What are some of the things that can trouble you as a professional freelance artist?

  • Low online exposure
  • Rejection from exhibitions
  • Low demand for commission work
  • Burnout
  • Difficult customers (bad communication, failing to pay)

When you’re sat by yourself, unable to bounce ideas off too many people, these setbacks are challenging, daunting, unsettling or even upsetting.

Out in the “real world”, many established and successful businesses are complete with their workplace policy and guidelines, which you’d cover in your induction. Nobody in the world enjoys reading that dry, tiresome handbook, and the larger the company, the thicker and more ponderous it is. It only exists, because it’s totally necessary. It guarantees all employees will follow a sequence of proven behaviours, designed to keep in-house operations safe, productive, fair, and free of legal ramifications. It also safeguards everyone in the ecosystem of the business, whatever their role, with consequences for those failing to adhere.

Have you thought of building a little personal policy guide of your own?

A somewhat dull use of time…quite possibly. But there’s no pressure to write it all at once, and you can add elements slowly, as they come to you, and modify with experience as necessary. You might find some parts extremely relevant, and mightily satisfying to standardise.

It might sound ridiculous, but if you think about it, it could become crucial to your success, especially if you’re prone to thinking “bad thoughts” and having negative reactions. Often, there’s nobody there to save you from those.

Something you wrote when your mind was fog-free can act as a reliable reference for when it emphatically isn’t, as a ready-made and proven road map towards a much more positive and productive future.

A group of like-minded people working together is a collective, living thing – much more robust to the varying pressures of work life than an individual. As a sole trader, at least knowing you have a guide in your pocket (or in your drawer, or in “the cloud”) might just make you a little more bulletproof!

If it’s something you did, look back and ask yourself if you were you using all the information available to you at the time, effectively. If it’s something that happened to you, have you learned all you can from it?


Problem 1: You’re suffering from low online exposure.

Unhelpful reaction: “Clearly, nobody is interested in anything I do. I feel adrift in a sea of never-ending online content.”

New policy: Review your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) on a defined, regular schedule.

Seems like social media might be something you’re hanging your hat on most of the time for business development. As I keep the “social media business” a little more at arm’s length as time advances, I’m reviewing 3rd party KPIs less and less. Dependence on social media for business can only be deemed “right” or “wrong” by the nature of your presence there, and how you’re dealing with the information available to you.

On the videos you posted over the last month, how many 3-second views were there? How many 10-second views? What percentage of people stayed til the end? Was there a severe drop-off in viewing figures at any one point? How about the time of day, and the frequency you’re generally posting?

What’s the nature and style of your content? What genuine value and interest are you offering those around you? Are you asking relevant and engaging questions, and is the engagement sought authentic? Are your posts centred around sales? Nobody enjoys being sold to, and will turn their back if you do this too often. This, too, is measurable (check the “page hidden” box on the “engagement” section of Facebook Insights).

As soon as you remove emotion, and look at those cold, empirical numbers, you can figure out what’s making people’s clock tick (and, just as importantly, what isn’t). If the information is there, and using it would be useful to you, use it!


Problem 2: Your work didn’t make it into an exhibition you were excited about.

Unhelpful reaction: “My work doesn’t meet the standard. I don’t know how much more I can deal with rejection like this.

New policy: Ply your bread-and-butter trade at reliable local markets and fairs, and focus on developing your network of contacts who enjoy working with you in whatever form. Map out as much of this as you can for the year, and plan the details early. Entering juried exhibitions is a gamble.

When your work isn’t accepted to an exhibition, it can mean the judging panel has a particular taste and selective aim. It doesn’t necessarily mean your work isn’t objectively “good enough”. If you feel you’ve not actively learned as much as you can about your chosen medium, this is certainly something you can control.

Involvement in (especially online) exhibitions is a relative breeze, which makes it quite the attractive option when looking to promote your portfolio work. You just post an image, and whatever happens, happens. Your work can be delivered to the venue one way or the other if it comes to that.

IF you choose to enter exhibitions regularly, the outcome is never in your hands. You must accept that rejection is part of the process for everyone, and is a repeated occurence with experience.

Local mailshots, and stalls at shows, markets and fairs involve much more work; promotion in its varying forms, travel, stock management, set-up and interaction with the public. This can be off-putting, especially if you have other commitments, but it’s the most reliable way to grow your network and become a known artist in your area.

You might not even do too well over the first couple of rounds. That’s very normal. You’re preparing fertile ground for the future, allowing people to become familiar with you. You’ll begin to see the same faces time and again, and soon enough you’ll become a trusted face of your community.


Problem 3: Low demand for commissioned work

Unhelpful reaction: “Nobody needs or wants my services. My skills and time are worth very little. Clearly, the market I’m targeting is saturated with myriad artsy folk already out there and established.

New policy: Ask yourself where you’ve been showcasing your services, and adjust course if necessary. If it’s through social media posts alone, or even paid advertisements on social media, demand will be tough to maintain.

You have far more options than this: your newsletter, SEO, magazine adverts, repeated appearances at shows, events and more.

Incidentally, it’s important to keep a few plates spinning, because to rely upon one information stream carries with it a lot of risk. What if the organic engagement is throttled on an offer you’d posted at the wrong time of day? What if the forum or platform upon which you’ve been so dependent changes entirely, or even disappears? (Remember Google+, Friends Reunited and MySpace? I hardly do either.) In a wider sense, hedging your bets goes for your online existence in general. Don’t bank on one thing entirely.

Post paper adverts locally. If you can find and use a top quality printing service, yes, this will cost a little money, but it’s also a touchstone for the quality you know you can deliver (and in fact insist upon), right? A Facebook advert doesn’t FEEL like anything new or exciting. Most people are flooded with them more than ever now.

A notice through the letterbox is a little different, maybe memorable, and definitely more so if you include something like a free greetings card they can send to a friend. Offering something usable or helpful for free, no matter how small, is a big deal. You’re generous, thoughtful and you stand out from everything else they’ve been bombarded with today. Et voilà, the potency of your advert has just trebled.

For all the hundreds you’ve spent on online promotion over the years, the person living two doors down from you still might not know a single thing about you. If they were a potential customer, imagine how easy it would be to bend over backwards for them and provide them an unforgettable service! For some, this might perhaps be too close for comfort, but they’d get to know you, your methods, and truly appreciate what you do and rave about you in a way customers you’ve never met in real life can’t.

Thinking locally is just as important as the wider world. This is the community in which you’re invested, and it’ll pay dividends in the future if you ground yourself in it. You’ll see people out and about, time and again, and exchange a smile. It can’t be underplayed how far real interaction goes, and how much it boosts your credibility. “This is a real person; not, for all I know, some internet charlatan. And as far as I can tell, they aren’t going anywhere. I trust them.”

It’s helpful to offer something unique about yourself or your business. Figure out what that is, and lean into it. Find out more about this subject here.

Above all, don’t expect a single advert to work straightaway. It takes round after round of exposure, sometimes using combinations of suggested methods, before many people approach you.


Problem 4: Burnout

Part of the attraction of freelancing is being totally in control of everything; the type of work you undertake, the routine you keep, and more. Working longer hours isn’t a problem when it’s something you love doing. However, the shine on the apple fades a little once you realise you’re not leaving the idea of work alone. You develop an impure embrace with it, and it can eat away at you, leave you feeling stale or burned out.

In days gone by, before I relied upon income as an artist, I slept fine. A while after I went full-time, I reached a point where I was checking messages the moment I woke up at 5am. It was very hard to switch off, and despite spending every waking hour thinking about work, I became less productive, and to be honest I’m still prone to this in waves.

New policy: Do whatever you can to trim the fat, leveraging core activities during set hours.

Take an inventory of your daily/weekly tasks and when you perform them. You might find there’s an alarming amount that can be binned, in the name of leveraging your efforts fruitfully. The “Pareto Principle” covers this in more detail.

Aside from this, you should set working hours, a day off per week, a week off every few months, and all the other things that come to mind under the usual conditions of employment. Secure your perimeter by writing your own rules down in black and white, and then follow them, for the sake of your health. Remember, such a tone has been set and fine-tuned by countless people who have collectively studied health and optimal performance far more than you or I.

you undertake, .

Problem 5: Difficult customers

Most customers are a genuine delight to work with. Sadly, over time, you will encounter someone who expects far too much from you for much less than minimum wage, or someone who fails to pay, or drifts away from the conversation at crucial points.

New policy: Write a work schedule, free of ambiguity, so the road forward is clear to both parties.

Why wait until you’ve run into these problems to justify doing something about it? Separating the serious customers from those who may not value your time or effort is something you owe yourself at the outset, today!


The key is to remain objective in your little set of personal guidelines. And it isn’t just for your mental wellbeing. They can act as the go-to manual for your cornerstone behaviour as a freelancer.

You can detail every little thing if you like, down to the desiccant gel packs you throw into your parcels, to absorb any moisture in transit. Standardising your reactions to problems, your commitment to the work and the service you provide based on repeated feedback is a very healthy practice, and sets a consistent bar for your future.

Have you outlined anything similar, in written form? What are the things nobody has ever told you to do, but you commit to doing anyway because it safeguards you in some way, or reliably contributes to your future? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments section below 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.