Being a freelancer can be both rewarding and challenging. While it gives creative individuals freedom and autonomy, it can also lead to stress and anxiety, with the need to chase invoices, wait with baited breath for the next job or generally keep on top of things. It also, inevitably, means that work is not confined to strict hours — with many freelancers using their bedroom or kitchen as a studio, blurring the lines between work and life is not uncommon.
Illustrator, comic artist and designer Kristyna Baczynski knows this experience well. Having been a freelancer for over 10 years, the 33-year-old has learnt how to set boundaries on working late, excessive demands and pricing projects, as well as when to say no — and as a solitary worker, she’s still learning.
“Freelancers, particularly illustrators, are vulnerable,” she says. “Misinformation spreads easily when you don’t have someone to bounce a fee off or check a client contract with. There’s also the British politeness of not discussing money. But you have to remind yourself not to feel guilty for getting paid well.”
Born into a Ukrainian family who migrated to Huddersfield, Yorkshire, Baczynski’s parents instilled independence and creativity into her from a young age — which is perhaps why she went on to develop a sense of self-proficiency. Describing her upbringing as “working class”, Baczynski says her mum was a dress-maker and her dad a mechanic, and they would encourage her to use anything at her disposal to create things.
“My parents were role models in producing,” she says. “Their work ethic stuck with me. We didn’t have many toys or chances to go out to events or classes, so I made theatres and dolls out of paper, and would create little clothes for them which I would attach with tabs. I enjoyed making and was resourceful. I would make my own fun, and I felt at ease in my own company.
“I doodled, too,” she continues. “My mum would unroll giant sheets of paper she used to make cloth patterns, stick them on the wall, and let me and my brothers cover them in drawings.”
Despite her artistic upbringing, Baczynski initially pursued sciences — she applied to do a biochemistry degree at university but ended up dropping out of her A-levels when she realised this route wasn’t giving her the fulfillment and enjoyment she wanted.
Instead, she wanted to explore art — after dropping out of college, she took an art foundation course the following year at Huddersfield University, as well as attending recreational art classes in the evenings. She learnt about a range of creative techniques, from printmaking and textiles to bookmaking and digital design, which “piqued her interest” but left her confused as to which path to pursue.
Continuing the multidisciplinary trend, she then studied a broad, graphic arts and design undergraduate degree at Leeds Beckett University, where she built on her skillset with more disciplines, such as writing, illustration and animation.
Perhaps it was this range of disciplines which led to Baczynski’s illustrative style — bold graphic shapes, coupled with bright, limited palettes showing a clear “hierarchy” of colour, no doubt influenced by printing techniques such as screen and riso.
Her experience writing and storytelling, which later led to her creating comics and eventually her graphic novel, has also helped her develop a deeper and more meaningful level to her work: “It tends to be fun on the outside but has emotion to it, often sadness,” she says. “It’s always communicative or resonant in some way.”
On graduating, she won her first animation award, which gave her the money and freedom to open a savings account, set up as self-employed and start seeking clients. She decided to stay in Leeds after university — where she is still based — and alongside freelance work, explored illustration on her own terms by creating comics.
Ten years later, and Baczynski has expanded her illustration repertoire to greetings cards, social media campaigns, events marketing, clothing, and children’s books. She has also expanded her self-initiated practice, having written and illustrated an entire graphic novel — Retrograde Orbit, a sad, metaphorical story of a young girl who lives on the edge of space after being displaced from her home planet by a nuclear disaster.
The novel, which looks at issues of human displacement, is a personal one for Baczynski, given that her grandparents migrated from Ukraine, and is also particularly resonant given the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of the 1980s. She says that while taking time out to write such a sensitive novel was a risk and emotionally difficult, it has been her most rewarding project to date.
“The best moment of my career so far has been completing my graphic novel,” she says. “It’s emotionally powerful, and hearing that someone has cried or been moved by it, that it’s resonated with them, is lovely. It was difficult making myself so vulnerable and risking failure, but the biggest risks pay off and I’m really proud of it.”
After her own success, Baczynski feels the need to encourage other budding illustrators to use their imaginations and personal stories, and be brave enough to create similar things. Her latest venture is Read All About It!, a children’s activity book published by Laurence King which asks its readers to write, illustrate and create their own magazines from scratch, from script to character development.
“I’ve had to find that balance in my career between client work and personal projects,” she says. “Ultimately, my experience making my own novel and comics is why Laurence King want to publish this book. Personal work leads to connections, and has knock-on effects.”
When it comes to working for clients, she says she has learnt to set boundaries for herself so as not to compromise time spent on her passion projects. She recalls her worst experience as dealing with a demanding, US-based client, who asked her to do countless revisions on very detailed illustrations, often late at night. The project was so stressful that she got physically ill, and to make things worse, the illustrations ended up being scrapped.
While she still got paid in full, she says this taught her to discuss projects scrupulously with clients before embarking on them.
“I learnt a lot from that,” she says. “The client had revised and watered the work down so much that I didn’t even want to put it in my portfolio. I developed a good bullshit detector — I now scope out whether a client really wants my stuff, or a version of my stuff that I can’t deliver. I’m now far more specific from the start.”
Baczynski has also learnt to detect “bullshit” when it comes to fees and pricing — she sets strict day fees for clients, and rarely makes exceptions, unless it is a charity or start-up she feels strongly about.
“As a freelance illustrator, you need to be paid at least an average salary of £28-29,000 per year,” she says. “This works out at about £110 per day. That’s an absolute minimum, and really it should be higher, at £150-£200 a day — illustration is a highly skilled profession.”
“You can get paid minimum wage making coffee instead, then go home and draw what you want, without getting carpal tunnel syndrome,” she adds. “So why would you work full-time as an illustrator for that?”
Based on experience, she advises other freelancers to “scale up” their fee depending on the size and type of the business, as well as scrutinise to what degree the work will be used. “The bigger the client, the bigger their reach, and the more they’re getting from your illustrations,” she says. “Every time it’s used, you should get compensated financially.”
To suss out the breadth of a project, she advises freelancers to look out for certain words on contracts such as “global” and “in perpetuity”, implying the project will have a wider reach across many markets or will be used infinitely — and most importantly, to talk to other illustrators or professional organisations like the Association of Illustrators (AOI) to gain perspective.
“You have to be each other’s resource,” she says. “The problem is that there’s no consistency — some people will gasp at a fee, and others will think it’s not a lot of money. It helps when we talk.”
Budding freelancers should explore as many avenues and disciplines as they can, she adds, and be ready to “spin plates” and consider a portfolio career that will enable them to carry on doing the work they love.
“As well as self-publishing, I’ve worked as a part-time designer, which looks good on my CV as it gave me industry experience,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to get a full or part-time job that supplements or complements your freelance work. And make sure you use your degree — it’s a safe space to experiment with whatever you like for three years.”
Ultimately, it’s easy to panic when work dries up, and freelancing lacks the financial stability of a full-time job. But Baczynski’s advice is to keep your cool, don’t over-promise and try not to panic-fill spare time with client work — and most importantly, reject the notion of working for free for “exposure”.
“If you have a spare week, learn a new skill, take on a print project or make a book — you don’t have to sit at a desk, despairing and drowning in client work,” she says. “Freelancing is plate spinning — at any point, one of those plates might smash, so it’s about just trying to keep enough up to balance client projects with projects that make you happy. Remember, you can work for free for yourself anytime – so why would you do it for somebody else?”
See more of Kristyna Baczynski’s work here.