We had the good fortune of connecting with Emily Calimlim and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Emily, how has your perspective on work-life balance evolved over time?
I first began my business right out of college, as soon as I had graduated as my then boyfriend and I made the decision to move states and I had not received any illustration offers when I graduated. However, I did receive a large amount of inquiries into paintings of dogs and animals – something I had not expected. At the time, I didn’t think I was any good at it. So having such a large amount of work and audience interested in my realistic watercolor portraits, I fell into a routine of a workaholic. I wanted to do as many portraits as I could and did so for many years. However, I found that going from college straight into freelancing was a very difficult and tiresome experience. It fell like I fell right into a 9 – 5 job despite getting to do what I was trained for while sitting in my pajamas. Painting dogs became very boring. It felt like eating the same thing for dinner every day. And who wants that? I’ve learned to step back and take less commissions and took more time to explore my creativity. What did I ACTUALLY like to do? What did I REALLY want to make? While it was an excellent stream of income, it was a drain on my inspiration and creativity. So I needed to find a balance between how many dogs and cats I wanted to paint with allotting time for myself to experiment with different paints, mediums, and surfaces. Once I learned that, things became less stressful and less difficult. I had more energy for my dog paintings fueled by the time I took for myself.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
As I said earlier, my career started right out of college. And as many artists will lament, art school provides few if any business classes at all. I was earning a small income but I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing with it. It was great pocket money but I couldn’t survive off of pocket money alone. I needed to figure out ways to be more efficient, put rules and prices in front of clients. That was the hardest part – pricing. Pricing in art is incredibly subjective at times and when I first started out, I undervalued my time and my skills. So when I began raising prices, it felt very scary. What if no one wants to pay hundreds of dollars? What if someone is unhappy and paid me so much? How do I handle refunds? The beginning was so difficult but luckily, I have my incredibly business minded then boyfriend now husband. He is a financial planner and my unpaid business consultant and accountant. Without him, I don’t think I’d have any business to be talking about today. He could look at what I was doing objectively or how much time I was taking or how unhappy a project was making me feel and talk to me about it. That helped trim the fat and also how to identify which opportunities I should’ve been focusing on. Now, I have a better idea about what it is I’m offering my clients and can better pin point and focus in on my time management. He also helps me manage my online accounting software, which is a huge help and I tell everyone who is just starting out in freelance, to keep all of your receipts, miles, and supply costs in one place. Now knowing what to focus on, I’ve streamlined my animal and baby portrait business. I know exactly what my time is worth, how to come up with a quick quote for clients when they ask and overall offer them more knowledge about the process and the pricing. I think I was able to overcome the challenges with support but also educating myself. I didn’t know anything about running a business in the beginning – how do I earn money and make sure I’m actually earning? How do I target an audience? I read so many business books. Maria Brophy’s Art Money Sucess: Earn a Living Doing what You Love was one of the first books I ever read and to this day is one of the most in depth art business specific books and I recommend her to everyone. Her book walks you through every question you could have in running and managing a business. Her insights are incredible! But reading books about business, managing accounts, and personal financial planning is a cornerstone. Creative people tend not to be math and number oriented, so we let ourselves down a lot in this department and I want to be a good business person. So reading, while difficult and dry, was a challenge I set for myself. I also mentioned personal financial planning books. Why? While business books have smart strategies for running a business, the personal financial planning books were helpful in deciding where my money goes. It help me set up a retirement account- something I didn’t think I’d ever start doing in my 20s. These books also help you think long term rather than short term. And if you want to be in business for a long time, thinking long term is paramount.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Oh gosh, this question is so difficult as I am a workaholic hermit! I spend huge amounts of time during the day in my studio working away, so I’m not even sure where I’d begin. When I do manage to get out of the studio, I love being out in nature, so I imagine I’d take my best friend on a nice hike down south around Galveston and Port Bolivar on the beach. We’d eat po boys at Benno’s on the Beach and then beach combing and bird watching. Bolivar beach has some of the best birding spots in all of Houston! Then we would of course go to the Houston Zoo. It is one of my happy places as it is one of the largest zoos in North America. But I also love the chickens that randomly run around in the birding area. They seem so out of place with all of the exotic and fantastic creatures to see. We’d definitely have to visit a Sa La Ta – I am obsessed with their salads. While it is a chain, they have the BEST selection of make your own salad greens, mix ins and dressings. I am definitely a salad girl!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
There are so many people in my life that have helped me through the process of becoming a small business and sole proprietor. Whether it is my mother, who held my hand through the deep doubts I had when I first began this journey, or my mentors I had gained in college to help me answer, “How do I file my taxes?” to “How do I set up an Etsy?” having a community around you is so incredibly important. First – friends and family was and still is always there to give me an encouraging word. Being a freelance illustrator, your time is literally your money. So if I wasn’t working, I wasn’t earning money. This gave me huge anxiety as there are always bills coming in, art supplies to purchase, and shipping costs. The people in your closest circle are there to pick you up and be your cheerleaders when I couldn’t be for myself. I connected with a great business mentor in one of my college professors – Hugh B. Alexander. He is an amazing automotive illustrator and business minded person. I believe his support and his knowledge of the freelancing industry and navigating through contracts was one of the first and most important lessons I learned. When I first began, I undersold my skills. So much I was making less than minimum wage but a job was money. However, I learned that money, while a very important factor to any business, shouldn’t be the sole motivator when taking on a job. Hugh taught me patience. He taught me how to evaluate time, money, and value in an objective way so I could make money be happy with the work produced. I then met, very later on, Mrs. Vanessa Brantley Newton – a ray of beautiful self assured sunshine! I wish everyone could meet her because she can pick you up, brush you off and set you straight. A lot of being a small business, a lot of time I’m in my own head constantly asking, “How can I monetize my illustration?” “How can I stretch this illustration, or use it in more ways to generate income?” “What is trending and how can I incorporate that into my work?”. This can be both frustrating and mentally draining when sales are low. But when I am feeling stuck or my creativity is low, VBN is always there with an encouraging word. With a story of her own experience and how she overcame it. To not be hard on yourself. Meeting her totally changed the way I started working. As for groups – illustrators and artists are often alone in our studios. Sometimes we come out for a cup of coffee or a small chat with loved ones but having an online or in person group of other artists is really important and provides an instant community. These people understand the struggles, the pitfalls, and the general confusion of a creative person trying to fill out a 1040EZ or if our tips count as income.
All photos provided by the artist.