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Rob Cham on the Realities of Freelancing in Manila

Billy Caluag and Sam Wong. Illustrations by Rob Cham. | Nov 22, 2019

With the advent of specialized art tools and editing software, more of the aspiring youth are honing their passions in the local art scene. Newfound technologies and tools have evolved the artistic landscape, and along with this, shaped what it means to be a freelance artist.

While the freelancing profession may be elusive to some, it does not discount the realities artists have to face when relying on art as a source of income. Artist Rob Cham is equipped with years of freelancing experience. With his level of expertise, he provides us with a closer look into his field of work.  

Cham and Freelancing

“Freelancing” is normally described as working independently and freely. In a world of systems and structures bound by politics and money, the idea of having a unique lifestyle surrounded by art is the golden ticket to an extraordinary life. 

Cham has built himself through freelancing. Exposed to the industry at the early age of 19, Cham began this venture not purely by choice; he studied storyboarding, art direction, illustration, web design, information design, graphic design, product design, social media managing, and branding. Cham was also juggling odd jobs and passionate artistic work served as a stepping stone for what would be his future in the art scene. 

Being a freelancer forced Cham to go through all these fields, and not everything was easy. Starting out so young, Cham had his fair share of rookie mistakes. Eventually he became better at his craft, but the hardships then evolved into difficult clients who challenged him financially and artistically. 

One of the biggest struggles Cham had to go through was the independence that came with the nature of his career. He had to manage the professional demands of being a freelance artist all by himself.

“You have to handle your own accounting, taxes, finding clients, scheduling, coordination, and so on. So it’s a trade off of where at a day-job you have less to handle but more time to work, and with freelancing you kind of have less time to work and more to handle,” said Cham. 

He had his mentors and inspirations to guide him through his artistic struggles, but he was alone in paving the way for a self-sustaining, professional career. Learning how to manage his time efficiently and professionally was the foundation of his success. 

“I think that given the nature of freelancing and working without a fixed salary is that you’re responsible for having to take care of making sure you get paid on time, and that involves either working with what guidelines people give or finding clients that would work with your time constraints.”

The Freelancing Industry in the Philippines

A portfolio and a good sense of time management are the cornerstones of Cham’s eventual success and esteemed reputation. He also shares that expectations are something equally important and impactful. 

“If something isn’t paying as much, I do tell clients that I would lower the output and [expectations], and [set] a lot of limitations. I would rather they get what they want at what they want to pay for, but only at a quality that fits within that price range.” 

While it is in the utmost interest of an artist to produce their absolute best, cutting losses and setting limitations are needed to arrive at a fair compromise. Clear and constant communication is at the heart of realistically managing the needs and expectations of clients.

Cham reiterates this when working with publications that abide by their industry guidelines: “It’s a balance of personal sensibilities and corporate or editorial interests.”

The industry of freelancing is not known for being the most forgiving. However, technological advancements have paved the way for freelancing to be more marketable and inclusive. A decade ago, freelancing did not possess as many avenues to make a name for oneself as compared to today. Nowadays, there are larger local and international communities that allow for more connections and opportunities for freelancers. Platforms like Patreon, Ko-fi, Freelancer, and Behance create more accessible structures for people to find doable work for an agreeable price.

The disparities in progress can also be seen when working for companies and publishers. In recent years, more companies seem to understand the value of art and allow artists like Cham to be more flexible with their output, unlike before when older forms of management would require a certain art style.

When it comes to building one’s career, Cham recommends starting from the ground up by working at design studios. This provides an opportunity for rising artists to truly hone their skills, establish their portfolios, and make meaningful connections. He urges creatives to take that leap of faith once fully equipped with enough experience. 

There are countless scenes in the Philippines’ art culture—street art, film, and komiks among others, each with their own distinct antagonists and desires. Different artists are trying to live off of their passions and this has fostered a community of camaraderie. Instead of promoting competition and rivalry, Cham urges artists to celebrate art and collaborate with other artists.

“Talk to people, make connections... Attend different artist community events whether it be art fairs, gallery openings, gigs, and the like... try and make contacts and connections there. Have fun,” proclaimed Cham. 

Being a Filipino Artist

No artist is excused from social responsibility and awareness. Cham believes that art can be used to convey the innermost frustrations that can only be communicated through audiovisual pieces. Cham took his stand as he created many works in response to Oplan Tokhang, and even donated much of his time to different political movements and discussions.

In light of recent events surrounding politics, Cham calls Philippine artists to brandish their artists’ tools and to take a stand. Just as words can be expressions of protest, art can serve as outlets—outlets fueled by anger and demand accountability from the government and society.

“Do what good you can. Don’t turn a blind eye. The reality we are in informs my work because it’s unavoidable,” he advises.

Cham Today

Today, Cham is a published graphic novelist, and a celebrated artist. He has dedicated much of his craft to the world of digital and graphic design. He is a recipient of the National Book Award for his first graphic novel Light, and the National Comic Book Award for his following graphic novel Lost.

While Cham has made a name for himself in the local art scene, he remains grounded and heavily rooted in his art influences. Much of his influences are comic book creators such as Jaime Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Moebius, David Lapham, Jeff Smith, and Manix Abrera. To date, Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is among his favorite graphic novels.

Cham has set an example for aspiring artists to be more. Although finances is a  constant looming struggle, the world is bigger than one’s brush to canvas. Time and time again, Cham performs the duties a freelancing artist must bear. Freelancing requires one to delve into opportunities beyond one’s own comfort zone; it means taking that step and putting one’s art out into the world. Ultimately, being an artist allows freedom of expression, whether it be in the form of protest, proclamation, or celebration.

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