Thursday 26 November 2009

How To Make A Living Out Of Illustration (?)

I've toyed with the idea of putting a posting up on this subject for some while and I thought in the end "Oh Gwannnn - Why not???" It is painful though and I'm probably going to have to break off typing from time to time to dry away the tears.

The catalyst for my making this posting today was reading last night about the fees that Roy Cross earned in the mid 1970's when he was producing his superb aeronautical paintings for the U.K's leading plastic kit manufacturer Airfix. The last two paintings he sold them commanded an overall fee of £595.00. Now whereas that isn't a huge amount of money in today's terms in mid seventies terms that was pretty good going. There you had a master craftsman who was being generously rewarded for his labours.

Nowadays there are an awful lot of illustrators producing works of similar demand and complexity for exactly the same fee and sometimes less, much less than that. The Association of Illustrators recently ran a survey on illustrators earnings and the majority of them (some 80%) were earning less than 20K per annum.

There are a few illustrators that I know who do through being as much businessmen as artists manage to earn a relatively good crust from their labours and a few a very few do occassionally head towards the six figure mark. But to do that you have to not only tailor your style to the market (difficult at the best of times), but you also have to be driven to the point of obsessiveness with regard to working every hour that God sends you all the while praying that you can repeat the same trick for another year to met the huge mortgage you now find yourself saddled with. I've been there and done it and I can say that while you might get a certain short term buzz from being Mr Breadwinner Par Excellence, the truth is that it is a horribly uncertain way to make a living and you do know that eventually the fickle market will be looking elsewhere
while you stress about the shortage of work you now face.

The reality is that illustration fees are at an all time low, I can say this with confidence as I am not just drawing on my own experience but those of a lot of other colleagues. Essentially it's a buyer's market out there and even illustrators agents (I will take my courage in both hands and do a posting on that vexatious subject sometime soon) are putting in low quotes in a desperate bid to keep some of their now insanely huge stables of artists semi occupied.

So to any students of illustration reading this, try to acheive a paired down life style, keep your overheads as low as possible, work for cash in hand clients as often as you can and just have fun developing your own ideas, so hopefully you can acheive creative fulfillment without having to ever pay of that friggin loan that a bunch of politicians who never got off milking the public purse since they went off to university on full grants have stiffed you with.

And talking about illustration students here's a film that Sheryl (Gina) recently appeared in - pretty weird and dark stuff...

And talking about dark stuff the above bits are page 19 of Cloud 109 in progress...


  1. After 25 years of work I'm still conflicted on the dilemma of whether to work within a company, with all the politics and crap projects that don't deserve to happen, balanced out by good pay and your weekends are your own. Or the freelance route: creative freedom (more or less) but it's 24-7 and you're often hemorrhaging cash.

    One thing I would say to anyone picking the freelance route is to make sure you stay 100% independent as long as possible. That's why I think you and David are doing the right thing with Cloud 109. You don't have to answer to anyone else, and when it's complete you'll be able to call the shots with publishers. Make 'em bend down and take it ;-)

    Sheryl's film is well sinister. Great stuff.

  2. Very much echo your thoughts Dave. I did say to David the other day that my nightmare for 'Cloud 109' would have been to end up with a bastardized children's book trying to be a graphic novel sinking without trace in the kiddie's department of Waterstones. Which is what we might have been perilously close to achieving at one point until the big deal publisher that initially approached us took fright when they saw the project in total. I am pleased to say that both David and I are really committed to the no compromise, no dumbing down for the sake of U.S. Mid Western Librarian's Association endorsements.

  3. Thanks for the insights, I've only ever done spot things for friends and local things and much as they are fun I'm not sure I'd like the stress involved of trying to hack a living out to it.

  4. Well making a living out of art isn't the be all and end all of creativity. My wife is a really talented musician, probably more talented than I am artistically and she's never made a living out of her music but she's had a hell of a lot of fun with it and that's the key. If you're having fun it shows in what you do and that's really important, I know far too many people who are caught up in needing to make their art pay and hating a lot of the stuff that they end up producing.

  5. I'm not sure I should really read things about the nasty, harsh realities of making a living just from illustration as it's something I've always had in the back of mind as to what I'd end up doing. So far I've been quite lucky in that I've always sort of tacked on the illustration bit while I've been fully employed (art editing/designing magazines etc.) so have enjoyed the luxury of a decent, regular wage as well as being able to cherry pick the nice freelance jobs. Now I'm a concept artist in the games industry which, as far as I can see, is one of the few full-time illustration jobs about and which still lets me do my own stuff without having to worry about paying the mortgage. Have I made things too cushy for myself up until now?
    Anyway, thanks for the invite to pop along Peter :)