What is it like to be a freelance artist, and what exactly do you study to become one? I will tell you what courses I took in college that were useful to me later as a professional, and what I needed to know beyond my college education. There are many facets to being a successful artist, many of which aren't taught in art school.
First of all, become well skilled in color theory, or, how to use color effectively. Using color is important especially to painters, interior designers and anyone who needs to choose colors for clients. There are many books on the subject, but make sure to learn about the Color Wheel, and buy the expensive colored paper packs called Pantone, to experiment with color usage. With color you can create moods, illusions and strongly influence advertisements. It is powerful to know color well so don't underestimate it.
Take figure drawing seriously. It teaches you the discipline and confidence of drawing live models quickly and accurately. Whether you go for minute detail like I do, or suggestion of a figure, drawing the nude is a wonderful way to know the human body and how to express it well.
Learn how to use lines and textures. One two-dimensional design teacher I had, assigned us to do pages and pages of just different lines and others of different textures. Then, we did a major drawing using those textures and lines altogether. It was a good way to learn how to add interest to your artwork, and to create different effects. I use these techniques in my illustrations to this day.
Try different mediums, just to get experience in them, such as metalsmithing, textiles, glassmaking, and others. This will give you an appreciation for other crafts and teach you different angles of the art world. It also gives you practise in design, color and other disciplines, in a different realm. When I look at a blown glass vase, I know how it's constructed. I also know how glass is made, from silica powder in batches similar to cooking a recipe. Creating a bowl from a flat piece of brass is something I found relaxing and satisfying. Try new things. When you visit galleries in the future, you will be more aware of how the items in them are created, by skilled artisans.
Learn business. I cannot stress this enough. My school didn't allow me to double major in business and in art, though I wanted to. So, after art school, I enrolled in business courses on my own, and have been building upon that knowledge ever since. Learn how to market yourself, customer service, how to do accounting and how to be skilled on the computer. These are skills that will help you to work the promotional end of your business, until you find someone else to do it for you. As it stands now, I let my agent handle the selling of my original work, but still manage my own business dealings for my online gallery. Make sure to keep up with the latest trends on computer marketing, and software. It pays to market your business well, so arm yourself with as much practical business knowledge as possible.
Be very disciplined about your work time. In college, it is easy to get sidetracked by friends, parties and other things. I used to work hard then go out with friends, until I wore myself out and ended up with mononucleosis from sleeping too little. It took awhile to recuperate, and I learned to pace myself better. Take care of yourself. Be disciplined, and don't overdo it when you go out with friends. When school is over and you are on your own, the good habits you have established will definitely come into play.
Attend gallery openings, art fairs, and other art venues. See how other professional artists sell their work. Learn from those who are most successful. Ask questions and take notes. Much of the education for a freelancer starts after college. Join professional artists' organizations and participate in discussions. The more people you know, the more support they will give you when you need it.
Being a freelance artist isn't easy, it takes persistence, resourcefulness and cunning. Give yourself a head start by accepting freelance assignments from customers as early as possible. I was taking orders steadily from customers from the age of 16. And the business grew as I grew. I was naiive in the beginning, but in time, my skills increased and it got easier. It is possible to make money as a freelancer. Don't give up, take a job or two on the side when needed for extra money, but never give up on your vision. It will grow naturally, the more you learn and apply your knowledge. Go with the flow, give it time and you will be an independent, fully functioning art professional. I highly recommend it, and wouldn't have things any other way.
Carolyn McFann is a scientific and nature illustrator, who owns Two Purring Cats Design Studio, which can be seen at: http://www.zazzle.com/twopurringcats. Educated at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, Carolyn is a seasoned, well-traveled artist, writer and photographer. She has lived and worked in Cancun, Mexico, among other interesting professional assignments in other countries. Clients include nature parks, museums, scientists, corporations and private owners. She has been the subject of tv interviews, articles for newspapers and other popular media venues.