Upwork for Artists - A Review

As I outlined in my previous post, I first started freelancing almost two years ago. I didn't know what I was doing. One of the first things I did when I was trying to find jobs was what many others might do in my situation—I turned to Google. I did a web search for "freelance jobs," and that is how I found Upwork.

Upwork is a website where many companies and individuals from around the world find freelancers for their various jobs. The idea is that they post a description of what they need done, and freelancers can then bid on them by submitting their rate, cover letter, and portfolio, where applicable. The company chooses whom to hire from the submitted proposals.

Upwork was a lifesaver for me as I was starting out. When life happened, and circumstances forced me to finally commit to working from home, I had no idea where to begin—hence the googling.

There are definitely pros and cons to Upwork, especially as it pertains to work in creative fields, such as graphic design and illustration. I want to share how my experience has been so far, in the hopes that it will help other artists who are deciding whether to use Upwork as well.


The Pros

Pro #1: Upwork is a good option for beginners.

So many jobs are posted on Upwork constantly, all with a huge variety of tasks, scopes, experience levels, etc. The jobs range from those that are small and quick to larger long-term projects. At first, I eased myself in with smaller jobs. The great thing about the site (and being a freelancer) is that you can pick and choose what jobs you apply to and accept. Once you are hired, you can use these jobs as an opportunity to develop experience with real-world design work and following client briefs and technical specifications.

Pro #2: Upwork is one way to find regular clients.

Finding a good client can be a difficult task (read more about that under Con #1), but once you do, you could end up developing a relationship with steady work, which is crucial for success as a freelancer. I have a few clients myself that I have been working long-term with—some pretty regularly, and others coming back to me every once in a while.

The Cons

Con #1: You must weed through a lot of "bad" jobs and clients.

After you've set up your Upwork profile, the first step, of course, is to find a job.  You can search by keyword or category based on what you're interested in. Unfortunately, this is where you'll have to do a lot of browsing and analyzing to find the "good ones."

Here comes one of the major problems when finding creative jobs on Upwork. The "starving artist" is a popular cliché born out of the (IMO erroneous) idea that art is frivolous or easy, which causes many to devalue the work that goes into creating it. This makes it hard for artists to get paid fairly for their time and skill. This is SO apparent on Upwork. When I browse through the various listings, I am often shocked and disgusted by what some of these clients are asking for versus what they want to pay and how fast they want it done. Not only that, but you are competing with artists who will actually accept their terms.

Just as an example, I once took on a job to do 40 adult coloring book designs for—and I'm ashamed to admit it—a flat fee of $60. Forty full-page drawings for $60, as in $1.50 per page. This was such a mistake, and I don't even believe I ever did it. And I KNEW it was a mistake, but I rationalized it by saying to myself that I was doing it for fun and experience, so it was just a throwaway job anyway. There were so many red flags in the job description. Of course, there was the low, low budget. Not only that, but the client strictly refused to accept any higher bids, and you know why? Because they already had artists that were working at that rate, so they insisted it was typical pay for that amount of work (which, of course, is absolutely ridiculous, and a good example of how artists who compromise can hurt other artists—a discussion for another day). They promised consistent work and up to $30 a day if you could do 20 designs daily. First of all, who draws that fast? And second, who works all day to earn a whopping total of $30? Say it takes you a half an hour to do one drawing (and that's for sure underestimating by A LOT) that's 10 hours of work at $3 per hour. The drawings will be junk, because you rushed through them. Oh, and you give up all rights to the art (more on that under Con #2 below). So anyway... boy, was I stupid. Learn from my mistakes. Don't take jobs like this, even if you just want the experience. It's just not worth your time—you would be better off working on a personal project for your portfolio.

The sad thing is, though this example is extreme, it is difficult to find anyone on Upwork who is willing to pay over $25 a page for adult coloring designs, and most offer $5 to $15. And I've seen many, many other illustration and design jobs on Upwork that are equally sad. (For example, children's book illustration is another difficult field to find quality jobs on Upwork.) I can't say that I haven't compromised on rates since that awful experience (sometimes, you just need money, right?), but I've been slowly working up to a higher standard. I still have a long way to go before I'm a roaring success, but I've learned that with some searching, patience, and hard work, the good jobs eventually come through.

 Con #2: Jobs on Upwork are all work-for-hire by default.

According to Upwork's official terms (emphasis mine)...

"Upon Freelancer’s receipt of full payment from Client, the Work Product, including without limitation all Intellectual Property Rights in the Work Product, will be the sole and exclusive property of Client, and Client will be deemed to be the author thereof."

I'm no expert in these things (I'm an artist, not a lawyer.) but this part is important. The default contract for all Upwork jobs is categorized as work-for-hire, as in the client owns all work created for them during the course of your contract. So basically, you have NO rights to any of the designs that are created for that job. Make sure you understand that when going in. Even if all you want to do is use an image for your portfolio, it is best to get permission from the client. (I have had clients who did not want me to use designs in my portfolio, and others who have been fine with it.) But in the end, you don't even have the legal right to be credited for your work.

Con #3: Upwork has HIGH fees.

Upwork takes 20% of whatever you make up to the first $500 with a client, and then 10% beyond that, and 5% after $10,000. Ostensibly, this is to encourage the development of long-term client/freelancer relationships. But... TWENTY PERCENT! In my opinion, this is a HUGE chunk to take from the freelancer, especially when you're trying to get established. An illustration agent might hypothetically take a similar cut, and they're out there actively promoting your work, finding you jobs, and helping you handle all your business affairs. Upwork provides a nice service, but they're not an agent—you're still doing a lot of that work yourself—so their fee is definitely a big downside. In addition, Upwork has an optional subscription to access other features, such as more "connects" to apply to more jobs per month and viewing competitors' bid amounts, but I haven't found that is something I need.


After taking all of this into consideration, here is a summary of what I think artists and designers need to know before using Upwork:

1. Charge what you're worth.

Evaluate on a case-by-case basis, but keep your standards high. I've gradually increased my rate as I've gained more experience and positive feedback on my profile. Get as much information about the job from the client as possible so that you are able to make an accurate analysis of the work to be done. Try not to make too many compromises. Make it clear from the get-go what is included in your fee and what isn't (particularly regarding jobs with flat fees). And if the unexpected comes up after hire, don't be afraid to ask for additional payment if you feel it is justified.

2. Understand work-for-hire.

Know what you're getting into, and take it for what it's worth. Jumpstart your freelance career and gain experience, but don't expect to retain rights to the work you do on Upwork, and if you don't know what you can or can't do, just ask the client and refer to the Upwork's terms.

3. For creatives, Upwork is best used as a stepping stone.

Given the whole work-for-hire situation, the sea of mediocre job posts, and ridiculous fees, I find that for artists, Upwork is best used for building professional experience and for those jobs that are, let's face it, just paying the bills. That's not to say you can't find great jobs and awesome clients on Upwork—you definitely can!

I, myself, have made it a goal to start pursuing other avenues to find clients and work. I just don't think Upwork is ultimately going to lead me where I want to go. But that's just me.

In the end, it's all about taking a step and putting yourself out there. Just don't put all your eggs in one basket. Explore other options as well. While Upwork may not be the best choice for artists, it can be a worthwhile tool if you use it the right way.

Sincerely, Nicole

Disclaimer: Please recognize that this is just my personal experience, and the advice and opinions expressed here may not apply the same to those in different fields or circumstances. And although I discuss a few legal issues, I am by no means an expert in such things (not even close) so I would suggest referring to Upwork's official terms here



My Upwork Profile

All Business, But Having Fun

My Journey Into Freelance Design and Illustration