Monday, March 8, 2021

How Do You Make Money as an Artist?

Allen Michael Voth, an aspiring artist, had some questions for me.

How do you make money [as an artist]?
My income has always been an evolving pie chart of many sources, including: book royalties, commissioned illustrations, digital downloads, lecture fees, workshops, exhibition rentals, sales of originals, book and print sales from our online store, consulting fees, merchandise licensing, and options of intellectual rights for entertainment (movies, theme parks, etc).

It sounds like a lot of active sources, but at any given time, 90% of the income will come from just three or four of these, and the distribution shifts every 5-10 years as art markets change.

I have resisted taking direct sponsorship money on my social media feeds; I have resisted Patreon-type crowdsourced models; I have turned certain down job offers for teaching at art schools, art director jobs, private commissions, concept art jobs for movies, and illustration jobs. 

These could all be valid sources of income and I've dipped into those wells before, but I have passed on opportunities because of being too busy or because they just didn't match my goals at the time.


Shelf of sketchbooks. One of my goals has been to make on-the-spot sketching
pay for itself without having to sell originals.

Do you do anything else to support your lifestyle?
No, but I'm keeping my dishwashing skills sharpened in case I ever need them.

Is the pay enough to make a living?
Not always. We've had some very good years, but there have been a few lean years where the income didn't match expenses and we had to rely on savings. 

The tightest years were when we had kids in diapers, and then 18 years later when those kids entered college. My wife and I have always been savers. We don't spend much; and we don't have employees. I recommend keeping enough in savings to allow you to survive for at least six months without any income.

Although I have sold quite a few originals, I've kept some of the best ones, 
which makes traveling museum exhibitions possible.

How long did it take to get to that point?
I worked for an animation studio (Bakshi) for about a year and a half before launching off as a freelancer. That gave me time to build up a reserve of capital, plus I acquired a set of skills and a good portfolio. My initial samples were strong enough to get me just enough freelance work right away, and I turned down an offer from another animation studio (Disney).

The income from working full time as a commissioned illustrator was barely enough to stay ahead, but it's what I wanted to do. After 10 years of working for other people I got it into my head to create my own fantasy world, which became Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time. That was a breakthrough in many ways both in terms of income and creative satisfaction.

Success will come eventually if you do high quality, original work and handle your business responsibly. I'd rather have a steady build than an overnight hit.

What would you avoid?
1. Don't borrow any more than you have to. Don't get stuck in consumer-loan or credit card debt. Don't marry someone who expects an expensive lifestyle.
2. Don't cut corners in your artwork. Every painting you create will follow you online. Always do your best work with every opportunity, whatever the time or money. Be the best at what you do best.
3. Don't be a pain to work with. Don't leave your clients or coworkers in the dark. Communicate clearly, briefly, and often. Deliver on time. Don't complain. Build up other people. Be cheerful, constructive, helpful, and professional.

Hope that helps,
James Gurney

12 comments:

Knits and Weaves said...

Can’t help noticing that James’s list of “What would you avoid?” is applicable to almost any career. 1. and 3. are universal, and 2. could be restated as “Don’t cut corners in your work…. Every project you complete will follow you online.”

Good advice!

Courbet said...

Yet again, honest straight forward advice. I remind myself I want a ‘life in the arts’- that can take many forms. Early on young / new artists always thing selling originals is where the money is- this post proves it.

Katharine said...

This is a great answer to an eternal question for artists. However, there's one cost of living unique to Americans that you do not address in your answer. How do you pay for health insurance, as a freelancer? I've found that the only solution to this problem unique to Americans is for one person in the marriage to have an "anchor job", which provides health insurance for the family.
What is your solution?

Jim Douglas said...

Very sound advice from a kind, thoughtful, honest, inquisitive, resourceful, playful, and generous man.

Matsuo Bashō said, "Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought." Jim Gurney seeks the world around him, the people around him, and the person within him. Aspiring artists or not, we would all be wise to seek the same.

CerverGirl said...

Your quantity of sketchbooks is impressive. Great and helpful post, thank you.

Michaelangelo Reina said...

This is a great post. I think many of what is talked about here, isn't natural for many to figure out. As a professional artist I've always relied on one steady source of income, so having multiple sources was actually a foreign concept to me for a long time.


Courbet said...

Please excuse my typo above- this post proves selling originals isn’t the only or even main source of income for an artist.

James Gurney said...

Thanks everyone.
Courbet, you're right: selling originals is normally just part of the income pie, even for gallery artists. But it can be a very important part for the artist and his or her descendants. Consider Frank Frazetta, who did a lot of oil paintings for paperback covers that only paid a few hundred dollars for each commission. He insisted on keeping his originals, and his kids are now able to sell them for over a million dollars each in some cases. Hang onto your originals and hang onto your rights.

Luca said...

Thanks for this honest and sincere post! About originals, i think that from one side the digital art has made them rarer (the original doesn't actually exist) and digital artists rely on limited prints as a source of income, but from the other side since originals are rarer they are valued more and there's more request for small sketches and small originals. Not to mention that absurdity and nonsence of NFT crypto art, that somehow should be the modern (and stupid) version of collecting originals.

While i think yours are great advices, i think that they work better for an established artist than for something at the beginning: in other words, i'd read your advices as "how you keep on making money" more than "how you begin making money", which i suspect could be the real unwritten question.
Sadly, the only solution i found to the second problem has been to find two jobs (a decently paying and stable one to sustain my family and an artistic one to, well, just feel like an artist, i suppose), which means actually giving up with social life, free time and sometimes sleep too, but i'm fine this way, we have to make decisions and find what's relevant for us. That's the reason why i took an university degree that allows me to work in a completely different area than the artistic one, while i'm completely self taught in art. The day job allowed me to find the time to slowly learn something about art and slowly creating a little artistic career. Maybe focusing only on art i'd have had a better career and i'd be a better artist now, but it's not a race and i'm happy as well, sooner or later i'll get too to...i don't know, is there a final line somewhere with a sign that says "Congratulations, now you are an artist?"

So, to make money as an artist you actually need... top dishwashing skills! XD

James Gurney said...

Thank you, Luca. Those are very helpful insights. My simplest formulation for how to *start* making money in art is to find the intersection between three sets: 1. What art you enjoy doing, 2. What art you're actually good at, and 3. And where art buyers can pay you for it (ie your best marketplace).

Roca said...

Thank you for talking about this. As a young artist I had no idea how hard things would be financially and I eventually gave up to pursue a more lucrative and predictable career. I hope this will give young people a dose of realism for better or worse.

I'm curious about is how you have seen the illustration business evolve over your career and where you think it's going. I think one place I failed was envisioning the illustration business to be the same as it was in the 80's when I graduated in the late 90's. Art school instructors owe it to their students to be up to date on the industry and give their students a realistic path to success or alternative career paths to pursue.

kishore said...

Thank you for sharing your experience Mr. James. It is indeed helps us to see things clearly especially when we are at crossroads of deciding what to do with oneself.