(links at the end)
Starting out of freelance is only one of the many opportunities artists and designers have to get their first jobs, and it was in my case my first option. In the case you feel that this is also your career path or that you have no other option than to apply to this type of work, than this might relate to you. Otherwise I have pretty much nothing in the area of steady in-house jobs since I've never ever taken one. And it might have been out of preference, as also out of need.
A little context first:
I got my first "serious" freelance job when I was in my 3rd year of Industrial Design, I was 21. By then I've been playing around with a Wacom Tablet that my dad got me for Christmas. It was already known by most of my school that I was one of those guys that were "good" at drawing and doing nerdy stuff on a daily basis. Also I was getting my first hints of deep career conflicts, since this was one of the most difficult years in Industrial Design. At the same time I was good friends with another class mate that studied Architecture and painted in Photoshop (which I didn't do much by then) and we hanged most of the time. Also kept contact with a guy I met through family friends that worked at Arena Net, and he was sending me a bunch of information over internet making me super exited about the whole entertainment industry, making me think that it could actually be a career option.
So, I had a friend that went to an evangelical church, and there she had a friend that was creating a book that mixed fantasy and biblical stories. He was wondering if she knew anybody that did art and could help him with the illustrations. Luckily she knew me and she gave me the contact. And I said yes. So we met personally, I had to go to the church and talk to him about his project and come to the realization he was still writing his book, but had a pretty full idea of all of the scenes. I didn't handled Photoshop that well by then, but luckily he asked me to do a series of "refined hand drawn sketches" that he could use as inside scene illustrations. Since he was an amateur writer and looking to do a few dozens of copies for his friends and family, he didn't have much of a budget or great ambitions to order very professional full page colored illustrations. Also, by then, I didn't have much of an idea on how to charge, so I went along with what I though would be ok for me. I eyeballed the price around $10.000 CLP each (which is around $15 USD). This is a very low price for freelance work, quite unsustainable if you want to make your life on your own, even if you happened to make the sketches every hour. But I was a student and $10.000 CLP for a student meant I could pretty much buy study materials for a week or some money for 3-4 beers in the weekend, and that seemed like a good transaction since this also was my first gig ever. He ordered around a dozen images, so the whole package was looking very good ($120.000 CLP = $181 USD). Of course this took me maybe a couple of months to do, for what I can remember, since he was also building his book at the same time and some very radical changes could happen to some of the images, plus waiting for response and my speed level were also part of the time issue.
So, it wasn't really much of a monetary gain, but what happened made me realize in about a year, that this was the thing I wanted to do with my life. After this, I realized that I loved the whole idea of doing what you were passionate about and get paid for it. I liked industrial design too, don't think I was so unhappy, but after years and years of doing cardboard and paper models for things that weren't really applied in real life made me lost my appetite for it and shortly after, fall into a huge depression.
2 and a half years later I finished my career with the only purpose to dedicate my life to illustration and concept art if possible. Since then (mid year 2012) I haven't stopped.
But of course, it wasn't always all peachy and fun. The first dreams that you have when you're just starting are to somehow "make it into the industry" (whatever that means) and to be a successful, self sustainable, respected artist/designer among your peers and clients. All of this mainly means to get jobs and be active on a daily basis by doing what you want. But way at the beginning, that is more difficult than what you think, and can lead to a lot of frustration and even giving up the whole thing. A lot of people gets filtered through this first 2-3 years "of horror", of what I like to call in a jokey hyperbolized way. And many of them don't make it as others persist stubbornly. Also remember, this applies only to freelance. I wouldn't know what's behind door number "in-house" since I never went in it. Even though I've come to know from others that it can be a good way to start, as also a good way to disappoint yourself from keep going at it. It depends.
But going back to the title of the topic, "How I got freelance work for the first time". In my own experience and for what I described previously, it has to do with drive and love. A persistence to get into the topic of image making. When you love something so much, being, sketching every day when you have a time for yourself, getting in contact with people with the same interests, being interested to get more information from sources that are already on it and not being afraid to expose your passion and interests to others.
That's when it might certainly happen to you. Someone will notice you and say "Hey! I got this idea... could you help me?". And I know what you might be thinking, "That's not the freelance type I'm talking about... I want to know about companies, real industry!". But remember, that this is for the "first time" and there's very few people to almost none, that I know in my similar case that happened to land a job as serious as "company work". It sounds very patronizing and disappointing but it always starts from the bottom up, because unless you had quite an education in art and illustration (that I didn't have), I don't think is gonna be much of a chance to compete with others that are already in their 4th to 5th year up and making a real living at this. There are exceptions though, but my way of doing things is to look up and hope for those high tier jobs, always, but never to be disappointed if I don't get them.
However, as I said before, the real struggle begins after that first job, how to keep up float. How to climb that ladder. And for that first gig, the main element, for me, there might be love and passion for your work, but for the rest, is drive. You need to persist, to never give up. I had to be very active, to search in Google (quite literally) "illustration + freelance + jobs", to get into forums and dive into job topics searching for potential clients, read their requirements, search their contact information, send them emails, to expose myself, to become better at my craft, analyze client needs and what's attractive for them without loosing sight of what I want for me, plan charts of prices, constantly and tirelessly compare your prices with others on your same level, be on competitions, posting updates of new better work constantly, every once in a while posting that you're accepting jobs and freelance, even though nobody seems interested or even reading it, to get into the whole "legal documents thingy", to create a portfolio! to bulk up your portfolio with personal invented work in the topics you want to work at because you've never worked in your life! to describe yourself as a driven active illustrator in your "About" section and some minor experience with independent clients, to exploit every skill you've learned in your student life to make you look more capable! And at the same time to study every day to become the best you've ever been before, at the point you decide to spend the little money you've made over that whole time in online classes... and over, and over, and over again.
Man! It's a life of doing this. But believe me, it gets easier. As you keep yourself active, every day, you'll get better at it on the long run, that's a fact. You'll notice some drops here and there, you'll go through minor depression, (you need to have time to have fun too, it's very very important), but every time, you'll notice that you're getting more and more work. First it will seem like you got a "major" client every 3-6 months, later every 2 months, and every time you feel that you can charge a bit more than before.
In my case, my first "big" company freelance job came from Paizo Publishing in 2014. That's 2 years after I finished my career. I remember sending an email without any hopes of getting anything, with my skinny portfolio with some study work I did in a couple of CGMA classes back in 2013. And after 3-4 months they sent me an email if I was available for freelance with a contract on several pieces to do. It really felt like jackpot. And I do consider that celebrating and acknowledging those little big "wins" it's very good for the soul and helps you fuel your drive to keep on going.
The real secret, in my personal opinion, to become a better illustrator/designer in this career is to not to quit. Ever. There are no cases where a person that dedicated his/her life to anything, and wanted to become the best he/she could, starved to death by not having work. Never. My mother always used to tell me, "You can be the best waiter in the world and you'll always have a job, but you have to be the best". This is a double edged sword too, because people tend to forget that this whole thing needs the two most important components that you can't go without in order for this to be possible.
And if you have the drive to sacrifice your love, whatever the cost, and go ahead, you might eventually stumble upon the same wall I did, that's called "existential issues" and "not belonging". Which can easily develop into depression. But that's my case.
At next I'm gonna put a list with links that helped me to develop in those first 2-3 years of horror to whoever is reading I hope it helps:
Deviant art Job Forum: We all know Deviant Art, it's an amazing place to follow great artists and compare your prices with those who have a commission charts on their walls. But surprisingly enough, not many know that DA has a job offer forum section, where you can find freelance jobs that can even go even over the $1.000 USD the image (book covers). Here I found lots of gold nuggets by doing the weekly job of scanning and contacting those gigs that interested me. Also posting in the job services forum, and offering your skills can also do the trick.
Freelancer.com: I found this webpage by looking in Google. I had a couple of jobs from here, but then I dropped it because of a bad experience. The webpage will provide you with freelance opportunities and ask you to do any transactions and contact through the webpage, charging you for a small fee, hence being a business. I've seen people really thrive in this environment.
ArtPACT: ArtPACT was a Kickstarter project that got funded for the whole purpose of creating a webpage that delivered honest information. It's most important feature is that it has a list of companies that get rated by the artists that have worked in them, hence you get to know what companies interests you. They have links and contact information, downloadable legal documents, and very very interesting articles. I use it till this day.
ConceptArt.org: Concept Art ORG is an organization (I believe) funded by Jason Manley and others, it use to work great back in the day and was one of the first art communities out there that centered in the entertainment industry. Today it has a teaching/tutoring system and also a job section. I look at it once in a while but I've never gotten a job from it personally. Worth giving it a try tho.
ArtStation: Art Station is the "big league" community gallery place, for those who have a true and persistent interest in getting into the entertainment industry, this is the place to be. They have a Job Section with high end companies and others that are quite in the mid point. Most of the work here is in-house with relocation though. Never say no to a job that you like.
Carbonmade: This is a personal preference, but my first and current "professional" portfolio is in this free portfolio web page. It's not like creating your own domain, but is simple, super fast, for free and it looks very professional and summarized. If you're looking to get more out of it you can pay a monthly subscription of $12 USD which I do still. A great way to present your work and give you that edge over that common DA gallery.
CGMA: For those who want to study under professional's supervision on a specific subject matter, CGMA works great. I tried choosing 2-4 classes that actually interested me and that allowed me to create portfolio material for those jobs I wanted to be part on. Prices go inbetween $500 to $700 USD a class. Think carefully on which.
Smart School: This is the next step in illustration online studying. 3 months with an all star illustrator that's gonna help you personally on the assignments that you're given. For me this marked a before and after over the way I viewed illustration. Recommend it if you're looking to sharpen up, after some years of doing it by yourself. Prices go from $915 to $2500 USD. Really think carefully on this one.
Level UP: There is always free content out there to be willingly shared. Level UP is one of those web pages. Funded by 3 young artists, they created youtube interviews on industry big shots, a facebook community, free materials and links with tons of information and most importantly the Hangouts. They created three Hangout Rooms where I go to hangout (quite literally) with people from around the globe with same interest. It's been one of the best experiences and made me want to keep up rhythm with the group.
FZD Youtube Channel: I'm generally against any education that's gonna make you be in debt with a bank or spend $40k + stay for a year of uncertainties and maybe some bad experiences. But FZD's youtube channel is for free. And Feng has many important things to say in his first videos to the final ones. Great inspiration material. If you're considering to get education with them I would think twice though...
and finally but not least... Google: As I said before, drive is one of the main key elements for this. And there's nothing to stop you, when you have the knowledge of the entire world in your hand. Quite literally actually, give that Iphone a good use and search for things while you're doing nothing.