients and illustrators.

DACS is another organisation upholding and defending the rights of artists and their works.

*Getting an agent

Choose one that belongs to the Society of Artist Agents or is a member of the AOI, upholding ethics and good practice.

Check out the other artists they represent, and reflect on how your work might complement or fit within their portfolio.

Be sure to meet them in person.

Go into any partnership based your gut feeling rather than on a rash agreement: you need to trust them as they will be representing you in the wider world, and engage contractually with clients on your behalf.

Trust is paramount, for both sides.

I ignored this gut feeling once, seduced by the potential security and kudos of being represented by a particular agent. The agent did a runner and I discovered that legally, at the time, I was low down on the list of creditors. It was not good.

But it is not only a financial thing: ideally you both need to understand each other about what jobs you might want be involved in, or want to obtain in the future.

*Determination, focus and resilience

When things are quiet, what might seem to be a fallow period is an opportunity for reflection, to review the work and its various strands, and can be a useful moment for making practical decisions about new directions for your work or sustaining the same processes you are currently following.

*Always have energy sources or supplies for emergency low ebb days on top of your cup of tea, your cheeky coffee or chocolate, or your favourite pencil; even an interesting book, a favourite playlist; the treasures from your collecting activities; a walk or place to visit when the spark needs rekindling – somewhere where you can get a flavoursome and nourishing slice of life!

Remember to pack these elements into your toolkit and you’ll be able to weather all climates!

About the author of this post

photo promo circle 300 dpi.pngBee Willey is half French and returned to the UK to be an illustrator and has worked in the publishing field for thirty years.

She is fascinated by narrative in all its forms, and has worked on interdisciplinary collaborative projects, funded by the Arts Council.

She lectures in Visual Communication/Illustration at NUA, Norwich and at OCA.

You can find out more via her website.

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