Balancing a day job, freelance illustration and illness

I started this post a few times. It was long and rambly with a lot of talking about art college and the beginnings of the internet business model. I decided to scrap it all and just keep it simple. I started making some notes about things I've learnt along the way, and I'll be re-posting over the coming weeks some old articles I wrote for EMG Zine/ Part time painter blog where I talked about specific techniques I've tried at one time or another to try and help productivity.

As a bit of background:

  • I've had an art business since 2003 when I got my first website and ABN. Most of my art income comes from painting commissions, though in the early days the majority came from originals and print sales
  • I've worked part time since I was 16, starting full time work in IT mid 2003 after several years full time study at university. I was still studying part time while running a business and working full time. I made a conscious decision to work in IT as I am one of these people that can't just be consumed by art... I like constant learning and being mentally challenged. The art business is more than just painting - you are an Entrepreneur, a one person shop. It's a lot of work and I tip my hat to all full time artists. 
  • I don't have a partner or children. So guess who gets to do all the chores :D But I have a cat who does not understand boundaries
  • I got diagnosed with my illness when I was 17. I was misdiagnosed for probably 10 years until my physical and mental health hit rock bottom about 10 years ago. It's a managed condition. I see doctors regularly, I'm on daily medication, I go through good patches and extremely bad patches. People judge you for it - especially as it's not a visible illness, and aspects are completely misunderstood. I daily have to manage what I eat, how many hours I sleep, and try and keep my stress low - yeah, work in IT, that's a low stress job! 

So here are some high level thoughts on balancing multiple hats.

According to plan...


Knowing your limits and setting boundaries

You know yourself better than anyone else. When you are not doing the art business full time (or don't have a lot of support), you are doing it around other things - family or work or illness. You have to be realistic about how much time you actually have for your business... and then think about how much time you have and whether you can actually commit to every spare hour you have. 

I get home from work quite often after 7pm at night after working a standard day. I have one day off a week that many weeks is half taken by doctors appointments. After getting dinner and getting my crap together for the next day (in theory there's cleaning dishes, maybe doing a load of washing) I am left with not a huge amount of time. I can't stay up late. My meds make me tired, plus I need sleep or my condition deteriorates. I sometimes will answer emails, do some social media, write a blog post, pack an order... but most of the time I've learnt I need to have wind down time for myself. I might game for half an hour or watch some TV or read a book. Years ago I used to come home, and paint or study until midnight. Nowadays I can't.

Knowing my limitations, I've come to the realisation that I don't work quick enough for freelance gigs like game cards or company illustrations. It's why I do private commissions because I have more control. I've only done one illustration for a game when I was overwhelmed and probably didn't have the energy. It took longer than I wanted (though there was no strict deadline), but I always felt bad about it.

What are your priorities

Priorities can shift at any time of the year, at any time in your career. Your business has to be fed and nurtured, some times it will take more energy than at others. You have to make a commitment to it. But, that doesn't mean your priorities are going to be consistent. When I first started, prints and products were my priorities. I had to change my priorities when the margins became really narrow and I worked out I effectively had 3 hours on a Saturday morning in which I could get to the post office. You would think this is plenty of time, but what happens when a family event comes up, you get sick, you have to go to a shop that's open in the same time but on the other side of town.

Priorities also are about what makes you happy or gives you satisfaction as an artist. You're compacting your art business time down into maybe a few hours each night and possibly part of the weekend. You will begin to resent your business if you feel like you are coming home to more work. Or you'll burn out.

Think about what it is about the art business you want to focus on and don't apologise for it. As long as you are professional, carefully consider what does and doesn't align with your priorities.


One of the things I did badly when I started was reacting to things, rather than being prepared in advanced. I'm moving my print sales pretty much to fulfilment as the time cost for packaging items and going to the post office, even for one item is worth less to me than time spent painting. But while doing lots of print sales I found that sitting down and preparing a stockpile of prints, buying backing boards in the right size rather than hand cutting to size, and using prepared templates instead of a custom one all save time and energy. I used to have stickers for shipping labels but these days I've changed directions so don't do huge amounts of physical sales.

For commissions, I have contract templates, I should have canned email responses but I don't. I do however try to make my information about commissions clear and concise. Consider having a FAQ page... I think mine hit the dust when I rebuilt my website, but I did make a post about image usage because that is what I used to get the most emails about when I was first starting out. 

Also set up client expectations up front early. I have worked out I have to chunk work into thumbnails, sketches, and then the final painting. I give an estimate for the work explaining roughly when I'll be checking in, and try to stick to it. Unfortunately things don't always go to plan as you can't prepare for being sick or your computer dying, or thunderstorms preventing you from working digitally the only day you have off! 

Learn to say NO 

I cannot stress this enough. If a commission feels off, don't take it (working with a day job means I can be a bit choosy). I still take on work that occasionally the interest wears off on part way through, but I've learnt that some work or some opportunities can be energy vampires. When your time is limited, you do not want to be stuck doing something that takes up time you don't really have and makes you resent your creative business. Most of the time something else will come along that better aligns with your priorities anyway.

If at first you don't succeed...

There are dozens of techniques for improving productivity. Pomodoro, time-boxing, those tools that eliminate distractions, Rescue Time (for watching how many hours you spend avoiding work...) Try each one, and if it doesn't work, move on. Just be prepared that some things will work, some things won't. You are trying to work smarter, not harder. 

Build in down time

You are not a machine. You need to have fun. It is healthy to paint your own personal work, go to the movies, have family days, go on holidays, exercise (bleh), do things that you enjoy. I probably paint less these days because I game more than I used to when I first started my business, but I need that time where I'm not thinking about work. It's my thing that I look forward to. You have to have something you enjoy doing outside of work and family.

And don't feel guilty about it (unless it's interfering with deadlines and you're procrastinating)

Build in downtime... go to the beach

Build in downtime... go to the beach


Don't compare yourself to full-time artists!

Oh man am I bad at this. When I don't feel like I've improved in years I have to remember other artists have a lot more time to practice their craft. They are working constantly in the arts industry... it's like comparing a top level athlete to someone who plays football on the weekend. It's OK to be slower, it's OK to have smaller sales and make less money, it's OK not to get the awards, it's OK not to have thousands of followers. 

They are working at it all the time. If it bothers you, turn off social media for a while and just paint or do something that makes you happy. I found that I had to stop looking at Instagram because it was seriously depressing seeing people doing amazing art all the time... and me painting maybe one full painting in a month or two. I stuck with twitter because there was more words than pictures, but I still could connect with other artists.

Get involved with artist groups

There are going to be other artists like you. They may be difficult to find but connecting with artists who understand having a hundred hats in the air is going to make you feel not so alone. (Or maybe that's just me). Artist groups and challenges can get you excited and out of a rut.

You're going to get overwhelmed at some stage

It's going to happen. Whatever you do, there are going to be times where there are simply not enough hours in the day, you're unwell and need to rest, or you've just overextended yourself. If something is not working, try to figure out a way to make it work. Try different techniques until you find some solution that works. Cut back on the things that don't give you what you need. Don't agree to things that you know are going to be more trouble than they're worth.

Well... there's probably more that I've forgotten, but that's probably enough reading for now! Hopefully this helps at least one other artist not feel quite so alone. If you ever want to chat, I'm on twitter where there are some great artists that interact on a regular basis. I'm in a few great Facebook groups - mainly One Fantastic Week though they tend to be more focused on full time artists - still a great group for connecting and asking questions.

If you know of any great groups for connecting with artists, let me know!