The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: On Clients and the life of a freelance artist

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It’s been about 6 months since I was forced headfirst into the world of freelance art, and a recent run-in with a bad client made me think that this would be a good time to reflect on the past half year.  Before being forced to work freelance I was working on a comfy project on the Nintendo DS that promised that I would be living comfortably for the next few years once it got picked up by a publisher.  Unfortunately for me and the people I was working with, the financial crisis was looming large and publishers were very hesitant about signing unproven companies and IPs (intellectual properties).  Eventually my employer ran out of money, but I persisted in working for him because I really believed that the project was marketable and could lead to bigger things.  It didn’t.  3 months later I came to the realization that there was no way this was going to work out, and I had to prepare myself to look for other opportunities.  I didn’t want to go back to my old job as an GUI artist for an instant messaging mobile app, and interviews with some local game studios didn’t pan out, so I had only one option left: go freelance.

The Good

Your time is your own, obviously.  You can take a nap anytime you want, drink anytime you want, read anytime you want, play videogames anytime you want without anyone looking over your shoulder, as long as you manage to finish your projects on time.  Also, since I’m working in the Philippines, budgets that would be scoffed at in the 1st world are enough to get by on over here.  The advantage is that I can undercut other artists who may want/need a larger budget for the project.  In principle it’s like I’m a one-man outsourcing business.

Of course you shouldn’t aim to undercut all the time, as the idea is to get maximum money for your work/time.  The more you undercut the more used to those prices your clients will be, and since we’re assuming you want to have repeat clients, it wouldn’t be good to get them too used to ridiculously low rates.  It does however give 3rd world artists a little more leeway, allowing you to price low to gain experience or during a tight period, or to negotiate as high as you want when business is good.  In fact, if I wasn’t currently paying 36,000 pesos a month for a condo down payment, I wouldn’t be as stressed as I am right now.  As it is I’m barely making ends meet, but hopefully this situation will improve soon.

Good clients are the usually open about their budgets and willing to pay up front or on a per piece basis depending on how large the project is.  Good clients should be treated like gold.  Make them happy and they’ll spread the word about your services to other people who will be more inclined to hire you since they’ve talked to someone with first hand experience with you.  There’s a bit of a stigma when it comes to being a freelance anything, insofar as there are no viable penalties if you choose to simply drop out of a project all of a sudden.  Developers are worried about this of course, and so building a good reputation is paramount. Another great thing about freelancing is the opportunity to work with a world-spanning client list.  So far I have 1 US client, 2 British clients, and a pair of Ukrainian programmers.

The Bad

With freedom comes insecurity.  There’s a lot of shit being spread around by “Rich Dad”  advocates that there’s no such thing as job security anymore.  While in practical terms this is certainly true (as the recession has proven), psychologically the impact not having a steady monthly paycheck has on a person cannot be understated.  This all depends on your psychological profile of course, and I’ve found that I’m somewhere in the middle of being a risk taker and looking for security.  I like the freedom of being a freelance artist but at the same time the lack of a monthly or bi-weekly paycheck does take its toll on me every 15th and 30th of the month.

I should also mention here that anyone looking to go freelance should either have some experience behind them or a kick ass portfolio.  I had a little experience behind me as a game artist, but years of being comfortable in a corporate atmosphere atrophied whatever artistic talent I had, to the point that I was producing artwork that was really quite embarrassing.  Being freelance puts you in a constant situation of panic, where you feel like you need to be continually improving your skills or get left behind.  This lack of security can be a boon, as I’m only realizing my true artistic potential now, and see myself improving with every piece of artwork and every satisfied client.  In short, as an artist I’m better now than I’ve ever been.  This constant state of panic does take its toll however, and  I’m forgetting that I need to relax (I’m sure my friends will find this hilarious, but it’s true) every now and then.  I find that little things stress me out, like waking up to check my mail and seeing that no new clients have emailed.

Which leads me to bad clients.  I classify bad clients as clients that respond favorably to your initial email but then fail to follow up or inform you of what’s happened.  Even a simple “we found a better suited artist” would suffice to inform me that my services are no longer needed and I’m free to look for new clients.  This is probably the most common client I’ve had recently, with a lot of them expressing initial interest then disappearing for no valid reason.  Am I asking too much? Was there a better artist offering lower rates?  This kind of information would be most helpful, plskthx.  The end result is that I’m firing off as many emails as possible and sorting out the scheduling mess afterward.

The Ugly

It’s hard to get a loan when you’re not employed.  Hell, it’s hard to get your bank to change your place of employment since you can’t even furnish them with a certificate of employment to prove that you are working for so and so company.  This may not sound like an issue right now but it will be in the future, especially if you’re looking to get a housing loan.  There are other means of course, like getting a pag-ibig loan or SSS loan, but I was too lazy to keep up my payments and so that”s not working for me too.  That’s one other thing that the prospective freelancer should take note of I guess, is to make sure you make those payments.  I’m still working out how to fix this part, one of the solutions I’ve thought of is starting my own company as a sole proprietorship and thus being able to list myself as “self employed”.  There are negatives to this too, most of which I haven’t uncovered yet, so there’s still a long way to go for me on this end.

Ugly clients are the types that can’t make up their minds, and will try to get as much work as possible out of you to justify their expenses.  They may not be bad people, but the fact is that at some point you have to decide if a project is worth the time and effort you put into it.  While I definitely believe that every experience teaches you something and is therefore never wasted, you shouldn’t let yourself be punked by an ugly client.  As an example, the image above may never be finished because the client, after 4 days of work and constant updates and thumbnail samples decided that the buildings looked too similar to each other, and that we’d need to do this again.  What made me decide to turn my back on the project?  He was paying me a measly $60 for this artwork, hardly enough for the time and stress that its creation took.

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One Comment to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: On Clients and the life of a freelance artist”

  1. i got a very ugly client who after launching a website we did for them, used it for several months, still haven’t paid and has been ignoring my e-mail.

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