Tips for Aspiring Freelance Illustrators (Jonathan Sundy)

Some great tips, insights, and advice for aspiring freelance illustrator brought to you by illustrator and character designer Jonathan Sundy.

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Here is the exact email Jonathan sent me, which I used to make the above video:


So, without knowing where you are in the process, I’ll share some thoughts about my own career in art.  Here’s the three line summary:

1) Don’t wait to be found

2) Do great work, be great to work with

3) Keep learning

I graduated in 2005 with a degree in Industrial Design.  I got an internship at a company my junior year of college after emailing them asking for a tour (which is a good, non-threatening way to make contact at a firm).  I worked at that company, Metaphase Design Group, for 9 years – I started as a junior designer and worked my way up to Design Director the last 3 years.  The work I was doing was 90% Industrial Design with a little bit of UX and graphic design sprinkled in.

Two year ago, my wife got a job offer in Portland and we decided to move because we were both ready for a change of pace.  The move gave me an excuse to make the jump from Industrial Design to Illustration (specifically character design) that I’d been wanting to make for years.  I spent the entire first year and change going back to school to learn character design which meant taking 5 courses on  I’d definitely recommend Schoolism – the mentored classes are especially great even though they’re way more pricey.  To pay the bills, I was also taking on about half a week’s worth of freelance projects but these were all via contacts from my old job – so industrial/graphic/user interface design projects.  If I didn’t have those contacts, I would have gotten a part-time job – it takes several years to develop a client base to support doing art full time.

Where I am now is I’ve finally been able to shift my freelance work to almost entirely character design and illustration projects.  As I mentioned, this took me about 2 years.  The things that helped me make this transition:

Getting better – Schoolism and drawing daily.  Looking back, my work wasn’t good enough for studios at the start.  I only filled my illustration portfolio with the type of work that I want to do.  Also, I’m big on goal-setting so I work up a list of attainable goals every year and check them off as I accomplish them

Going to local networking events – Industry events, figure drawing, drink n’ draws, etc.  Just meeting a bunch of people locally in the art community has resulted in several jobs.

Going to bigger networking events – For me, CTNX (Burbank, CA) has been the best event to make contacts in the animation/character design community.  The first two years, I went with my portfolio and showed it to every exhibitor I could.  I got feedback on my work and advice based on their careers in animation.  This year, I bought a table to exhibit my own work.  Comic cons, ICON, Siggraph, etc all are other events that are worth checking out.

Posting Often – I’m on Fbook, Instagram, Tumblr and try to post quality work almost daily.  This takes up an hour of my day, everyday but it keeps me on people’s radar when they need creative work.

Join local job sites –  In Portland, we have ‘‘ and ‘‘ which are both dedicated to local firms finding local creative talent.  I designed a homepage banner for one of those sites for free so everyone who visited the site saw my work first for a few months.

Sending my work around town.  Studios aren’t going to find you.  You need to let them know you’re there and available for freelance or full-time.  I focused on studios and ad firms that lean toward animation or are illustration-heavy (ie – I google-searched ‘Portland animation’ ‘Portland illustration’ etc and combed local job sites for firms that did the kind of work that I wanted to do).  I just sent each studio a quick email that introduced me, said something personal about their work that I liked and then directed them to my website.  The frustrating part is I thought this would result in instant work.  The reality is that you might not hear back until a year later when they have a project that’s a good fit for your skill set.

Now for the negatives.

– That feeling of ‘I’m not good enough’ doesn’t go away – It’s hard not to compare yourself to other artists and it can feel overwhelming how many amazing artists you can find online.  However, it isn’t productive to focus on other artists and there is a ton of creative work out there.  There will always be someone better than you and that’s ok.  As long as you can look at your own work from two years ago and see improvement, you’re on the right path.

There are definitely still slow times – I fill my slow stretches with personal projects (mainly self-published kids’ books for me) or I take more Schoolism classes.  Also, having a spouse that works makes the slow times much more manageable.  It’s still a constant hustle to find work and it’s feast or famine with freelance.

There are things I miss about my old studio job – Mainly, I miss the security of a steady paycheck and interacting with other designers daily.  I don’t enjoy the hustling/contract-writing/solitary aspects of freelance and will likely work at a studio again at some point in my career.  However, I used to think I’d only be happy working for Pixar but as long as I’m doing creative work I enjoy and have time for personal projects – that’s all I need.

Hope this helps and isn’t too pedantic.  An art career isn’t easy but it’s worth it for me.  Feel free to ask more specific questions if I didn’t address them and good luck on your decision.



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