Creative Lives — Erin Aniker on how to make freelance illustration a full-time career
It’s fair to say that 2019 was the year Erin Aniker’s career took off. Having only gone fully freelance at the start of the year, the illustrator has since had her magazine cover for The Washington Post’s Local Living supplement nominated for a V&A editorial award, illustrated a number of double-page spreads for Stylist magazine and created GIFs for The Body Shop. With many more commissions with the likes of Nike, Vice and Urban Outfitters, it’s easy to see why Erin describes 2019 as one of her “favourite” work years yet. That’s not to say it’s been an easy ride getting to this point. Since graduating in 2015, Erin has supported herself with all kinds of part-time work and gradually built up her portfolio during many moonlit hours. Here, the illustrator talks through the highs and lows of going at it alone, the importance of lifting up those behind you and why you should up your fees.
The Washington Post, The Body Shop, Tate, The Design Museum, V&A, Nike, Apple, Stylist, Vice, Refinery 29
BA Illustration, Norwich University of the Arts (2011-2015)
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I’ve just recently moved into my first proper studio after working from home for more than two years (not ideal) and I’m still adjusting. I generally try to have set working hours (10am-6pm), but this can change if I have a last minute deadline or a huge project. I used to really enjoy working between midnight and 6am in my early twenties but I very quickly realised that this was not sustainable!
Every day is different, but generally I spend my mornings checking my to do list and replying to urgent emails. I usually get any drafts and sketches done in the morning too, as that’s when I find it easiest to come up with new ideas. Often I’ll spend the latter half of the day developing the illustrations.
What would you say are the biggest challenges associated with being freelance and how do you deal with these?
The unpredictability and pace of the workload, finding your feet financially (especially in the beginning) and generally finding balance and wearing lots of different hats (not literally, but no judgement if that’s your look).
You have to be your own agent, marketing manager, accountant, social media manager, workshop facilitator, teacher and admin assistant. Sometimes it feels like the thing you’re setting out to do – in my case, illustration – can get left behind. The business side of things is important but you need to be careful not to get lost in it.
Having said that, I can’t imagine working full-time for someone else. The freedom and choice of being freelance outweighs the negatives.
‘Imposter Syndrome’ Work for Refinery 29 x TRESemmé (2019)
You’ve worked both as an independent illustrator and been represented by an agent. Do you have any advice for emerging illustrators about whether it’s important to find an agent and, if so, what to consider?
I’ve been independent up until very recently. I signed to TwentyTwenty agency in the last month or so. They're amazing and I’m glad to be signed with them, but I don’t think you need an agent – in the same way that I don’t think you need a degree.
I think you can learn valuable lessons more efficiently starting out by yourself, like how to pitch and negotiate fees. It can be more brutal doing it that way and you’ll make lots of mistakes but I think that’s part of the learning process. Then if you do decide to get an agent later on you’ll have a rough idea of how it all works and how you can best work together.
If you do want to sign with an agent, look at the type of artists they have on their roster and the type of clients they work with to see if it’s a good match. Arrange to meet with them in person, see how you get on and whether you can imagine working with them.
“I don’t think you need an agent – in the same way that I don’t think you need a degree to work in the arts or creative industry.”
‘Better Together Community’ Work for Stylist (2019)
What did you want to be growing up?
I always knew I wanted to be an illustrator from flicking through children’s books and seeing drawings in magazines and newspapers. My mum took me to lots of exhibitions from a young age.
Although my parents have no ties to the creative industry, they are both creative in their own ways. My mum would fill the house with Turkish and Islamic artwork, ceramics, carpets, rugs, textiles and books. My Dad was a languages teacher and so there were lots of books, films and music from different cultures lying around.
Did you study at degree level and if so, do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
My degree gave me some time to focus on myself and develop my interests in feminism, community and my dual Turkish and British heritage. Living in Norwich for three years made me realise how important it is for me to live in a diverse city. Norwich had its charms but I missed living in London.
University can give you time away to focus and develop the skills you need to start working as an illustrator. But you have to be prepared to make the most of it. There are definitely other, cheaper ways of developing the same skills, for example, learning on the job through internships, reading about different illustrators’ practices or being part of an organisation like the AOI (Association of Illustration). You can also build relationships and a network of mentors by emailing and meeting other illustrators – without the crippling student debt.
‘Calling All Women’ Work for Refinery 29 x TRESemmé (2019)
What were your initial steps when you were starting out?
I didn’t go straight into a creative job because I graduated without a portfolio. It took me a while to find my feet. I graduated in 2015 and have only gone full-time this year.
Initially, I worked full-time in admin jobs and worked on my portfolio in the evenings and weekends. I then worked part-time as a freelance arts admin and did marketing, graphic design and illustration for a couple of years.
I’d started to send emails out with my portfolio and got the odd job back. It started off with one commission a month and then grew to more regular work. Gradually, through juggling lots of different work, emailing, networking, and working weekends and evenings I was able to phase out my other freelance jobs to do illustration full-time.
Having a reliable source of income through a creative or non creative day job is the reality for a lot of illustrators and creatives in general. I had to unlearn that there is one model of success – lots of successful illustrators have other part or full-time jobs. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about and should be discussed more openly.
I also picked up loads of useful skills in these jobs, even if they weren’t strictly ‘creative’. All my waitressing, charity fundraising, bar work, sales, gallery and museum internships helped me learn practical, social and admin skills which you need as a small business owner.
“I had to unlearn that there is one model of success – lots of successful illustrators have other part or full-time jobs. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
‘International Women’s Day’ Work for The Body Shop (2019)
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I’m a firm believer that you create your own luck. Even if it does seem as though you’ve got a ‘lucky break’ or commission, it’s usually after you’ve been putting your work and voice out there for a while.
How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
I do have socials and try to update them as much as I can. Social media is a great, free marketing tool but it’s not something that comes naturally to me. I get a lot of work through Instagram mainly, but I have had a few commissions through Twitter and Facebook too.
Social media is obviously not great for your mental health in excess, so I’d suggest deleting the app when you’re not using it. Otherwise, it can lead you to compare yourself to other artists all the time and feel bad about yourself.
‘Balance for Better’ Work for Urban Outfitters (2019)
‘International Day of the Girl’ Work for The Body Shop (2019)
‘Hatshepsut’ Work for Vice (2019)
‘Heartbreak’ Work for Vice (2019)
‘Queen Amastris’ Work for Vice (2019)
‘SK8’ Own Personal Work (2019)
Has there been anything that has surprised you about the industry, or the work itself, so far?
The gatekeeping aspect of the creative industry is not something I can relate to or understand. It can feel like some creatives achieve success and try and pull up the ladder behind them as they move upwards. Luckily, I think that type of toxic mindset is starting to change. Hopefully, more people will start to think of the creative industry as a collective mission rather than an individual pursuit. I think you have a responsibility to bring other people up with you.
“If you work in the creative industry you have a responsibility to bring other people up with you.”
‘Local Living’ Work for The Washington Post (2018)
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
I’ve learned that you have to take calculated risks. Leaving the stability of my part-time and full-time jobs has been good for me as I’ve put more focus into my work. I’m also earning more money working full-time as an illustrator.
You also need to learn that while you might have a wild month where you make loads, you might have two months where you don’t and your tax bill is due imminently. Learn to budget and save for rainy days.
I also think people need to ask for more money when giving quotes to clients. You should probably be asking for two to three times more than what you’re asking for. When loads of people accept low rates it affects the industry as a whole. Charge more! Depending on the client of course. If it’s a small NGO or charity, don’t charge them the same rates as the big corporations.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Be vulnerable and put your work out there. Day jobs are normal. Research the industry. Create or join a creative community. Have a designated work space. Contact people you’d like to work with. Make time for personal projects. Learn how to say no. Don’t burn out. Keep the doors that open for you open for others.