Kate Pugsley is an illustrator, painter, and surface designer based in Chicago. She earned a BFA in illustration from RISD and her clients include Penguin Random House, The New York Times, Tundra Books, Red Cap Cards, Lazzari and many more.
We love her whimsical style and appreciate her honest insight particularly regarding agent representation and attracting ideal clients. Enjoy!
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance illustrator, painter, and surface designer.
I decided to go to art school because drawing and painting were always my favorite activities as a child and my focus in high school. My understanding of adult life and work was really limited, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else as a career. Although I studied illustration at RISD, my early work after school was closer to fine art; I mostly worked with oil paint and presented work in some gallery shows. I had a few different day jobs while painting nights and weekends. I finally decided a few years after college that illustration was what I really wanted to do, so I made it happen. I started working with materials that translated better to illustration, like gouache and watercolor on paper. Once I felt like I had some pieces I was happy with I put a portfolio together and started reaching out to art directors and sharing my work on social media. It’s not always an easy or secure job, but it can be very fun and rewarding.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
Most clients found my work online or through something I’ve published—I think clients often prefer to find you rather than to be contacted by illustrators looking for work. My first illustration jobs were editorial pieces for magazines, then I slowly started to get more clients over the years for publishing, surface design and advertising.
You balance working with many different clients and illustrate/paint for different mediums, do you have any tips for being your most productive?
My best tip for being productive is to be strict about setting time aside for deep focus on the actual creative work; time for emails, contracts, social media, etc. must be separate, as it can be very distracting. Making time to sketch and paint freely also opens me up and helps me stay more consistently focused throughout the week. I always keep a few sketchbooks of different sizes going. I record my thoughts and ideas through notes, lists, drawings and small paintings—otherwise, I'll forget them. When I neglect to do this, I tend to get bored and restless easily, and that slows down my productivity. Tidying up my workspace in the morning before getting started always helps a lot too.
Can you tell us a bit about your process for getting a book & publishing agent and/or how you connected with Red Cap Cards? How have these partnerships improved your work flow?
I connected with Red Cap Cards over the course of a couple years. We emailed a few times and eventually, we made a collection together for 2016. It’s been one of my most rewarding client relationships. The most satisfying work comes when clients give me a lot of creative freedom and trust me to make good work, and Red Cap definitely does that. We’ve also become friends, which is a nice bonus!
The process of getting an agent for children’s books was rather long and, frankly, a little bit discouraging a lot of the time. I reached out to many agents and agencies, talked to a few, and was rejected every time. I couldn’t find a way to get jobs in children’s publishing without an agent. Then, in 2016, Anne at the Bright Agency contacted me about becoming one of her clients, and now I’m working on my first book (writing and illustration) with Tundra Books. I’m still not really sure how to get an agent, actually. I think putting out consistent work that connects with people is the most important step.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelance creative so far?
Working alone can be isolating. Negotiating the appropriate fee and timeline for a job can be challenging sometimes too. I love working freelance though, so I don’t have too many complaints.
If you could share one piece of advice to your "just starting out" self, what would it be?
It took me a long time to build up some confidence. I used to be very shy and insecure, it held me back a lot. My advice to my younger self would be to work more on understanding my fears and weaknesses instead of just avoiding them.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
I think it’s important to keep working on personal projects to show your own creative vision. Client-based work usually involves compromises, and my voice can sometimes get a little lost underneath a creative brief. I’m trying to find a balance between client work and working on pieces that are completely mine; with that in mind, I try to attract good clients who want to work with me based on my concepts.
This language on your website is very wise: "I work with clients interested in forming an ongoing creative partnership." Have you found that this specification does indeed help generate ongoing partnerships?
To be honest, I’m not sure that it’s had much effect in terms of client relationships yet, but that is still my goal.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
I have templates for invoices, and I keep track of expenses and income in simple spreadsheets. Keeping it as simple and organized as possible takes some of the stress out of end-of-year tax stuff. Organization doesn’t come naturally to me, but over the years I’ve learned that it saves me a lot of time if I put in the effort. Another thing I recommend to illustrators is to thoroughly read contracts and agreements, and to push back on terms that aren’t good for you!
Do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
I can’t say I’ve achieved a great balance yet. I really love my work and always want to be creating, but running my own business basically means I never stop working. Since I make my own schedule, I try to not work much on the weekends, and I go for walks every day to get outside and let my mind wander. I also love just enjoying the perks of working freelance, like going to the beach, a museum, or a yoga class in the middle of the day if I have time and need some inspiration or a break.
Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?
I recently started a company called Formal Dept. along with my husband, where we’re developing lifestyle goods and housewares that combine my illustration and his product design work. We’ve talked for a long time about working together, and it’s finally starting to come together. Our first product launch is a series of bags, and we’re expanding into tabletop items later this year. And we have a lot of other ideas that we can’t talk about yet! I’m also ruminating on some ideas for illustrated books, some for children and some for adults. I always have more ideas than time!
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Curiosity, enthusiasm, and a unique perspective on your particular creative field.