Freelancers work with a high degree of autonomy, receive payment on sales or by assignment/project, and have a contract (if any) of at most twelve months. Despite working on a contractual or per-project basis, some freelance 3D artists develop long-term working relationships with clients. Sometimes referred to as independent or contract workers, they are self-employed people working on their own accounts for both personal and organizational clients. Freelancers are not employees and are typically hired on a temporary basis. Thanks to the nature of the hiring method, a freelancer may work for more than one client at a time.
Cost-saving is often cited as the most common reason for a company or an employer to hire a freelancer—a point made clear by data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the Bureau, the average annual salary for graphic designers (as of May 2020) was around $53,000, whereas special effects artists and animators earned up to $77,000. Both professions, regardless of specialties or scope of work, most likely involve computer-generated imagery (CGI) and the creation of 3D models—the same kind of services that 3D artists and designers offer. Sketchfab estimates that a complex, high-quality 3D model costs anywhere from $600 to upwards of $1,000.
Let’s say that a full-time employee is able to create a dozen super-detailed 3D models in a year: one per month. Even if you have to pay a freelance 3D artist $3,000 (which is more expensive than Sketchfab suggests) for each of the models, the total cost is $36,000, still way lower than the annual median salary. However, the saving only makes sense if you manage to find and hire the right freelancer for every project.
CGI and computer-aided design (CAD) have now become indispensable skills in a wide range of business fields, including but not limited to architecture, engineering, automotive, manufacturing, interior design, films, video games, and marketing. Scientific research may also require professionals of both disciplines to create 3D assets for simulations, reports, and product development.
A collaborative study by Unreal Engine and Burning Glass Technologies, published in January 2021, has revealed that in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and 20 European countries, the demand for 3D graphics and real-time 3D skills is high and growing at a significant rate. For companies, a competitive workforce means the freelancing market is filled with thousands of talented professionals as well as those who are inexperienced. You want to hire a 3D designer on a per-project basis because you want to save money, so it pays to be careful and thoughtful in your search.
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Taking your search to Google and hoping for the best results, as recommended by the search engine, is never a good idea in this case. Most freelancers and the websites where they offer their services claim to be the best. You can do much better than simply going through all of the search results pages by page.
First, it is important to know exactly what you need. It is not just about finding a freelance 3D artist but, more importantly, hiring the right one with the right skill set for the job. Make a list of project requirements including the scope of work, specific skills needed, timeframe, software/applications to use, budget, etc. Some companies also prefer freelance 3D designers based in local areas, or at least in the same country.
Also important is the nature of the project that the freelance 3D artist will be working on. For example, a professional 3D architectural renderer may not be the best person if the project mainly involves creating game characters. The specification keeps going further, into the types of character, such as humans, animals, robots, fantasy, and so on. The more detailed your list is, the easier your search will be. The main purpose of the list is to narrow down the search parameters to be as specific as possible. You may still end up having dozens of shortlisted candidates, but every single one of them fits with requirements, at least on paper.
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3D design specialization
Conventional art skills like drawing, painting, sculpture, or calligraphy, that use physical media, do not always translate well to digital 3D design and art; at least, not without a lot of practice with CAD software. Some 3D artists make a sketch on paper first before transforming the idea into a digital model, which is not mandatory but can be helpful during the initial discussion of the project. However, your focus must remain on their digital 3D work.
Have a glimpse of their 3D design background in the portfolio. A well-made portfolio should exhibit a diverse range of skills and asset types to demonstrate technical capabilities. Every image ideally comes with detailed information on the software used, completion time, and date of creation. If you see nothing of the sort, ask the freelancer to explain it to you.
Creative skills are equally of great consequence. You don’t want to hire a freelancer who cannot come up with any original ideas. The freelancer may have to follow a design brief during the project, but 3D design is an artwork in which fresh, original ideas play a major role in making each creation unique. Records of past projects and creative skills showcased in the portfolio can be, in a sense, proof of specialization. No freelance 3D artist is the best at everything. Some may specialize in figure anatomy, nature, or architecture, while others excel at animation, visualization, creatures, etc.
Unlike their specialization, a freelancer’s style or approach to design can be much more versatile. Although a freelance 3D designer most often works using only one or two CAD applications, and their specialization is clear from looking at past projects, there should be subtle yet noticeable features in all the 3D assets and artworks listed in the portfolio to indicate a variety of styles, for example, the use of colors, implementation of shadows, characterizations, perspectives, minimalism, playfulness and so on. As a matter of fact, it is in the freelancer’s best interest to present multiple styles of work, showcasing technical capabilities and artistic versatility, as this will ultimately convince potential clients looking for a professional partner to get a project done.
Questions to ask
Many times the difference between ending up with the good, the bad, and the ugly lies in the very questions you ask. There is no time to go over all the projects in the candidate’s portfolio. What you can do is cover all the basics. Here are some ideas:
Have you worked on any similar projects before?
Just because a freelance 3D artist specializes in your type of project or has the skillset you need, it doesn’t always mean you have found the right person for the job. The field of 3D visualization is wide, diverse, and filled with professionals working in various industries. In addition to the skillset, the freelancer you need is the one with a work history relevant to the specific work you offer.
For example, an artist has created hundreds of comic art models using sculpting techniques on ZBrush. Up to this point, everything sounds good, but your project will require the artist to create a product design model for use in a digital marketing campaign. This is not to say that the artist is not capable of handling the type of work. However, you may feel more comfortable working with someone with relevant experience.
How did you learn to become a 3D artist?
Many good 3D designers acquire their skills on the job, without formal education. They are self-taught professionals, learning both from mistakes and through trial and error as they go. Quality of portfolio is still more important than the educational background, but it is not a bad idea to ask.
Hiring a freelance 3D artist who has proper educational background also increases your confidence. For a project that involves the architectural design, working with a freelancer who trained as a civil engineer would be an advantage. That said, you should not limit the search only to those with formal education.
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Are you willing to adapt to a different style?
If you like the work of a freelancer but at the same time you know the project calls for a particular style that is different from the models in the portfolio, ask whether it is possible for the person to implement a new approach. You may think the answer is an obvious yes, but sometimes it is more complicated than that.
Freelancers whose portfolios are filled with 3D models of robotic art, for example, may find it a little difficult to adopt a change of style into wildlife characters or the other way around. They may be able to do that by using fewer metallic elements or lighting effects and instead of going for more natural visualization, but it is a new thing and entirely different from their established specialty. Unless a freelancer is flexible enough already, making a dramatic change of style and being very good at the new approach is not likely to happen overnight.
Can you meet the deadline?
Unlike with a full-time employee on your payroll, you don’t know exactly how many projects a freelancer is currently working on or how complex those projects are. Full-time employees have a few reasons (excuses) not to meet the deadline. After all, you are aware of their capabilities and the level of difficulties they can handle.
Remember that you might not be the only potential client the freelancer has. Furthermore, there can be several equally complex projects to be completed soon. Before you make the decision to hire a freelance 3D designer, make sure the person has the time and resources to get the job done within the allowed timeframe.
Have you failed to make deliveries before?
This is a tricky question to answer, unless by an experienced 3D artist. It takes months or years just to master a modern CAD software program. It is unlikely that a freelancer has never failed in the past. Remember that the mistake could be on the client’s side too, for example, if there was neither feedback nor clear job requirements. The freelancer’s mistake could have been accepting the job in the first place.
As a client, you must assume that the freelancer has failed once or twice before. What you really want to know is how well they took criticisms, dealt with setbacks, and handled the pressure.
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Where to look
The first thing that comes to mind is freelance marketplaces. The following marketplaces are where thousands of 3D designers and artists from all around the world build portfolios and offer their services. On these websites, you will not see services of any other kind.
- Cad Crowd. Based in Glendale, California, Cad Crowd is a marketplace dedicated to 3D CAD-related services provided by freelancers worldwide. There are several ways to find the right freelance 3D artist here. In the Design Contest option, you post a project and let any number of freelancers compete for the best work, whereas in the Private Project and Hourly Services options, the marketplace recommends pre-qualified professionals in accordance with your project requirements.
- Easy Render. The freelance finding service in Easy Render is pretty simple to navigate. The website houses freelance 3D designers from over 60 countries, complete with their portfolios and contact information. They are allowed to connect directly with potential clients. However, the vast majority of freelancers in the marketplace specialize in architectural visualization.
- DesignCrowd. There are more than a million graphic designers with different specializations on this site. You search for the best freelance 3D designer here by posting a project. DesignCrowd says that on average a single project receives anywhere between 25 and 100 custom designs. The freelancers cannot see each other’s work to prevent groupthink and copying.
- CGTrader. The way CGTrader works is more or less similar to DesignCrowd. It is as simple as posting a project and receiving quotes from multiple freelance 3D artists. Clients can also search and filter freelancers according to ratings, software, format preferences, and skillset. There are around 40,000 skilled professionals listed on the site.
Focused marketplaces already narrow down your search quite a bit. If, however, you want more options, there are some reputable general freelance marketplaces to explore too, such as:
- Toptal. This site doesn’t have the most extensive database of freelancers compared to others, but that is the point. Toptal has a rigorous screening process to make sure that every available talent is the best. Your options will be limited here, but if you do find one, the service won’t likely be cheap.
- Guru. With over 2 million freelancers, Guru is one of the largest on the list. Despite its enormous database, the marketplace has a certification process for every freelancer applicant. The talent you hire from the site is always a legitimate person.
- Fiverr. Freelancers can sell their work for as little as $5 on this site. That said, they are allowed to set their own prices and accept projects of larger scale. Among all the categories listed, you can find “Graphic Design” and look for various 3D services, such as character modelling and product design.
- Upwork. Clients can either post a job or browse a long list of freelancers. Upwork is a vast marketplace filled with professionals for every conceivable job. To find and hire a freelance 3D artist, search under the “Design & Creative” category, or you can just use the search function instead.
Freelance marketplaces should be more than adequate to facilitate your search. The number of talented professionals in all those sites combined is probably in the range of hundreds of thousands. Those websites make the process easy and practical, either by posting a project or letting the site present you with select qualified talents. Still, there are some other options.
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Hunting for freelancers
In a similar fashion to some freelance marketplaces, you can create a job posting on the following websites and let the quotes flow in.
- Behance Job List: as one of the Internet’s the biggest names in the industry, it will not be too difficult to find a talented 3D artist on Behance.
- CGSociety Recruitment: a massive number of 3D designers and freelancers are swarming this site at any given time. The rule is that you must hire a freelancer to work in-house, not remotely. You also need to use a company email address when posting a project.
- Evermotion Jobs Forum: this site is mainly for architectural visualization, so if your 3D projects revolve around interior design, house, and furniture, it is a good place to look for a freelance 3D designer.
- Polycount Freelance: most posted projects are game-related. Job posting for full-time or part-time employment is also available.
- Unity Forums: a great place to find and hire freelance 3D artists for gaming-related industries. Small and big projects are allowed.
- Shapeways: the focus here is additive manufacturing and 3D printing (rapid prototyping).
The aforementioned sites do not really call themselves freelance marketplaces. Nevertheless, they provide places for anyone looking for a professional artist to post their projects at no cost. Since they are essentially “open” forums, you can work with the freelancers directly; the sites may not regulate or be held responsible for handling payment.
3D asset stores
Another way to look for freelancers is to browse through 3D asset galleries, where you can see artists’ works displayed online and contact them via comment or direct messaging. Some popular galleries are:
Most galleries mix all 3D artworks in one place; to find anything related to your project, use the search function or filtering feature. When you find the models you like, with some characteristics or styles that resemble your project, click the name of the creator. Even if the website doesn’t allow you to send direct messages, the artist’s profile may attach their social media or website address.
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Depending on the hiring term, freelancers may expect to get paid on either a per project or hourly basis. With the former, it is not that uncommon for a 3D artist to ask for a portion of the total agreed payment upfront. The middle ground is to set multiple milestones—each with a deliverable—and send money only after each milestone is reached. Don’t be alarmed if freelancers demand a secure payment method such as an escrow account. This is to avoid any possibility of fraudulent practice; some freelancers will have it no other way as they might have had some bad experiences in the past with clients refusing to send payment after the job was done.
In some freelance marketplaces, clients are required to pay the full amount upfront. However, the website acts as an intermediary to secure the money and ensure good communication between freelancers and clients. Regardless of the hiring circumstances, it is always best to be forthcoming about the money. Guarantee of quality and secure payment methods are usually only provided by reputable marketplaces.
Seasoned freelance 3D artists may charge anywhere between $1,000 and $2,000 per project, perhaps more. This is no small amount of money, by any means, but these people know exactly what their work and time are worth and will not sell for less. More affordable alternatives are available at your fingertips all around the web.
In recent years, a lot of companies have been drawn to work with freelancers from overseas, mainly due to lower rates compared to those in developed countries across North America and Europe. When affordability is the main attraction, the result is not always good. Lower rates may indicate lower standards of quality. Add to that communication challenges such as language barriers, and you have a recipe for disaster.
If your design brief is elaborate and your project is large enough, hence more money involved, you are better off with freelance 3D artists based in developed countries. You have a better chance of getting the expected level of quality when you are familiar with the work ethics and standards.
The most effective way to test a freelancer’s readiness is to assign a low-profile project or ask for a mock-up project. The former is a better option, as you can evaluate technical proficiency and communication skills, but this may take a few days or more. When you are in a hurry, the second option is a good alternative. In either case, you have the chance to do a brief assessment of how the freelancer handles time management, works under pressure, and puts ideas into practice.