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Favourite Artists

Dive Into the World of Freelance Illustration with Maria Lia Malandrino

Jul 12, 2022

Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a successful illustrator in the industry? This week we had the pleasure of interviewing our amazing artist Maria Lia Malandrino to learn all about her journey as an artist!

So, if you want to learn how to become an illustrator, read on.

MLM Illustration By Maria Lia Malandrino

What first got you interested in illustration? 

There’s a comic book that came out in 2001 when I was 11 that is called W.I.T.C.H. It’s by an Italian author named Alessandro Barbucci.

It’s about five girls who find out that they are witches, but they’re not really witches. They’re more like fairies because they’ve got wings. Each one of them has power over an element basically.

I think it still has some readership. But anyway, they made cartoons afterward and it kind of went global.

It was published by Disney in Italy, and I think globally as well. It was the best comic book style that I had ever seen because Alessandro has this really incredible style, especially for the early 2000s when he would combine Disney style and manga.

The themes were very teen, which was weird for Disney. When they would usually do something, it would be more aimed at kids, like little children.

So basically it just rocked my world. I was like, “Oh my god! This is the best thing ever!” I just loved the art basically and I spent all my time copying it. So that’s definitely what got me into art.

Illustration Of Two Girls Sitting By Maria Lia Malandrino

What does your illustration process typically look like?

I am very much about dividing everything into steps. Because especially when I’m illustrating for clients, I want them to be updated at every stage. Otherwise, if you skip some of the stages and then you send them a finished product, they might turn around and be like, “Oh, but I didn’t want this at all.”

And then you have to do everything all over again. So I think it’s best to keep them as updated as possible and be very clear as to what feedback they can give at each stage.

I think that’s a really good lesson that you have to learn if you’re a freelancer. Your time is literally money. So you kind of need to teach your clients what to expect at each stage, because of course, every artist is different.

They may have worked with other artists before who have a different workflow.

Tiger And A Girl Illustration By Maria Lia Malandrino

I like to start with thumbnails. It’s super, super rough—impossible to understand what’s going on.

Then after it’s approved, I go into rough sketches which are basically a bit more clear than the thumbnails.

And then it’s more for the clients to judge because, for example, a lot of children’s publishers have lots of guidelines that they adhere to. Kids of a certain age might not have the intellectual tools to understand some texts if the illustrations are too complicated.

Or in some cases, especially in specific markets, you can’t have characters doing certain actions or wearing certain clothes because otherwise, it would be offensive to the people in that market.

So when I get approval on everything else, then I go to clean lines. When the clean lines are locked, the next stage is the color. If the client wants to give feedback after that, it’s just going to cost them extra, pretty much.

Because if they have the line stage and I go, “Okay, this is exactly what it’s going to look like, just colored.” And they say, “Yeah, that’s fine.” But then after adding color, they say, “Oh, but actually I wanted this character to be holding a pen not a spoon.”

I go, “Well, you are going to have to pay more, because it means I have to go back and redo the color.” So, that’s pretty much my workflow.

An Illustration Of Kids Watering A Plant Artist Maria Lia Malandrino

Would you recommend getting an agent as an illustrator? 

I would definitely recommend it! If you want to work in books, definitely have an agent, because publishing houses don’t deal with individuals for the most part.

Unless you’re a superstar, you know, someone who has a stellar media presence—like one of those artists who have 3 million followers.

I got an agent in 2017 when I was literally nobody—not that I am famous now, but I was even less known then. I had basically just finished these two-year animation courses that I was doing at a school here in Italy.

I got a list of maybe 90 agencies that I looked up online, I just went to Google and searched ‘Illustration, agency or book agent,’ something like that. Then I made a list of like 80 or 90 agents, and I contacted them all.

Five got back to me. Of those five, I think I got pretty close to signing with two of them. One of them did not seem to have an extensive online presence, whereas the company I am with now has an office in pretty much every continent in the world, so that helped me decide.

Couple Illustration By Maria Lia Malandrino

What inspires you when it comes to creating?

I definitely have certain themes depending on what I’m reading or watching at the time.  I’m very fan-driven sometimes, or at least in my art.

Even if I’m not creating specific fanart for something that I love, I still might be inspired by it. So, for example, right now I am rereading The Stormlight Archive which is a book by Brandon Sanderson.

It’s actually a series of books set in a different world that is fantasy. They have massive swords, magic, and all the other stuff.

So even though I might not be drawing specific fanart for these, I still have this interest in massive swords right now. So whenever I’m doodling some characters, they’re going to be in fighting gear or beautiful dresses and stuff.

And, you know, sometimes instead I get this kind of medieval vibe or more of a steampunk vibe.

Girl With A Sword By Maria Lia Malandrino

It all depends basically on what I’m reading at the moment!

Also, I do a lot of hikes with my partner and my dog. It’s a favorite kind of activity on the weekends, you know—just going off to the mountains or somewhere and walking.

So yeah,  that is very inspiring to me, also because I end up taking a million pictures of every single mushroom or every single blade of grass that we meet. 

Did you undertake any studies that helped with your illustration and if so, would you recommend that to other people?

I did something completely unrelated for high school and university. I went to a grammar school for high school, which I don’t think is something that there is in other countries.

But in Italy, I studied Latin, which is something that has no practical use whatsoever in my life, but it’s good culturally.

Then after I went to a university in London, the University of the Arts, and I did magazine publishing. So I definitely had a graphic design background.

I worked in London for a bit for a marketing agency. My life seemed like it was kind of going in a certain direction. It was going to be a good one—fine, basically.

But after less than a year I was like, “I am so bored of this.”

So I went to China and I did some ESL teaching there for a year. I realized the only thing that I really like is comic books, books, and cartoons.

So why don’t I try and do that?

Romantic Couple By Maria Lia Malandrino

I went to Italy and did two years at the International School of Comics in my hometown, mostly because that way I could kind of save a little bit on things like rent and stuff.

And so that course was my foundation in drawing. I also took this storyboard master class with an online school called CG Master Academy. They have these classes that aren’t pre-recorded; they are with a teacher. They check your homework and all of that.

I did this masterclass with Eugene Huang, who is a storyboard artist that has worked on Rick and Morty on lots of cool stuff.  It was really good to work with him because he would give encouraging feedback but at the same time be super honest about things, which is something that I realized was missing from my previous classes.

I needed someone to tell me straight that I was still garbage and still growing. I realized I wasn’t practicing enough to be good, so I cut down on my work hours and started posting art every day on Instagram.

The truth is, if you don’t put two or three hours a day into drawing, you’re not going to get to a point where you can be a professional artist. It’s really unfair because I mean, who’s got that amount of time?

Girl With A Lantern In A Forest Illustration By Maria Lia Malandrino

What advice would you give your younger self based on what you know now? 

That question usually implies that you would change something, but the thing is, I don’t really want to change anything because if I did then I wouldn’t be here right now. (And it would probably be a huge time loop and break the universe!) So, I don’t want to give myself any advice. 

One thing that I would say to young artists right now who are trying to get into the industry is: Don’t devalue yourself and your art!

I feel lucky that it’s not something I did much because of my agent.

I think websites like Fiverr are so unfair to artists.

They are very immoral websites because you are only getting paid like $5 to create a character for someone on the other side of the world.

Instead of using these sites, you could be focusing on working on your portfolio or developing your own project.

That will be even more interesting for people looking to hire you. You might land a better job that actually pays you a decent amount of money.

Character Design Sheet By Illustrator Maria Lia Malandrino

Is there a certain method you use for calculating your rates as a freelancer? 

I know that I do not want to go below $30 an hour, very simply because when I was an English teacher I got paid $25/hour.

And I’m like, “If I get less than that being an artist, then I might as well go back to being a teacher. It was a lot easier and less stressful.”

I also calculate based on the size of a project. If the project is going to take a long time, I am more likely to charge a flat rate.

Unfortunately, sometimes you don’t get to choose to set the price because there is a specific amount that people usually pay for covers.

Again, unless you’re like a superstar artist who is well known because of X, Y, Z (which I am not). So sometimes you just have to go with it.

It also really depends on the size of the client, you know. I’ve worked for Disney and Lucky Charms, so everything starts at a much higher price because they are used to paying tons of money.

Ultimately, you kind of have to decide for yourself whether you just want to work for money or also for things that you like.

A Girl And Her Cat Looking Out Of The Window By Maria Lia Malandrino

What is your favorite role that you’ve worked in? 

Hmm. I think probably my favorite project has been The Lucky Charms one from last year. It can get quite lonely as an artist because liaising with clients is not really the same as working on a team, right?

So for that project, I had much more of a team experience. It was a book so there were a lot of people involved. They got me as the artist for the book, but I also had to do all the graphic design and the character design because the characters had never been shown before.

It was a pretty big job, but it was really nice because we would have actual team meetings. Especially at the start, when we were deciding the aesthetic and where we wanted to go.

All of the people in the team were actually women around my age, so we all knew the same pop culture references. It was really nice to just have a team, you know?

Iillustration of a Girl by Maria Lia Malandrino

What are your favorite software and graphics tablets for illustrating? 

My favorite actually depends on what I’m doing. If I am just doing art for myself, I would probably just use my iPad and Procreate.

Usually when I draw for myself, I’m sitting somewhere slumming it, so it’s just easier. But when I’m working on actual client work, I think Photoshop is the way to go.

I recently bought a Mac Studio and I still use a Wacom Cintiq 22 HD which is very old, but it still works! The screen definition is quite low once you add a screen protector. After a long time of staring, I get headaches. So, it’s really a bad idea to work with this tablet, to be honest. 

The iPad has limited computing power. So especially for certain jobs like for books and stuff, sometimes I have files that are so big because you have to account for the fact that they have to be printed.

So they have to have super high DPI, which makes the file a lot bigger. And in Procreate, when you increase the file size, you decrease the number of layers that you can have. I am very dependent on layers for my workflow. So yeah, definitely I need to use my computer to work on client work. 

Feeling inspired?

Check out Maria’s awesome illustration courses on our website and get started on your own creative journey of becoming an illustrator.


Rhea is an Australian concept artist who is currently studying at Griffith University. She is passionate about spreading her love of art to others.

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July 19, 2022

I loved this article and I love 21Draw in general. It is inspiring to see all these artists working and teaching us how to become better artists. What I like the most is the constant reminder "DON'T undervalue yourself or your art!" I have learned a lot from these courses!

July 20, 2022

Great and honest replies. Expecially those about some sites about ill-paid commission jobs, and the rough evluation about wage. Very very useful (it reminds me that in Italy teachers have a sure job, full time, but paid the misery of 7,19 euro/h... 8 USD updated change rate). I am doubtful about made aware too clients and committers or customers about the workflow: if they can draw, and what to draw, so they could made the job themselves... Best luck to Maria!

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