Marloes De Vries is an award-winning illustrator and author based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. With almost 10 years of freelancing under her belt, she has a wealth of knowledge which she enjoys sharing openly on her blog. We are inspired by her perseverance, honesty, and commitment to self-care and excited to be sharing her wisdom with you today. Enjoy!
Tell us about your path to becoming a freelance illustrator and author.
Drawing has always been my main focus and being creative is deeply rooted in my being. I started drawing at a very early age, around 3 years old. I always said I wanted to be an artist when I was a little girl. When I got older and my cousin said she wanted to go to art school, I started saying the same. At 14 I started designing websites and at 18 I got accepted into art school.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication when I was 21. I didn't study illustration as my teachers said I couldn't draw very well. That broke my heart. I tried forgetting about illustration and I ended up in advertising. I was an art director for some years and dabbled as a freelance editorial photographer for a couple of years until something within me said I should get back to drawing. That was scary for me as telling stories in pictures is the thing I love most, and I was certain I couldn't handle another rejection. But the first drawing I made in years was received so well that it was a kickstart for my new career. I've been freelancing as an illustrator for over 8 years now and I am writing now as well. I have written a picture book which I really need to send to some publishers, and I'm writing articles for magazines. This writing is combined with drawings a lot and that balance is perfect. I also create comics and cartoons for magazines and myself. I am exactly where I saw myself when I was 5 years old, which is magic.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
It took me a while, to be honest. I was working as an illustrator for three years when I got an assignment of which I thought: "okay, this is going in the right direction!" They came directly though Instagram.
I'm not one to go to networking events as I can't do small talk. So with social media the whole game changed! Instagram was the ideal platform for me to showcase my work without the need to do small talk. I love that I'm in direct contact with the audience I draw and write for.
You now work with one of your dream clients, Flow Magazine, congrats! How did this come about and what advice would you give to others hoping to get to work with their own "wish list" clients?
I had been posting hand lettering on Instagram for over a year when Flow Magazine contacted me asking if I'd liked to do that for their magazine. This was over 5 years ago and the thing was that I was doing something not a lot of people were doing at that time. Hand lettering was not very popular back then as it is now.
Coming up with something original is always the best way, if you ask me. You have to be your own voice, stand out from the crowd. I also think it's a matter of building credibility. At first, everyone struggles because you have to build your business first. But as soon as you have shown that you meet your deadlines, that you communicate clearly about everything, you're pleasant to work with and you work your hardest, things will start rolling.
Your blog is a platform for personal musings as well as a place to share information, inspiration, and advice for fellow freelancers and illustrators. What motivated you to start sharing in this way?
I mainly started blogging because I was getting so many questions from (aspiring) illustrators about how to do certain things. At first I was answering them all individually but as the same questions kept coming, I thought: I should write this down and make it publicly available. And that's how I started my blog! I also like to share some insight in my life; who I am as a person defines a great deal of my work.
It looks like you've taken a little break from blogging now. Can you tell us a bit about the decision to take that break and what you learned from it?
I update my blog when I've got something useful to share. At least, that's what I believe hahaha! I don't put a lot of pressure on blogging as my illustration work and writing comes first. When I have spare time left I now take care of myself first. In the past I spent all my spare time on making work for social media, or blogging. Now, I take walks, go for a bicycle ride, read a book, or binge watch a good tv show. In the past year it came to my understanding that I wasn't take enough care of my own well-being and that I was putting others first all the time. It had to change because I was burning out.
You now offer workshops! How did you decide to start offering workshops and what do you enjoy about engaging in person like that?
In the beginning, this was years ago, I taught only children. About five years ago I switched to teaching adults. It started as a way of earning money, as illustration is quite tough to make a living from. For about three years I was teaching a lot and I lost interest and joy, because it was taking all of my energy. I realised I give so much during workshops that I needed at least one full day to recover. That's typically me by the way: I give it my all, or nothing. So then I decided to not teach more than one workshop a month and that is the perfect balance for me! I can give my all for one day to a group of people.
The people that come to my workshops are amazing. Most of them are sensitive, caring souls and they are so enthusiastic about drawing! It's a pleasure helping them, motivating them. My workshops are very personal, sometimes there are a few tears shed. I believe making art has to come from deep within you, so in one way or another you have to open up to draw. I feel very blessed to have people in my workshops that are willing to do that. They're brave.
You have lots going on, illustrating, authoring, workshopping, do you have any tips for being your most productive?
I am incredibly passionate about telling stories and drawing, and I could do that all day. But doing dishes or laundry? That's just piling up.
I think there are two ways to be productive: the first one is being intensely passionate about something that you want to do it every day. The second way is routine: if you do something every day for at least 40 days you're making it part of your daily routine. It embeds in your brain as something you have to do every day, just like brushing your teeth.
Maybe I should do that with doing the dishes… ;)
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
I'd say I find the money the biggest struggle. Over the past 8 years I've seen the fees for illustration going down (especially in the Netherlands) and sometimes I worry if this profession will still exist in 10 years. On the other hand my career has really blossomed in those years as well so I keep holding on to that.
I'm not quite sure why the fees are going down so much as illustration seems to be really popular right now. Maybe I'm a bit contradictory here because on one hand I worry about the future of illustration, but on the other hand I really believe in working hard and making a career for yourself. I don't believe in talent. I wasn't born illustrating or writing like this: I worked for it. I think people can do more than they think and I think saying someone built a career on talent alone is not motivating.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
If you are able to hire someone who can do it for you, do so, don't do it yourself. Before I even had one client, I contacted an accountant to do my taxes. I'm rubbish at that, if I were to do it myself I know for sure it would cost me a lot of money because of errors I would make.
What I did learn over the years is to use folders on my computer for incoming and outgoing invoices, and receipts. I use an online invoicing system for all my outgoing invoices and it notifies me when they're not paid. It's good to sign up for a trustworthy service that can do that for you. I pay about €10 a month for it and it's well worth the money because it saves me so much time. I track the time I spend on projects online with Toggl for example. I wrote an article about this too.
The thing is that as a freelancer you want to do those things you're good at. It's a waste to spend too much time on things you can easily delegate or automate. We live in a great time where we can outsource and automate a lot of things online. So do that. This means you will have more time to spend on those things you are best at.
There is a wonderfully detailed post on your blog about working for exposure / working for free. If you could distill that post to one must know piece of advice, what would it be?
It's good to ask yourself when you're considering to work for free why you think you don't need compensation for your hard work. There are times it might feel better to work for free, for a charity for example, but there are times a company might take advantage of creatives' passion because they know a lot of creatives are willing to work for free.
My rule is: if someone is making money with something I created, I should earn money too. Asking fair compensation for your skills shows that you're a professional. Working for free can really devalue your worth as a professional creative.
Do you have any tips for freelancers who work with clients in different countries from their own?
Make sure you have everything in writing. This goes for working for clients in your own country too of course. Make sure you get a proposal contract signed before starting any job and make sure you have clear agreements on what you are giving a client.
When working for foreign clients it's good to get a specialist involved concerning taxes and the like. I have an accountant that checks everything for me before negotiating about fees, because it might happen that you have to pay a lot of taxes in another country and that would be a waste.
Can you tell us a bit more about the "time to myself" break you took in the British countryside, what made you decide to do this and what advice would you give someone looking to do something similar?
For the past five years I was in survival mode, trying to keep head above water. I was really bad at saying 'no', I always took on a bit too much, and although my brain wants to, my body can't always keep up. In September last year, after a big deadline, my body said 'no'. It was done with working so hard and I collapsed one night.
I knew that I should stop working so hard and I needed to learn how to say 'no' to others, not just to myself. I decided I would go away for a month by myself to England because that's my favourite country. I feel so at home there and I feel so at peace. So I booked three weeks in the Peak District, not working, just sleeping, hiking, making food every day, reading, taking care of myself.
It was the best thing ever.
The thing about going by yourself to some place to rest is that you don't have to worry about a partner or travel companion. You don't have to adjust your wishes to have some middle ground. This means you go back to your own core. What do I need to feel good? I couldn't have done it with my partner, I would worry too much if he's enjoying himself.
If you want to do something like this I recommend doing it alone. It may sound scary but it's the best gift you can give yourself. Research the place you want to go (make sure you have a supermarket in the area for basic stuff) and stay for at least two weeks. Because the first week you will need to unwind and get rid of your daily habits and then you'll have another week to fully rest. Don't make too many plans, just see what happens.
Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?
I really enjoyed Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon. It has very little text in it but it's so on point!
Recently, I started listening to music again. I don't know how it happened, but for two years I didn't listen to any music. I'm listening to Philip Glass or singer-songwriters. I love lyrics with a heart felt story.
Is there anything else that we missed that you'd like to share?
In this day and age it seems to me that being successful is mandatory. I believe that takes away so much joy of doing something you love. Not everything you do has to be prize-winning or has to be a successful career. It's okay to just enjoy something, have a hobby, even if you don't get instagram-likes for it. I think we're setting the bar too high sometimes. I'd like to encourage people to go back to their core: what did you enjoy doing when you were 6 years old? Try doing that again, without wanting to make a career out of it, because filling your life with those things you enjoy makes life so much more fulfilling.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Perseverance, passion and an open mind.