Maternity Leave – Freelancing as a New(ish) Parent

Since becoming a full-time freelance illustrator 6 years ago, I’ve had 2 beautiful children (the pterodactyls, because that’s what they sound like when they cry). That means 2 x 9 = 18 months of hormone-induced sleepiness, and over two years of sleep deprivation (the second year of which I’m nearing the end of). So 3.5 out of 6 years of physically not feeling 100%, in addition to adjusting to a changing self-image and the resultant search for motivation that I had thought could never flag. It’s been a roller coaster.

baby pterodactyls cartoon

My wonderful babies (now a preschooler and baby) often sound like pterodactyls (pterosaurs).

Whether you’re a Dad or a Mom, it’s a struggle balancing work and home, and I’ve been surprised by how few resources there seem to be out there. There’s great general freelancing advice, but when you search for WAHM (working at home mom) advice the bulk of it is actually people looking for work they can do from home, and much of it is pretty questionable spam.

Here and there I’ve found some really supportive people, but often it’s people who’ve been in the business for many years, their kids are older, and the early years are enough of a blur that they’ve forgotten how they made it through (I at least know they made it!). So in the interest of later reminding myself what I went through, and to perhaps help others who are struggling (to commiserate if nothing else), I’ll try to share thoughts on balancing family and work. You might be wondering why I’m taking the time to write this after explaining how strung out I am – for now, this is my therapy :-). After the jump are my experiences with maternity leave as a freelancer, and in future posts I’ll relate my thoughts on adjusting to being a parent and running a business, figuring out childcare, and more.

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Rates in a Bad Economy & Tracking Hours

Cougar, Grey Wolf & Grizzly Bear Skulls

My early work was largely done by hand. This piece, depicting three types of carnivore skulls (cougar, grey wolf, grizzly bear), was painted with acrylic. © Nicolle Rager Fuller

Rates in a Bad Economy

Ideally on this blog I’ll talk a little bit about my work, giving you a behind the scenes look at the process that goes into creating my art. Along the way I’ll also offer some advice, although sometimes it may fall under the criteria of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Tracking Hours

I’ve just spent the last hour recreating my calenders for the past week,because I didn’t do a good job tracking hours as I went. This happens far too often. Luckily, I can keep a pretty accurate record by going through my email history and  when I opened and saved different files–but that process needlessly wastes time and isn’t really the point of tracking hours in the first place…Why am I being so lax?

Laziness, that’s the easy answer. If I really fess up to my crimes, it’s not so much laziness, as much as avoidance. Avoidance of tracking my hours. Sounds silly, huh?

As I’m happy to preach to anyone starting out, it’s REALLY important to track your hours so you can tell if your rates are fair. For most of my clients I charge a flat rate, so it doesn’t make a difference in my final billing–but it should make a difference to my future estimates and billing.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t/hasn’t. I haven’t raised my rates in years, partially because of timing: when I went out on my own it coincided with the economic sky falling. I feel lucky to have survived as a new, full-time business owner in this climate, but it’s also meant I’ve been afraid to try to move up my rates.

Now here is the real rub–and the reason I don’t like examining my hours–my ‘official rates’ may not have changed, but if I actually compare my estimated hours vs. my actual hours, my rate has actually fallen dramatically. I’m working more for less money. Which isn’t smart business-wise–but then I’ve never claimed to be the smartest business gal–but throw a kid into the mix who sometimes doesn’t get as much attention when I’m trying to meet deadlines and make ends meet, and my priorities feel all mixed up.

How did this happen?

Sayo Studios: Growing Life In A Biosphere

Most of my illustrations, like this one of the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2, are now drawn and painted digitally, using programs like Eon Vue and Adobe Photoshop. These computer programs open up whole new possibilities for what I can create and they make the editing process far less painful, but surprisingly increase the amount of time I spend on each project. © Nicolle Rager Fuller

I dare say, that part of the increased time is from a change in my expectations.

When I first ventured into the freelance world and then the full-time small business world, I felt confident (as confident as one can) about my venture because I knew I was efficient at my work. How did I know? Because I closely tracked my hours and I was always able to deliver on time. On time: meaning a few days before deadline so that we’d have plenty of time for any last minute tweaks. I felt good about my work and my clients were happy. And don’t get me wrong current and potential clients ;-), I’ll still deliver quality on time, but it’s taking a lot more work and a lot more late nights.

I’ve gone from using physical pencils and paints, to using Photoshop and Illustrator, to using the 3D-program Eon Vue and Photoshop/Illustrator, to my current arsenal of Photoshop, Illustrator, Eon Vue, Cinema 4d, Zbrush, Modo and the occasional Poser. The list has become long and there’s always more to learn. I thought using 3D programs would help me speed up, but instead I’ve found my own expectations of detail and intricacy keep increasing with each new tool, and so does the time spent! 

So where do I go from here?

Try to be more efficient? Easier said then done. Or do I just have to accept that my rate has decreased? In the following months I’ll try to follow-up on my quest to improve my efficiency while continuing to keep my work fresh, and keep you posted as I do.

Career Talk: Finding Your Niche

Following Your Passions to Find your Niche; Career Talk at Lewis and Clark College

Sayo Studios: Protein Synthesis Inside a Eukaryote CellI’m excited to share my story of transition from science-geek to a science-art-geek-hybrid at my alma mater, Lewis and Clark College, on Friday the 13th (oooo) at 3:30pm. I’ll get to talk a little bit about combining two seemingly disparate subjects (why, science and art of course) and hopefully offer some inspiration to those searching for their own weird combination. On Saturday I’ll follow it up with an introductory workshop on 2d and 3d Digital art. If you’re an LC student find-out place, time and register here: college.lclark.edu/offices/alumni/saa/events/.

Career Talk N.R. Fuller Lewis & Clark

Career Talk from N.R. Fuller of Sayo-Art LLC on combining your passions and finding your niche at Lewis and Clark College, April 13th, 3:30.

In light of the upcoming talk, I’ve been contemplating how my career path may be applicable to those with differing interests. The more I think about it, the more I realize that career happiness on a day to to day basis (and thus success… but that’s a whole ‘nother post) is largely based on PROCESS. Yes, I’ve found a way to combine two subjects I’m interested in, but I’ve also found a job that suits my personality for day-to-day activities.

From a young age we’re encouraged to think in terms of subject matter, and the jobs that relate to those subjects (well, perhaps other than the Village People’s set of careers) . Often it’s not even related to what subjects you ENJOY, but instead focused on what you’re good at. Of course, what you’re good at and what you enjoy are often one in the same, but for those out there searching for their (next) career path I’d argue reassessment might be helpful based on a couple of other factors…) A few examples that have been relevant for me:Sayo Studios: An Asteroid Finds an Unlucky Dinosaur

  • Detail or Generalist? Are you detail oriented and like plenty of time for a thorough job (mildly anal-retentive), or like me are you a big picture person who wants a quick turn-around so you can be passionate about a project for a defined time, and then BE DONE (mildly messy, flighty, and easily bored)?
  • People Person? Do you thrive being part of a team, or are you content being a lone wolf (like me, which is why I may go days not talking to anyone other than my 2yr old and husband)?

I’ll stop with the comparisons before getting too myers-brigg-ish, but you get my point. In retrospect it’s pretty clear why a bench scientist job wasn’t my perfect fit. The ideals of science–like learning how things work–great! Doing it in a methodical way and daily troubleshooting why your results are unintelligible? Not the perfect fit… for me. You may have noticed in the bullet list I included some negative descriptions in parenthesis. I think we’re sometimes handicapped from seeing and truly understanding ourselves, because Sayo Studios: An Ocelot Hunts An Agouti in Panamawe’ve learned to equate a specific trait with the negative description rather than the positive (what, me messy?). If you can learn to consider the positive side, it may allow you to accept the direction of your true potential. I know, a lofty goal. On the flip side, if we can learn to accept the negative description as well, it’s easier to recognize potential pitfalls, AND easier to laugh at ourselves. (Here’s to trying!)

Since we’re discussing negativity, another hang-up that took me awhile to get past were my narrow definitions of different fields. When I was younger I definitely fell into the rigidly idealistic category. I didn’t see art as a viable option, because I saw it as a black and white choice between being a poor, misunderstood ‘true-artist’ (yet another post for another time), or a commercial artist whose career and work would be entirely dictated by others’ wants (commercial = bad, to my young brain). Obviously, my sweeping generalizations were way off, but moreover it kept me from really learning what the jobs entailed. I crept into the commercial art field through the side-door, and it wasn’t until I turned around and realized I WAS a graphic artist that I really understood what it was all about and what I really digged: visual problem solving and communicating and taking someone else’s story to depict it visually.

So I guess in the end, remember to reassess what your limits are… they may just be your strengths, and reconsider paths you might have initially rejected.