From Freelancing to Independent Artist – How to Make it on Your Own Terms

by Oliver Wetter, Illustrator

When my day-job contract ended, over 10 years ago, on the verge of the economic crisis, I started being self-employed by doing book covers. I thought this was the thing I wanted to do my entire life. It was a happy life. I was making a living by painting and being creative!  What else can you want from life as an artist?

©Oliver Wetter “One of the early covers I did that got me into freelancing.”

I was very lucky to count myself amongst those who never actively acquired clients. Not once. Agencies found my portfolio online and after some successful projects, publishers approached me directly.

That transition from employee to freelancer 10 years ago was a shift I secretly hoped for but never dared to turn into a reality. In hindsight, it was good that I was forced to decide between a full-time job, unemployment and self-employment.  Otherwise, I might not have even tried.

The True Difference Between Freelance And Independence

In my opinion, it is vital to find out what both terms mean to you.  For me, freelance means doing work for others with no or little room to grow as an artist.  While independence means to use my assets to bring a new perspective to something that people already know and change people’s lives through that.

It all comes down to one thing: Purpose.

If you think your purpose is to handle all things your clients lack in skill and imagination, that is fine. As long as you believe you are in the best environment possible.

If you have more skills and ideas than what is demanded from you, it might be time to think different.

How To Embrace Change

I’m in the middle of the next transition period it seems. I slowly get the hang of it. It does not feel so frantically like the first time. I’m not calm. That would be far from the truth.
It is just the next near point on the map.
The challenge is frightening at first, I believe it is similar to being an entrepreneur.

A businessman setting up a new venture. Just without the capital or the need for money upfront. The business is scalable, that turns it more into a challenge, one which is possible to win with my hard-won assets at hand.

The basic plan is always this: Go find a niche, do the research, find out where money can be earned. How to invest it in a way so it leads to more active or passive income in a long way, up to financial independence.

The 10.000 Hours Rule

©Oliver Wetter

Malcolm Gladwell once stated with 10k hours you can master any skill. If that statement is true, then what baffles me the most, is that we artists use to spend many more hours to perfect our craft, but lack knowledge about a presentation or business education, let alone financial education.

Any artist who has upped their skill level above the 20.000 hours mark knows; it is hard to learn something new in your field. Of course, you need practice, but I assume that anyone who is not dead and puts out new works regularly practices.
My argument is rather this: If you watch 40 hours material of video courses just to learn one nifty trick in Photoshop that you did not knew before, the problem with steady learning becomes apparent.
I wondered, what would happen if I invest more time into different things, say 5000 hours into marketing, 5000 hours into convention planning and so on over the course of 10 years.
Instead of putting more hours into what I already can do, I decided to learn:

  • exhibition stand construction plus investing in my own display system
  • how to get into 3D-printing and use 3D-design to print things for my display system
  • to print and mount my own canvas, invested in large-format-Printers.
  • diving into web-design and programming to build the best web-shop available for my work
  • master social media and use networking/advertising to promote my work to the right people
  • how to master book-keeping and taxes (and make that even fun)

Things Don’t Simply Stop, They Change

It is interesting what happens when you embrace the change.
In the book cover market, the change was inevitable.
For those not in the know: There are three types of book covers; Typography, Photography, and Illustration. When everything is trending except Illustration, you don’t have a job.
I was fortunate enough to prevent this from happening by being in demand for around 9 years, it baffles me still that it went on for so long, however finally the markets changed and I embraced it instead of fighting for a regular income.

When Is The Right Time To Start Going Independent?

Or when is the right time to change? Maybe from employee to freelance or freelance to independent?

I can only speak for myself here, there are a few tips in the following.
When I did not have commissions to work on, I kept working on my own projects. So I never had spare time. I was always busy.

When jobs did not come in as regularly, I felt there was a change coming. I did what was necessary, I booked more booths, planned more conventions and fairs to put my personal stronger workout. It was the next logical step. I saw the opportunity, then went for it.

Understanding the value of your work

As artists, we feel our true nature is trying to create the ultimate new thing. We get to it when we realize this happens when we combine at least two things that already exist.

My personal work always consists of that; a combination of at least 2 things which already exist, a homage to either another artist or a thing from popular culture or both.

©Oliver Wetter

Nowadays, my work has become more than just prints of digital paintings; for many of my customers, the works transport a statement, a clear message, one they can identify themselves with.

The difference Between Personal Work And Client work

©Oliver Wetter

My commissioned work was always different, it is a great asset for the clients, it never was for me – except for some rare cases. Actually, it was always my personal work which landed me jobs, the outcome with commissions was never on par with my own, personal vision of what could have been possible.
There are artists whose personal work and client work merge, stylistically and in terms of quality. This can undoubtedly be an asset, but it also means their work is depending on trends and a personal brand.

But can’t I do both?

I tried it and since the day has just 24 hours, it is just not doable for one person.

If you are good at hiring people and delegating tasks, it might be possible to do a lot more.
In the end, it is more a thing about your image. What is accepted for your brand and whatnot? Why you do things and why not others send always a clear message to a recipient and finally it comes together in the story your customers tell others.

My Personal Way To Independence

©Oliver Wetter

Before I went from employee to freelance, my workday looked like the following: 8 hours day-job, 8 hours studying, 5 hours sleep. Rinse and repeat for 6 years straight.

When changing to independent, my workday still looked similar, maybe a bit more sleep, but the transition towards independence began by understanding that I might actually lose money when working on a commission.

When you realize that you can earn more money working for yourself, then you become independent.

The hardest lesson was this: Learning to say no.
No to inquiries, no to steady paychecks, no to new clients.
That is definitely one of the scariest experiences in my career, especially since I was used to saying yes all the time.

The Right Mindset Is Important

There are typical things to consider, such as freelancers don’t calculate in hourly or monthly wages, you start thinking in a yearly income.

I believe this fixed many of my anxieties when I realized in July or August I made a bit more than 70% from the year before, it turned out that I was on the right track.
This is still true for being independent, there are some useful metrics in analyzing and crunching numbers.

You also have to learn storytelling, be it through your work or when selling directly or networking with clients. But first of all, you have to tell yourself a better story so you start to believe in a better self, that eventually you can become this better person.
People always project what you and your work could look like in the future, if there is no interesting story attached to you, they won’t follow along.

My 2 Cent About Passive Income

Patreon, Gumroad and Kickstarter seem to be great places – however, it is equally hard to get noticed on those platforms. For me, it worked partially for a tip jar, yet not to become independent.

Platforms like Patreon are no guarantee for making it. Either you make it there or you don’t. If the latter is the case, move on.

Maybe try again later with a new concept. Or you build E-Mail-lists and try it when you have enough through E-Mail-marketing, but consider this, for every vis-a-vis sale you need between 100-200 email-addresses. YouTube or twitch may work for some artists. The same as for Patreon applies here, give yourself some time if you really want to do it, if you don’t get there after 6 months or a year, move on.

The Pareto-Principle works for most of these platforms. It looks like this: 20% of top tier artists share 80% of their revenue. 80% of the rest share 20% of the profits. Now do the math.

Find out where you stand, see if it is worth fighting for.

My Personal Way

I arrived at a time where I can finally make use of all that; Patreon and Gumroad run my Webshop plus some advertising fees, the web-shop is similar to an extra fair booth, with the luxury of having 365 days to fulfill orders. The 6-8 conventions a year make 80% of my income – which is more than I was able to do at my best time when I did freelancing!

The success with my continued work as an artist would not be possible without the extra work or the wrong turns I had taken. It might sound cliché, allowing for failure will help you in the long run.

The key is to keep at it until the flipping point. The point where people convert, know, like and trust your work or business. My recommendation to make it on your own terms is based around these three things:

  • Listen to your inner voice, learn to focus.
  • Do the work that is necessary, then go even further.
  • Tell yourself a better story – so you can start to believe in a better self.


This is hopefully an inspiration to those who are stuck in their own hamster-wheel or are afraid to never be able to make it out.

It is possible.

To see more of Oliver Wetter’s work, please visit his website and Altpick page.

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