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Fighting for the Value of Illustration

July 30, 2010

© Thomas James Illustration

When it comes to pricing your Illustration work, one truth is unavoidable:

Some of your fellow Illustrators will undermine your ability to earn what you deserve by undercutting standard rates.

It’s called Desperation.

We’ve all been there, whether as students or more seasoned professionals in a bind. Or, sometimes weve offered insanely low rates in exchange for a high-profile project for a client we’ve wanted to work with for a long time.

This is a part of our business that will never go away.

In fact, it is a growing phenomenon due to the mercurial rise of the internet and the opportunities it offers less experienced artists to get their work in front of the right people.

The way I see it, there is only one way to keep your standards high and demand fair compensation for the beautiful work that you do.

You have to sell your value.

You’ve heard it said before by some of the guests on the Escape from Illustration Island Podcast, such as Scott Hull, Steven Heller, and tomorrow, Maria Piscopo. It bears repeating again and again because it is truly the best way to ensure your ability to make a living in today’s Illustration industry.

You have to be incredibly good at what you do, find the clients who give a damn, and prove to them that they should pay what you’re asking if they want to go above and beyond the staleness of stock art and actually make a statement about their brand, their product, or their publication.

This won’t always be easy, but it is essential to those who see industry standard rates sliding downward and quality visual design going with it. It’s time to stop wishing that your peers won’t undercut your prices, and stop hoping that clients won’t eagerly scoop up those who will work for free. Instead, we must hold our heads high, seek out those who value the power of Illustration, and even become entrepreneurs by creating our own products and alternate income streams.

If we want to show the world that art is still one of the most evocative ways of communicating complex ideas, then we have to take the reins ourselves, take control of the conversation, and move our industry in the right direction. We need to stop listening to those who say that Illustration is dying (again) and prove otherwise.

I know that we can do it. I know that we will, and that keeps me going.

How do you think we can help our industry remain strong? Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2010 5:19 PM

    Well said, Thomas. Good to meet you at ICON.

    • July 31, 2010 9:07 PM

      Thanks Carl. Great to meet you as well, if only for a brief time. If only ICON was at least twice as long.

  2. July 31, 2010 6:34 AM

    I’m very new to illustration and trying to find my way but I understand that joining the A.O.I (Association of Illustrators) is a good thing- they campaign to protect rights and have guidelines on fees.
    I also think the national union of journalist’s website is worth a look- they have a lot of advice on fees and the value of illustration.

    • July 31, 2010 9:09 PM

      Hi Christine. Thanks for your comment. It’s true that there are several valuable organizations out there fighting for the rights of professional artists every day. However, we have to do much of the work for ourselves through the way we run our own businesses. Maintaining high standards and encouraging others to do the same will help us all to be more successful.

  3. July 31, 2010 6:34 AM

    That’s a question I have asked myself countless times. But I totally agree about not letting standards down.
    I don’t care if I need to have a side job for the rest of my life, I don’t want to go for second best, it was hard enough to get to the level I am at now and I want to progress more.

    I agree that we need to reinvent the business. I read so many bad things about the industry it’s discouraging. As a freelance illustrator I am trying out another concept. Self publishing, being careful about perfect quality. Very small quantities and local sales for local kids. It’s a family business and we want to keep it human sized. And combining the sales with charity work. I don’t know how far this will go if it will ever take off but I believe that there is a way there. It would be great to have people develop such ideas in a way that would be viable.

    • July 31, 2010 9:11 PM

      I like what you’re saying about your willingness to have a second job in order to only work on the projects you want, and for the compensation you deserve. That is similar to my own approach with EFII. I’m fortunate enough to be making a modest income from this site, which allows me to run the kind of Illustration business I want to run. If I didn’t have EFII, it would be a lot more difficult.

      • August 1, 2010 4:48 AM

        Cheers! And I am glad I found this place. You did an amazing job with this site. I had been looking for this kind of ressources for ages. And this kind of debate here is something I often miss. I tried to start a forum for such discussions but as you know it takes time and if it’s not linked to any income…

  4. July 31, 2010 8:11 AM

    Your brand is the most important sales tool. People look for an authentic experience. We’ve been hypnotized by culture to “tell it”, the customer wants us to “Be It”.

  5. August 1, 2010 4:10 AM

    I think the biggest destruction possible are those small-budget magazines that ask your work for free, oh i am sorry ‘for a huge publicity and your contacts in a column of contributors’. its becoming very hard to tell people a normal price for the editorial work because they can always get something cheaper or even free from those ‘full time contrubutors’ that exchanged a career in illustration to a hobby of illustration. i think a big movement against this should be started..

    the second thing that destroys proper salaries, in my opinion, are contests for a book cover or some other design/illustration. yes, its nice to be published by a mega huge publisher but isnt it strange that they get to pick a best artwork from thousands contestants without paying to those who loose (and sometimes even taking money for participating!!) and giving few hundreds dollars for a winner – i cant imagine self-respected agent or artist who would agree to do a book cover for few hundreds dollars, or even a thousand dollars knowing that you give your copy-right to them and they can use an artwork numerous times in numerous countries..

    thats sad. but its all in hands of those who particiapte – if illustrators keep doing that and keep selling their work (and time) so cheap or giving away for free, then illustrators will be able to blame only themselves..

    • August 1, 2010 4:45 AM

      I agree. But it’s a bit like the initial content of the article here. We will not be able to prevent this from happening so instead of wasting energy ranting against it we should try to come up with constructive ideas. I don’t mean you in particular, more like all illustrators who are serious enough about their jobs.

      I only work for free when it is for charity. Or last month for a chapbook that a favourite author of mine was doing. It’s not a contest and it’s not something that would have the kind of budget for hiring anyway. I found it was a nice way to pay tribute to an author I love and do a fan art I had been putting off for too long.

      • August 3, 2010 6:52 AM

        I think we can prevent it – its already happening – if couple of years ago tutors (at least those who I met in UK) used to say – ‘illustrate anything, participate everywhere, do it cheap, for free, just go and do something’ now they’re saying to students ‘be careful, you’re a professional, dont do stuff for free, cause your time costs’. so if this will keep happening in other countries too, the generation of professionals will grow up who will not even understand what ‘contribute for free’ means.. i think this is a very good direction that universities try to show to students.

        • August 3, 2010 9:35 AM

          That’s great indeed! It’s an important step.
          But there will still always be hundreds of people who are self taught, like myself and who either didn’t learn this, or think their work isn’t as “valuable” as other’s. I hear that all the time. I try to explain that not only are they down-playing their own work and will have problems ever making a living, but they are also taking the jobs from others who have normal fees.

          But I agree, and places like this website contribute to inform everyone. Other professions have fixed fees, in illustration it’s not easy to figure out what the standards are. I spent hours browsing the web and reading books until I was able to invoice my work properly and I am still learning. I was so glad to find this place and it’s ressources, there should be more like this!

          • August 5, 2010 7:57 AM

            well i guess pricing is very different in different fields of illustration and different regions, but i found it really helpful to read a book How to be an illustrator by darrel rees, , – it had all arguments about pricing, negotiating and etc, and even some ‘standart’ pricing.

            actually it answered most of my questions about american and british markets. but in a country where i work, Lithuania, its still very different so the book doesnt cover the rest of the world, especially small markets such as my home-country :)) but still, was helpful, i recommend to all professionals, not professionals and all other creatives

  6. August 1, 2010 6:05 AM

    Good point Scott, clients need to be as ease. That’s why they come to us as illustrators, so that we can make them look good and make their product rise above the din. As the point of entry gets more and more accessible, artists have to do several things:

    1. work hard and increase ability – set yourself apart by being the best at what you do
    2. be patient – 90% of success is just showing up, by being persistent and consistent the client understands what you are and what you have to offer (called your brand)
    3. believe in your own myth – having confidence in yourself and what you offer will translate to the client and they will have confidence in you in return.
    4. be prepared to walk away – this last point speaks directly to the topic. In any endeavor in life, being ready to let go gives you the power. None of us should strive to be the low-cost leader. There is a place for that, to be the walmart of illustration, but there is also a place for the BMW, Mercedes, Neimans, Tiffany’s, etc…

    I’ve missed a few jobs over the years by pricing a little too high, but most of the time my clients are happy to negotiate and it never varies to a desperate degree. When it does, I’m just not the right guy.

    Those four steps will guarantee a staying place in the industry.

    Maria and Drew Brophy have a terrific article explaining the reality of having a client rescind on a contract because someone else offered to do the work, which was already discounted, for 1/3 less still. She explained that it would cost them more to do the job than they would make.

    THAT is the point we need to get across to the bringers-of-work: If you offer less than it costs an artist to do the work, you will not have artists very long. This is where patience comes in. I have clients today that I didn’t hear from for several years, then when they realized that they were getting what they paid for, they came back. Patience.

    All of this is predicated on believing in yourself. As artists, more than most, we let what we do define who we are and that will kill an artist’s ability to separate themselves from what they perceive as a judgement when a client doesn’t want to pay what we need them to. Remember, this is a business, and just because a guy is selling oranges on the street does not mean that our grocery store is going out of business.

    My $4 and 13¢.


  7. August 2, 2010 6:42 AM

    AIGA (of which I am also a member) has Standards of Professional Practice posted on their site:

    As well as their stance on “spec-work:”

    The illustration community seems to be a shrinking group of AIGA’s member base. Perhaps more of us illustrators should get involved in AIGA as well as other graphic arts organizations (AIGA, GAG [Graphic Artist Guild], Art Director’s Club [Art Director’s Club]).

    I think by active involvement (or co-sponsored activities) with organizations where illustrators and graphic designers alike share commonality, we might bring greater awareness to these issues.

    Graphic designers share many of the same sentiments, as evident by the difficulty in finding reasonable “freelance” and “full-time” employment rates in major metropolitan areas.

  8. August 2, 2010 5:57 PM

    Thank you so much for writing this post…This issue is constantly on my mind… I would be great if we could even start a petition and help newbies or artist who are lacking a business understand that this issue is much bigger than them, it’s about the future of the industry. I actually think stock art is one of the biggest scams ever and should be abolished! I hope more people will come to the realization that this is going to end our future if not tackled sooner rather than later.


  9. August 3, 2010 7:08 PM

    Great article Mr.James. I especially like that last section on selling our value beyond simple picture makers. Illustrations bring so much quality and life to anything they are added to. I am new to the freelance game myself and did sell myself short for a few jobs in the beginning. However, as I have read and learned more about the freelance-life (woohoo!) from your awesome articles here at EFII and a host of great books (many of which are in the bookstore link) I’ve really learned a lot about selling my self, my brand, and my skills. With my last few jobs I’ve bid for (in-person, thankfully) I have focused on selling my value as an artist and the value of illustration to my clients and have seen better returns for it as well as earning higher rates.

    I am not sure if anyone mentioned this above, but to all the new illustrators out there like myself I would add: Don’t be afraid of scaring away a client by asking for fair compensation for your work and time. What we do has great value and it is a specialized skill that not everyone can do. So be sure to ask for fair compensation. Most of the time your clients won’t bat at an eye at it; especially if you justify it by presenting your value and the value your illustration(s) can add to your clients’ products, projects, etc.

    Thanks again Mr.James for all the great work you do here at EFII.

  10. August 10, 2010 9:09 AM

    This is an age old discussion with illustration..

    While I haven’t been a full-time illustrator over the years, I have been doing paid professional work since 1996. And the age old catch 22 for any novice, in whatever field, is the phrase, “you need more experience, followed by the question, “if I can get a job, how do I get experience.?”j

    And finding that doorway into experience is what beginning illustrators are searching for.

    I’ve seen this same discussion on design boards also( having been a fulltime graphic designer). And my biggest frustration with this topic is the fact that- “People gotta eat”. And when you’re hungry, literally and figuratively, you’ll do what you gotta do to get some bread..

    I think the biggest problem in creative fields is outreach and transparency. Illustrators that have “made it” have to reach back and mentor up-and-coming artists. They need to be taught and groomed to expect more, be guided to best practices and taught how to improve so they can get jobs that pay well.

    The biggest hurdle is: Artists are extremely secretive about telling what they make.. So how are beginners supposed to know what they should expect. Sometimes we want the best of both sides of the coin; we don’t want to compete with cheap labor, but yet we are hesitant to say what a well paying gig we’ve got( out of fear other will flock in and compete for business)

    Think about it.. Lawyers, for example, sit around and brag about how much they’re making at this firm and that firm. As a result, new lawyers start out with the idea, “I’m going to make so serious loot”, and won’t take lowball salaries, even at the beginning.

    Younger illustrators need to understand that this profession provides a great living, and the starving artist is doing something woefully wrong. This craft is necessary, and those who do it well get paid well. And just like a beginning lawyer wouldn’t take minimum wage “to get experience”, artists shouldn’t do that either.

    But beginners have to pick up this attitude from experienced professionals- and until this changes, we’ll see more of the same.

    My radical idea.. Professional artists trumpeting SOME of the amazing well paying jobs they do- and reinforce to younger artists that you get there by getting better- not doing free work.

    • August 10, 2010 2:34 PM

      Terrific point Taric!

      I have a very comfortable income and I’m very happy with the body of work I’ve done, but there is a hesitation to admit that, ‘yeah, this is aaallllright!’ for fear that I’ve settled. But you are right on the nose with the point. Artists who are successful and happy should herald how great they have it and stop fearing the unknown.

      Words a seasoned old artist shared with me years ago when I was frustrated with my income:

      “Just do the work, do it well, and the money will come.”

      Sage advise and it was true.

      Many many many artists don’t have a clue how this business works or how to get in. PERHAPS, with the advent of the information age coupled with our ongoing discussion of the real WORTH of our craft, those new to the field will pick up on what it really means to be an illustrator.

      And it’s NOT working for $5 an hour without benefits (or worse) just so you can call yourself an artist.

      On the other side of things:


      • August 11, 2010 7:57 AM

        I saw the Kaitol thing a few days ago..

        And that’s what I’m talking about:

        We can’t make every artist become good business people, but we can foster an attitude of “I can draw.. If you need my skill, pony up some cash pretty boy”.

        Too many artist have the “Pretty girl that’s has no esteem” issue..

        Maybe what we need is a movement helping artists to understand, if you can draw well, you should be making money! And if you’re not making money, it’s because you’re not asking for enough money. And if your client balks at your rates, find another client that willing to pay( they definitely exist)

        And unfortunately, if no one is willing to pay you great rates…. You probably aren’t as good as you think.. This is a professional field: we also need to weed out those that are more interested in calling themselves artist vs. working hard enough to become great artists.

        Another concept that has to take hold is: if your work isn’t good enough to get good rates, doing free/cheap commissions doesn’t make your art better or professional. Take time to improve your game so you can make an honest living at this craft..


  11. December 29, 2010 5:36 AM

    Thank you for your awsome post. I am going to keep an eye on your site, i allready added it to own list :)

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