Are you still a professional when you don’t have a client?

This question has crossed my mind several times in the past year and it has yielded a different answer depending entirely on the health of my self-esteem at that moment.

I’m a Visual Storyteller, a fancy title I made up for myself since animator/illustrator/motion designer/comic artist is too long a job title.

For the first few years that I was employed, I craved the freedom of controlling my own hours, being my own boss and working on diverse projects. I was an artist after all.

So one day, I took the plunge headlong into entrepreneurship and started my own studio. Within a few weeks, I bagged my first client. And I lived happily ever after!

I wish!

The thing about being a storyteller is that you want to tell your own stories. You are constantly bursting with ideas, wishing you could draw/write/paint as fast as your mind can think. All you want is that space to create, to experiment, to fail, to try again. But nobody told you all through art school that time and space cost money. That the need to sustain oneself is in direct conflict with being an artist.

So what do you do? You go from project to project, bringing other people’s stories to life.

Don’t get me wrong. I have been very lucky to have had the opportunity to create artwork for some beautifully written stories by amazing authors. I can’t even describe the joy I feel when I see a book that I illustrated in a child’s hand. It is exhilarating to see my illustrations travel far and wide, to watch them make an impact in someone’s life. And I have learned so much from each and every project. All the confidence I have in myself today is due to my clients.

But the question remains: what about my stories?

I once heard a folktale about a woman who could not express a story and a song that lived inside her. They decide to escape her on their own and create quite a bit of mischief.

While my stories don’t come to life on their own (oh, how I wish they did), I do feel that they need to be expressed. Only problem, who will fund them?

I went about this, step-by-step:

Solution 1: Apply to funds and residencies.

I spent a lot of time trying to force-fit my stories into the requirements of every fund/residency/competition I came across. But the thing is, if it doesn’t fit, it’s a compromise. They have hundreds of applications available to them and will just go ahead and pick the one that actually is a natural fit. You are just left wondering how many hours you wasted on that application letter and if you can retro-fit it into the next one.

Solution 2: Crowdfunding.

I went about studying every resource available on how to crowdfund. Turns out, a crowdfunding campaign requires its own investment of time and money. Unless you are a famous person or selling an absolutely essential and unique product, you have to market yourself really well.

You have to build the right network (which can take years), provide the right rewards, create promotional material, create hype on social media and put together the entire campaign which is a job description in itself. And then you hope and pray that all of the sweat and blood you have invested into the campaign will pay off when people volunteer their money to buy you some more time to tell your story. The introvert in me wanted to go hide in a cave. Perhaps a solution for a later stage in my career.

Solution 3: Fund your own project.

This has to be a no brainer, right? But it took me a long time to get to this solution. Because, unlike the above two options, this one does not provide you with the external validation of having been ‘selected’ or ‘funded’.

I decided to give this a try as a last option. I started keeping aside a part of my income for my personal projects. Once a big commercial project ended, I decided not to apply for any more for a few months. I rejected the few that came to me on their own (how that hurt!).

For the first few weeks, I felt like I was breaking some kind of a rule. If I wasn’t earning money and if I didn’t have a client or a publisher, was I even a professional? Was I faking it? Had I turned into a housewife? Should I embrace that? Or was I just lazy? Was I fooling myself? Were my stories any good?

But as the days passed, my project started taking solid shape. I contacted some experts for the research parts and they were amazed at the work I’d done so far. Slowly and steadily my confidence began to rise. I sought and found genuine support and guidance and was able to work for several months on my personal project.

Of course, it hasn’t been a cakewalk. Oh, if I could just get back the days I spent poring over work opportunities on the internet, only to stop short of pressing ‘Apply’.

I haven’t even finished my first project yet. I ran out of the time I’d given myself. It’ll be a few months before I can get back to it. And it is by no means my Magnum Opus. I have a long way to go to perfect my craft. But I found a system that I can sustain. I can work on interesting commercial projects and then fund my personal ones. And I can enjoy both for the value they add to my life.

It requires a lot of self-confidence and truckloads of discipline. But it has unexpected rewards too. Commercial clients started finding me based on my personal project. After all, what can speak about your style, your inclination and your creativity more than a project you have created for yourself? It’s a virtuous cycle hidden in plain sight.

So the answer to the question in the title is now a solid YES! But I had to learn that from experience. If you have a personal project gnawing at you to be made, a story asking to be told, don’t wait for someone’s permission to start working on it. Being a professional is not about the money you earn or the clients you serve. It is about enjoying what you do so thoroughly that you make it your life’s goal to keep improving at it.

If life gives you lemons and you like lemonade, consider yourself lucky.

Visual Storyteller