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Ben Tallon

Work / Opinion

Illustrator Ben Tallon’s insights into the fears and fun of going freelance

Ben Tallon’s new book explores the difficult transition to going freelance which many in the creative world make, and by which many more are tempted. To mark the publication of Champagne and Wax Crayons Ben has written a piece about how he found taking that giant leap. You can add your thoughts below…

Risk. You can’t get away from it. Not when you freelance. It’s all horrible and rude and flicks ink up the neck of the shirt you chose especially for those early portfolio meetings.

There’s no failsafe way to do it. Sometimes, taking the plunge happens through lack of choice. My second attempt to cut loose from employment happened because my one regular illustration slot and my sixteen-hours-per-week job were cut from under me on the same day.

Prior to the first attempt, I had planned to quit my full-time job and banked three months’ worth of living costs. That stint, which I managed to extend to four months with a sample pack of early commissions, was spent working in a shared studio with Danny Allison, an illustrator and photographer who had taken the more robust approach of diving in the deep end and simply surviving by any means necessary. He even wore camouflage in the winter, the creative industries’ answer to Rick Grimes. He taught me patience, the perils of cash flow and how to be cheeky and remain likeable, three things essential to freelancing as a creative.

The transition is tough. During my last week in my old job, I felt pumped with anticipation, iron clad with confidence about the task ahead. On the very first day, guilt wrestled me to the floor. The loss of any form of external authority immediately turned me into an autonomous tyrant, a total bastard ruling myself with zero-tolerance for lateness, illness, mistakes or marginally over-running breaks. I was a horrible boss far worse than any than any that I’d had in work. 7.30am until 11pm became my standard work day because I now knew that the buck started and ended with me.

“In employment, you’re always lurching towards the safety of that next payday, so running out of money doesn’t carry the mortal threat that it now did.”

Ben Tallon

In employment, you’re always lurching towards the safety of that next payday, so running out of money doesn’t carry the mortal threat that it now did. Every financial transaction made me anxious and would follow me around, reminding me I shouldn’t have bought that chocolate bar with harsh flicks to the ear. The hipflask was dusted off for the first time since university and taken on many nights out.

My first commission didn’t pay much and took four weeks to generate, a spell in which I built databases full of potential clients and fine-tuned my portfolio. The feeling was one of exhilaration, having carved this out for myself. It also helped me recover a little of the self-worth I had pre-freelance. The football magazine When Saturday Comes responded to my hounding. When you are captain of the ship, you don’t have the luxury of someone handing you a workload. Finding constant motivation was another war entirely. I understood why others had quit, but it only served to make me want to succeed even more.

Every day is a non-uniform day, which is a positive, but it can result in some ridiculous outfits for a day spent in near isolation. Danny Allison turned up in a Moroccan gown with curled toe slippers on one occasion.

After an early run-in with HMRC I gave up and employed an accountant to calculate my tax, something that had been taken care of on my behalf on planet nine to five. It seemed glaringly obvious that the ability to successfully juggle everything from creative direction, branding and finances to marketing, workspace and the tea schedule was the test of whether a person is cut out for this kind of career path.

Now, after six years freelance, several dream clients and a book exposing the whole journey in detail, I can tell you that going it alone is not for everyone, but with talent, passion, patience, willingness to work hard and the ability to adapt to new challenges, the rewards are very high indeed.

Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industries is available here.

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Ben Tallon: Champagne and Wax Crayons