Anastasia Korochansckaja’s Tips on Building a Career as an Artist

Anastasia Korochansckaja is a freelance illustrator and designer based in Bellingham who earns additional income through sales of original art and commissions.

Below, Anastasia shares her favorite resources as well as advice about selling work, getting started as a freelancer, finding and building strong relationships with clients, doing commissions, and working full time as a professional artist.

Where do you go to sharpen your skills as an artist? What online resources would you recommend to other artists?

AnastasiaMost, if not all, my skills are self taught. Stumbling upon art resources and sharing sites years ago was really the catalyst and fuel I needed to start down my road of improvement. In the past you could admire your artistic idols from afar through books or museum exhibitions, but the virtual world has reshaped the artistic landscape and brought these once-looming figures within reach. Not only is the exchange of information more free than it has ever been, but you can learn alongside your peers simply through observation. I think the bulk of what I have learned has resulted from following in the footsteps of many artists, watching their galleries grow, and absorbing the resources they share freely (be they tutorials, digital brush packs, or just thoughts about their processes).

While I feel that, for some, the structured environment that formal art education can offer is instrumental to their success, today’s artists have more non-traditional options to explore that can be as effective or more effective depending on their learning styles. There are many reputable online institutions run by industry artists that offer video curriculum for a fraction of the cost associated with traditional schooling. These institutions make art training more accessible and afford students a broader range of study over condensed frames of time. One noteworthy example is Schoolism, which offers a broad range of classes focusing on a wide array of topics and skill sets.

For those with more meager resources, the internet offers many free repositories of knowledge. Searching DeviantART for tutorials, plus visiting the forums on Cgtalk.org and ConceptArt.org are great options. These sites are equally valuable and ripe with FREE resources that you need only to take the time to find and make use of! In addition to resources, these sites provide something equally valuable: inspiration and motivation to improve.

Why did you decide to sell your work through Storenvy and not some other platform, such as Etsy? What unique benefits does Storenvy provide?

I think Etsy is just as good for artists and artisans as other online storefronts such as Storeenvy. Etsy has the advantage of a historically more interconnected community, which likely makes up for the fees Etsy charges to sellers.

Storeenvy was just a better fit for me personally. It offers all the features and customizability I want without any associated fees. I am lucky that so many people are familiar with my work through the various social media and gallery sites I frequent (Deviantart, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.), as most of the traffic to my store (and hence my sales) come through those sites. That said, I have also had folks stumble upon my store through Storenvy directly and make purchases that way, so it is certainly possible to gain traction within Storenvy itself!

I would advise artists to do their own research and speak to other artists who use one or both websites to determine which is a better fit for them personally. If anything, use as many marketing tools/websites as you can if the costs can be offset. Having your art in more places means more people will see it- plain and simple! Just do your research, make sure you are aware of the costs of associated with each storefront, and maintain them all!

How did you first become involved doing concept art and other work for video game companies?

I became involved in concept art incidentally when a friend inquired why I hadn’t considered the avenue previously. Honestly, one of the hardest parts, as any artist is already likely to know, is getting your foot in the door (i.e. having someone give you a chance). My friend happened to push me into organizing a portfolio showcasing my personal work and she sent it to a work contact she had. They liked what they saw and offered me a small starter project to test my abilities, reliability, and work ethic. After a few smaller projects, I began to gain the trust of these clients and established that I was both reliable and professional. As a result, they started to send me bigger and bigger projects. After a time they also recommend me to other colleagues that worked for other companies.

In the meantime I was also building my professional portfolio and expanding on the range of subjects and styles of art I could do. I would seldom turn away projects, even if the subject or style was something that I was inexperienced with. I use each project as an opportunity to learn something new and expand my horizons. Of course each artist should be prudent and honest with themselves and not take on a project way beyond their current skill set, but you also shouldn’t turn away something just because you haven’t done it before. It’s all in finding a balance and remembering to challenge yourself so you don’t grow stale!

How do you get most of your clients as a freelance artist? What tips can you give to fledgling artists who need to build an initial client base?

My clients come from various places, but most of them have found me through the galleries on which I share my work. I would highly recommend that artists use social gallery websites like DeviantART and post content and spend time on industry websites like CGtalk, imagineFX, and conceptart.org. Even if it feels like no one notices you among the sea of talent, keep posting, don’t give up! I started with zero views just like everyone else and it took me a while to get to a point where I had any kind of presence on any of these sites (all things being relative, I am still a tiny tiny fish in an enormous sea of talent!). I have also received quite a few job offers/inquires through DeviantART alone (ranging from book covers to concept art).

Additionally, just go out and make friends in the art community. You don’t have to do so as a means to an end, but undoubtedly you will come across artists you admire and share common visions/ideas with. This is a great basis for any friendship. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them. They are people, too. Who knows what friendships you could cultivate and how these friendships can mutually benefit your artist endeavors! This ties into your questions about developing skills as an artist as well because, had it not been for the fellow artist friends I made along my artistic journey, I may have not stumbled into concept art in the first place. I am not saying you should make friends because of what they can do for you, but because these are people you share a common interest with. You could mutually benefit from knowing each other!

While people hate to hear the word nepotism, there is a reason why so many people get work by word of mouth. If someone knows you, they likely are more familiar with your skills, professionalism, reliability, and work ethic. Wouldn’t you be more likely to hire someone you know will be reliable as opposed to someone who might or might not be? I have heard time and time again from clients who run companies how an artist they had hired (who does amazing artwork) turned out to be completely unprofessional. Clients simply can’t afford to do work with a person like this, no matter how astonishing the work they do may be!

Anastasia KorochansckajaIt is hard to build that initial clientele but some tips to keeping and building upon a clientele are:

  • Be reliable. Deliver your work when you say you will. Always meet deadlines and don’t accept unrealistic deadlines just to please a client. This will always end badly and will color your reputation in their eyes.
  • Be friendly, positive, and easy to talk to. Everyone likes talking to positive people who are enthusiastic about prospective projects and eager to try new things.
  • It is ok to be humble and modest…and realistic about your abilities, but you should also not talk yourself down in front of a client. Clients don’t like people that second guess themselves or inject doubt of their abilities into the conversation. If a project is ridiculously out of your scope, turn it down politely, but don’t make yourself look incapable of ever taking on a similar project in the future. Basically, avoid wording things negatively! Being positive will motivate you and encourage confidence from your potential client. Win win for everyone.
  • Be willing to try new things. Know the limitations of your current skill set or knowledge, but don’t be bound by them. You can only learn how much you can accomplish if you are willing to try things you have never done before. This also makes you more valuable as a contractor, particularly in commercial illustration, because it’s easier to have one artist with a range of abilities than to juggle 10 with very specific abilities. Don’t just take projects that are out of your reach, be sure to practice new skills and subjects outside of work so that if a similar project does come along, you can put these practiced skills into use.

What are your thoughts on doing commissions as an artist? Can they be a significant source of income? What warnings would you give to an artist who is considering the option of accepting commission work?

Commissions are probably the bread and butter of any artist starting out in the art world. If you don’t have an audience for your personal body of work, you can’t sell it. By taking commissions while also pursuing your personal work on the side, you can financially support the work you are passionate about and also build your audience.

You have to be careful about the kind of work you offer as commission because this also dictates the kind of audience you are building for yourself and personal artwork. If you hate creating mech art, but took a job doing that and then added it to your professional portfolio, don’t be surprised if another client asks you to do the same kind of work and/or recommends you to other clients looking for similar work. Not everything you do you will love, but you do have some control over the majority of the of work you will do through the premise that you set through your portfolio.

I maintain two jobs as an artist. I work in the commercial art sector by illustrating for studios and various intellectual properties, and this pays most of my bills. I have a second audience for my personal artwork and I have gotten to a stage where I am lucky enough to be able to offer commissions very much in line with my personal body of work. It is my hope that this second line of work will become financially solid enough to allow me to do away with commercial work eventually (mind you, I enjoy a great deal of the commercial work I do and the people I work with, but it is not my passion!).

I also attend a few conventions at which I can sell prints and other merchandise. This is purely supplemental income as it fluctuates significantly from event to event and you can’t count on the income to be steady. Plus the supplies, space rental, and travel expenses that go into these events mean you have to set aside money far in advance to be able to attend.

Lastly, I maintain an online art store through which I also passively offer my prints and other merchandise. This is also supplemental income and the income is unpredictable, but you can probably generate more traffic and sales by keeping your store up to date and adding products/running sales regularly. Basically, I place myself and my work in a variety of places to help better ensure a more steady revenue stream (and at the best of times, it is hardly steady by most people’s definition of the word!)

Are you able to fully support yourself from your income as an artist? What practical advice would you give to those who would like to create self-sustaining art careers?

Currently I do work full time as an artist, but by no means is my work financially lucrative at this stage in my career. I live with my husband and we both help support each other’s endeavors, but we also live very frugally. We are lucky enough to be in a place where this lifestyle is currently feasible, but for artists just starting out, I recommend not throwing away your day job while you work at your dream.

This is not something anyone eager to start in the professional art world wants to hear, but the career of an artist is extremely difficult and requires scrupulous money and time management, a lot of perseverance, a great deal of upfront time investment, and yes, even some luck!

The time comes from putting together a portfolio and establishing a client base. Until you have the latter and are generating enough income to fill up your work hours and keep your bank account stocked, keep your day job and set aside what you can into a savings account for when/if you should ever switch to being a full time artist. Even now, I try to keep a reserve account for emergencies and another account for taxes so there isn’t a crunch at the end of the year.

Remember that as a freelance artist you are considered self employed. In the United States that means your income taxes are double what the salaried worker pays (15%). Be sure to keep good tax records, which include all art-related expenses ranging from materials to books and museum admissions. These are all tax deductible as they are investments in your business. Keep track of and organize invoices for all your projects -i.e. keep good track of all your income. It is also not a bad idea to keep a separate business checking account into which and from which all your business related income and expenses go and come from.

I know all that drudgery makes the process sound very disheartening, but today’s artists also have an advantage that never existed for artists in eras past. We have a globally-connected resource through which we can reach prospective clients from all around the globe. We don’t have to meet clients face to face and much of my work is done exclusively via email and phone. It takes some tenacity and time to find ways to market yourself, but most tools by which you can do this efficiently are free and right at your fingertips. The biggest factor in the equation is you and how much time and effort you are willing to put into establishing yourself in the art world.