Creating a Collection

I’ve really been working hard on my portfolio and building up my illustration career. I’m partway there. I’ve had a few good illustration jobs come my way in the past few years since I started freelancing—including picture books, adult coloring pages, web images, craft stencil and embroidery designs, and hand-lettered quotes. I feel truly blessed that I can occasionally get paid to make art!

It’s easy to get discouraged, though. Despite working for years towards this goal of making a living as a full-time artist, and even though I feel I’ve grown a lot, it’s like a never-ending journey. With the heavy competition out there, it seems like my work will never get seen, or that my portfolio will NEVER be good enough. 

One piece of feedback I’ve received recently is that I need to develop my collections. By that, I mean that I need more groups of coordinating art rather than just a bunch of individual, stand-alone pieces. This is especially important if I want to start licensing my art for use in commercial products (i.e., fabric, stationery, craft supplies, housewares, etc.), which I would LOVE to do. Potential customers need to be able to visualize your art on their products, so having pieces that go together, as well as a variety of formats, is key. 

I’ve dabbled in collections before in my surface patterns, and I’ve made some attempts to expand on some of them by making coordinating illustrations and such. Upon further research and reflection, however, I see just how much I am lacking in this area. I think I struggle a little with focusing my attention on one thing for too long. I just like to keep moving from one idea to the next! So, I have more learning to do, as always.

Similarly, if you're looking to get into narrative illustration (such as children's picture books) this idea still applies. In this case, your "collections" would be groups of illustrations showing the same story, character development, and so forth. This is something I would also like to work on, but for now, I've decided to focus on the licensing aspect. I’ve resolved to go back and revisit some of my past work and flesh them out into full collections. In addition, I’ll work my monthly project into this by building a new collection from scratch...


I know it's a bit late in the month to be introducing my monthly project, but if you've been following along on Instagram, you'll know that I've already started. I've been getting a jump on developing some holiday designs. (Christmas in July!) So this collection I will be creating will be seasonal. I would like to include:

  • a moodboard
  • at least 4 full illustrations
  • a few spot illustrations 
  • some coordinating surface patterns
  • one or two hand-lettered phrases
  • some isolated decorative elements (flourishes, borders, etc.)
  • a lookbook with the collection title, description, color palette, art, and mockups

This is going to be a huge undertaking—bigger than any of my previous projects. It might take past this month to get this one done, and it won't stop with just this collection. Going forward, I think this is the route I need to be going with my art. I’m determined to improve and can’t wait to go through this process!

Sincerely, Nicole

Finding Time for Creative Pursuits

Ah, vacation.

This past month, I was able to drive across the country to New Hampshire to visit family for a few weeks. Even the long drive with two little ones was non-stressful and fun. Although I did end up taking work with me (oh, the life of a freelancer—gotta love it) I still got to spend a lot of time with my family, reunite with loved ones I don't see often, and take in the beautiful spring scenery of the New England area, which I consider home. It was a much-needed pick-me-up for my soul.

It's been a bit of a struggle lately as far as my creative output. Work is doing well enough, which is great, but with that comes less time to work on personal stuff. There are several professional goals I've been working toward this year as far as building my portfolio and building my career as an artist. While I've had some successes, I also feel like I've come to a halt. It isn't so much a lack of motivation (as in the past) but it is now more due to a lack of TIME.

Here are a few things that have helped me to make time to create:

1. Draw, write, make... (whatever you do) every day.

Even if it's just for a few minutes. Even if you think it's trash. Perhaps allot a specific time each day, such as before you start work or before you go to bed. It's all about developing habits and creating output. Nothing will happen unless you DO. Creating on a regular basis is the only way you will produce work, hone your skills, and develop your unique style.

2. Learn to let go and get help!

As a freelancer and stay-at-home mom, I often just have too many things on my plate. It doesn't help that I am also a bit of a control freak and overachiever. I want to do everything and I want to get it done ASAP. I really need to learn to step back and let things go sometimes. Not everything needs to be done immediately or done perfectly or done by me. Or even done at all (I'm talking things like cooking dinner—not client work, haha. Yes, my family probably eats out more than we should, but I get more done!) This past month was actually the first time since I started freelancing that I enlisted other people to help me with some of the tasks that were sucking up my time. It was hard to let someone else help me, but in the end, it was a lifesaver. Work smarter, not harder, right?

3. Create a calendar

Write down your goals so you know where you want to be a month, 6 months, a year, and/or 5 years from now. Divide your goals into smaller tasks and map out those tasks onto a calendar so you have a path to where you want to end up. It might not always go exactly to plan, but it is a good starting point and something you can reference now and again.

Now, I am definitely not the greatest at following my own advice. But you can't beat yourself up over it. Just keep going!

Are you a busy artist as well? How do YOU find time to do what you love? I would love to hear from you!

Till next time.
Sincerely, Nicole

P.S. Here are the mandalas I created for my personal art project these past couple of months. Regrettably, I didn't end up doing very many, but hey, I was on vacation, ok? ;)



M is for...




M is for...



My new monthly theme! I am looking forward to making time for some relaxation this month. I’m headed on a cross-country road trip to visit family for a few weeks, which should be lots of fun! I’m going to use this time off to breathe, refocus, and get back to creating for fun.



This page is from a fun alphabet book that I illustrated called E is for Economics by Veronica Goodman, and it’s available now. Check it out HERE.


After a busy April, I’m excited to see what this next month will bring!


I always enjoy celebrating all the wonderful mother figures in my life on Mother’s Day.



Last month’s personal project (book designs) got put on hold due to time issues, and I will return to it—but not quite yet. Since I’ll be on the road a bit in May, I’ve chosen to do something more portable. I recently invested in an iPad and have been exploring various art apps. I absolutely LOVE apps like iOrnament and Amaziograph for creating mandala art, so I want to experiment more with those. I might work in some traditionally drawn mandalas as well. Follow along on my Instagram (@nicolejonessturk, #sturkartchallenge2018).

Welcome to May, everyone!

Sincerely, Nicole

Blessed with Work

Holy moly, this month was hard.


I think every client I have hit me with jobs at the same time. Work piled up, and I was so overwhelmed that it literally brought me to tears. I worked early mornings and late nights to get things done, and it wore me down. Then there were my daughters. My oldest is living up to the “terrible twos” with countless tantrums and mischief throughout the day. My younger one-year-old has been especially prone to whining lately, probably from lack of attention due to my heavy workload. So imagine long hours of stressful work + lots of screaming. Not fun.

Yet despite all this, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how lucky I am. The past few months have been some of the most productive and fruitful in my short career as a freelancer. With my husband in school, I’ve taken on a major role in our financial support, and it gives me great pride knowing that I can take care my family by not only working hard, but also using the creative skills and talents that I’ve built over the years.

I know there are a lot of hard-working mamas out there who struggle with tedious jobs, or not making enough money, or being away from their kids, or putting dreams on hold in favor of family, so it’s not lost on me that what I have is special.

While I cannot wait for my girls to grow out of their tantrum stages, I love that I get to spend all day with them. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I know that work will level out soon (and, hello, vacation...), and there are bound to be slow times again. With so many people working jobs they hate out of necessity, what a luxury it is that I’ve built a respectable career that I love, that I am good at, that I can do at home, and that provides for me and my family needs, and then some. I am truly blessed.

Anyway, those were just some thoughts I’ve been having. It helps to keep this in the forefront of my mind during stressful times. I’m not always great at remembering to do that (did I mention the tears?), but as with anything, it’s up and down. The key is to try to stay up more than down. Everyone’s circumstances are different. We all have our struggles, but I would encourage you to pause and take stock of the blessings in your life because we all have those, too.

Sincerely, Nicole

Upwork for Artists - Helpful Tips

As a follow-up to my extensive overview of Upwork as it pertains to the artist and designer, I'd like to offer some helpful tips to those who've decided to give it a try. In general, I don't think Upwork is a perfect solution, but it can give budding freelancers a jumpstart to finding work and building experience. Here are my suggestions:


Your Profile

It is super important to have an attractive profile that highlights what YOU have to offer over everybody else. Be specific about the types of work you can do and the skills and software you excel at, putting greater emphasis on the types of work you WANT to do, because of course you want to attract clients with those jobs first. For example, in my own profile, which you can view here, I start out by listing the types of work I do at the top, so it is the first thing you see. I then outlined my background in art and illustration, because that is the type of work I prefer. I talk about my style and list specific types of jobs I would be well-suited for. Then I go into my book design experience, which I also like to do. Towards the bottom, I go into the drier stuff. I list some FYI information, such as software I use, my location and timezone, language, etc. Upwork also provides areas where you can enter your education, employment history, and skills list much like a resumé. They also provide software and language tests that you can take, which just help give additional proof to potential employers of your skills and proficiency in certain areas.

Before Hire—Choosing Jobs and Applying

So many jobs are posted on Upwork constantly, all with a huge variety of tasks, scopes, experience levels, etc. If the description sounds like something you could do, go for it and see what happens! At first, I eased myself in with smaller jobs. Much of your hire-ability is based on past experience and ratings. Obviously, if you have just started on Upwork, you need to build that up, so beginning with smaller jobs is good in that respect. (For more tips on creating an attractive Upwork profile and getting hired, I've linked to a great resource website below.) Once you are hired, you can use these jobs as an opportunity to develop experience and get positive feedback from clients.

Be Picky—"Good" Jobs and "Bad" Jobs

There are many things to consider when choosing which jobs to apply for. First and foremost, it should be something you CAN do (duh) and, ideally, something you WANT to do. As I wrote about in my review article, there are many "bad" jobs to watch out for. Some of the common red flags that I try to avoid include:

  • Low budget and/or pay history

Obviously, you want a client who is willing pay fairly for the work they want done.

  • Client's refusal to accept any other rates

This is a sign of inflexibility and unwillingness to consider the experience and skill of the freelancer, so they don't care about the value YOU have to offer.

  •  Poor job description

I've seen job descriptions that are literally, "I need a logo" and that's it. You need to know more than that to accurately assess the job and give a fair bid. Bad spelling and grammar is also a warning sign. This could mean the client is either unprofessional or not a native English speaker (or whatever language they are using). Either way, they are indicators that there could be trouble with communication, which is important to a client/freelancer relationship. You want to know that the client is able to clearly convey to you what they want, which will make it a whole lot easier to give them what they want and end up with a happy result for all.

  • Low rating (or no Upwork experience, though not always)

If their rating is on the low side, read freelancer reviews to get a good idea of what it's like to work with the client. You can get a good indication of whether they are difficult to work with, unfair with their pay, and/or bad at communication. Some clients are new to Upwork, so they won't have history or reviews, but that's not necessarily a reason to shun them. But if the low ratings are there, it is a sign to proceed with caution.

  • Asking for free work

Some clients want proof that you can do the work by asking for a "test" job as part of your proposal. That is FREE WORK. The client should be able to make a decision by your cover letter and existing portfolio. Asking for a "test" seems unprofessional and unfair in my opinion. Sometimes you can consider these instances on a case by case basis. If they just want to see a sketch, for example, that would take just a few minutes, that's usually not a problem for me. The client most likely just wants to see that you are on the same page—just be careful you aren't handing them free ideas. If I see requests like this in a job description, often  I will either move on or suggest a PAID test in my proposal.

  • Unreasonable deadline

If the client asks for work that you know should take more time than they're asking, this might be another sign that they have no idea what they're asking for as far as the work and skill involved, and the value attached to that. I also often see jobs needed for holidays and events that are posted just a few weeks beforehand—another sign of poor planning and lack of professionalism on the client's part. Those jobs are usually not worth the hassle. Of course, it's up to you if you think you could get the job done. If the client is well aware that it's a rush job, see if they're willing to compensate with higher pay. In general, make sure you have a good idea of the client's deadline and the scope of work BEFORE going in so you can avoid running into problems.

With these red flags in mind, here is a summary of what you DO want to see in a job post:

  • The job description is something you feel confident you can do, and preferably something you want to do.
  • The client has high ratings and reviews from past freelancers.
  • The job description is clear, detailed, and well-written.
  • The client is willing to pay fairly, indicated by their budget and pay history.
  • Note the client's country and time zone and make sure you would be willing to be available to them during their business hours if needed.
  • The client gives the overall impression of being professional, flexible, pleasant, and a good communicator.


Job proposals are composed of your bid and cover letter, and occasionally additional interview questions and a portfolio.

Bidding is a whole topic that deserves its own post. I went into it a little bit in my previous article. In summary–pay attention to the client's history, ratings, and budget, and make the judgment call on whether the job is worthwhile. Value your work and place a bid that reflects that. There are many factors to consider–your experience, the scope of the job, schedule, etc. In the end, charge what you're worth! It is so important. Fees are paid either hourly or as a fixed price per job. Especially with fixed price jobs, it is important to have a mutual understanding between you and the client what expectations are for the work and what is included (and what is not) in that fee, so sometimes your bid at this point will still be up in the air until you get more information from the client, should they decide to continue with the interview process.

In general, it is best to give each cover letter special attention. It might be tempting to create a generic text to attach to all of your proposals, but clients want to know that you've taken the time to read about their job. (Some even say something at the end of their post like, "Type CROCODILE at the top of your cover letter so I know you've read the whole thing." Something to watch out for...) Once in a while, the client will have additional questions specific to their job that they will want you to answer as part of your proposal. Don't skim over those, either. Do your best to show that you took the time to read and answer their questions.

That being said, there are certain things you would probably say to any client that you don't want to type each time. In fact, I DO have a generic text that I use over and over, but I don't just copy/paste and leave it at that. I have saved several different versions of Upwork cover letters tailored to the different types of work I do—one for illustration, one for adult coloring, one for book design, etc. Then I will go in add to it to fit with the job I am applying to. I'll state what it is I can do for the job, why I'm interested, why I'm a good fit, ask questions, give an estimated get the idea. It lets the client know that you already engaged in the job and showing interest.

Since I do several types of work, I don't keep my portfolio directly on my Upwork profile. Instead, I usually point the client to my website, where I have my work separated onto different pages, and in some cases I will send samples of work that are specific to the client's needs. But if using the portfolio section on the Upwork profile page works well for you, it is a good idea to go ahead and have it right there for the clients to view.

After Hire—Building a Reputation

After you start getting jobs on Upwork, it is important to keep high standards since you are rated at the end of each job. Higher ratings make you more attractive to clients among your competitors, which leads to more jobs. The things you need to do to maintain a good rating are pretty much common sense—

  • be on time, or early, delivering your work
  • follow design briefs and technical specifications
  • maintain clear, consistent, and friendly communication

In summary, give the client an overall pleasant working experience. Give them what they need, and more. Of course, this works both ways. We've all heard stories of nightmare clients, and don't worry—you will have the chance to rate your employers as well. It helps to avoid trouble in the first place, though, by avoiding some of the red flags as outlined above when choosing your jobs.


These are all general guidelines I follow when choosing my jobs, write my proposals, and execute my work. I've done some learning the hard way, but I hope this article is helpful to others who are looking to see what Upwork can do for them.

Sincerely, Nicole



Upwork for Artists—A Review

All Business, But Having Fun

Freelance to Win
A website I found super helpful when starting out on Upwork. It goes into much more detail on some of the ideas I've only skimmed over here, and more.