How I Freelance: Illustrator Nicole Album

A new series digging into the nitty gritty of freelance life.

Image of Nicole Album

Illustration by Nicole Album

Nicole Album landed in my inbox back in 2018 when I was editor-in-chief of The Bold Italic, a San Francisco-based online magazine. I regularly commissioned illustrators for editorial assignments, and Nicole quickly became my go-to for assignments. Her hand-drawn style gave the publication so much quirky personality, it became a staple of our content. 

Fast forward to when I started running this publication at worklife, and I asked Nicole to help out as our resident illustrator.

One of the main missions of worklife mag is to highlight creatives and freelancers in hopes of inspiring others. Today we’re launching this new series, How I Freelance, to see how people contracting across fields are managing their solo business — and their own personal life. 

I thought Nicole would be the perfect person to kick us off. 

I’ve personally always been interested in people’s decisions to move away from a full-time employee job to go after it on their own. Learning from friends who took the risk in their 20s inspired me to quit my tech PR job at 28 to go into freelance journalism, and it was the best move I’ve ever made. 

I sat down to chat with Nicole to ask her about her move to freelance a few years ago, her advice for others who want want to do the same, as well as got the low down on she schedules her day and is working through creative blocks during COVID.

Let’s dive in.

We’ve worked together for a few years now on so many fun projects — you’ve become a true collaborator. I’d love for you to tell our readers more about you and your work.

I know, you were the first editorial I landed! I was thrilled. 

Well, I span a few different niches in illustration — gotta pay the bills. But it’s all pretty much in lifestyle spaces: retail, editorial, and some entertainment clients. I’m doing both digital illustration, which is quick, and hand-painted. 

I lost a some amount of my work when COVID hit, mainly the gigs where I would do illustrations at parties. Companies would often hire performers, whether a tarot reader or musician or what not, and I would often be hired to draw portraits of people. It was good money, and I’m sad I don’t have that anymore. Those kind of gigs are actually how I got to make the jump to freelance. 

So interesting. And that was my next question. How did you get your start and how did you make the leap away from your day job?

I worked in fashion and retail design from 2013 - 2018. I lived in New York briefly, then moved out here to San Francisco, attended graduate school for illustration, and went into doing graphics for children’s clothing brands. I worked a couple children’s and tween cothing ocmpanies based locally. 

I hadn’t been very happy at my job for awhile. That was due to corporate culture, lack of flexibility, and environmentally unfriendly practices. I was interviewing for other full-time jobs but didn’t see any other company doing things differently. I had already started doing illustration at the parties, and so I started preparing to go freelance. I thought, worse case, it doesn’t work out and I get another job. 

Making that jump is a big deal. You said you prepared. How?

I was saving money while at my full time job knowing I’d need a buffer. I also signed a new lease on a studio apartment, knowing I wouldn’t want to be in a shared space. I had the party gigs, and knew my former boss was hiring freelancers and was open to hiring me for jobs. I had a few other contacts. But honestly, I did want to wait a few years — I wasn’t as ready as I wanted to be — but timing worked out the way it did. I’m still glad I did it, but I do think the jump is easier if you’re more financially backed or have a bigger client base. 

What were your struggles in the beginning?

Paying rent, buying groceries. It’s still the struggle (laughs).

How did you find your first client, and now, how do you typically come across new clients?

Most of my first few clients were warm contacts or introductions from warm contacts. People I either worked with previously, or at least people who had seen my work. This still holds true. New clients have been predominantly people in the Bay Area I have worked with before or have seen my work locally. There is the occasional lead via my website or instagram, as well.

How do you choose what projects you work on, in general — what to say yes to, what to say no to?

I use a questionnaire with all new clients. The best clients are the ones who have answers and come to the table prepared. Price, timing, and whether their business resonates with my values all play a role, too.

How do you approach pricing - it’s one of the trickiest parts about freelancing. Do you find retainers better or do you prefer project-based work? 

Pricing is so dependent on the project for my field. I use the Graphic Artist's Guild Handbook and when needed. I also talk to other illustrators, when I am unsure of a rate to see if they've done a similar job. I have an hourly rate on hand and prepare estimates when needed. My preference is not project based or retainer, it is clients who pay a fair rate for my time and respect my rights as an artist.

Very true. Have things changed for you since starting out?

I’m in the routine now. I like a really strict schedule. I’m used to it, and it’s based on knowledge of  myself — and a ton of research. I’m not going to lie, I’ve listened to a ton of podcasts and read a ton of books about creative people running a freelance business to learn what’s helped people be successful. 

Love a good schedule. Can you walk me through it?

7:30am: Wake up, listen to the news while drinking coffee. Get ready. 

8:30am: Start working, read email, do warm-up drawings. The amount of work I have dictates how I spend this time. I’d love to paint every morning first thing, but not always possible.

10am-1:30pm: My prime creativity time. I know this about myself. I have a late breakfast around then and start chugging along.

2pm: My brain stops and I need to get up. I noticed this at my full-time job. I’d tell them “Whatever you want me to do creatively, please have me do it before 2. They would just laugh at me, but now I have control over that.”

This is when I try to do errands, go to the gym, take a coffee break, etc.

4-5pm: I get back to work until 7-8pm or whatever it needs to be, maybe 9pm. 

Before COVID, I would go to events at night: artist get togethers, live models, ballet or yoga class, and that was part of work in a way. Now I don’t have that, so I’ll often work until 9 because there’s no reason to stop. It’s a little mental, I know. I don’t have anything cathartic happening at this time, and I miss that. It used to help with freeing up brain space. 

I’ve hit a lot of creative blocks and it’s hard to work my way through it.

I love hearing how people break up their day. Do you work on the weekends or block that time?

I don’t mind working on the weekends - I don’t have a strict Monday-Friday. If I work on an editorial over the weekend, I may take off part of Tuesday, etc. I really don’t like working long 12 hour days, I’d rather work 6-7 hours and then do some time on the weekends. 

That’s a big part of freelancing, knowing your own biorhythms.

Oh, yeah. That’s a big learning curve at first and good advice. Any other advice for people thinking about going freelance?

Along those same lines, you really have to know yourself to do this. I don’t care what your field of interest, if you don’t know yourself, you won’t be a successful freelancer. You need to know your biorhythms, what to eat that fuels you, why you want to do this, and when you need a break. It’s about being more than being self-motivated, you have to know when to say yes, when to say no. I attribute my ability to go freelance in some ways to that fact that I had been doing therapy, started it a few years before and working for myself  was one of the goals. 

I’m still learning a lot about myself. I’m still learning when to listen to my gut and set boundaries. I didn’t grow up like that — I was very type A, and I was on a professional dance track. I would spent 25 hours a week after school in high school dancing. So I had to be disciplined. 

Wow, yeah, that’s a lot of pressure. You mentioned that you had been having creative blocks lately. How are you working through those?

It’s hard right now. It’s been hard during COVID. I’ve talked to so many other people, artists and not artists, that have been feeling this way. At the beginning of quarantine, I would try to diversify the scenery of my day by walking a new route or picking up a fun new take-out. I’ve kind of maxed that out. 

One thing that was fun was joining a 30-day art challenge through Warrior Painters. They hold them a lot, and this one’s theme was plein air (it was in April.) It was all outside, and I invited people to join me. I did that for 30 days and that gave me some fuel. I got to socialize and get out of my space and my head. But I’ve had no major breakthroughs in terms of breaking the creative block; it sucks, in general. I’m struggling overall this week with news of Afghanistan, the delta variant, the Tahoe fires, and the hurricane in New Orleans (where I’m from). But the problem is every week feels like this. And what used to give me catharsis — going to a show, ballet, a lecture — aren’t open to me right now. It’s limiting. I’m in the lane of accepting the creative block instead of having to plow through it. There will be a time in the future when new things are happening, and I want to be ready for that. It’s going to feel really, really good. 

I also want to note there’s a difference between giving yourself grace and paying bills. We all have to work hard bc we're living in capitalism, but that doesn’t mean that every other minute we have needs to be obsessing about work. I have to work really hard to turn off. I could go down the path of criticizing myself about not making major advancements in my career right now, but I’m still able to pay bills. It’s good enough to float and not go backwards. If you’re not sinking, give yourself a break. 


What I'm listening to:

Some of my favorite weekly podcasts:

  • How to Save a Planet
  • WTF with Marc Maron (always)
  • Working it out with Mike Birbiglia
  • Radio Lab (always) 
  • All Songs Considered
  • everything on NPR

I’m usually a music junkie, but throughout Covid have found it harder to stream new records. My attention span is less engaged, or maybe it’s knowing I can’t go to see a small indie band in a itny venue like I enjoy? I’ve been sticking to old, 60s & 70s vinyl. I scored a really fantastic Bowie record for $1 recently.       

What I'm reading:

Every quarter I balance one pleasure book with one business book and one art book. I’m also constantly reading the news.

Freelance resources: 

- Creative Peptalks with Andy J Pizza (for ALL kinds of creatives)

- Rates for Illustrators: 


• Graphics Artist's Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines (2021)

• Bird by Bird

• Draw Stronger

• Finish, Give Yourself the Gift of Done

• The Universe Has Your Back

• Make Art, Make Money

• On Writing

What's on my desk:

A few New Yorkers and some vintage 1960s Playboys I just acquired over the weekend. A library copy of 'Awaking Beauty: The art of Eyvind Earle', lots of post-its (my calendar system is a bit insane and color-coded), brushes, paints, notebooks, laptop, and my iPad. To the left of my desk is my art cart jam-packed with (only some of) my supplies. To the right is my bookshelf with all my art books, kids books, and vinyl.

Nicole Album's desk

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