Set up an Illustration Business in 10 Steps

By heather at 4:42 am on Friday, November 3, 2006

It can be a bit overwhelming figuring out how exactly one should set up their illustration business. Here are a 10 steps to make that process a little less daunting!

Step 1 : Plan
Before you dive into anything…sit down and start writing what you’re hoping to do in your business. Get all the cobwebs out of there, and think about what YOU want to do, and HOW you want to do it. Then, when you are done… sit down with a wise friend or colleague (who will tell you exactly what they think) and go over it all with them to get their input.

  • Clients you’d love to work for
  • Supplies you have
  • Equipment you will need
  • Money you have to put into your business
  • Contacts you currently have
  • Current freelance possibilities

Step 2 : Register your business as a sole proprietorship / partnership

The first thing you need to do is decide what kind of Small Business you wish to run. You can run a sole proprietorship under your own name, or register a different business name.

  • Chose a name for your business
  • Conduct a search for your chosen business name to see if any other business is using the name you have chosen.
  • Register your business name : often you can do this online, it is inexpensive
  • Mark your calendar to renewing your business name registration 5 years from date registered

Step 3 : Register for other licenses, registrations, or certifications you require to legally operate your business, for example :

  • Goods & Services Tax (GST#) : Most persons and organizations engaged in commercial activities in Canada who have annual worldwide, taxable sales of more than $30,000 must register for and collect the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
  • Business Number (BN) : The BN is issued by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and is used to unify all accounts a business may have with the federal government. The BN is used to operate corporate income tax, import/export accounts, payroll deductions and GST/HST.

Step 4 : Set up your Accounting System
This can actually be a lot simpler than most people realize, particularly if you are just setting up your business, you are in a unique position to set up a system you can use & understand before you get busy with work. The simple system I use is :

  • Create a file system to separate Invoices, Receipts, and Bank Statements
  • Set up Budget spreadsheet : to estimate how much money you will need to set up your business… and how much you will need to keep food on the table each month.
  • Set up an Income spreadsheet : to chronologically organize all income for the year, with columns to separate important information such as Client Name, Invoice #, Date Invoice Submitted, Total Due, GST / PST charged, Total Outstanding, Total Paid, Date Paid, and Notes
  • Set up a spreadsheet of your Expenses : to chronologically organize all expenses related to your business for the year which you can use as Income Tax Credits (ITC’s). This should include columns to separate Date purchase was made, Store name, Total of items purchased, GST, PST, Total Spent, Description of the items, and Category of expenses (i.e. Car, Office Supplies, Utilities, etc)

Step 5 : Assess your Assets
We often have more in our own inventory than we realize…everything from art supplies to equipment to books…look at it all critically and see what you have within your grasp already before delving into purchasing everything new. You can bring assets into your business at Fair Market Value (FTM).

Assess your illustration inventory :

  • Go through your existing works with a critical eye. If it is marketable, set it aside and sort your illustrations by style / industry they may be appropriate for.
  • Create a list of these illustrations to eventually scan so that they are ready to sell, submit to buyers, or promote what you can do.

Set up an illustration inventory spreadsheet :
Keeping track of your illustrations allows you to get the most mileage out of each one. Tracking images that you have sold restricted licensing rights to, images that you receive royalties for, images you have sold all the rights to but have retained the artwork, or images that you have done nothing with…all these details are important to keep note of. Colour coding each piece by its availability is an easy visual way of seeing what is yet to be attended to. Your records can include :

  • illustration name / digital file name
  • date illustration was created
  • medium used
  • Current (c) Copyright owner
  • Notes on sales activity : Companies you have approached to sell the graphic to,
  • Licensing restriction notes
  • Sale notes : Invoice #, Amount sold for, etc.

Step 6 : Set Up your Space & Materials
Setting up a business can be extremely expensive…so keep it simple to begin with, and as you sell more work, use what you have saved up to reinvest in those much needed items. For ideas on what conditions other creatives like to work under, check out On-My-Desk-Blog

  • Keep a list of the specific art supplies you prefer, and which you have in stock. This will help you when you go to purchase more supplies, you won’t buy too many duplicates or unneeded supplies.
  • Create a Wish List of the supplies you’d like to save up for.

Furniture : Op-shops, garage sales, second hand ads, are all great places to snag a drafting table or office desk. If you want to keep it simple, you can get away with :

  • 1 decent office chair on wheels that can be adjusted
  • 1 glass top desk : doubles as a painting surface / light table
  • 1 decent adjustable desk light
  • utilitarian shelving (Ikea has very inexpensive shelving that still looks nice)

Hardware & Software : Remember your wish list! You can get away with just :

  • Computer with DVD burner (with speakers this doubles as a stereo)
  • External Drive / thumb drive
  • Telephone w/ answering machine
  • Scanner (make sure it’s a good one!)
  • Digital Camera
  • Printer
  • Note : fax machines aren’t mandatory anymore…on the rare occasion you need to send a fax, visit the local post office / office supply shop

Software : Calling all Students!!!! Before you graduate, take your battered trusty dusty student card and purchase all the software you possibly could need…I really wish I had! You often get a massive discount on computers and software. For Illustrators, I recommend :

  • Adobe Creative Suite CS2
  • Acrobat Pro : awesome for converting all sorts of docs into PDFs…extremely handy!
  • Microsoft Office : GASP! I’m not a big fan, but even though I don’t prefer it, my clients do…and it means I’m more compatible with them.

Materials & Supplies : there isn’t a real rush to stock up on supplies right off the bat (you can buy what you need as you need it when projects start coming in), but there are a few basics that are handy to have :

  • large cutting matte
  • OLFA exacto knife & blades
  • masking tape / packing tape / double sided tape : handy when creating promos!
  • 1 metre metal ruler
  • portable easel to set up on your desk (also balances on bathroom sink if you are in a bind and need to paint somewhere with a fan!)

Fonts : If you are doing a lot of design work, make sure to purchase decent sets of fonts. Keep the licenses with copies of the fonts.

Business Email Hosting : Almost any business that gets large enough should consider business email hosting for their employees. Getting an email account for your business email helps not only for communication but portability–good business email services allow you to access your email from anywhere.

Step 7 : Create your Business Documents & StationeryStationery and his ugly twin brother, business documents, are essential to running a business. Spend some time designing a consistent identity for your business… and make sure to apply it on all your stationery & business documents. If you are not comfortable writing some of the documentation required, ask a friend / family member to help. Putting in the time to set these up early on reduce the panic of creating them on the fly when clients request them :

Business Documents :

  • Estimate / Quote Template
  • Contract Template
  • Terms & Conditions
  • Invoice Template
  • Rates / Pricing PDF
  • Resume / Bio
  • Cover letter
  • Email Signature

Stationery :

  • Logo
  • Business Card & PDF Business Card
  • Disc Labels
  • Letterhead
  • Production / Time Sheet
  • Vectorized signature
  • Reply Card
  • PDF Portfolio of available work

Step 8 : Set up your Contact Database
You probably know several friends / colleagues / suppliers / potential clients / past clients in the industry… compiling them all into an easily accessible database early on makes it easy to keep their information up-to-date. You can :

  • Create a contact database online / on your desktop
  • Back it up periodically by printing it out and keeping it in your business folio
  • Create a PDF version to backup to your FTP site / email account

Step 9 : Introduce Your Business to the Business
Now that you’re virtually set up, you need to start establishing yourself as a credible business. There are many simple ways of doing this…and you don’t need to do them all right away! But for starters, introduce your business to the wide-world and :

  • Join Associations & Forums
  • Establish a Web Presence
  • List your business with online directories for your industry
  • Set up free portfolios with several online directories. Consider paying to upgrade to a better online portfolio once you have sussed out which best suit your needs

Step 10 : Perpetual Self-Promotion To-Do List
Now that you’re all set up, the last (and endless) step to setting up your illustration business is promoting your work. Freelance is like a never ending job hunt. Keeping track of your self-promotion efforts is a great way to later re-evaluate what you sent to a potential client…and improve upon it.

  • Set up a Potential Clients database of all the clients you would like to work for…and what you have done to try to work for them!
  • Keep track of each promotion you mail / email out…by simply sending yourself an email with the Date, Company Name, and Promotion in the subject line. In the body of the email, copy the Cover letter you wrote, list the samples you sent, and the address you mailed them to.

Whew, that’s it! Good luck!

Filed under: business of illustration


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Comment by Nick

November 3, 2006 @ 1:22 pm

Someone should be paying you for information this good…

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Trackback by Sheep at the window

November 14, 2006 @ 12:29 pm

Drawn to illustration…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my career and what I like and don’t like about it. It’s a long and difficult process, to take everything I built in the last year and break it apart into smaller bits, and decide what I do and don’t like abou…

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Comment by Ayelet

November 15, 2006 @ 6:35 pm

Thanks for a very useful, important and enlightening article!

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Comment by Born Daewoo

December 7, 2006 @ 4:41 am

Very good site.
Go on in the same way.
Great List and I applaude you for making it available to us..Blogs are truly changing the landscape!

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Comment by ponygirlZ

January 12, 2008 @ 5:40 am

…got up @ 3:30am to go to work, car wouldnt start, called in, got on comp and found this site…WOW!!! i’ve got to say GREAT information!! i’d like to start my own greeting card line and i think this is the best site i have come across so far on this subject.
THANX for all the help and info heather.

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Comment by Maja Wolnik

February 12, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

Hi Heather,

Thanks for your fabulous blog! Your drawings are amazing, your information is extremely helpful and you’ve inspired me to go for it and start my own business!

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Comment by Debra Sheffield

May 14, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

Thank you for this wealth of information to help me get my business started. It is very helpful.

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Comment by Ernesto

August 31, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

I loved reading this and I dont really like to read :)

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Comment by Julianne

January 28, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

Thanks for your interesting article. I will be graduating in the summer and then setting up, so there are some really useful tips here. Thanks. =)

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Comment by Charlie Vasser

June 15, 2010 @ 12:05 am

A Good write up, I will save this in my Propeller account. Have a awesome day.

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Comment by Glenda (Gee) Howze

October 27, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

Dear Kindred Spirit,

You are indeed a blessing to me this day. This Author/
Illustrator is a total newbie. I am awaiting contracts
for my first two illustrated efforts, one a story book and the other an illustrated MG adventure novel. After severly revising the first boilerplate special that was sent to me, after three weeks I recieved an email today stating that they loved my work and would also like for me to illustrate for them, that they would be sending me more contracts.

I am seventy-two years young and started my storybook in 2009, moving on to the MG novel, and now have begun
my third work, a YA novel. I feel so fortunate to have found your site…I meant it when I addressed you as a kindred spirit. I have been researching the web for the past month looking to find the answers to soooo many questions.

As old Elvis would so eloquently have stated, Thank you!
Thank you! Thank you!

Glenda Howze

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Comment by Heidi Rissmiller

June 24, 2011 @ 9:58 am

Hello! Wow, thank you So much for this incredible break down of information!
I am a recent graduate of Hussian school of Art in Philadelphia, You broke down every thing I needed breaking down, and did’nt know where to start

Thank you again! Warm Regards, Heidi Rissmiller

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Comment by Hope Scott

September 7, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

This website is so awesome. I needed this info like yesterday. Keep up the good work…YOU ROCK!

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Comment by Mynta

September 9, 2011 @ 6:24 am

Oh my gosh thank you. I’m going to start setting up my business in a few months and I’ve been searching for a site that offered real information rather than just bullshit fluff articles telling you how to be an illustrator in 8 easy steps, oh and that it’s important to be good at drawing.

Thank you so much for writing this, I’ve made notes and I finally have some direction on the legal things I need to start on so I can get established.

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Comment by Augustine Civalier

April 1, 2014 @ 7:33 pm

Omg God, and thank you is my sentiment too. I cannot believe that you did this. I have already shared it with some of my friends. I do not even know how to thank you for this type of information. I am shocked that someone has not picked up on this and tried to get you to publish this information. This is awesome! You need to put all this in a book. This information is priceless to artist’s everywhere. Thank you and may God Bless you.

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