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Working with my first illustration client
Last month I wrapped up my first ever illustration client gig, so I thought I’d share with you my process and lessons learned as a beginner illustrator!
What was the gig?
I was hired by Girls’ Night In (GNI), a newsletter devoted to downtime & taking care, as their first “artist in residence.” The assignment was to create four editorial illustrations, one for each issue of their newsletter over the course of a month. The brief was to create two spring-themed illustrations and two illustrations depicting coziness and connection.
How did the client find me?
The founder of GNI (hi Alisha! 👋 ) replied to my newsletter post when I launched my shop, and kindly shared these egg coasters with the GNI audience. I asked her to keep me in mind if she had any illustration projects in the future, and we got to chatting!
What was the process like?
Since this was my first illustration gig, I was quite lost with how to navigate contracts, pricing, and sharing in-progress work. Thankfully, I was able to chat with my mentor Tom Froese early on in the process and get guidance on best practices. He has a fantastic Skillshare class, “The Six Stages of Illustration”, that outlines all the steps of working on an illustration job for a client—highly recommend!
Before I began any work or committed to the project, I started by asking questions to get a better idea of the brief. This not only includes what the theme and purpose of the illustration is, but also finding out what pieces from your portfolio your client prefers. This last point is especially important as a beginner still firming up my style and trying out various mediums.
You also want to ask about colors (is there a specific color palette to adhere to, or any colors to avoid?), number and size of deliverables, and deadlines. Make sure to include showing at least one round of sketches as part of your process, so that neither party is taken by surprise during the final artwork stage.
Once the client and I were on the same page, I outlined the project scope we agreed on as well as my terms and conditions in my quote. We agreed on a pay schedule (50% upfront and 50% upon completion), and I started the next step—research!
First I started with brainstorming a word list associated with the two top-level themes, spring and coziness/connection. For spring, I thought of flowers, picnicking, gardens, bike riding, long dresses, and desserts. For coziness and connection, I knew I’d want to create more interior scenes and thought of reading, lounge chairs, and cooking and eating a meal as a group.
After I got some ideas from my brainstorm, I compiled images into a moodboard so I could draw from them in my sketchbook. After filling up some pages of these observational drawings, I then began working on thumbnail ideas for the overall composition. The key here is to work small, only with a black pencil or pen, and try out a bunch of ideas!
Once I found myself compelled to refine one or two specific thumbnails, I moved onto the next phase of refining my sketch. For this gig I only presented one sketch per artwork, but usually it is common for an illustrator to show anywhere from one to three sketch ideas per artwork. To refine my sketch, I took a picture of my thumbnail from my sketchbook and added in more detail in Procreate, referring back to the contents of my observational drawings.
Once complete, I shared the sketches in a deck to get signoff and start the final artwork process. To see an example of a great client deck, furrylittlepeach has a fantastic video on how she presents work to clients.
To make the final illustration for the first artwork (below left), I worked in gouache, colored pencil, and pastel for the flowers then assembled the various pieces in Photoshop. The background and figures were done digitally in Procreate. For the second artwork (below right), I worked entirely in gouache and colored pencil, ending with minor cleanup in Photoshop. Once complete, I presented the artwork to the client in a deck, and after it was approved I sent over the final files.
The illustration process was similar for the two coziness/connection pieces, but with additional revision stages based on client feedback. Which leads us to the next section…
Understandably, I made a lot of less than ideal decisions (or straight up mistakes) as a beginner to the client process. I want to be upfront about this to emphasize that messing up and feeling like you have no idea what you’re doing is normal, and what’s important is that you are learn from your mistakes and stay kind and respectful to yourself and your client!
Here are some of the common mistakes I made:
Not clearly writing the brief / forgetting to refer to the brief. Early on, the client requested in an email that I stick to lighter and happier colors when possible. I wish I had written this in the creative brief that I summarized in my deck, because as time went on I forgot about this request and ended up delivering an illustration with more muted colors. After getting feedback I was able to quickly change the artwork to brighter colors to the client’s satisfaction, but I do wish I had better referred back to the brief throughout the process.
Stick with what you know you can deliver. Because I’m still in the early stages of developing as an illustrator, I am guilty of experimenting a lot and exploring new styles. But making work for a client is not the time and place to experiment! Not only will trying something very different affect your ability to confidently deliver something of quality, the client will understandably be confused. For example, I tried to go in a more conceptual direction with one of my illustrations to challenge myself. I struggled through the sketch phase and ultimately ended up nixing the idea in favor of a representational sketch that the client understood and appreciated more.
It was a huge blessing to be able to illustrate for Girls’ Night In, a company I’ve been a fan of for years! I was also very appreciative of the creative freedom they gave and could not have asked for a better first client. I also became more comfortable with refining sketches through this process, something that I was usually prone to skipping or doing half-heartedly so I could jump to the final artwork.
I hope this write up of my first client experience was informative. If you have any further questions or stories you want to share about working with your first client, please share in the comments!