Living the "Dream"

Hey all!  So, last week, someone asked me if I had ever "thought about working freelance" for my art.

Oh yeah.

I mean, who hasn't?  Paint and draw in your pjs, make your own schedule, sit in the comfort of your living room?  Oh yeah!  I must be an idiot to get up every day and head into the dark, crowded germ-factory of people chained to their desks.

Ok, that was snarky, and I apologize a little bit.  Students don't really get a good sense of things sometimes.  The internet has given a lot of visibility to the people who are succeeding, but I think it has also created a sense that a $200K a year job as an illustrator is just beyond your reach.  I mean, there are people getting $4K per book cover, and doing one a week every week!  This is true...but there are lottery winners in every category.  It's what a friend of mine likes to call the "Internet Exception Machine."

I don't know the editorial or packaging side of illustration well, but I thought I might share a bit of hard numbers for the "fantastic realism" side of it.  I'll try not to depress you too much.

It is true that book covers can pay anywhere from $2,000 up, and seem to offer a steady source of good money.  The reality is that those jobs are hard to find.  I know people who have managed to get that kind of work in quantities needed to live...but very, very few.

I would say the "average" half-page full colour illustration for fantasy art pays between $100 and $200.  In my experience, the turnaround from work until payment is somewhere between 3 and 11 MONTHS.  Let's assume that the average artist can do a painting of this sort in 15 hours, including sketches, thumbnails, revisions and research.  That's $10 an hour for paintings, assuming you can afford to work for 6 months before you start getting paid.

I work as a background painter for a 2D cartoon.  I live in Vancouver, where the average salary for that gig is about $750USD per week (my studio pays less than that).  To make that much money on fantasy art, I'd have to do 5 15 hour paintings a week.  Not only would that be 75 hours a week (even on crunch times I don't put in that much overtime regularly). but it assumes I can get 250 paintings a year from clients!   Even if I could get double the regular rate, I'd need over 100 paintings a year.  If you were curious, the mean single income household in the US is $44K a year....which is a lot more than I'm making.  I say that not to complain, but to point out that even as a full-time, working artist, I'm not on easy street.

Vancouver is lucky, we have an animation industry that has jobs....but it's also one of the most expensive cities in North America - as are all the other cities that have similar jobs.  In USD, my 1 bedroom apartment is about $1100 a month - and I got incredibly lucky, and could not get that deal again now if I went looking.  I am also lucky enough to be able to walk to work, so I don't need a car or a transit pass.  I could live further out, but the transportation costs would make any rent savings almost a wash.

I am also lucky in that I went to art school at a public institution in Canada, where my entire 4 years cost less than one semester at RISD or Art Center.  I graduated with zero debt.

Every starting freelance illustrator I know has had one or more of the following situations:

  1. They worked in studio first, saved a ton of money and made significant inroads into the industry before they tried to freelance.
  2. They have a full-time day job they don't talk about much.
  3. They come from money.
  4. They have a significant other that bears most of the financial responsibility for the household.

The catch-22 is that if you move to someplace significantly cheaper, the options for day jobs get significantly scarcer on the ground.  If I could get my freelance career to consistently pay for my life in someplace more rural and cheaper, I might consider moving...but there is no way I'd do it until I knew with reasonable certainty I could support myself - and I don't have a family!  That raises the stakes considerably.

I've been told by people who have come out the other side that if you work your ass off for several years, it does open up at the other end a little bit....I would assume that how much you do and how good you are will have an impact on this, but it sounds like the average for people who work consistently is about 5 years.

In the meantime - If you're trying to get there, don't beat yourself up about that day job, no matter what it is.  I hope I haven't bummed you out too much, I just think that artists would be well served if they got this sort of information explained to them before they started, instead of having to find out mid stream...then again, maybe no one would ever try...

Thanks for reading!