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Sometimes when I’m asked what I do for a living and I say I’m an illustrator, I get some confused looks from folks who aren’t sure what that means.
“Oh, like children’s books?” is the inevitable followup question, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it also tells me that there may not be enough awareness surrounding the industry and just how much Illustrators can do for work.
So, inspired by Holly Exley’s recent video on the subject I thought I’d come here to share some ways that I make money as an illustrator, either to help those folks understand what it is we do, or to give other illustrators some ideas for how they can monetize their artwork. Coincidentally, we both have 6 major revenue streams… I wonder what’s up with that number.
Anyway, here goes!
1. Client Work
This makes up the bulk of my income, as client work often pays fairly well and there’s lots of demand for creative skills. Some of the clients I’ve taken on are looking for things like logos and identity work, packaging, or product design. The types of clients that most often seek me out are coffee roasters, retail brands, or (my favorite) herbalists and magic folk.
The benefit to this type of work is that, like I said, it pays pretty well so I don’t usually need to hustle as hard to make ends meet for the month. I also get to work with lots of brands that share similar values as me and that’s really rewarding. It’s also fun to figure out solutions to different challenges that clients may bring to me, and each piece of client work I do allows me to explore the range of applications for my work.
The downside to client work is that sometimes your work can feel a bit restricted, depending on what the client needs. The client work I do tends to be more design focused, which I love because I get to figure out ways to incorporate my illustration style into design work, but can also distract me from the projects I’m most passionate about.
There can also be a lot of back and forth with client work, which eats into the time you have to actually make the work. I’ve found it really important to have a tight process and be able to clearly articulate your creative decisions to cut down on the number of revisions. This is something that I think most freelancers probably struggle with at one point or another. It seems like every designer/illustrator I know has a horror story of a project that took far too long unnecessarily because of all the back and forth. This can be remedied with a streamlined process and setting your boundaries up front.
2. Private Commissions
This is probably more of what people think of when they think of a working artist. A person comes to me because they like my style of artwork and they want one for themselves. This art is for private use and won’t be used commercially.
There are many benefits to getting this type of work. The most obvious one being creative freedom. The person comes to you because they like what you do, and even if they have a specific idea of what they want, you’re still pretty free to do what you love. This makes the process pretty easy, and there’s much less back and forth than there is with client work. Typically I’ll send a tight sketch before I get started on the final piece, just to make sure we’re on the same page. After that, we’re off to the races and I finish up the piece and send it to the client.
I can’t think of many cons to working this way, except that maybe some folks who ask for a commission may not be aware of what fair pricing is for illustrators. I read the other day that your day rate for a commission should be at least $250, which to me seems very reasonable, if a little cheap. When you break that down hourly, and you account for an 8 hour work day, it works out to about $31/hour before taxes. Realistically, you’re probably going to be putting in more than 8 hours for a private commission when you factor in sketching/ideation and communication, and then consider cost of materials, shipping, and any other costs to produce the artwork. All of this goes into the price of the commission.
Consider the cost of a tattoo session. Likely, unless it’s a small one shot from a beginning tattooer, you can expect to pay at the very least $240 per session for a custom piece. I try to stick to that rule, unless there’s a rare occasion that calls for less.
If you’re curious about what it’s like working with me, click here to learn more.
3. Running an Online Shop
Selling prints of my artwork, pins, and occasional handmade objects has been a really good way to sustain myself as an artist. It feels really good to send people a little package in the mail, and feels even better when they share photos of your work on their walls. During 2017, a bulk of my income was from selling pins on Etsy.
The ability to make the things you want to make and share them with other people is a huge benefit to this work. It can also lead to other opportunities like wholesaling your goods in shops around the world, selling your wares at events and local markets, and having physical items with your work on them serves as its own marketing tool. Someone might see your pin on someone’s bag and ask about it, or visit their friend’s home and see the piece of art on the wall and want a commission.
The cons of running a shop are as intense for me as the pros, though. Running a shop can cost a lot of money, and you have to have money to make money. It can also be hard to keep up with some of the other really solid shops out there, especially when you’re juggling other parts of your business. Jack of all trades, right? With a shop of your own, you alone are responsible for filling the orders, managing inventory, handling any issues, coming up with new product, etc. etc. etc. and it can be quite exhausting to manage on top of your other active streams of income.
For this reason I’m planning on streamlining my products in the coming new year and taking advantage of more print on demand services like INPRNT and Threadless. For one thing, it will take care of a lot of the shipping issues I’ve been having as I’ll essentially be hiring these services to take care of it for me. It will also allow me to have a wider range of products that I’m not able to produce on my own right now, like shirts and bags, and allow me to focus more energy on things that I can produce myself, like block prints and original art, and make those releases a bit more special.
4. Sponsored Content
I make very little from sponsored content, but it is one of the various passive income streams that I have. A brand will come to you and ask you to create a blog post, video, or other type of content promoting their product to your audience. It can sound smarmy on paper but I’ve gotten asked to represent some brands that I actually do align with like Trade Coffee Co. (Shameless plug - use my code tenderheartstudio to get your first bag of coffee from them for free).
Some brands may pay you based on the number of folks who subscribe to their service using your link, like Skillshare. They have new workshops and classes going up all the time and you can learn anything from cooking to photography to how to run your business from people all over the world. When you sign up for a Skillshare Premium membership using any of my links, you’ll receive your first month free (and I get $10. It’s a seriously good way to support your favorite artists). I’ve even been putting together a little playlist of classes that I think would be helpful for illustrators who are reading this now. You can see those classes here.
Free/discounted stuff from brands you enjoy for relatively minimal effort when you compare it to client work or commissions or running a shop. Sometimes you may even get paid for referrals.
It can take a long time to build up the kind of audience it takes to make sponsored content a sustainable source of income. It can also feel a little weird/tricky to “sell” something. The challenge here is to present the content in a way that speaks to your audience so it doesn’t feel straight up like a gross sales pitch.
5. Other Passive Income
Passive income refers to money you make from something you’ve already made or already put the effort toward. This can look like a lot of different things like hosting a Skillshare class, writing an e-book, or launching an online course, but for many artists it also includes creating assets and content for creative marketplaces. Websites like Creative Market, Graphic Burger, and Design Cuts (I’m not an affiliate of any of these, I just like them and use them myself) offer licensed images, fonts, and other assets for designers and other creatives to use in their projects.
You can also license artwork to larger companies, but that’s a well I haven’t quite tapped yet.
Once you set up your content, people can purchase your content while you sit back and watch the money come in. Or, more likely, you can get moving on other projects. Creating assets for markets like Creative Market also gives you a lot of creative freedom to make what you want and figure out the challenge of marketing it.
A lot of up front work goes into asset creation, and even once it's launched, you may run into some issues that need resolving, and unless you’ve got considerable momentum built up, you’ll need to keep marketing your product. As they say on The Honest Designers Show, passive income isn’t ever truly passive (Unless you’re the 1%, I suppose).
Patreon has been such a great way to sustain my work thus far. Not only have my patrons helped to bolster me financially, they’ve also provided invaluable emotional support through the last year of my career. When I first started I was a bit skeptical that people would be willing to give even $1-5/month just to help an artist continue doing what they love, but when I started dedicating time to it, I saw people come out to support me in ways I didn’t expect.
Your supporters can make a pledge of a certain amount per month and receive various rewards in return. These can range from access to exclusive content to patron only prints. My $5 patrons receive process videos and photos of whatever I’m working on, as well as more in depth thoughts about my work and life. $10 backers receive correspondence on vintage postcards, because scouring antique stores is one of my favorite ways to get inspiration.
I think of my Patreon backers as my advisory board. If I ever need advice or feedback I know I can go to them for an honest opinion. Having a group of people there to support you so fully feels like having a second family and that is worth all the effort it takes to maintain.
It might take a while to build up the kind of patronage that’s sustainable, unless you already have a large following. “Selling” your Patreon page seems to be a bit of an art in itself, and some industries lend themselves more to the platform than others, like podcasts and YouTubers. There have also been various articles exposing the income disparity found in Patreon — there’s a significant gap between the people who actually make a living through Patreon and the people who make less than the minimum wage, and this can seriously devalue the art industry.
In my opinion, this disparity is simply representative of the nationwide/global income disparity that we’ve seen for decades.
At any rate, no matter your Patreon earnings, once you build up that following I can assure you that those folks are your most loyal and committed fans. They will keep you afloat.
I hope this helps some folks understand a bit better what we mean when we say “I’m an illustrator.” It’s a lot more than drawing pictures, and I’d argue that 70% of my job isn’t drawing at all, but rather setting up revenue streams that allow me to spend that other 30% drawing. It’s certainly a balance and I’m finding something new about my job everyday.
Do you have any other ways of making money as an illustrator that I missed? Let me know!
This post contains affiliate links. My partnership with these brands allows me to support myself as a working artist. I only recommend brands/companies that I believe in and use myself.