Going Freelance: Interview with Kelly McClellan on Getting Started as a Freelance Artist
Kelly McClellan, freelance game artist and way cool chick, talks about getting through all that tough stuff at the beginning when you’re first going indie – getting that very first paid gig, how to find good clients and how to make sure you’re working on stuff that really matters to you.
Kelly McClellan: I wish I could have told beginning freelancer Kelly: “You’re going to have some REALLY crappy clients! Just…don’t be bummed out by it :)”
Me: Okay so, that’s a really good segway into the interview! Kelly’s Guide to Freelancing, directed at Kelly of the past – what you wish you would have known about way back in the day before getting started.
And of course this is for the benefit of anyone who’s currently Going Indie now: Artists, Sound Engineers, Programmers, Game Designers…
People who, like yourself, have hit a point where they have to choose between soul destroying social game work and the opportunity to work on their own stuff!
So why don’t we go back to your very first freelance gig, what you felt was your first real freelance opportunity – could you tell us about that and how you got it?
Kelly: Well I was not too far out of graduation and I had a lot of friends who were also doing various freelance jobs and game art stuff and a friend who said: “Hey, I’ve got this character design project that I just don’t have time for – do you want it?” and I said “Yeah! Sure!”.
But then: “the thing is this has to be a really quick turnaround, like it has to be done Saturday!” and it was Friday when he asked me!
And I was like “Wow! Okay, BIG project!”. They gave me the description and it was like this Battle Furies thing, there was a fox and a cat, and they were these RPG-like characters and I thought – “whatever, I can DO this! It’s my first big freelance job and they’re REALLY depending on me to come through!”
…and I just crammed the whole weekend! My wrist was raw from drawing for like, 30 hours straight.
I sent this stuff to them 10 minutes before the deadline, totally stressing, and they were just like “Okay! Thanks!”
There wasn’t a lot of response…it’s like there was just a LITTLE bit of feedback…
Me: So it was kind of a HUGE epic thing for you…
Kelly: Yeah it was like, my first big thing, I pulled this REALLY long night…
Me: …and it just got “Okay, thanks”?!?
Kelly: Yeah! And then they just said “okay, that’ll do the job” and they paid me and that was it.
Then I realised – “Wow that’s…that’s not so bad! It was a thing I did – I gave somebody art and they gave me money for it”. It was just something really validating and exciting!
Me: Did you feel like your first freelance job was supposed to be more epic? More terrifying?
Kelly: I was really nervous about my skill level because it had only been a year to a year and a half since I graduated and I was like “am I good enough”?
There comes a point where, no matter how many hours you put into a piece, if your skill isn’t at a certain level it just won’t be good enough – so I was concerned that it wouldn’t have enough polish and it wouldn’t be up to that level [of quality].
But they seemed happy with it!
I think people are really hard on themselves when they’re first starting out.
Me: Well we also don’t have a frame of reference when we’re first starting out – we haven’t gone through that whole process of submitting a job where someone says “Hey, I need this thing” and you give it to them and you realise that what you did was good enough. Until then you don’t know what “Good Enough” means!
Kelly: Yeah exactly!
Me: So you got this job from a friend – was this a mate you grew up with? Went to school with?
Kelly: Just somebody I met in my last year or two of school! And if you turn in your work on time and you do a good job and your peers notice that – they will remember you when they graduate and they’ll forward you work.
If they think you’re good enough and reliable enough then they’ll give you stuff to work on! So it helps to keep networking while you’re in college and remember those friends who did good stuff.
Me: It’s like this combination of “work your butt off” (because you want to learn) and “…don’t be a jerk!”
Kelly: OH yeah, people will remember if you’re a dick…
Me: And they’ll remember if you were one of the few people who were cool to them. I think some of the biggest “Lucky Breaks” in my career only occured because I was a decent person on previous projects and took really good care of the people I was managing.
Kelly: Yeah I would really agree with that. If you’re accommodating and you’re friendly and you make the changes they want you to make then they will recommend you to other people.
I did really good work on a card game and this guy went onto a board game forum and said: “this girl did a really awesome job!”. And everyone else was like “well, we really trust you because you’re a really good game designer and stuff, so if you really like this girl well we’re going to give her lots more work!”
And I was like: “Wow, this one guy’s recommendation got me like, five projects…”
Me: It’s funny because while that’s hugely lucky it’s not like it’s totally random luck – like that opportunity, getting those contract gigs, came from your being an awesome person and working your butt off. So it’s like, you’ve unwittingly set up these conditions for those really lucky breaks to happen later on!
Kelly: Yeah – and I recognise that you can’t do a stellar job or be a super nice person on EVERY project – but if you have one you really enjoy working on and you really like your client and get along with them, just keep pushing yourself and go above and beyond and they’ll really remember you…
Me: It’s like you’re opening up the possibilities for more work later on because who knows – maybe they’ll go onto a forum and tell everyone how much they liked working with you!
Kelly: Hah, yeah exactly.
Me: Okay so, you got your first job from a friend and you’ve had a few jobs since then, how did you make ends meet while you were first starting out during that whole nebulous “going indie” time?
Kelly: I had a big buffer of savings at first – so even though I had a couple months of building up freelance clients before I stopped my day job – I was still burning through savings for a while.
I was getting a couple jobs, to offset what I was burning through for rent and that, but I wasn’t making as much as I was spending on bills and stuff like that. And it took a good 4 to 6 months to approach a point where I was making more than I was spending.
It’s just a matter of making sure that, if you have a miserable day job or something, at least wait until you have saved up for a 6 month buffer of rent money before you make the plunge!
And consider moving into a cheaper place! Even if it’s a tiny crappy studio, it’ll be a lot of stress off your back if you don’t have to pay $1500 just living expenses…
Me: At one point do you feel like it all turned around for you? From living off of savings to having enough projects and contracts coming through that you were doing okay. Was there a certain project that you can look back on and say “that was the turning the point”?
Kelly: It’s hard to say! It always helps when you get larger scale projects because they will keep you working longer and that’s less time you have to spend scrambling for your next job.
I had gotten a book illustration job for like $1200 and I realised at that moment that that project – which would take about a month to do – would more than cover my living expenses and I was making more than I was going to spend in rent and food and bills that month!
So getting that job made me feel like I could spend a whole month working at a good pace and living well and having enough to buy groceries.
That project made me feel like a professional, and that was a really good feeling!
Me: How did that change things for you? Did that change the kind of clients you went after or the contracts you took?
Kelly: Once I got a job that paid me a decent rate I learned that I didn’t really need to low ball my prices just to get work. The more money you make the more projects you do and the more good client feedback you have – it’s like you can say “I quote this much for that kind of job and if you can’t pay that then I’m sorry but I really can’t take the job”.
So you can start to charge what you’re worth instead of just what you need to eat this month!
Me: You bring up a really interesting point – a lot of creatives feel like they have to take any job that comes their way just to pay rent and just to keep food on the table – which is kind of taking time away from the kinds of jobs you find really interesting and important…which is why we go indie and do freelance stuff in the first place right?
How picky are you about the kinds of jobs you take and how do you make sure you can do more of the stuff you really enjoy?
Kelly: It depends, if you are starting out sometimes you have to take whatever comes along, I mean…you don’t want to take something that’s going to pay you dirt…but if you do have a day job while you’re building up clients then only take on stuff that’s going to help you build a good portfolio and give you experience in the kind of stuff you really want to do.
Now if you don’t have the luxury of a fall back job and you’re just breaking in you kind of do have to take on anything with a quick turn around that will give you a bit of money, just to help you while you’re first starting out.
At some point I started being more selective, not necessarily about subject matter because I’m interested in a wide variety of stuff for my portfolio, but if a client was kind of flaky or not giving very good art direction or feedback or not responding in a timely manner I would not sign a contract or cut off a project at a certain point.
Because if it’s going to be stressful then the project’s not going to be worth your time. If I could see that a relationship with the client potentially going badly, then I generally wouldn’t take on those projects. And having the luxury of doing that, say because you’ve got another project going at the same time, means you can be selective about those kinds of clients.
Me: Okay so you’re picky about the type of CLIENTS you work with as opposed to the kind of work you do. I guess as an artist it benefits you to be able to tackle a wide variety of artistic puzzles, right?
Kelly: Yeah, but I do tailor my portfolio towards what I want to do, I mean…my portfolio right now says 2D Game Art so generally people don’t approach me with anything else. It’s like they’re giving me wedding invitations to do or anything – and I wouldn’t take stuff like that.
But generally what I get is what I push as the stuff I really like to do!
Me: Did you know that you wanted to do 2D game art when you first started all this, or did you kind of discover that as you go?
Kelly: I really discovered it as I went. It’s mostly been character design! I kind of knew from the start that that was one of my strengths, so I stuck with that…but I did some storyboarding and some 3D before I graduated from school so I didn’t really know what specifically I was going to stick with. Then I did some comic work and things like that, but game art…just having a set of art that all belongs within then same world, that was the most rewarding for me.
So eventually I just tailored it to 2D board game art and character designs for PC games and stuff.
Me: Your work really has a cool comic booky, almost steampunk kind of feel, which is really tapping into the zeitgeist of what we’re interested in in pop-culture at the moment – so what kind of stuff would you love to do MORE of?
Kelly: Oh gosh, I’m kind of doing the things I enjoy right now! I’m doing a fantasy board game right now, I got to do a steampunk card game, and those are all things I never thought I would get the chance to do. So as far as describing stuff I would want to do, just more of the same really!
Hah, more of the same but paying a little better perhaps.
Me: Well I guess that’s kind of the nature of what we do right? You’ll get some gigs that pay REALLY well, but they’re not necessarily what you want to be working on. Like, if I find myself with a gig with a client where I LOVE what they’re doing – and I think what they’re doing is fucking amazing – but they can only pay a little bit…I might take them over the client who can pay a lot, but it’s work that I have absolutely no emotional resonance with whatsoever!
Kelly: Oh I understand that exactly! And that actually reminds me of this steampunk card game which was actually from this company who put out and advertisement saying: “We’re doing a steampunk card game but I can’t really pay anything right now but we can offer royalties!”
And I thought, you know, I really want to have more game art in my portfolio because it’s what I really want to do and I also like steampunk which I think is really cool and I wrote them and said “Well, why don’t I do this for you?”
I was basically doing this for free, because there was no real impression or promise that the game was going to sell well, but as I was working on it they really playtested it aggressively and marketed it aggressively and were showing it to a bunch of people – and eventually it got picked up by larger publishers and I made a couple thousand dollars in royalties.
And like, this was a project I was originally doing really as a favor because I really liked these people and I really liked this concept – but me making that leap and taking that opportunity eventually lead to me getting this really sweet deal.
So if you’re helping people out and you’re doing something that flows really easily because it’s something you’re really passionate about then it will definitely lead to other things – and the quality of your work and the quality of the relationship with your client will really shine through.
Me: You used some really interested vernacular there – we can get into that whole concept of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi “Theory of Flow” stuff which basically says that you’re at your creative best when you’re doing something that matches your interests and matches your passions…but it’s JUST beyond your skill level. Like it’s just challenging enough that you get into this state of flow where you’re progressing towards things that interest you.
If you can get INTO that state (regardless of big pay) then that’s when your lucky strikes and your moments of brilliance and All The Really Good Things kind of happen…because you are at your best!
And when you’re in that state, and you are at your best, you’re doing your best work, people are going to see that.
Kelly: Well yeah and it’s nice that it worked out because I’ve always liked Steampunk, and I’ve always liked Victorian stuff that’s historically inspired but not so obsessed with the rules or the specific details of a certain era. And Steampunk has a lot of freedom and I really wanted to do that – and here was this project that was like: “You need to do 60 card illustrations and boxes and all this different stuff” …and it WAS a challenge!
I wanted to see if I could DO this much art to begin with, and they liked my style which was a really important thing – to let creativity Flow, like you said, it’s important to make sure that they like the art that’s you’ve BEEN doing.
Because sometimes they’ll say “oh, you’re a capable artist, but could you do this OTHER style?”
Recently I was doing this fantasy game, and where I have a really animated comicy style they were like: “But we want this SUPER realistic, really detailed grim texture with highlights…”
And that’s not really my thing…and I don’t think I did as well.
Me (with Sarcasm): “Hey so, we know you’re a good artist…but can you just be…this OTHER artist for us?”
Kelly: Yeah! But you’re not going to shine on projects where they want you to be another artist because you’re not THAT artist. You’re you!
Another important thing when choosing a project, a project that’s going to let you flow, is choosing a client who likes you for who you are and what you can do.
Me: Which means they would have to see that beforehand – so how do you project WHO you are and your style so that client’s know that going into a project?
Kelly: I really try to limit my portfolio to ONLY the stuff that is the style that I want. Like, I’ve done more realistic work for certain projects but I try not to put that in my portfolio because it’s not really what I want to get hired to do.
Also when you have that introductory dialogue with a client and they’re like “this is the look, this is the kind of color palette that I want to do”, sometimes you need to put forward “The style that I’m going to be drawing in is the one that’s on my site. I hope you’re comfortable with that because otherwise I’m not the person for this job”
And if it means turning down a job then…well…that’s what it ends up being. But otherwise they’re not going to be happy with what you’re doing. That has to be a conversation you have before the job even gets started.
Me: That demands a certain kind of honesty as well – because if you’re not going to be happy with that job, if you’re not going to be happy doing it, then they’re not going to be happy with the result. Instead they could have been working with other artists, you could have been working with another client, and everyone would have been much happier.
Kelly: Yeah exactly.
Me: So it’s better to avoid that whole scenario in the first place. Be upfront and honest at the very beginning of the relationship.
Okay so, a big question I get from folks who are getting into freelancing is “How do you get clients in the first place?”
You mentioned Bonzai and a places that I don’t know much about so…where do you find your clients and where do you find your jobs?
Kelly: Besides what I said before about finding clients by just hitting up friends, if you’re doing a specific thing (like mine was boardgame art) I would go to forums about boardgames and there was a thread FOR boardgaming artists advertising their portfolio’s saying “I’m here for hire!”.
So go to communities where they’re specifically talking about your kinds of projects (they have the same kinds of things for RPG’s and PC Games and stuff like that).
Also go to places like ConceptArt.org which has a job section which you can filter out by only freelance jobs large and small – and I’ve applied for and gotten a few of those and they’re usually legitimate jobs from people who paid well!
You can get jobs from Deviant Art as well if you want – I mean, I’ve heard people getting good jobs from there too so it’s whatever works really.
But ConceptArt.org has really gotten me a few good jobs – in fact from there I got one repeat client who is actually having me illustrate a second book, so repeat clients are another source of really good work.
If a client likes you and you work they’ll keep hiring you for projects and that works out really well.
Me: And you already know each other at that point, so you’ve done the whole “Getting to Know You” thing and gotten that out of the way. You know what to expect from each other.
So, just before wrap up, off the top of your head – what’s the biggest piece of advice you want to give to someone who’s going to go into freelance art or freelance ANYTHING?
Kelly: What I wish someone had said to me, especially when I was in the middle months of just trying to make ends meet, is that not all projects will work out!
In fact a large portion of them will not work out, either because of the client or the style or something. And I’ve had to turn down jobs that I realised were not paying enough or there was not enough feedback or art direction in a timely manner – or there were just situations that weren’t working out.
And you can’t beat yourself up for the times that aren’t working out! I mean, you’ll be like “Oh no, it’s going to hurt my reputation!”
Sometimes you have to burn bridges. But there are so many clients out there and you’re going to get so much work that your great work will outshine the projects that didn’t work out – and it’s important not to give yourself a hard time if you have a crappy client or a crappy project.
I mean, just don’t put it in you portfolio and don’t give yourself crap about it.
Me: Well thank you very much Kelly! Where we can find more of your work and if people want awesome Steampunky 2D games characters how do they reach you?
Kelly: My website is kellymcc.com, that’s mostly my game art, and I also have a Deviant Art blog that’s all linked from there!