So far in my career, knock on wood, I have enjoyed reasonable commercial success as an illustrator. No, I am not a millionaire. But I do make a decent, comfortable, middle-class income year-to-year. While this may sound like bragging, my point is that illustrators don’t have to be poor, starving artists. We can do well as both freelancers and artists for a living.
While I don’t have stats to back me up, I am certain that many — perhaps most — illustrators struggle to earn a decent living by their art alone. Some start strong, but then business tapers out. Others never really get off the ground. They end up with plan B jobs or supplementing their finances with side jobs. While there are many factors that go into your success as an illustrator, if the talent and skills are there, you should be able to expect to earn a good living doing it. What seems to be missing, for many, are some fundamental tactics and a basic underlying mindset that I believe all successful illustrators share.
When I read or hear illustrators describe their plight as starving artists, it is tempting to feel smug, like I’m somehow special for having figured this thing out. But the small but comfortable success I have enjoyed so far has nothing to do with being special. Rather, I have been fortunate enough to discover some of the “secrets” of how to earn more as a creative throughout my life.
These secrets fall under the three general categories of Mindset, Perception and Tactics. I believe there is plenty of work and money to go around, and my hope is that you can share more in this bounty than you ever thought possible. Secrets under the Mindset and Perception categories are more general things that either you or others must believe about you, while secrets under the Tactics category are more practical expressions of these things.
Mindsets of a Successful Illustrator
These are things you must believe about yourself in order to expect more for yourself.
YOU ARE NOT A STARVING ARTIST
This is the most common myth about illustrators, and unfortunately, I think many believe it about themselves. Like many myths, there is some fact and some fiction to this one. The fact is that if you feel like a starving artist, you probably are not earning what you need to sustain yourself. The fiction is that this is just the way it is. With this mindset, we make ourselves vulnerable: by disbelieving we could ever do better, we take on any and every job that comes our way, regardless of how reasonable the fees are. We become desperate, taking on work that we don’t even like, thinking that’s all we’ll ever get. This negativity is self-perpetuating. Those who cannot escape the cycle will eventually burn out and fall off.
The hard part is believing in ourselves as artists enough to expect more. It becomes especially difficult if we literally are starving for work or earnings. I hope that it is encouraging when I say the shift from starving student to in-demand illustrator is gradual. Our reputation and earning power increases only over time, as we develop ourselves creatively, build up repeat clients and establish our reputation. Skill and talent aside, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to illustrators is succumbing to negativity about one’s own abilities and the value of their services.
How often have you read or heard this sentiment: “I’m so lucky I get to draw for a living”. It’s this mindset that contributes to the perception that illustration is unnecessary, and by extension so also are illustrators. And it is not clients who perpetuate this devalued mindset, but we ourselves. When we start seeing the value of what we do for our clients, we become more empowered. We shift from “lucky”, desperate, starving illustrators to empowered, equal collaborators with our clients. We come not to add some extravagant flourish on a business document, but to contribute unique, highly impactful solutions the a client’s actual needs.
YOUR TIME AND SERVICES ARE WORTH MORE THAN YOU THINK
Hand in hand with the perception of the starving artist, the mindset that we aren’t worth more as commercial artists is sure to suffocate our creative careers early on. Now, just to be sure, I am not taking about your intrinsic value as a human, but the value of your time and services to people and businesses that hire you. Unfortunately, our value as humans and our value as workers in the workforce are too often conflated. But in the business world, we have this social agreement where one gets paid in exchange for their time and/or services. And in this sphere, unlike in real life, our “value” is more plastic, it can be shaped and transformed, increased and decreased in various ways, and often it’s just a matter of naming your price.
In some of the following tips, I will get more specific about what I think creatives should and should not be paid. However, many illustrators struggle to believe the could and should charge more than what they think. The mindset shift we need here is perhaps seeing what we do as an essential component of our clients’ project — whatever it is that you happened to be invited to work on. If a client seems to think you are just a little icing flower on the top of their cake, they are not valuing you enough. If their budget doesn’t reflect a high level of commitment to using illustration as a core part of their plan, then they probably aren’t committed at all, so neither should you be.
Perceptions of a Successful Illustrator
These are things others must believe about you, that will increase their sense of your value.
YOU ARE BUSY AND IN DEMAND
Lately, I have seen a handful of fellow illustrators actually publicly admit (usually on Twitter) that they are looking for work. While I know they only mean to say they’re open for business (which is a message we must all work to communicate), what they are also saying is they are not in demand. Nobody is hiring them for their creative services. Is that the message you want to advertise?
In my experience, it is never a good idea to announce that you have no work. People value scarcity. When there is less gold in the market, it becomes more expensive. When real estate inventory goes down, prices go up. Where it comes to marketing ourselves as illustrators, we want to make sure that we are giving off in-demand vibes. I’m not saying we should lie. I’m simply saying you don’t have to advertise your joblessness. It’s the same thing with dating. People who look desperate, who broadcast their loneliness, are likely to stay single or have very unsatisfying relationships. Extending this metaphor, appearing desperate opens one’s self up to exploitation. The wrong kind of people will try to take advantage.
It’s better to hold your cards close (now I’m mixing metaphors). So the first rule is simply not to announce your availability in a way that makes you look hungry. The second rule is to stay in control of your own schedule when discussing timing with potential clients. Speak in a way that shows you value your time and have other things going on. At very least, give yourself weekends off and don’t accept Monday morning deadlines. By setting up clear boundaries in your schedule with your client, even if it’s just around protecting your time off, it sends a powerful message: that you are not at their beck and call. You are not so desperate for work that you’ll take on anything, any time.
I want to clarify: I’m not saying lie about how many clients you have. If you have zero work, don’t say business is going bonkers. Here’s another way of putting it: client work is just one aspect of your business. You also have self-development and business administration as part of your daily operations. Obviously you want to prioritize paying client work over personal studio tasks (this is an article about earning more, after all), but you can and should also consider these as real as any paying client. By so doing, you can have a schedule to keep in mind when you are discussing timing with clients.
One final note on appearing in demand and not desperate: in my own practice, from the very beginning, I decided I would not take on rush projects. No overnight deadlines. No Monday deadlines that ensured I’d be working over the weekend. Even when the client seemed good, having this boundary signalled to the client that I don’t need their job, and over time, it has given me confidence to say no to almost any opportunity that takes away control over the one thing I can’t get more of — time.
YOU ARE THE BEST CHOICE
So much of our success as freelancers — really, any kind of business — is being top of mind with our client base and within our market. As a homeowner, I’ve had to hire contractors to help us renovate. Of the few contractors we’ve hired over the years, one company we hired stands out in our minds above all others. They were helpful in the consulting stage and the quality of their work was excellent. They weren’t our cheapest option, but we formed a high impression of them. Moving forward, we only think about calling them.
In my experience as an illustrator and designer, I have found that once a client has worked with me, they’ll likely want to do it again. They become familiar with working with me, and they know they can rely on me for another successful outcome. Especially at first, when you are establishing yourself as an illustrator, repeat clients are very important and are likely to become one of your most significant sources of income.
Being reliable in this way also means that people will pass your name around. They will also continue to work with you as they move through their own careers, either between employers or into new ventures.
Another way of being top of mind, in addition to repeat clients and referrals, is to establish yourself within a specific market or niche. Over the first few years as an illustrator, I focused on branding myself as a Canadian illustrator. While that may sound broad and not niche-like at all, the illustration community in my country is small compared to the US and European markets. Establishing myself as a dedicated illustrator (and not a designer-who-illustrates) in the Canadian market has brought me many opportunities within the Great North. I’ve worked on a number of projects that have positioned me as a particular voice within and about my country, and whenever a client has needed illustration work specifically relating to Canada, I’ve been on their mind.
The same goes for maps. I didn’t set off to be a map illustrator, but I really enjoy making illustrated maps. At one point I had only done a handful of such projects. I liked the subject so much that I taught a class about it on Skillshare. Because of this public display of specialization, I have become known as a map illustrator. Since launching my class in 2017, I have illustrated a lot of maps!
As an aside, to my previous point about appearing in demand, contractors actually do a great job of looking in demand. It was really hard to find a willing contractor at first, and because of this, and this only compounds on the likelihood that we’ll call them again — probably without even shopping around for a quote.
YOU ARE PROFESSIONAL
Appearing professional means having a smooth process with clean interactions with the client at well defined points. It is the opposite of making a client feel lost or more confused than when they first contacted you. Appearing professional assures clients, both current and future, that you are trustworthy, and more important, worth your wages.
How do you give others the perception that you are professional? There are the obvious things like having a well-designed web portfolio and a consistent and not-too-personal social media presence. These are only first impressions, though. Initial and ongoing perceptions must match up. This is something like your total brand experience. For example, if you buy Apple products, you have come to expect and rely on the quality of their products as well as the service you receive online or in their stores.
We are not huge multi-billion dollar tech companies, but we are still brands in the minds of our clients. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to deliver a professional, high quality experience. As creative freelancers, it really comes down to touch points — those moments in the creative process when your client comes in contact with you or your work. These touch points include your conversations in email, person or over the phone; any forms, including estimates and invoices; and presentations of your work.
I think good email and conversational etiquette is fairly obvious; I want to focus mostly on the other touch points, forms and presentations. Forms are actually quite simple to look professional: use an online billing app like Harvest (this is what I use though I’m sure many others are great). With very little initial setup, you can create professional looking estimates and invoices. Furthermore, these tools help you keep track of all your estimates, and, most importantly, your invoices. All forms look consistent with one another, and, coming from a billing system rather than your personal email, you naturally look like a grown up with a real business.
The most important way to appear professional to your clients, however, is not through emails and forms, but in how you present your work. Presentations are the touchpoint that really sets up the value of your work at each stage. Rather than simply inserting sketches and work in progress illustrations as “looseleaf” JPG email attachments, presentations help frame your work in its proper light at both the sketch and final art stages. A chef needs the right plate and presentation skills to make their delicious food look even more palatable. Similarly, as an illustrator guides their client through the creative process, they need to present work along the way in ways that show the value of the work and make it easy to digest and act upon.
What does a professional presentation look like? It has a cover page, with the project name, the client name, the date, and a description of the stage of work (“sketches” or “finished art”, typically). It has your name/logo, and a version number. Sketches and illustrations are often iterated, so having a version number helps everyone keep track of revisions.
Next, a presentation simply has the work, either sketches or finished work, laid out clearly on a page. This page is labelled, and especially at the sketch stage, it has a short explanation of the concept — a rationale.
Make one presentation template that you use for both sketches and finals. Design the cover well — clean, orderly type with your logo will do. Don’t let the cover outshine the work itself. Keep the inside pages white and minimal as well. Use consistent typography, always guiding the client through your work but never overwhelming it.
What does a presentation and looking professional have to do with earning more as an illustrator? When you look like you take yourself and your work seriously, your clients will too. They will more willingly accept your fees at the end of the project, and they will be more likely to do repeat business with you and refer you to others.
Habits of a Successful Illustrator
These are actionable things you can do to increase your earning power as an illustrator.
SET A HIGH HOURLY BASE RATE
For most situations, I would never recommend that an illustrator have a client-facing hourly rate. On the other hand, a base hourly rate is the magic unit by which we formulate our project fees. You can read more about base hourly rates, including how to calculate yours, elsewhere. Here, I just want to say, whatever you arrive at, set it high.
I’m going to be very direct. In 2019, I’ve seen established commercial illustrators cite base hourly rates as low as $25 per hour. Today, that’s not much more than minimum wage. It is perhaps closer to an unskilled union job in the US or Canada. Illustrators are not unskilled labourers: there is a lot of training and experience that go into getting good at what we do. We provide a one-of-a-kind service (each illustrator has their own perspective and approach). Creativity is a premium service. You are a creative professional, not a hired maid service!
If you’re looking for actual numbers, I will indulge you (but please do your own research to find what’s right for you). If you are a professional illustrator with proven, real-world experience, your base hourly rate should be over $100. If you are a student picking up work on the side, with not much experience and a higher likelihood of failure or taking a longer time to arrive at a final piece, you should expect $25-40 per hour. It really depends on how good you are, how confident you are, and how much your client is willing to bet on unproven talent. That being said, I am of the opinion that students and others looking to gain portfolio projects and experience should expect to earn much less at the very beginning of their career. With experience and development, over time, however, you should grow to expect more — and be courageous enough to ask for it.
ASK FOR MORE
Sometimes asking for more comes very directly. This often happens for me when I get a brief from an editorial client. If the fees are lower than I’m used to, I will simply tell the client what my usual fees for such-and-such size and type of illustration are and ask if they can match it. If I really want the project, if the price is well under my going rate, I simply ask for a token amount over, even if it’s $50-100 more. This signals to the client that I value my time and work. It can also subtly hint that I am not starving and have the power to walk away from this job. More often than not, there’s a little more budget than was first presented.
One tactic I use to up my fees is the argument of deadlines. Editorial jobs, for instance, are often under-budgeted, both in terms of fees and time. For some reason, art directors tend to call up illustrators with almost no time to spare. We can use this as leverage, saying that we will have to charge a rush fee. We can also ask for more time, citing that the budget won’t permit us to prioritize a given job over others. All the while, we are maintaining our empowered mindset — we are not starving artists and can walk away if the terms don’t match up to our expectations.
WALK AWAY FROM SUB-PAR JOBS
It may sound counterintuitive to turn down a job that will pay you to illustrate, especially if you are secretly starving. In some cases, we do have to make compromises. We are business people, not fools. But we must have a bottom threshold, a low we refuse to sink below. It makes business sense to turn down jobs that are unacceptable in their budgets and timing because these jobs can be demoralizing and devaluing. In the short term we might feel like we are at least doing something, but in the long run, we are enabling ourselves to continue on in a desperate, starving artist mindset. Furthermore, time spent on one project takes away the potential to work on another. If you get stuck working on a job you don’t like and which doesn’t pay well, it may prevent you from working on another, better job that comes along in the meantime.
Of course, I believe it’s better to go with actual opportunities than what-if’s, but the actual opportunity should ultimately feel worthwhile, either for the experience it gives you or the pay.
CONSULT PRICING GUIDES AND PEERS
What should you charge for your illustrations? This is the question of the century. There is no true industry standard, although some organizations have done their best to approximate one, including the Graphic Artists Guild. I highly recommend picking up a copy of their latest reference guide, which can at very least give you a picture of the range of fees possible for commercial artists including illustrators. Of course, consulting with a close friend or peer in the industry is also helpful. You will find many creative pros will be secretive about what they charge in every situation, but if you ask ballpark ranges for a specific kind of illustration (e.g. a full page illustration in a national magazine), they might be willing to divulge.
Knowing what others charge or what the going rates in a given market are of course empower you to charge at or above these rates. That being said, if you only went by what others have been known to charge, you might be selling yourself short. There are often reasons to charge much more than what is typical, and if you’re the illustrator a client has on top of mind for the job, it’s entirely possible they’ll pay what you’re asking. In my own experience, I am often the most expensive quote, but ultimately, a client has already made up their mind and wants to go with me. The quoting process is really just a matter due diligence on the client’s part. I am not saying we should exploit a client’s desire to work with us and gouge them; I am saying we should not fear asking for what we believe our work is worth.
HAVE OTHER INCOME STREAMS
It is easier than ever to have a so-called side hustle. For some, this is creating and selling viable products on their shop. For others, it’s getting into licensing work with greeting card companies, for instance. For me, that side hustle is teaching online. I have been able to grow my online teaching revenue over the years to a point where I am far less dependent on client work than I used to be. This has been a long game, and it’s subject to change at any point, but having a mostly-reliable secondary source of income empowers me to be more picky about the kind of client work I take on. I can take on longer-term, more personally gratifying projects (like books) that (sadly) tend to pay less, without actually sacrificing my earning potential overall. I can walk away from jobs I might at one point have had to take on, perhaps pushing me into double overtime. Having other income streams doesn’t necessarily mean paying half of your salary, though. It often starts much smaller, perhaps offsetting your monthly latte fund. The key is to make an effort to create secondary income streams. Every trickle helps, and more importantly, each opportunity creates a potential stepping stone to the next.
DO NOT BE INFORMAL ABOUT SCOPE AND FEES
You need to take yourself seriously as a business if you want your clients to as well. If you are super casual at the start of a job and don’t outline what you will provide and for how much, your client might be casual about how many changes they keep asking for. Similarly, if you’re casual about how you get paid, perhaps by not sending an actual invoice with clear expectations of when and how you get paid, it’s very likely the client will be casual about this too. It’s very good to be warm and friendly throughout the creative process, acting collaboratively and helpfully along the way, but be sure to bookend your kindly business-doings with a solid, formalized quote at the beginning and a clear, unmistakably serious invoice at the end.
KEEP REGULAR HOURS
Treat your practice as a day job. You might have become a freelancer for the flexibility, but you’ll find this flexibility sort of becomes an all encompassing, 24/7 job if you don’t set up some boundaries around your workday.
For me, I keep regular business hours along with the rest of the working world: that’s Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm. Being the boss, I get to say when I break this format, and being a freelancer, honestly, I often have to fudge that 5pm end of day a little bit.
That being said, for the most part, I have regularity and consistency in my open and closing hours. Having regular hours means that, even when I am not working on client work, even as I am secretly panicking about whether I’ll ever get another job in my life, I have permission to work on other important aspects of my business. That sometimes means administrative things like checking in on my books or updating my website with new work. It also means creating a personal project to post on Instagram (how else do creatives justify doing this every day?). It means I can spend all afternoon on an otherwise open day picking up new skills with online classes. It means I can spend a chunk of time developing and producing my own next Skillshare class or YouTube video.
In other words, I am always busy, even when I don’t have client work. I am also able to work on personal projects that are important to me even as I have real client work to take care of. It’s all important to my business, and it all, in some way or another, leads to my income-earning potential.
The most important thing about keeping regular hours, however, is that it actually increases your capacity to take on more simultaneous jobs as well as larger, more involved single projects. You are in the habit of working already, so when bigger opportunities do arise (as they will), you won’t be caught with your pants down (unless you are the kind of freelancer who doesn’t wear pants).
By treating your day like a grown up, you are acting bigger. By acting bigger, you will be bigger. Others will perceive you as bigger. It’s like increasing the size of the fish tank: the fish will grow or stay small according to the size of their environment.
DON’T SPEND EVERYTHING YOU EARN
This is less about earning and more about how use what you’ve earned so you’re less dependent on a steady flow of client work. I recommend having a separate bank account for your freelance revenue. Never let a pay check go into your personal checking account, where it can quickly dissolve and disappear into your everyday expenses. You will lose track of what you have and what you will need for the next round of bills. Rather, send all payments to your dedicated business account. It can be a proper business account, or just a regular personal account. As long as it’s separate from your main checking account — and slightly less accessible.
Now, pay yourself regularly. Set up what you want to earn as a salary, and then pay yourself instalments of this salary weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, just as you would be paid if you were an employee with a job. Hopefully, over time, the amount in your “business” bank account will grow, or at least float above what you need to withdraw for your regular self payments.
There have been times for me when my personal salary amounts (what I agreed to pay myself from my business account) exceeded what I actually had. I have had cashflow issues. In such times, I’ve had to find money to live by in other ways. But I have never been in debt. However, if I had lived in my means when cash was flowing like a river (spending more than an allotted monthly amount), I would have had nothing when it narrowed to a trickle. In all likelihood, I would have gone into debt.
Managing money is not my area of expertise, but having some controls over my spending and lifestyle, as well paying myself only a portion of what I actually earn, has again empowered me as a creative. It has allowed me to pursue projects I actually want to work on vs. being desperate and having to take on lower paying jobs and/or jobs I don’t like. By being able to focus on jobs that give me pleasure and that I feel pay fairly, I have been able to weather times of creative burnout and cash flow drought.
Staying In Business Means Acting Like a Business
While there are indeed many factors that lend to an illustrator’s commercial success, I believe the above are the secret sauce that all successful illustrators share in common. It’s not about being purely talented or skilled or otherwise special. Surprise, surprise — staying in business as an artist is about acting like a business. That means holding yourself to a positive mindset that values your own worth, projecting a highly positive perception in the mind of others, and of course, establishing and keeping healthy habits as a business, creative, and individual.