To put it plainly, I believe this has been a uniquely bad year to be a freelance illustrator. I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that many other folks are going to agree with me here. Like a lot of creatives, I find it hard to put distance between my work, my career, and my personal identity. As a result, and in combination with overlapping challenges in my personal life, sitting down to write an essay on the business or practice of illustration feels especially daunting. It leaves me feeling I have nothing to offer. Talking about esoteric photography concepts or process tips feels like equal parts “fiddling while Rome burns” and “aren’t there 100 other artists who could say this better?”*
But I’ve generally tried to make a practice of writing about the topics that I’m actively interested or struggling with. I also believe that this must be a shared experience, and shared experiences are always interesting to the other folks living through them. I have a lot of thoughts to sort and resolutions to make and maybe that can be of value to others too.
Why Does It Feel So Bad?
When I try to pin down exactly what is making 2023 feel like such a brutal year for illustrators, I find myself careening between several concerning problems. Which in and of itself is probably the overall answer: multiple disruptions are happening at the same time. The fact that many of us have yet to fully shake the fatigue of Living Through The Pandemic might make some of these feel bigger than they really are. But from my perspective:
Might as well start with the biggest bad. Generative AI smashed like the Kool-Aid Man through our collective wall of mental health late last year. It had been around before that, but somewhere around November of 2022 there was an escalation that could no longer be ignored. I should probably look it up so that I can seem well informed on the subject, but an even bigger part of me recoils at the whole thing so I’ll just assume it was a new roll out of Midjourney or something. I am not a reliable source for identifying what caused the tipping point. All I know is, I started seeing a trickle of images showing up and that turned into a deluge. There was a feeling of freefall by January that prompted such a collective wail of anguish from the art community that I actually left social media for most of this past year. I just could not function in that firehose of anxiety. While this might have been necessary for me at the time, I can’t help but view it as a potential mistake and I’ll talk more about that shortly.
But how big of a problem is AI? It is truly impossible to say right now. My earlier answer of “existential threat, both to our industry as well as human creative expression” was probably going too far. Probably. But this one is moving fast and it is hard to see the shape of the storm from inside the storm. While there have definitely been some concrete negative impacts (studio layoffs, AI turning up in major product releases), there have also been some rays of hope. Wizards of the Coast put out a “No AI” policy. The Writers Guild successfully carved out protections from AI. The US Copyright office has consistently maintained that works produced by generative AI are not eligible for protection. I’m certainly not saying “it’s all good,” but the signs of resistance are a life raft I will gladly cling to.
Remember when I said it might have been a mistake to peace out from social media? Yeah, it turns out that going full hermit while the industry suffers a major contraction is actually a BAD idea. But the point might be moot, because social media is also a hot mess. While I was never a Twitter user personally, it’s the most vivid example of how closely tied our fortunes can be to a platform. And while I do greatly enjoy watching a billionaire publicly and spectacularly fail through his own hubris, the fallout is hurting many creatives who are losing a key means of promoting and earning. My personal flavor of socials has been Instagram and Facebook though. Unfortunately, organic reach is a joke now that these platforms have fully embraced monetizing posts. It’s possible that only 1-3% of my followers actually like the work I’m making, but that seems like suspiciously poor engagement. But how about youtube? Tiktok? One of the 20 various “we’re the new Twitter” platforms? I’m not sure, because I don’t have the capacity to be running that many parallel accounts and starting from zero on any platform is a slog. It broadly feels like there is a population wide fatigue and building an audience is harder than ever before. I wish I had a note of optimism to add, but I don’t. Social media in 2023 truly feels like screaming into the void. But what are you going to do, NOT scream into the void? We have to scream someplace.
This is what it really comes down to. To be clear, I have no facts to support this statement. Only vibes. So you can definitely dismiss this. All I can say is that it sure seems like there is a shortage of work to go around based on the vibes running through my irl and online communities. Whatever the case, I can certainly say that 2023 has been a dry, dry year for me. Upside, it’s been a wet, wet year (why does that feel not correct?) for me rediscovering personal projects.
I wish that I had more data on this, but I honestly do not know what is happening. Some companies appear to be rolling out more product than ever before, but assignments are still thin and project cancellations seem to be more common. Of course, this might entirely be an “it’s just me” situation. My style of work may be out of fashion and my lack of visibility and promotion absolutely do have a part to play. I don’t know, leave a comment and tell us if your workload is up, down, or steady? Genuinely want to know.
A Bad Economy
So the news tells me that, actually, it’s a good economy again! Or maybe a less awful one. So relatively good? I’m not sure. I tend to notice that public feelings are always on a lag from whatever the economists say though. And I feel like, going by public opinion, people are still feeling cautious right now. Which means less private commissions, less sales of originals, and I have to assume less of any other direct support that fans can give to artists. Anecdotally, I recently had a buyer committed to a major purchase only to back out due to changes in their own finances, while others are many months behind on pieces being paid over time. And I get it, because I’m feeling pretty tight with my own spending.
I do want to thank the collectors who have kept me going though the year though. I saw a lot of folks buying at IX just a couple weeks ago, so I’m hoping that we’re hitting the upswing again.
What to do right now?
I think that all four of these problems are real and that they are significant. But they are not permanent. Pendulums swing and fortunes change if we can hang in there long enough.
Situations like this are a perfect time to step back and reassess. Reassess everything. Personally, I’ve been taking a look at: the focus and direction of my work, sources of income, how I promote, how much I promote, and what do I want to be doing that I’m not doing?
My past few years have been a blur of gritted teeth and frantic motion just dealing with, well, life. When I was working, it was similarly frantic jumping from project to project. And a ton of that work is still tied up in NDA limbo including four, yes FOUR, illustrated novels. And now that I stop and look back and look forward, there were a number of things I wish I’d done differently if I’d had the wherewithal to do anything other than reflexively keep moving forward.
Value Current Relationships
If you have good clients that you stay in touch with, good. Keep doing that. Same with good collectors. Hard times are a reminder that this business really benefits those who maintain good relationships. If there’s folks you haven’t connected with in awhile, no time like the present to reach out. I personally don’t always feel comfortable with this. Especially with collectors, where the line between friendship and money is often blurry. But maintaining relationships is essential for sustained success.
The biggest positive improvements in my career have resulted from personal projects. Of course, a lot of personal projects have also lead nowhere. But I see this as an unparalleled opportunity to explore and experiment, to build, to rebrand. It’s the best possible way to discover and hone your voice.
Be Visible, Stay Visible
So much of this business is about momentum. That means that work and sales are built on an accumulation of folks seeing and connecting with your work. Even if social media is hot garbage right now, finding and being active in online platforms or groups rewards you the more you do it.
Very easily, the highlights of my year have been the times I was able to be around other artists. Most recently, that was at Illuxcon, and it truly felt like I was coming alive to be there. I fell into a habit of very very few convention commitments over the past several years, but I aim to change that going forward. Even just reconnecting with my art folk on Facebook feels like a lift and I hate Facebook.
Fight Back Against AI
If you have the means, a contribution to the gofundme to legally combat AI helps keep our interests as artists represented.
Additionally, I recommend adding Glaze protection to any new work posted online, especially on any social media platforms. The same team is also soon to launch an even more aggressive tool called Nightshade which actively poisons train data, so keep an eye out for that. These tools can help force developers to stop using images without authorization.
Take Care of Yourself
A lot of these actions can be fairly taxing. It takes sustained emotional and mental energy to be diving into personal work, revising your career goals, connecting with clients, and posting and socializing regularly. All the more so when many of these tasks don’t yield immediate rewards. Some of them might even increase feelings of alienation or despair if they seem in vain. That’s ok, it may also be time to take a breath. You can only be effective if you also take care of your physical and mental health. So be kind to yourself and recognize that what is happening is extraordinary and, if your career is suffering, it is not a reflection of you. This is happening, in parts if not in whole, to all of us.
*My difficulty in engaging like that right now is purely a reflection of my own headspace, and I want to note that I’m grateful that other folks are keeping this blog full of inspiring and educational posts.