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Careers after Covid: Interview with Freelance Artist Cleo Tan

Welcome to Careers after Covid, where Kelsie interviews amazing NTU college women to find out what their career experiences have been like since COVID-19. In this interview, we have Cleo Tan, an English Major at NTU who has been working towards becoming a Freelance Artist.

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Hi Cleo! Do tell us a little about yourself.

Hi, I’m Cleo, I’m a 4th Year English Major at NTU. I am also freelancing as an artist/illustrator. I have a diploma in Animation, and decided to pursue English as a degree to diversify my skill sets. So, here I am. Of course, my love is still in Drawing and the Arts, and that’s why I freelance as well, to get extra income.

cleo self portrait Photo by Cleo Tan

Coping with COVID

Have things changed significantly for you over the past few months?

My plans have definitely changed. I mean, nobody expected COVID-19. Before this, most of us would have been considering more traditional career paths, like working in an office and climbing the corporate ladder. But with hiring freezes becoming more common, many of us have to think about doing something else. For me, I think I have skill sets that can be applied in most places, and I honestly don’t think there has been a huge change in my career direction. I still know where I want to end up, it’s just a matter of how I get there. For me, freelancing has always been the end game. COVID just made me think about pushing that forward; so instead of getting the corporate experience first, go into freelancing straightaway. Also, many creative companies are looking for contracted artists on a retainer basis instead of full-time artists. That can kind of throw a wrench into some people’s plans, but it could still be good if you are keen on going freelance.

Becoming a Freelance Artist

Could you share a little about how you got started as a freelancer, and some tips for those keen to get started on this journey?

Basically, I got started because I was approached by a friend from CCA in Poly. He said something like, “Hey, I was thinking of making a jacket design, and I see that you do animation and draw. Would you be interested in drawing something for me? I’ll pay you.” And honestly it wasn’t very good money, maybe like $20 or something. But at that time, I was like: “Oooh really? People wanna pay me for my work? Okay sure!” So that was my first time freelancing. From there, it kind of made me realise that I could always make money by selling my art on the side. So that’s how I got started, selling my art and illustration services to people. 

I think networks are very important for freelancers. You really get a lot of opportunities from this “hidden job market”, which you don’t get from job boards and listings. It’s more like word-of-mouth; You know this person who knows this person who needs work done, or with an opening in their company, and you ask to be introduced. That’s really important, not just in freelancing, but generally as well. It’s good to have a wide network.

Your artwork is really amazing! I see you work in both digital and traditional mediums. How does choice of medium affect your work?

I am generally more comfortable with digital mediums. That’s just like… The way it is now. Even if you do a traditional artwork, it usually just gets digitised anyway. So, I just cut the middleman and go straight to digital. But there is still charm in traditional mediums. People don’t say “go back to your laptop”, they say “go back to pencil and paper”. Go back to basics. You have to learn how to use pen and paper before you can use a tablet to start drawing. 

cleo sketches Photo by Cleo Tan

cleo digital art Photo by Cleo Tan

Regarding clients, I do have some that ask for watercolour paintings, traditional pencil sketches, while some want logo designs. You have to be diversified. Having knowledge of traditional mediums also helps you with digital art. If someone wants a pencil-styled drawing to go on the wall as a mural, you have to know how to make digital art that looks like it was drawn by pencil (since you can’t draw directly onto the wall). It’s almost like a kind of double-thinking.

“Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” - from Dead Poets Society (1989)

Art, Work, and Perception

Do you think COVID-19 has changed how you perceive art?

Before COVID, I wasn’t very active in my freelancing. I was more focused on my studies, and it was never really the main consideration. It was only during COVID-19 where I thought that I wouldn’t mind doing this full-time. Before that, I was mostly drawing for stress relief or doing art challenges on Instagram (@cleoo.art). I do both original art and fan art there! I think in times of COVID-19, mental health and taking time to slow down and enjoy things get really important. I think that’s what art has become for me over lockdown. But I still keep in mind that this could really be useful, possibly something to be added to my portfolio. I have begun to value my art a bit more and to value myself more as a creator.

As a student of the Humanities and a freelance artist, do you have any thoughts on pursuing a career related to your passion?

We’re no longer in that golden era when everyone can chase their dreams and succeed. 

I mean yes, it’s still possible to pursue a passion, but you still have to be realistic about it. You can’t jump straight into a new career with a completely different area of expertise without any preparation or knowledge, even if it is your passion. I feel like, at the end of the day, a job is just for you to earn money. There are some people who work in Banking, for example, but their true interest and passion lies in Photography. They only work their day job to finance their passion. The deciding factor should come down to: Can you live with yourself doing that job >8 hours a day? 

When I was in Poly, I realised that when your passion becomes a job, it really becomes that, and you can easily lose your passion for it because you really do it every single day. The thing about work, especially in the artistic industry, is that there are clients and deadlines involved. Once your hobby is associated with these things, I don’t think that it can be a “hobby” anymore. It becomes... There’s no word for it. You can get very disillusioned. It’s really a matter of what you personally can deal with. Can you live with yourself? Your lifestyle?

cleo traditional art Photo by Cleo Tan

Into the Working World

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in the career context?

When I was studying and doing part-time for something completely irrelevant, someone said this to me, “I think it’s good that you are trying your best, and working your hardest, but always remember: You can take your work seriously, but you don’t have to take yourself too seriously.” I was working in Sales and handing out flyers while talking to customers. I was getting so into it that I got stressed when I couldn’t deliver. I took things personally, like when I couldn’t close a sale. What that person said gave me this perspective: You are not your work.

Having a stable sense of self is really going to run a long way in your career. You will be able to put out work that is in line with your normal standard. You will know how to improve it. It also kind of helps in a networking sense. Once you know your standard, and who you are, it really helps you to build a personal brand, ‘cause people know you for being a hard worker that’s able to separate work from personal. Work is work, play is play, don’t conflate the two too much.

Any final words for those of us graduating into the pandemic?

With COVID-19, everything is up in the air now, everything is so uncertain. I know people who are applying to things that they usually might not get and are just trying their luck. If you go to LinkedIn, VP level applicants are applying for entry-level jobs. Why not just do the opposite? Go all out and apply to everything. See what you can get. If you are a Finance kid, you can diversify your skills and your portfolio. Since everything matters and doesn’t matter at the same time, go everywhere and try whatever.

Take the opportunity to do this, since it’s going to be hard anyway.

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Most recently, Cleo has been illustrating for the 4th instalment of children storybook series Grady Bear. Written for early readers (pre-schoolers), this book tackles the issues of boredom and how children can help themselves in times of self-doubt, which is quite appropriate for this period of uncertainty. Find out more about her project here.

Get in touch with Cleo via email: [email protected]

Connect with Cleo on LinkedIn