Shyama Golden is a Brooklyn-based graphic designer, artist, and painter who has illustrated for The New York Times, Apple, Wired, Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic, and more.
We are captivated by her meticulous and vibrant style and could easily get lost within the world she creates. Read on to learn how she honed her craft and find out exactly how she showcases her work to attract her ideal clients.
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance graphic designer, artist, and painter.
The most life changing decision I made was when I realized I just needed to paint again, and I took a couple months off of client work to do that. Self doubt almost completely took me over, but by organizing a show that would get a ton of foot traffic during SXSW, I shamed myself into getting all the work done and most of it actually sold. The art I did for that show made its way around the internet, and eventually led to me getting a illustration job in San Francisco for a startup called Airtime where I worked for a few years before needing to do my own thing again.
That brings me to today. Over the past couple of years I’ve been working part time doing a little branding work, which allows me to spend the majority of my time doing personal work such as an illustrated book I’m working on (Catsquatch), patterns, portraits, paintings, and freelance illustration. A year ago I bought an iPad pro which has increased my creative output a lot because now I can replicate my oil painting style digitally using the Pencil and the app Procreate.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
One of them I met through a family friend, and others have reached out after seeing my work on Twitter, Dribbble, and Instagram. Later many of them found me through other clients. I don’t think there’s any one way I’ve gotten gigs but what really matters is sharing your work online. A couple of my biggest clients have actually come from Google image search and more recently from Instagram tags, so if there’s something to learn there, I guess it’s that you should keep your website up to date and make sure your images are tagged and searchable. People will always ask you to do more of what you’ve already done, so I make sure my personal work is what I want to get hired for next, and that has been a solid strategy to keep my work interesting and varied.
You work in multiple media, which I imagine is a balancing act. Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
I’m a terrible multi-tasker so I’ll just write everything down on paper and try to only look at a list of things to do today so I don’t get overwhelmed. I think it’s good to know your own biggest distraction and address it directly. For some people that’s TV and social media, for me it’s reading the news and getting lost in tangents learning probably-useless facts. I think all of this consumption does add something to your worldview and your shared experience with other people, so I’m not saying you should get rid of it, but I would recommend turning off the noise for a week just to see how it affects your work.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
I think this relates to the last question, because for me it’s that balance between consumption and creating. 7 years ago I was all output and no consumption (really stuck in my own head) and now I’m more consumption and inspiration and far less output (too much learning and looking at stuff and not enough doing). I think where I want to be on that spectrum is closer to where I used to be, but hopefully now I’ll have more life experience to inform my work.
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
My favorite thing is just getting to set my own schedule and work on the projects I want to. You have the power to say no to a project, or take time off for personal work. You can take a vacation any time of the year. Sometimes you even get a client who is more like a collaborator who pushes your work to a better place. The potential of what could be around the corner is always exciting, once you get to the point where you’re not worried about paying your bills.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
Something I’ve been trying out for the past couple years is curating what I share on my online portfolio. Instead of saying “look at all the million things I’ve ever done! Are you impressed?” now it’s very focused and only shows illustration in one particular cohesive style, because that’s specifically the work I want to attract more of at the moment. It means that I will miss out on some clients who would have liked me to do a typeface, logo, or vector illustration, but it’s helping me build my portfolio in a more specialized direction (painterly illustrations and patterns) that will hopefully help me get more jobs I enjoy in the long run. It doesn’t mean that I have to always work in the same style and mediums, but I’ll slowly evolve it over time.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
I would recommend hiring an accountant at tax time, having separate business and personal bank accounts and credit cards, and keeping track of your invoices. To keep track of my invoices, I number them indicating the year and the invoice number and keep them all in one folder together, rather than in separate folders with their corresponding project files. This stuff may seem obvious, but it took me a long time to get a system down so it might help someone else like me!
What do you do to stay creatively inspired?
I try to have a life. Most of the time I’m a super boring homebody, that’s my natural inclination… but I force myself to go out and talk to people and so far I haven't regretted it. Some of my best ideas have come from conversations with friends. I also go to a lot of galleries and museums, and I use Pinterest to find illustrators and artists I like.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
I’ve always felt like being your own boss isn’t exactly true for freelancing. Maybe it’s more true for personal work. You still need to make the client happy as a freelancer unless you’re a really famous badass. There will still be times when you don’t agree with the client but you need to do the revisions anyway, or the client steers the project into a direction you don’t like. You’re right though, you are your own boss when it comes to deciding when to go to sleep and how much to work. I definitely give myself time to rest. Having at least one pajama day a week where I don’t have to face the world is something I’m grateful for. I used to miss sleep all the time and I just became more and more tired. The older you get, that just isn’t worth it anymore.
I do like to travel and I always see my parents in Houston for a few weeks a year—they are retired now and meditate a lot and they give me perspective when I’m worried about a stupid thing (which is all the time). My mom will always remind me that I should start exercising again… I’m still figuring it out really.
Are there any projects that you're ruminating on that you'd like to make time for someday?
So many! I have a few more halfway realized ideas for illustrated books, I want to get my patterns on some fabrics, and I have an idea for a zoetrope that will require me to learn 3d modeling. I would love to do more collaborations with people in different industries.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Passion, determination, and focus (the one I’m still working on).