First Hand — Peter Judson’s honest account of making money and valuing time as a freelance illustrator
After graduating with a degree from Kingston University in 2013, illustrator and designer Peter Judson was able make a living from illustration within his first year out. Since then, he’s gone on to collaborate with clients including Nike, Condé Nast and The Guardian – most recently producing a poster specially designed for the Tate. Here he takes us through the journey, weighing up the realities and expectations of making money, the bartering nature of freelance illustration, and knowing how to value your time.
When I was at uni, or just leaving, I found myself thinking, “I know I’ve got this skill, but now I’ve got to work out how to make money with it.” My next step was just to try all the different routes to make that happen.
At the time I was in a collective with a few friends, and we would sell screen prints, which really opened up my eyes to that world. I started to wonder whether I might be able to make a living from it; the only risk was that you could just become a shop keeper – spending more time shooting back and forth to the Post Office than making the actual work.
I was also getting in touch with loads of newspapers and magazines for editorial work. But I quickly found out that they only pay £100 or £200 for a little spot, which would mean doing at least ten of them every month to live from. In addition, you might try selling some prints for an extra £50 to £200 a month, but for me, the reality of making and selling prints was never as high as my expectations – essentially I made little money from it. Essentially you’re just trying to patch everything together to get by.
“The reality of making and selling prints was never as high as my expectations, and essentially I made little money from them.”
While I was studying I was really into printmaking, and when I graduated I was able to stay on at the college as a print technician, through a scheme. It served as a part-time job for the next nine months. So that was two days a week, which just about covered my rent, if I held back. I’d spend the next few days getting in touch with online magazines and blogs to try and get my work featured. I think the first bit of press I got (incidentally with It’s Nice That) really helped me.
Around that time I was really into post-modernist style, and by coincidence the V&A were hosting a post-modernist show. I got really lucky in terms of the fact that my interests crossed over with the design world, attracting people to my work – and the commissions started to come in. At the end of my nine-month scheme at uni, I was pretty much able to make a living from illustration.
When I was still studying, I remember a guy coming in to give us business and financial advice, and he said that ideally you want to lose two of every three jobs. The reason for this is that you’re asking for a good amount of money – in those two cases, they will think you’re charging too much; but one of them will go for it. At the time I thought this was totally unrealistic; that when you’ve just left uni you have to say yes to everything.
“The freelance money structure is loose. One client can come to you with £10,000, then a similar client can come to you with £200 for a similar job.”
I soon learnt that the freelance money structure is loose. One client can come to you with £10,000, then a similar client can come to you with £200 for a similar job. You’re constantly forced into a position where you really need that £200, but you’re being taken advantage of. However, if it’s an enjoyable project, you try to work out if it’s worth it. You might ask yourself: In the longterm, can I do this job without feeling resentful? There’s always this cycle of taking advantage of each other, and weighing up how much you’ll get out of it.
Freelancing is a real bartering game, but I feel this approach is a massive flaw in the industry. You can see this route that magazines take, where they’ll work with someone for two or three years until that person gains the confidence to put up their rates up – then they’ll shoot back to the graduates. It’s good that companies play a part in growing illustrators’ careers and profiles, but this cycle means you’re constantly trying to work out how much you can charge, like “What kind of language do I use so I don’t lose it?” It’s a tricky one, and something I’m still trying to work out.
Peter’s poster for the Tate
Recently I was commissioned by the Tate to create a poster for their gift shop, which was really exciting. The brief was really just the dimensions, and I could do what I wanted, which seemed crazy. When I went to meet them, they showed me detailed statistics on all the posters that had performed well in the past. It was the first time I had ever looked at it in this way, as I’d never really created a poster with a specific audience in mind. In terms of the fee, I could have spent a day on it, and then it would have paid a good amount. But I weighed it up, and because you get royalties on each poster sold, you want to put in the time to give it a chance to do well. It was a gamble, but in the end I chose to turn down another job in that time, and in total I spent about four weeks on it.
Taking the time to quantify whether a job is worth it and the time you need to do it well, is important. Constantly doing work just for the money can result in a negative feeling, but doing something you enjoy for less money can sometimes be quite enlightening. One thing I really recommend is getting in touch with other artists if you want to know how they made something possible. Still now, when I’m thinking of doing a project, I’ll get in touch with other people who have done similar things, to see how they made it happen and hear their experience. You can learn a lot from that, and most people are willing to spend five minutes shooting out an email.