Category Archives: Unasked Advice


Playing well with people might come easy for some, and for others it was something they had to learn. However you get there, as a freelancer if you want to have a successful career, it’s something you have to do all the time.

This just doesn’t apply to clients, or the moment you finally quit your day job. If being a freelancer is something you hope to do one day, you should keep this in mind, because today’s annoying co-worker/friend can be tomorrows art director.

Play Well With Others

I worked as a production artist for years. One company I worked for had a lot of issues. There was fighting going on between Editorial and Design/Production, and then within our own department there was a war between the Department Manager and the Design Director. As the guy making the stuff, I was at the end of the line for everyone: Writers, editors, designers, artists, marketing, and manufacturing. Any mistakes made along the way, ended up on my plate.

It builds up and you get frustrated, and you want to say something to the people you feel are making your job harder. As tempting as it was to vent on those people, the chances are, they aren’t intentionally trying to make your job harder. I kept my frustration in check at work.

Since then, two of the people I worked with have moved on from the company as well, becoming art directors with companies that use illustrators. I’ve kept in touch with them via facebook. They have seen my work as an illustrator, and have given me work.

I doubt that either of them would have thought to use me as an illustrator, if I had given into the moment and vented for my own emotional satisfaction. Even if it wasn’t venting about them, you can still be seen as a difficult person if all you do is complain.

Don’t Burn Bridges

A friend recently graduated art school and I was doing my best to lend him a hand. This was anything from answering questions about freelancing (as best I could), being encouraging when he was facing hard times, and even sending work his way, when I had too much.

At one point I was trying to get him in at a company I was working for. At the same time, the company started having lots of issues, and the project spiraled out of control. Lots of yelling, finger pointing and high stress levels. I decided that it was time to go, and did so professionally.  Unfortunately this meant that my friend missed out on work he could have used.

My friend took it personally. He wrote me an angry email, furious that I would leave this job when it meant not being there to push a referral for him. He made clear that he no longer wanted to be friends, personally or professionally.

I completely understand his frustration. You try to hold out from getting a crappy survival job, and rely on your skills and talent. Along comes something that might not be the ideal type of work, but it’s a thousand times better then retail or waiting tables. And it falls through. Right back to where you started.

But, you don’t take that out on someone that has been trying to help you. More so, you don’t burn your bridges.

I recently went to two events that another friend invited me to. I met art directors and illustrators, gave out business cards and spent a good amount of time chatting with people. I left both events feeling really good. I would have invited my former friend along to these events. Contacts and positive reinforcement are very valuable to any beginning freelancer. And both can be very hard to come by. I can only imagine that he would have gotten both (contacts and positive reinforcement) from going to these events. It could have even resulted in work.

My reason for not inviting him had nothing to do with him hurting my feelings or for disrespecting all the help and favors I gave him. I didn’t invite him simply because I couldn’t trust him to act professionally.

He may have been frustrated at losing a short term opportunity, but what he really lost was long term opportunities.Sometimes building your network is the main focus of your freelance life, as you get started. To tap into an existing network can often make a huge difference in how long it takes to get your career on its feet.

We all make mistakes; we all get frustrated at other people. If you are going to let your personal frustrations guide your actions, it’s going to make it all the harder to get anywhere.

In the world of the freelancer, your attitude is the grease to make the gears turn. You can’t control other peoples attitude or how they react. So control yours and it can make all the difference in how fast your career grows and where it goes.

Thanks to Marc Scheff with his help on this entry.


If there is one thing I wish I could just beam into someones understanding is not to expect anything in terms of freelancing. More so, don’t expect anything to just suddenly be the thing that changes everything! Even the person who seems to become an overnight sensation didn’t just pick up a pencil, and the most amazing illustrations or comics come flying out.

Doing something that is successful, is great. It really makes you feel like it was worth it. Take Kool Aid Gets Fired, my comic. I did that 4 years ago, and it’ still doing well. A local comic store has probably sold close to 70 copies. For a mini comic, that’s actually pretty amazing. Add to other stores that sell it and when I do conventions, I’ve sold quite a lot of copies. All the reviews of it have been very favorable, save for one.

It even got written up in Pop Candy, an online column that’s part of USA Today. This translated into about 480 visits to my site, and 7 sales. But that’s fine. I haven’t gotten any jobs because of Kool Aid. But that’s fine as well.

I’m working on a Kickstarter Project. Our goal was first $1500. We got that in 3 days, so expanded the scope of the project, and in the end, we needed $2,250, and ended up raising over $4,300. Not bad.

Each time I have a success, it makes me feel great. But I don’t have any expectations that it’s the one thing that will suddenly open the flood gates to never having to fight for work, or better clients.

I do hear some illustrator friends talk about how frustrating it is that something they did, which still gets lots of attention, hasn’t brought in any additional work by catching someone’s eye. Yeah, that happens. With the Kickstarter, a few friends would suggest that maybe they could do something like that, only what they wanted was to basically get paid to draw. Kickstarter doesn’t work that way. You need a clear focused goal. Not just, I want money to do my webcomic/blog/take pictures and post them.

The fact is, you should be doing all that stuff because you want to. That you can’t go a day without drawing/writing/taking photos. Sometimes you have too, but the desire should be there.

In some ways, you shouldn’t have any expectations of what you will get from doing something, other then what you are doing. If you are writing a novel, you do want it published. But your expectations should be just to end up with a novel when you are finished. When i do an illustration, that’s all I’m going for. Same with a comic. Yes, sometimes I have flights of fancy. But I don’t ever think, Man this is the Graphic Novel that is going to change the format for ever. Why I might even get a Pulitzer Prize!

Heck I don’t even think, people are really going to love this! I just think, Wow! I wrote and drew a whole Graphic Novel! That’s amazing in and of it’s self, considering how often people fail to do anything.

They say it takes about 12 years, as a freelancer, to get to the point where you can call the shots on what kind of projects you want to work on, or pitch your idea’s for your own projects. Along the way, they estimate 80% of people taking this road in life, give up at some point, because it’s just to frustrating.

I keep that in mind when after finishing some huge project, suddenly find myself with nothing to do. At that point, my expectations are to simply keep drawing and pushing my talent and skills to the next level.

Looking at the Past

I came across a bunch very old illustrations the other day, and thought, man, I would not recognize this as my work, compared to what I do today. Here take a look. (Happy Reed? Pictures! Also forgive any formatting issues. Since these blog entries are as I think of them I don’t take much time to try and re-size images and such.)

These are part of a series done for Reeling, the Chicago GLBT film festival. They got a lot of attention and people really liked them. So much that someone ripped off the style for several brochures, and people thought I had done the illustrations. To bad I didn’t, because more then likely, the person who ripped me off got paid. I did this for free for the exposure. I didn’t get any work from this.

I was very proud of these at the time. They were the best work I had done at the time. I can still see elements of these in my current work.

My friend was working at Chicago Magazine, handling the entire online website. This was back before the internet started killing magazines and newspapers. Chicago Magazine didn’t support the online site then. It was just her, and she had no budget, no direction to take the site. It barely served as a, whats happening. So she asked me to do these tiny illustrations for the site. For free. I thought, at least I can say I have worked for Chicago Magazine, and maybe I might get to network to get some work in the actual magazine. But that didn’t happen.

For a while I worked at a company that did corporate communications, mainly newsletters, brochures and more. Sometimes, they wanted illustrations. My boss never wanted to spend money of art and graphics, which was good for me, since it fell to me to come up with illustrations.

I really don’t know what I was trying to do with the shape of the heads. These were for a brochure about hospital credentialing. Back then, computers had these giant, thick monitors, that took up your whole desk!

Oh hey! One of the first illustrations I got paid for. For Lakeland Boating (I still do illustrations for them). It was about how the head (bathroom) on boats often can be left…messy. I wrote a dirty limerick on the wall, and thought I had smudge it enough. I didn’t, but thankfully they caught it before it went to print. I don’t do that anymore. (Here I sit, broken hearted, came to shit and only farted, in case you were wondering.)

Back then, I did  lot of work with actual materials, and would have to send them in to be scanned. The good thing about that, is you can work in different ways. Like this for an article about Morse Code.

I did it on scratch board. I really liked it. So did the editor. So much he kept the original art and never sent it back. Nor did he offer me any money for the original art. Yeah, people actually do that. A contract prevents that.

However, this did lead to me doing a series of these of skeletons. A friend of a friend opened a small knick knack shop, and wanted artists to put their work up for commission. So I did a bunch, and they sold. The first few that sold she gave me my share. The rest, she kept all of it, because her shop wasn’t doing well, and needed the money.

Come to think of it, she was friends of the editor that kept the image above. Another good reason for going digital, or at least only delivering digital. And contracts

These are some images that I did that were not for clients, but just myself.



It’s always interesting to look back. I also found a disk with all these illustrations I did for this interactive CD a bank put out to help people prepare to take a test to get their real estate license. There were 3 of us doing the illustrations, and a 4th guy doing all the photo researching. I think there was over 500 illustrations that were needed. I was working for a company that was doing the CD for the bank. I never dealt with the person at the bank, but we always got to hear her feedback. Like, I don’t like the color green. So what about the illustrations about lawn care and such? She also didn’t like red. Or bright blues. In fact, she doesn’t like primary colors.

So the color palette eventually became grays, beiges, purples, light baby blue, and where appropriate, some greens.  She also so everything as sexual and violence towards women.

I honestly can’t say what I think about my old work. I can say my skill has improved a lot.

Common Elements

When I make friends with other artists who are at some stage of their professional careers, I get very curious about how they feel their success happened, and one thing that seems very common, is networking with other artists. Mainly the ability to get feedback, and idea’s and learn. Being an artists seems to be an ever learning process, which I am fine with.

But I also think successful artists also have a way of approaching making art as a professional that sets them apart from those that end up not being successful.

I’m also not much on the, Do What you Love, and the Money Will Follow kind of people. While their might be some truth to that, I know lots of people that did what they loved, and the money didn’t follow and they eventually had to give up. And not all of these people lacked a drive to make it.

But, I do think some of the ones that gave up, had unrealistic expectation of what success would be. I’ve heard many artists talk about the one thing that would do it for them. But, it’s never really about one thing. Everything is built on something else. I had good success with Kool Aid Gets Fired, but I don’t want to try and make a whole career off that one comic. I’ve had good success as an illustrator, but I’m only as good as my last piece. I’m not looking for that one image that will make everyone flock to my door.

I’ve known artists that get very negative when something they did, is well received, but doesn’t lead to other things. Kool Aid was well received, but i don’t think I’ve gotten any other work from it. It does help to show my level of ability and that I can write and draw a whole book. And that’s enough for me, honestly.

So, if people Do What They Love, and the money does follow, I think it’s because they don’t spend to much time worrying about if what they are doing is going to make them money. Yes, in this day and age, you have to worry about money. No one really likes living in a shack, with dirty cloths and eating garbage food because that’s all you can afford. But again, it’s not about that either.

For example, right now, I’ve agreed to be the weekly illustrator for a local magazine in NY. 3 drawings a week, for the Whats Coming up section. The pay isn’t on level with normal illo jobs, the magazine, while having a good profile, isn’t making money hand over fist it’s self. But, I’m getting to do 3 drawings a week, that require me to stretch my abilities, focus on getting the work done fast without hacking. I’m also trying to expand my style a bit, as I change my thought process in how I approach things.

Current work in progress, for Next Magazine

After a few months, I expect that I will see significant improvements in my art, and the speed at which I work. I will feel more confident in my choices. I didn’t mind the low pay, because the challenge of doing this is worth it to me. So, I’m getting paid in a way that doesn’t pay the rent, buy food or clean my clothes in any serious way. That’s ok. I’m investing in myself. I’m willing to take the ten years to see if it pays off.

I’ve been working at being an illustrator, for about 2 years now, and I really focus more on doing the work, finding the work and making the next piece better then the piece before it. When I don’t have any work to do, I draw and try and push my work into new directions. When the checks come, they come. It doesn’t matter that this drawing paid me $600, took the same or less time then this drawing that paid me $100. I gave them both my best work.

I know many artists who insist that you should always try for the $600 jobs. I do. But I take the $100 jobs too. I take the jobs, because what it really means to me, right now, is a chance to draw, with a focus and a goal and end to work towards. It means I have to trust the choices I make, and it means I get a chance to put my brain to work and see if I can come up with a great idea. It means I’m doing what I love, regardless of the money, because I’m actually trying to get something out of it that is more important then money.

Another thing I hear people say is that they tried for a few years, and things didn’t happen. I wish I had the link, but studies show, people who try and make it in the creative service industries, get successful in 12 years on average. By successful, they mean to the point where they can pick and choose the projects they want to work on, or pitch the projects they want bigger companies to invest in. And that on average, it takes about 3-5 years to get to the point where you are getting the kind of work you want. I’m lucky, I’m getting some of that now. But I still take what is called Meat and Potatos work.

I worked many years as a production artist for publishing companies. Now I work part time, from time to time, for companies that staff up when they have a lot of work and down when they don’t. It works out great for me, as it gives me more then enough money to get by, money to set aside for the lean times, and more then two days a week for my own work, or any illustration work. I work towards having to do less and less of that kind of work.

Also, I don’t take not getting work as a set back either. An actor I knew, gave up acting, after not getting a part. The way he tells the story, it was down to him and one other person. The other person got it, because they were friends of the marketing person for the theater company. I have no idea how he knew that, and I even asked, and the best answer he could give is, I just know it. The way he tells the story, is that he did A, B, C, like you are supposed to, and so he should have gotten the part.

But the thing is, that’s how the entertainment industry works. It’s partially how the commercial art industry works. It’s how a lot of industries work. It’s not the only way it works, but it’s foolish to think other wise. It’s also foolish to give up on what you want to because of one show you didn’t get the part to. And in the actors case, he was only in his early 30’s when it happened. It wasn’t like he hadn’t gotten shows or worked as a professional actor/singer before that. In fact he had. What bothered him, this was a big show. Would it have been a career maker? Who knows. It’s what I was saying earlier about not expecting the world from one piece.

To me, it just means I’m moving closer to success. I at least made it that far. What do I need to do next time to make it farther? Or in my case, what do I need to add it my art to make it better then last time.

That’s what I’m focused on. Not how big a check I’m getting.