Episode 09: How Much Will I Make In Illustration?

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Art by Tanner Garlick

How much will you make in illustration? [2:06]

This is a question every student has, and the frustrating part is that it is often not discussed openly, or is just glossed over in school. Which, honestly, is a bit crazy! Some reasons for this may be that those who are teaching are making too little and are embarrassed to share that, or it may be that they are making a lot of money and don’t want to share that, because they are afraid of coming across as bragging. In this episode, we hope to cut through the fog of uncertainty and shed some real light on what the market is like and how much you can expect to make in illustration, in different fields, and in different stages of your career.

Making a life in illustration [4:09]

When speaking of how much you make in illustration and of the various fields of illustration we are are ultimately talking about different lifestyles. A children’s book illustrator gets paid differently than a concept artist at an animation studio; the same can be said for a gallery painter or an editorial artist, etc. Each comes with its own unique type of payment system and accompanying lifestyle. There are many different career paths and combinations of career paths and it is wise to consider the environment and the financial situations that come with each.

Responsibility to talk about the business side too [6:44]

Schools are put into a tricky situation, because they need to recruit students and promise them a great career but the topic of money can be glossed over because the schools can’t guarantee jobs coming out of school. Will finds it necessary to have a talk with about finances with his students in each of his classes, and each time the students tell him: no one else has ever talked to us about this!

Comfortable to talk about how much you make [7:45]

Money is this weird thing that sometimes people hold so close to their chest. And sometimes people are super secretive about it. It can be frustrating

If you have artistic ability, the gamut of jobs available go from freelance out of your home to working full time at an animation studio and everything in between. Jake has taught at Brigham Young University (BYU), and feels as if the animation department there does a good job at helping students create connections with studios; they fly studios out to help conduct portfolio reviews and recruit. They try to get their students lined up with jobs and internships.

The hard thing about Illustration is that it doesn’t have a central source providing all illustration jobs, it’s everywhere! You school could fly and editor out to talk to talk about publishing work but they can’t offer 5 years of work like an animation studio can.

It can be a challenge to keep consistent work right out of school but there are things that you can do to prepare and gear yourself up to have consistent work; you can start trying to line up work, and start developing relationships to prepare.

It can be frustrating when you have no one to talk to about the financial side of illustration but it really only takes talking with a few people to start to get a pretty good idea of what it is like. Hopefully, this podcast will be a good start for you in answering your questions.

6 factors that affect your income as an illustrator [12:26]

It can be tricky to nail it all down, and don’t feel bad if you don’t fit into these categories. We are just going to ballpark some numbers and hopefully you can go from there!

We’ll divide it up into 2 different categories with 3 different sub categories.

Three different income bracket

Early pro

Mid level pro

Pro, seasoned veteran

Skill level

Exceptional skill

Average skill

Below average skill

It is important to know which you are talking about because if you use a seasoned pro like Chris Van Allsburg as a guide vs a student fresh out of school, you will get very different numbers.

People like Chris and David Wiesner have won multiple Caldecotts and are definitely anomalies.

You also need to distinguish your skill level with your career because there are students who are getting work in school and have an absolutely exceptional skill level, and these guys are super successful right out of the gate.

Chris Van Allsburg

David Wiesner

Dan Santat

We’ll try and focus a lot on average skill level, because people like those described above are outliers, and people with below average skill aren’t really going to be getting a lot of jobs.

What you can expect from book publishing [17:23]

Early pro $8,000-$10,000 for advances

Mid level pro $20,000- $24,000

Pro $28,000- and up

Educational publishers won’t be higher than $10,000

Small publishers offer less [19:27]

There are smaller publishers and they don’t offer as much. This means you should really think about whether or not it’s worth your time to work with them, consider these questions:

Questions to ask yourself before you accept work [20:13]

  1. Does it pay well? [20:28]

  2. Is it creative or challenging and taking you in the direction you want to go? [20:36]

  3. Will the final finished work provide extraordinary exposure? [20:48]

Lee considers these three questions when taking publishing offers. Ideally the project will fulfill all 3 questions but if it fulfilled two out of the three Lee would consider accepting the work.

Senior level in book publishing [22:16]

As you begin to build traction and notoriety the figures start to increase. Book illustration and publishing are a long term investment. You can build a long term career with passive income.

A published book doesn’t necessarily lead to royalties [23:33]

Most childrens books don’t earn out. Consider that most books go out of print. Royalties are great when they do come but, a general rule of thumb you could adopt is to just assume that you won’t get any and seek for the best advance possible.

Quick publishing advance explanation [25:11]

Publisher gives you advances on royalties. So you don’t get any money on royalties until the royalties due to you cross the amount of your advance. The advance is really there to protect the artist and create incentives.

Publishers can estimate how much a book might make in royalties and they give that money up front.

It takes a lot of time to make a children’s book and you can look at this as high income short term rates and long term investments you need to think about this as a business.

What you can expect to make within entertainment and concept art [27:00]

There are so many options, such as: storyboarding, background art, background painting, concept art, etc.

Entertainment industry [28:29]

Main Industries

  1. Animation

  2. Video Games

  3. TV

  4. Live Action

Feature animation, and feature live action pay more but TV might last longer like ten years. Video games can fluctuate but depending on the studio they can have pay rates similar to feature animation.

Feature anything is considering those with top tear skill sets and you can anticipate $70,000 starting off but also consider the cost of living in the area where feature animation is i.e. California. Cost of living in California is very high and your income may not be able to sustain a life there.

One of the reasons schools don’t talk about money [32:12]

You need to understand the life that you are choosing because there is a lifespan to each project that you have. Movies are made within 3-4 years and the studios have the option to keep or not keep you.

You should treat each job like it is freelance and think of your options. The are highs and lows in the industry.

Benefits of working in the entertainment industry [34:35]

In the entertainment industry there are great perks to think about like benefits, bonuses, and retirement. You can work around peers that help you and push you to level up your craft. The exposure of working in the industry also opens up other doors. Working in a company there is lateral movement like storyboarding or production assistance.

Day rate for feature animation concept art [35:42]

There are also opportunities to do freelance for animation, video games, TV, advertising, etc.

The day rate is set by the studio or you can negotiate for it.

For animation, the max is about $500/day.

Think about your social needs  [36:35]

Are you social? Do you need to, or do you prefer to work on a team with people or to work more solitary? This is a factor you should consider with different career paths, some are inherently more sociable and some are inherently more solitary.

Puppet Sanding to doing what you want to do [39:02]

Lee said there is this joke that when people started at Laika, they would have to “pay their dues” and started off just sanding puppets, because someone had to, and then, after paying their dues they would move onto doing more art and creative projects. Sometimes you will do something you didn’t anticipate, and you may have to spend some time “paying your dues.”

What you can expect to make at art fairs, Comic Cons, etc. [39:56]

The estimated rates in one Comic Con:

Early pro- $500-$1200

Mid pro $1200- $5000

Seasoned pro $6000-$30000

Will Terry Youtube, Comic Con

Will, Lee, and Jake say that they could make a living off of just comic cons and art fairs but it would be a lot of work, and stress, and isn’t the lifestyle they want.

By using different sources of income, you can create a sturdy “financial table”. Each leg is a different source of income that you have contributing to holding up the table of your finances; such as: art fairs, book publishing, freelance. If one leg “fall out” or is not producing income then you still have others to rely on. Whereas, if you only have one source of income, then if it falls, you will be in a lot more financial trouble. It’s great to have multiple legs to make sure your table is steady and strong.

Working in one area or multiple areas [45:03]

There are two types of artist.

One, the artist that has reached a pinnacle in his or her career and and focuses in on one thing

Or two,  an artist that has to piece together different forms of income but still can make a living.

Steps to take if you want to get into Comic Cons and Art fairs [50:47]

  • Go to Comic Cons or art fairs

  • Do research and development

  • Understand setup and prints

You can go and talk to people running successful booths and ask them a question or two but don’t sit there and take all of their time. Also, as a rule of etiquette: never get in the way of a sale. Be polite, and you and they will have a great experience talking.

The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines [52:40]

This book talks about how to quote but most artist don’t love the guidelines. This could be the starting book. Helps to have a ballpark of where the price range might be.

Find peers that you can go to chat about pricing.

Will’s YouTube on Pricing

What’s the best route for making a living as an illustrator? [58:31]

Have a day job that pays the bills first then you can transition into illustration. Think about the need in the industry and how applicable is your talent in the industry. Understand your target market, budget, and rights. Have a day job.

Make great art and also understand how things are sold.

Piper Thibodeau worked a corporate job and did art on the side before she was able to make the jump and be an artist full time.

Piper Thibodeau

What are some financial things freelancers forget to think about? [1:05:19]

Freelance artists need to understand that what you make is not what you get. Consider the amount amount your agent will take, taxes (30%), health insurance, investments, savings, etc.

Quicken Self Employed, is a great tool for freelancers!

Quick Overview: Dollar Cost Averaging [1:06:25]

If you make 1 dollar what happens to that one dollar? How much to you pay for your agent? Studio space? Taxes? Then you can start to calculate based off of how many costs eat into 1 dollar, how much you will need to make to be financially comfortable. 



Jake Parker: mrjakeparker.com. Instagram: @jakeparker, Youtube: JakeParker44

Will Terry: willterry.com. Instagram: @willterryart, Youtube: WillTerryArt

Lee White: leewhiteillustration.com. Instagram: @leewhiteillo

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