Can artists make a living?

Dear Readers,

This thoughtful comment came in yesterday to my blog on the economy. BTW,we got our biggest response to any blog item. I want to share Robin’s comments first and then I’ll respond below.
Thanks Lilla. That was an upbeat look at our economy.

But honestly, do any of these artists make their living purely from illustration assignments? I find that most FT artists do so-so, but often have spouses or second careers that help offset living expenses. (ie. Stay at home moms or people who don’t really need the income) Even a successful illustrator ends up paying a rep between 35-50% of their earnings.

I would be curious to know if it is truly possible to survive as an illustrator–especially in this economy. True about talent, but how much can a talented artist truly expect to make? A single artist…not a two income household. Illustrators are hit with self employment taxes, their own health insurance, business expenses, etc. Your candor would be so appreciated.
Lilla responds:

Dear Robin,

Nice to meet you. I appreciate your candid concerns. I love your questions and many years ago I wondered these same things.

I have a wonderful vantage point as an agent in that I have seen artists’ careers intimately for many years. How much they make, how long a career lasts, and so forth. Here are some observations in brief:

1. Really strong artists with great promotion make $30K – $80K as a general ballpark in this economy. I have had artists make more on occasion: 100K. Don’t forget, this is not 40 hours a week (it’s less), so it’s really good money for the hours. It is definitely erratic, however, and I feel that everyone who has a less-stable job like illustration should have a partner who has a stable job especially for health insurance. That’s just the reality. Don’t shoot the messenger. Sound radical? Aren’t we all supposed to be independent and support ourselves? Yes, ideally. Conversely, everyone with a stable job should have a partner with an exciting, creative job! So there. (-:
As an agent, I have a broader base of income. But if you are an individual, you need to expand your base. I’ll talk about that more another time.

2. Freelance illustration is great for an at-home parent. Freedom, great work, shorter hours, flexibility.

3. Being an artist/illustrator is great for folks that are entrepreneurial. That means you continue to find venues for your work and you don’t crumble over small setbacks.

4. I supported myself entirely as a freelance illustrator for 10 years before I became an agent, so yes, you can do it. A large percentage of my artists make good livings from illustration alone.

There is no cut-and-dried answer. Each person is a different case. We do live in a culture that encourages people to go for it. In reality, freelance is not for everybody. I did it because I wanted it more than anything in the world and was willing to do whatever it took to make a living entirely as an artist.

I hope you find that helpful.



  • Okay Lilla I have to chime in also, really if you know how to market yourself you can do well even beyond your numbers. I cannot give you my exact amount but if you are doing well in licensing it goes beyond 6 figures! Naturally because the economy is a little tough this year and last year things have slowed down, but I do extremely well and have been for over 10 years.

    However not everyone can achieve this either, you have to know how to market your work for licensing, you have to be current and you have to have talent. I have friends who do not do as well and its not because of a lack of talent its because of a lack of getting what the client needs.

    So to answer your question Robin, yes I work full-time at it and do very well, and enjoy every minute of it. I could not imagine a better job and I quit my full time job back in 95!! So its been 13 years of doing well as a full time illustrator for me.


    October 1, 2008
  • Wow…great topic today:)
    The russians say _” Those who don’t take risks, don’t drink Champagne!”
    I live in a household of 2 artists (my husband is a musician and a guitar builder), so no such thing as a stable income for this family. However, life is anything but boring! There’s always something new and interesting to talk about and do.
    Frankly, I don’t think that the concept of stable job exists anymore. I think it will die with the baby boomer generation (sorry if I have offended anyone).
    Everything is fluid and based on how good you are and how much you want it!
    And… I really like Champagne!

    October 1, 2008
  • such a great discussion!

    I’m with Helen–my husband and I both work for ourselves (i’m an illustrator and he’s a massage therapist). I think because we are doing what we want to more than anything else, our passion drives us, and we go after what we want. In the last 5 years, our incomes have doubled and tripled. Also, we choose to live simple and feel quite ‘rich’ –in the mountains, grow our own food, and spend a lot of time out doors. Also, in relation to the economy, we just have to get even more creative as illustrators. When times are slow, I create new work/jobs for myself, and it works! …Lilla taught me that :)

    October 1, 2008
  • Hi Lilla,

    I got here through Chickengirl design and must say that I totally relate to this topic. And as much as it is weird, yes, the stable job partner is true.

    I´m not from the US, where the market is so wide and people, albeit slower this year, commission a lot of illustration. In Portugal, getting your first book published is a nightmare, having your name in the market is another huge endeavour. There are few rep agents and those that exist can charge as much as they want. I guess this won´t be an issue in the future, with all the globalisation, as artists can get reps from abroad easier than before.

    But still, being entrepreneurial really makes the difference and I try to create as much work as I can when there are less incoming projects, as Jenny said above.

    Thanks for the post!

    by Ana
    October 1, 2008
  • Nice to hear some flat-out numbers. And also kudos to Robin for asking a direct question. Sometimes I find artists & illustrators can be a bit shy about details on their blogs or how-to posts. For example, they will recommend sending out mailers but not how they collated their lists.

    Anyways, your posts was very inspiring, as was the previous post referred to. It’s good to know that there are very successful colleagues out there making it work. I think it’s the same as any other biz — some have the luck, skills, contacts or aura to make it happen, and some don’t. Some will be wildly successful, others not so much.

    I don’t think it’s limited to illustrators or creatives in general, but any entrepreneurial undertaking. As many successful illustrators have either told me personally, or shown by example — the work is out there. It’s up to you to get it.

    October 1, 2008
  • lilla, thanks so much for these series of posts on this issue. it’s really great to hear first hand info about the economic side of things. people are shy to talk about it but everyone’s curious (as you can see by the popularity of these posts!). your blog is a great resource. thanks!

    October 2, 2008
  • Thank you so much for posting this!! Very interesting!!!

    by Sara
    October 2, 2008
  • For the record, I make more as a freelance illustrator than I did at my 9 to 5 design job. I work harder and longer but I’m happier and more fulfilled then ever!

    P.S. Health insurance isn’t as expensive as you would think. I only pay $177 a month for Blue Cross Blue Shield.

    October 2, 2008
  • Thank you Lilla for this encouraging and realistic post! I love your work and your clients!
    Be well,

    October 2, 2008
  • I have been a graphic designer for many years but am relatively new to surface pattern/Illustration and found the above really interesting.
    I wondered if anyone could tell me is there anywhere i could get information on how to price up jobs and how much to expect from licensing patterns etc, it seems information available in this area is a little thin on the ground.
    I was recently asked to do some Illustrations for a kitchen calendar (for a very reputable company here in the uk) and told the client usually paid £10.00 per hour which seems very low to me, wondered what other peoples views on this were.
    (Based in UK)

    by Denise
    October 3, 2008
  • lilla, not to add one more thing to your in-box, but have you ever considered hosting a workshop for creatives to share with us your knowledge of the biz, suggestions on how to keep our work relevant, et al? i am just noting the big response to your recent posts on the subject… creatives’ ears have perked up… (now, if i could only get the other body parts to follow suit!)

    by kim
    October 3, 2008
  • this is so fantastic. i am a young freelancer with lots of years of an “unstable” job ahead of me, and i couldn’t be more excited. each year seems to get better and better, regardless of the economy, and i’m a firm believer that your attitude is everything. (well, talent, too, of course!) but i think if you want something enough and believe that you’ll receive it in your life, then you will. i’m excited to hear that so many people are doing well as freelancers and illustrators! it’s very encouraging. :) thanks for writing about this!

    October 4, 2008
  • This post is really interesting! I’m an italian illustrator. I worked for 5 years for children magazines. I was not good paid but I loved the job. My husband is a teacher. Now I have three little children (5, 3 and 1 year old). I’m trying to do something new…but here in Italy it’s really difficult. I think that if you want find something good, you need talent but above all…you need to look outside, to seek…you can’t sit and relax and wait job falling on yuor knees!(sorry! It is a typical italian saying…but I did’nt translate it very well! :D)
    It’s all from Italy

    by Gaia Marfurt
    October 5, 2008
  • Hello and thanks to all of you who posted your kind words and your helpful comments. Kim, to answer your question: Yes, I have done many speaking engagements, workshops, and so forth. I’ll be speaking in Boston at a Boston designers’ group and at the Printsource show in NYC in January. I’ll give more info on that soon.
    But what this tells me is there is a hunger for information so, to that end, I’ll be posting more posts along these lines.

    October 5, 2008
  • Great topic (as evidenced by the number of replies!) and I have been enjoying reading the varied responses. I have been licensing my designs/illustrations for seven years now and each year I have done better and better, but it has only been the last couple of years that I can say that I could actually support myself completely if necessary. I might not be drinking champagne, but hey, I’m kind of a imported beer gal anyway :-)) When it comes to licensing, it take a while to get that pipeline started – then you have to work to keep it fed!

    I believe that the degree to which you succeed as an artist is directly connected to how much effort you put into marketing yourself – constantly & consistently – how much effort you put into keeping up with trends and creating new work that clients actually want. I can doodle cute cats (or whatever makes you happy) until the cows come home, but if manufacturers aren’t looking for cats, what good does this do me?

    And being a successful artist isn’t just talent, it also means being persistent – sometimes it take several tries and lots of courteous follow-up to get in with a company. And a thick skin is essential – rejection of your art (sometimes over and over) isn’t personal – it is business.

    I definitely work longer and harder hours – sometimes; and sometimes I have the luxury of time off – than I did when I had a “real” job, but I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love what I do.

    October 13, 2008

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