Low Pay, No Way

No one likes to talk about low pay. It is the deep dark secret of the freelance world. If we put it in the corner and throw a rug over it, maybe it will go away. It won’t. Unfortunately this is how the industry works.

I’m sure most people have seen the Should I Work for Free flow chart by Jessica Hische. I’m not really going to go into whether or not you should work for free, but I am going to talk about low pay.

My short answer to working for free is no, I will not work for free unless it is for a charity. Ok, presents don’t count either.

$100 – The Magic Number

Let me preface this by saying that I am mainly addressing artists working and living in the US. Since the internet enables this to be a global industry with only a few clicks of a button, people living in other countries might actually feel that $100 is a good or decent rate; it might even be a fantastic rate for all I know. The clients contacting me are based in the US and they are approaching artists living in the US, which means $100 doesn’t go very far in the US. I live in the US so I have to base my opinions and experiences off of where I live.

Lately several potential clients have e-mailed me about doing illustrations for them but their budget would only allow them to pay $100 per illustration. It is really weird how many different clients have contacted me with that magic number.

How did companies come up with this number? Is it because most people think art has no real value or that it doesn’t take any time or effort to create a painting? Maybe they just have a bunch of Benjamins sitting around collecting dust? I don’t know.

To be fair, I’m sure there are a lot of companies out there who just simply don’t know or understand the value of art. They might actually think $100 is a good fee. Let me tell you now, it isn’t. I don’t hold any ill will against them, but I do take the time to explain to them that $100 is far too low.

Let’s take that example and compare it to someone working minimum wage in the state of California. Minimum wage in California is $8/hour. Let’s say it takes you two days to finish one painting, which is usually how long it takes me. Of course some more complex paintings can take anywhere from 5-10 days, but we will say it takes 2 days.

That means for two days of work you get paid a nice crispy $100 bill, although it isn’t in your hands just yet. Someone working minimum wage makes $128 in two days. Are you already seeing the problem here? That means someone working minimum wage is making more money than you are.

Ok, what if you can paint faster than that? Yeah you might be able to, but will the client give you immediate feedback and ask for absolutely no changes? Most likely not. Even if you can do an entire illustration from start to finish in a single day with absolutely no revisions, you still only make slightly more than minimum wage.

Now here comes the big problem. Most clients use a net 30 payment system. That means they won’t pay you until 30 days after you invoice. Technically the definition of a net 30 is payment received on or within 30 days. Payment received. Not payment sent after 30 days is over, payment received. Transit time is also supposed to be included in that time. Of course that usually isn’t the case. Don’t even get me started on late payments, I could create another entire blog post about late payments.

Anyway, you won’t see any money for at least 30 days. Again, let’s compare that to someone working minimum wage. Typically there are 20-23 working days in a month. If you work 8 hours per day at $8/hour, that means you get paid, on average, $1386.66/month (8*8=64 per day*5=320 per week*52=16,640 per year/12=1,386.66 per month). That is before taxes. The person working minimum wage is also getting paid probably every other week…so they already have all of their money after 30 days. You are only going to receive $100 after 30 days, if you get paid on time. Someone working minimum wage is making more than 13 times that amount.

Now you really start to see the problem.

I’m sure most clients don’t really think of it this way, but they should. Even if a client pays you within a week, that still means it still took you a week to make $100. Someone working minimum wage makes $320 per week.

What if you do more than one painting at a time? You would have to do 14 paintings to match someone working minimum wage, and complete all 14 in a month. The problem with that is that most clients won’t give you that many paintings. Typically the most you will get is around 3, maybe 5.

Some people might argue that while yes, you only see your money a month or more after you did the work, you don’t have to actively work that entire month. Sure you only have to work a few days (for that one particular project), but would you rather actively work an entire month and see money every other week or only work a few days and hope somehow you can pay your bills some other way until you receive your next payment. That is all part of the risk you take when working freelance and something you have to consider when making the shift to the freelance world.

Even if a client pays you on time, a month or two can still pass from the time you were contacted to start the job until the time you receive your money. That means you have to work on several different projects with several different clients. This shouldn’t be a problem for most professionals, but amateurs might find it incredibly difficult to find that much work.

I already mentioned this in another blog post, so I won’t go into too much more detail. Just be sure you have several sources of income.

I think one of the main problems is that there are thousands of artists out there who will willingly work for $100 per painting. Clients see this and decide there isn’t a reason to raise their rates because people will already work for their current rate. Hopefully sites like PACT will help change the industry.

Another pet peeve is when clients contact you to do work for them and they mention that they can only pay you $100, yet they are funding their entire project through Kickstarter. Hmm, how about paying the artists a decent wage from the Kickstarter funds? I have seen Kickstarter projects make millions and yet they paid their artists minimum wage, or asked people to do it for free as a “contest.” Seriously, put the art budget into the Kickstarter goal. Pay your artists.

Some people even contact me to do illustrations for $25-50. C’mon people. Would you spend 8-16 hours working on something only to receive $25-50? That is less than minimum wage.

Wrap it up, but not in a Benjamin

So what should one take away from this? Don’t work for $100. Ask for more money, unless you enjoy working for less than minimum wage. I understand that the industry has made it so that people can’t get their foot in the door unless they take on these lower paying jobs, but there are ways to avoid that.

Make sure your skill level can command a higher fee. That might mean keeping another part-time or full-time job while getting your art to a higher level, but that also means you won’t be giving your art away either.

Basically it comes down to what you want to do. Do you want to immediately try to get work for horrible pay, or wait and get better pay? If your art is good, you can immediately command higher pay. Clients want skill, they don’t care about much else.

There really isn’t much of a ladder you have to climb in this industry if you have the skills. Notice how I am using the term skill and not talent. I definitely don’t want to get into that debate right now.

If your art is good, you don’t have to work for horrible pay. You don’t have to pay your dues. I’ve seen some artists come out with their first Magic card and their art is better than the people who have been doing it for 10 years. I’ve seen some artists who have never worked on a game before, but yet their first title was some amazing AAA blockbuster. How did they do that? They had the skills. They didn’t need to start out as an intern and then move on to doing textures and then move on to being a concept artist. Some people do take that route, but you aren’t required to.

Did I work for $100 when I first started out? Yes I did. Hey, everyone is young and dumb at some point in their life. At the time I knew it was horrible pay, but I fell into the trap of thinking that no one would hire me unless I did these low paying jobs first.

People always say “if I do these low paying jobs, I’ll get some good experience and portfolio pieces.” You can create portfolio pieces on your own time. You don’t need to take on low paying jobs to improve your portfolio. When a client looks at your portfolio, they aren’t going to care if the paintings were done professionally for a client or if they were done on your own free time. All they see is your skill. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most clients won’t even ask you where certain paintings came from, they will just simply look at them for what they are.

I realize everyone is different and that not everyone can immediately get the “awesome” jobs. Some people might even prefer getting horrible pay for art instead of working some other “normal” job to help pay the bills. I just want people to understand that you don’t have to work for less than minimum wage, and you shouldn’t have to.

Update - I have seen several people bring up the fact that they won’t work with a client unless they receive an advance. That is good and all, but unfortunately that isn’t how most of the companies work in this industry. I have been working professionally for 9 years and in that time I have only ever had 2 clients agree to pay an advance. The problem with larger companies is that they have a set contract and they don’t tend to deviate from it. Usually if you are working for an individual you can get them to agree to an advance, but good luck trying to convince a game or movie studio to do the same.

I also realize that some companies can’t pay people because they aren’t getting paid themselves. Well, if you can’t pay someone, don’t hire them. I still have to pay bills, so I shouldn’t be expected to work for free until my client gets paid. Yeah I understand it isn’t their fault that they aren’t getting paid, but I still shouldn’t have to suffer because of their financial problems.

Signing Cards

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Update – Unfortunately I will no longer be able to sign cards internationally through the mail. This applies to people wanting me to sign cards for free, not sales made through my website.

Several of these issues have come up over the past couple of weeks, so I would like to remind people of a few things to keep in mind if you send me cards to sign or alter through the mail.

1. Make sure you include a SASE. This is extremely important! If you don’t include one, I can’t send your cards back. This also means I have to buy an envelope if you don’t include one. I sign cards for free, so please don’t make me pay for an envelope or postage to send your cards back.

2. Please check to make sure you wrote the correct return address on the SASE. In the past I’ve had people leave off apartment numbers, street numbers, etc.

3. If you live in another country and can’t buy US stamps, you will need to Paypal the shipping amount to me. Please still include an envelope, or else you will need to Paypal me the amount to cover the envelope as well. Also realize that in order for me to return cards to foreign countries, I have to drive to the post office and fill out customs forms, which takes quite a bit of time. Again, I sign cards for free and driving to the post office costs time and money.

IMG_11294. Don’t send too many cards because otherwise they won’t fit through the mail slot and then I’ll have to drive to the post office. I would say 15-20 cards is the max.

5. Sending cards to me through the mail is always a risk and one that you must understand and take responsibility for. The US mail isn’t always the most reliable, so please be aware that there is always a chance the cards could get lost or damaged. If you send me a flimsy envelope and the cards aren’t even inside a sleeve or hard case, then be prepared for the possibility of bent or damaged cards. If you want to reduce the risk of damaged cards, send them in hard sleeves and include a sturdy envelope or bubble mailer. You could even include a piece of heavy stock paper or cardboard.

6. If your cards are ever damaged or stolen, you need to contact the service used to ship the cards. Please do not accuse me of stealing or damaging your cards. All cards are sent back in the condition I received them, so again, I can not be responsible for what happens to them once they leave my hands.

7. I sign cards for free, so please don’t send me your cards if your only intention is to flip them. It takes time out of my day to sign and return cards. I am not here to make you money, I am here to sign cards for people that enjoy my work and enjoy the game.

8. I try and return cards as soon as possible but be aware that it might take some time. Typically I will return them within a day of receiving them, but it could take longer. Alterations usually take longer, so you might have to wait a few weeks. When doing alterations, I always tell people ahead of time that it might take several weeks to more than a month for me to finish them. If you agree, please do not e-mail me every few days asking if I am finished yet. I will e-mail you when I am done.

9. I will not declare a lower amount on customs forms. It is actually illegal to declare the wrong amount, and I will not do it. Not only that, but declaring the correct amount protects you and myself if the cards are ever lost or damaged. If you are sending cards from a foreign country, be prepared for the possibility of paying an additional customs fee. I am not responsible for any customs fees.

drawing10. If you have something specific that you want drawn or altered, please let me know when you make the order. If you don’t give me any special instructions, I will just draw whatever I come up with. There are plenty examples around the internet and on this site of my alterations and sketches, so please check those out before making a purchase. Unfortunately I can’t really accept returns for someone not liking my drawing due to the fact that art is very subjective. You accept the risk when you place the order.

11. “I saw you draw something for someone else, but the drawing you did for me isn’t as good.” Again, art is very subjective. I always try to do my best when doing a sketch or an alteration, regardless of the person or the subject matter. Unfortunately not all drawings/alterations are the same.

12. If you have sent me cards in the past, please check with me before sending more cards. I tend to move a lot and several times in the past people have sent me cards without asking and they ended up sending them to an old address.

13. If you want signed or altered cards, I would highly suggest asking me instead of going through a site like eBay. The sellers on eBay sometimes inflate the prices by more than 10x. Also, I have seen some cards on eBay that claim I altered them, even though I didn’t. The safest bet is to have me personally alter your cards, that way you know they are legit.

Thanks!

Starving Artist, no Really.

As soon as you tell someone you are an artist, I’m sure the word “starving” inevitably creeps into their mind. I think the notion that all artists are starving pervades the minds of the general public, and for once I helped perpetuate the stereotype. People always want to know where you came from. They like to hear that people had to go through trials and tribulations and that they had to struggle to get to where they are in life. Maybe it helps them to relate and to realize that people are just people. I’ve never considered myself to be anyone special; I am just another one of the thousands of artists that spends their day drawing characters and monsters for a living.

I’m sure by now that many people have heard that I initially didn’t even go to school for art, I went to school for computer programming. My first year at the University of Texas at Austin was for computer programming. I had always enjoyed drawing, but I never really considered it a career option. After my first semester I knew that computer programming wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was scared because I didn’t know what to do. Should I continue doing something that I already hated, or make the leap and change majors? What was I going to change my major to? I didn’t really have any other interests that could result in an actual career. There was this art thing that I always liked, but could that really be a viable option? I had no idea what else I could do, so I decided to start taking some art history classes at UT and then after that I would go to an art school.

Did I mention I lived in Texas? Yeah, well there aren’t that many great options for an art education in Texas. I found one school that seemed to fit what I was looking for, but unfortunately the Academy of Art University in San Fran had already closed its registration for the coming semester. I knew I didn’t want to just sit around doing nothing for a whole semester, so I moved to Sacramento and attended CSUS for one semester. My girlfriend at the time also lived in California, so that was another incentive to leave Texas. I took a few art classes and a biology class so that I could get that out of the way. I was in AP english in high school, so I already had that taken care of plus the other classes I took at UT transferred. The art classes at CSUS were pretty horrible and I don’t feel like I really learned anything from them, which was unfortunate. After the semester ended I made the move to San Francisco to attend the Academy of Art University.

So where does the starving part come into play? Most people are probably aware that San Francisco is an extremely expensive city, especially for a college kid. Luckily my parents were paying for my college tuition and rent and I had some money saved up from my college fund, but in a city like San Francisco it didn’t last long. Sure I could have spent more of my savings in the beginning to live more comfortably, but then my funds would have ran out even faster. I was trying to conserve my money as much as possible because I knew it would take me at least 3 years to get my BFA. The faster I ran out of money, the faster I would be in a worse situation. You are probably thinking “well get a job.” I did. I had several jobs while I was going to school, but I’m sure most people understand that going to school full-time and then working and doing homework isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. I think I was taking 5 classes when I first started the Academy. Most people I knew only took 4.

Here comes the starving part. Remember how Harry Potter lived in a closet beneath the stairs? My first place in San Francisco was in the basement of an abandoned barber college underneath the stairs. My room was literally just like Harry’s. The area over my single sized mattress was one where you couldn’t really stand up straight without hitting your head. I wish I had taken more pictures of the place, but I was only able to find one and it doesn’t really even show much. Please excuse my extremely emo picture, I was 20, what can I say?? See that line under the Dark Sun poster that leads to my neck? That is where the ceiling was located above my bed. You can also see that I’m kind of hunching over in the picture.

You might think “Ok, living under the stairs can’t be that bad,” and you are right. I had just turned 20 and I was living in an awesome city, I didn’t really care that much that my room was an illegal tiny closet underneath the stairs in a basement. What really sucked was that the basement flooded several times while I lived there. Again you are thinking that flooding probably isn’t too bad, but this wasn’t rain water, this was sewage. I’m not sure if anyone has had their entire place flood with several inches of sewage before, but what you might not realize is that your mouth tastes like human waste for a week just from having to inhale the smell. That is one thing I will never forget about that place. I remember brushing my teeth 4-5 times a day just to try and get rid of the taste, but it never helped.

This happened 3-4 separate times. Not only that, but my mattress was on the floor because I didn’t have a frame. Needless to say I had to throw it out. Did I also mention that I got my mattress from the basement because next door was an old hotel and they threw away their old mattresses in the basement? Yeah, so when one mattress was destroyed with poo water, I would have to find another old and used hotel mattress. You probably also noticed the “illegal” part. I wasn’t technically allowed to live in the closet under the stairs in a basement for reasons which are probably pretty obvious. When the city came to retrofit the building, I had to hide and make sure no one knew I lived there.

To make matters worse, this place was located in the heart of the Tenderloin. It wasn’t uncommon for me to not be able to open the front door in the mornings due to the fact that a homeless person was sleeping in front of it. There were other times when I would leave my place only to be greeted with a random person defecating between two cars or someone smashing another person’s head in with a road sign. No really, I saw one guy pick up a road sign and smash it over some guy’s head. I didn’t stick around for long. Another time in the convenience store across the street some drugged up homeless woman punched me for no reason. Then there was one time when someone lured me into a possible modeling job for TV, only to find out that it wasn’t for TV at all and they wanted me to model in the nude for them. A few other times a couple of my friends got punched in the face by random strangers just walking down the street and then two of my friends got mugged.

There were also other people that lived in the basement, one of which would constantly steal your stuff. One time he even stole a check, changed the name to his, and deposited it. Not only that, but the bank didn’t even question why the name was obviously written over. You know when you write something in pen and you misspell it so you just try to correct it by writing on top of it? Like maybe you wrote an “o” but it was supposed to be an “e” so you just try and turn the “o” into an “e.” Well imagine doing that to a whole first and last name. That is what he did, unbelievable. Ugh, not to mention that they did drugs too, that was lovely. I don’t mean just weed either, I mean people doing lines on the table out in the “common area.” I knew I had to get out of there soon.

After a year of living under the stairs, I ended up moving into a studio that was only slightly larger. You can see in the first picture that the Lost in Translation poster is actually the end of the room, both in length and width. In the next picture you can see where I am sitting on my bed. That was the entire and only living space in the apartment. It was basically just wide enough for a computer table and a single size mattress. What you can’t see in the picture is that my mattress is sitting on top of milk crates that I found on the street. Actually, I didn’t even have a bed for about the first 6 months of living there, I just slept on the floor. The size of the studio wasn’t bad for one person, but two people lived here.

There was also a tiny bathroom and a tiny kitchen, but that was it. You can see the size of the bathroom in the picture where I am hanging my diploma above the toilet. I dunno where my diploma is now, I think it might be in a box somewhere. You see the picture of the scary basement where you would find someone stalking you with an axe? That was where the washing machine was. I think there was only 1 washing machine for the entire apartment building. I guess it beat having to walk through the Tenderloin with your laundry to the laundromat.

This place was also in the Tenderloin and was actually fairly close to a transvestite bar. Technically it was on the edge of the Tenderloin and Nob Hill, so people called it the Tendernob. I guess you could also call it the Nobloin? Anyway, I can’t count how many times people whistled or smacked their lips at me as I walked down the street. Prostitutes regularly hung out on the corner and sometimes you would see drug deals go down. There was this one lamppost that had a hole in the bottom, so sometimes you would see people putting something into the hole. I dunno, maybe I had been watching too many movies and it wasn’t actually drugs. It might have been a nice place to hide a sandwich for all I know.

I remember one time a homeless guy asked for some money and I said “sorry” and he got really pissed. He started cursing and shouting at me and then threw his food at me. Over time homeless people there began to get more aggressive if you didn’t give them money. One word of advice, never get in a fight with a homeless person. You never know what kind of diseases they have. I had a friend that knew a guy that got into a fight with a homeless guy and after he punched him, his hand ended up getting incredibly infected. A few times my wife was harassed by homeless people on her way to school and one time a guy grabbed her by the hair and pulled her down the street.

There were also two separate shootings that occurred inside our apartment complex. One time we came back from class only to find the SWAT team inside the lobby asking us if we saw or heard the shooter. Another time we were watching the news and a helicopter was flying above our building and the reporter was saying that a shooter was hiding in our building. In fact, just the other day I read in the news that a guy was shot and killed after he beat his mother to death in a building right by our apartment. Ahhh yes, good times.

I actually got to a point where I couldn’t afford anything more expensive than ramen. Yes we have all heard the cliche that college students live off of ramen. I ate ramen for all three meals of the day, every day. I even started trying to come up with different ways to cook it just to stay sane. I remember there was one point where I was so desperate to eat meat that I went to the grocery store and found some meat that was on sale for $1 because it was past the expiration date. Yup, I bought it and I regretted it later on. Note to self, never buy and eat expired meat.

I was lucky enough to have a good friend like Sylvia Ji to take me out to dinner. She took me to Osha and it was amazing. I mean I already like Osha a lot, but after living on ramen 3 meals a day for who knows how long, anything tastes like magic. I also remember that when I lived under the stairs I mainly ate PB&J sandwiches, but I couldn’t afford to buy a knife. I had a protractor left over from school, so I had to break off the swing arm of the protractor and use that as a knife. If I wasn’t eating PB&J sandwiches, I was eating Fig Newtons.

I had part time jobs while I was in college, but it didn’t help much. For a time I was working at AMC on Van Ness, and you wouldn’t imagine the things you have to clean up inside movie theaters. It drives me nuts that people are such pigs. I’ve had to clean up used condoms, bloody rags, bottles filled with urine, you name it. I also had a job as a mail courier. Wait, is saying mail courier a little redundant? Doesn’t the word courier refer to a person that delivers messages, packages, and mail? I guess it is kind of like when people say the Rio Grande River. The big river river. Anyway, I had to quit that job because I had to deliver mail to the tops of skyscrapers. I am really afraid of heights and when I would get to the tops of these buildings, you could actually feel the building swaying back and forth. Call me a pansy, but I couldn’t take it anymore. Plus I was required to work overtime but they wouldn’t pay me overtime, so it was pretty lame. I think my first day on the job I worked 12-13 hours but only got paid for 8. I almost had a job at a bagel shop, but they were so condescending during the training that I left right then and there.

That was my “starving artist” experience in a nutshell. All in all, it wasn’t that bad. I think most people that are in their early 20s don’t really care that much that they have to sleep on the floor or live off of ramen. I might care more now, but I didn’t back then. There is always someone that is in a worse situation than you, so enjoy and make the most of what you do have.

Freelancing Rates

This is another very popular topic and one that never actually receives any concrete information. How much do I charge as a freelance artist? How much indeed. I still don’t know the right answer for that.

I’m not sure why, but for some reason talking about money and how much a person makes is considered rude, taboo even. People look the other way and pretend not to hear you when someone asks how much you make. Why is that? Are people afraid that person will leak your information to their less than savory buddies who will then proceed to kidnap you in the middle of the night and ransom you off for large amounts of monies? Maybe your subordinate makes more than you and you decide to go on a rampage through the office? Maybe artists are afraid they will be blacklisted by their clients if they leak any info? Or maybe people are embarrassed with their income because they don’t think they make enough? I’m not really sure. While growing up I was always told never to tell anyone how much I make because I would be kidnapped…but that is just my experience.

What I know now is that many contracts actually state that you are not allowed to disclose any information regarding how much you are being paid. This could be due to the fact that they don’t want any hostile work environments, or maybe it is because they want to hire people for the lowest amount possible. In either case, if your contract has this clause, you are legally bound to keep that information to yourself.

So how do you come up with your rates? Well, unfortunately dictating your own rates isn’t as common as most people would think. Most companies have a set rate they pay, and if you don’t like it, you can hit the road. I would say at least 90% of my clients have set rates that they don’t negotiate on. Client x pays x amount for an illustration, and that is that. I’ve tried negotiating these rates in the past, but they were always in vain.

You may ask, how do you know which clients have set rates and which ones will negotiate with you? Hah, that is a good question. From my experience, large companies tend to have a set budget, and therefore, a set rate. Usually the clients I can name my own price with are individuals, people looking for artists to work on their own private project.

Also, working as a freelance concept artist in the video game or film industry offers a fair amount of negotiating, although the client still has a budget they want to stick to. Clients that only pay a set rate (for illustrations that is) will usually come right out and tell you what their rate is when they contact you. Clients looking for concept work (film and video games) will usually ask you what your rates are because they want to hire you for the cheapest amount possible. They still have a budget, but if they can hire you for x instead of y, then they can take the remaining budget and use it elsewhere, or get more concepts out of a person.

I know I know, I still haven’t actually said how to figure out how much you should charge. All of my rates have been figured out through trial and error. I come up with a number and tell the client. If they say ok right off, I know I probably bid too low. Next time I might try asking for a little more. If you bid too high, they will usually make a counteroffer. If they say “Nope, that is too much. See ya,” you can try lowering your price, but Clients usually don’t shut you down and leave after one bid.

There are a bunch of freelance calculators online, like this one. It is actually pretty complex. It takes into account all of your business costs, personal bills, how many hours/days you work, how much you want to make in profit, etc. Bills are easy to calculate, but trying to decide how much of a profit you want can be tricky, especially since this calculates an hourly fee. Most of the time clients won’t pay by the hour, but rather by the illustration or asset. Now you have to take that hourly rate and figure out how long it will take you to create your illustration and base your fee on that amount. I always hear that you should take your bid and increase it by 20%. Or was it that you should take your client’s offer and increase it by 20% because they always bid low…I dunno.

This whole secret underground rates thing can be a real detriment to the art industry. I feel that a lot of artists are being underpaid because no one ever knows how much to ask for. Usually people tend to undersell themselves too, either because they think their work isn’t good enough or because they think client x couldn’t possibly pay that amount.

The art industry is also very competitive, so you have a lot of other artists bidding low just to get the job over another artist. This just perpetuates the cycle because clients then become accustomed to paying a low rate to their artists.

At the same time you have artists that are just starting out who need to take lower paying jobs just to get their foot in the door. This could also contribute to why clients aren’t as willing to negotiate their rates. They know they can get other people to work for amount x, so why pay another artist amount y. If you are super awesome you can probably get y instead of x, but you need to be super awesome.

So maybe artists should always strive for quality over quantity since that will get them the higher paying jobs? Plus with the internet and the vast amounts of pirating going on, the industry has taken a big hit. I know after my tutorials started being pirated my sales dropped to nearly zero. There are sites like PayScale or Salary.com that have reports based on job types, but to me the rates seem a little low. The other thing about these sites is that they aren’t very specific. “Painter/Illustrator” could mean just about anything.

After all this time I still haven’t given you a concrete answer as to how you should figure out your rates. If you have trusted art buddies, try asking them for advice. There is also the Graphic Artists Guild book that talks about rates, contracts, and industry practices. It is definitely something worth having on your bookshelf.

The other really cool thing about this book is that it comes with sample contracts. Creating good contracts is another very important aspect to being a professional artist. You need to protect yourself in as many ways possible.

Again, you come across the difference between working with large companies vs. private clients. Large companies will always have their own contracts that you have to sign, and the terms are usually non-negotiable.

Private clients may or may not have their own contracts, so it is up to you to create one. Many times private clients haven’t worked with an artist before, so they won’t know much about writing contracts and you may have to go through several rounds of negotiating the terms.

Becoming acquainted with contract lingo is key. Have you ever noticed that contract jargon is ridiculously hard to understand? Well that is done on purpose. If you can’t understand what the contract is saying and you sign it anyway, you may be signing away rights you never intended to sign away. Learn the lingo and make sure you know what you are signing. If you don’t, ask.

More freelance infos

Woop! Well I just finished up an 8 painting project with a new client a week early and turned in 3 other paintings yesterday along with 12 armor sketches for another client. Now I just have 9 paintings to finish by the 11th (5 paintings now, I wrote this a few days ago).

In keeping with the previous entry I figured I would talk a little more about the freelancing industry: dos and don’ts, expectations, common sense, and just plain common courtesy. Now I realize I am still probably considered a relative noobie in the industry considering I only started in 2004, but I have experienced some things that I wish people had told me back when I was in school.

Disclaimer – All of these things are my opinion and you have to take them with a grain of salt. As with my other post about workload, everyone is different and not everyone has the same amount of bills. People also come from all over the world and therefore have different bills, different government requirements, different healthcare plans, etc. Some people can get by with only a few projects a month while others need more to support their family. You have been warned!

Convention Etiquette

I love going to conventions because I can meet artists that I admire and buy cool loot from their tables. There are a few things to keep in mind though when you race up to an artist and plop down your treasured items to be signed.

Fans

  1. Running and screaming is a good way to show your enthusiasm, but it might make the artist a little uncomfortable and dive for cover under his/her table.
  2. If you have 100 cards you want signed, only ask the artist to sign a few and then get back in line for the rest. I honestly don’t mind signing 100 cards at a time, but the other people in line might get a little upset…especially if the next person in line only has 1 thing they want signed. Update – I’ve actually had to change my policy to a 20 card limit due to my carpal tunnel, waiting time for my line, and other reasons like flippers telling me the only want my autograph so that they can make money off of me.
  3. If you tell an artist to draw whatever they want, don’t get mad if they draw something you didn’t want.
  4. Say hi and thank you, especially if an artist says hi to you. I know some people are shy or nervous, but usually when someone says hi you should say hi back.
  5. If you have a specific request for a drawing, try and bring reference for the artist. I know what Wolverine looks like, but do I remember enough details from memory to make an accurate drawing? Probably not.
  6. Don’t get mad if the artist needs to take a break.
  7. If you say you will be back later to pick up your drawing, don’t forget.
  8. If you have an artist do a drawing for you and the artist is charging for it, do NOT run off with the drawing without paying. I had someone who worked AT the event steal one of my drawings.
  9. If you ask an artist for a drawing, be polite about it. Here are things that I have heard that an artist never wants to hear:
  • “If you do a drawing for me, will you actually put some effort into it? I don’t want to pay for something that you don’t put any effort into.” Just because an artist makes drawing look easy, doesn’t mean it is for them. Drawing takes years of practice and experience, and part of the job of a professional is to make it look easy.
  • “Artist x does drawings for free, so can you waive your fee and do a drawing for me for free?” Some artists may feel bad about charging for drawings, but keep in mind that an artist makes his/her living from selling their art. Artists also have to cover their travel costs, hotel, materials, etc.
  • “Can you make sure your drawing looks good?”
  • “I had artist x draw this for me at another show but I’m not sure if you will be able to draw it as well as artist x.”
  • “Your drawing isn’t detailed/good enough. Can you please work on it more?”

There are some things an artist needs to keep in mind too. I have been guilty of a few of these things myself. I know at my very first Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix I was really nervous and not comfortable at all with drawing in front of a large group of people.

I think the very first drawing I did for a fan I actually said “sorry it isn’t better.” Now that I have some more shows under my belt and I am getting more comfortable drawing in front of people, I don’t have as many problems.

Artists

  1. Say hi, be polite, and answer or fan’s questions. Many fans are probably already nervous or shy, so greeting them with a grimace and a knife in your fist probably isn’t a good idea.
  2. Never apologize for your drawings and always be confident and proud of the sketches you make for fans, even if you aren’t. If your fans know you don’t like your drawing, they won’t either. You would be surprised at what a good attitude can do.
  3. Try and be as accommodating as possible with your fan’s requests. If a 5 year old girl asks you for a drawing of a unicorn, don’t be a jerk and tell her you are too cool for that.
  4. Don’t complain. No one wants to hear you complain about how you don’t want to draw a jeep full of green pigs wearing cowboy hats. If you really don’t feel comfortable with a fan’s request, you can always politely decline or suggest something else.
  5. A first impression is the last impression. If you act like a jerk to a fan, you can be sure that fan will spread the word. Besides, it is never fun to finally meet a person you admire only to find out they are a jerk.
  6. Don’t forget your pens! The first show I went to I didn’t bring anything. I didn’t have pens, prints, cards…yeah I was a noob. Dan Scott had to teach me the ropes…and let me borrow some pens.

Dealing with Clients

Whether you are a freelance artist or an in-house artist, you are going to have to deal with art directors, producers, and just people in general. For some introverted artists this may be a challenge since their communication skills might be a little lacking.

Just remember that as an artist your job is to meet the needs of your client. You aren’t hired to draw/paint whatever you want (although there might be some clients that allow you to do this), you are hired to bring the client’s ideas to fruition. You also have to realize that each client has a different goal in what they want to achieve. Some may need to target a mass market and therefore need a cookie-cutter idea that will be sure to sell, or is less likely to fail. Other clients may want to push the envelope and ask for something completely crazy. Your job is to be prepared for any scenario and complete that project in a professional manner.

This doesn’t mean that you have to be a robot and always follow orders without question. If you have concerns or suggestions, make them. If you disagree with a client’s idea or you think you have a better one, just explain to them why you think idea x would be better or why it might work better given the parameters of the illustration/concept.

Sometimes you will be working with a client that isn’t an artist. If they ask for something that you know won’t help the project, let them know. Maybe their suggestion destroys the composition or maybe their color choice doesn’t fit the mood they are aiming for. This is where an artist’s knowledge can help create a stronger piece.

Each project is going to be a negotiation and a collaboration between many parties. Students or aspiring artists who aren’t in the field yet may not realize that what you create won’t be completely your own. To think anything you create is solely yours is a little naive. Again, you are working to meet your clients needs. You may physically paint the piece, but you are working from the ideas and direction of another person.

This is especially true if you are working in the game or film industry. Not only are you working from the direction and input of the art director, but you also have other artists that might work on your painting. You then have modelers who may change things in your concept, texture artists that might change things, and animators that might animate your concept differently than what you may have envisioned.

This is true with illustrations as well. Covers will have to pass through art directors, possibly editors and graphic artists, maybe even the CEO of the company. If you have problems taking orders or allowing others to change your painting, then art probably isn’t the ideal career for you.

What a lot of players and fans don’t realize is that the illustrations/concepts they see aren’t always what the concept artist/illustrator envisioned or even wanted to do. All the player sees is “oh look, another female warrior with big boobs and hardly any armor.” What they don’t realize is that the artist has art directors telling them they have to make her boobs bigger, or you have to make her wearing skimpier armor, make this look more like game x, make everything super bright and saturated, and so on. Since working in the game industry I’ve had to face a lot of this criticism. So the next time you see a big breasted female warrior in a chain mail bikini, don’t be so quick to blame the concept artist.

Learn to take criticism. If you can’t take it, then you better find a new career. I have no problem with constructive criticism, but when someone doesn’t have anything good to say and they give no suggestions as to what you can do better, I admit, I tend to be a little defensive.

The thing you don’t want to do is argue with a client, especially if it is a client you have never worked with before. Once you’ve worked with someone for awhile you can gauge how much you can push back and how well they will take your suggestions.

What you really don’t want to do is tell your client to go screw themselves. The art world is surprisingly small, so you don’t want to burn any bridges. If a client wants a change, you need to find a way to make the change whether you like it or not. I admit, I used to have a problem with this when I first started my career, but I chalk that up to inexperience and just a plain misunderstanding of how the industry works. When I was in school my teachers always told me that whenever a client wanted a change you were supposed to charge extra for that. Sadly, that is not how the industry works…at all.

But that idea is dumb!

At some point in your career you are going to receive a brief that you think is stupid or silly. Part of your job, and probably one of the most challenging, is coming up with a way to take that stupid idea and make it cool. Instead of telling the client they are dumb, just smile, nod, and find a way to inject something you like into their idea.

As an artist you can pretty much take any idea and make it cool. Your attitude also plays a big part in this. If you start a project saying “this is so stupid, this illustration is going to be dumb,” then you are going to cause yourself a lot of stress and frustration and you may produce something that isn’t very good. You have to say “this idea is dumb, but I’m going to find a way to make it awesome.” Maybe you receive a brief that tells you to paint a pink hippo that is riding a bike. Depending on your lighting, composition, and execution, you could find a way to make that into a really cool illustration. Remember, attitude is everything.

Hurry Up and Wait

You will quickly find that part of your job is to hurry and finish, only to wait for feedback before you can hurry up again. Yet another aspect of freelancing that you will have to juggle. You may think you have plenty of time for a deadline, but you have to take into account the time it will take your client to give you feedback and the number of times they might want you to make revisions. Now multiply that by every project and illustration you have under your belt and you’ll begin to understand the balancing act you are about to undertake. Sometimes you may only wait a few hours for feedback while other times you can wait up to two weeks. In other words, don’t procrastinate.

Speaking of deadlines, many people wonder how long it takes me to complete a painting or how long I am given for each project. Deadlines can vary anywhere from a few hours to a month. I’ve had some cover work that had a 3 day deadline; that is from the time I am contacted by the client for the job and the time I  have to turn in the final painting. I think I was contacted on a Friday and I had to turn in the painting Monday morning.

Other times I have a week to complete a cover. Concept work can have even faster turnaround times, often times they want something after one day. The other week I had to do 9 character concepts in one day. Each one took about 1.5 hours to complete, so that is still 13.5 hours of work for one day.

Although typically with freelance concept work they give you easier things to work on since they don’t have you in-house. They save the more complicated things for the in-house artists since they know it will have to go through more revisions and filter through more hands. Freelance concept work usually consists of armor designs, weapons, icons, and texture swaps for armors. These things are fairly easy in terms of approvals.

I remember back in school people would moan about a two week deadline for one painting, but in reality, that is pie. I’ve been to three different universities, and I must say, college homework is a breeze compared to work in the real world. Just something to keep in mind if you feel your college workload is too high.

Full Plate

Freelancers live or die by their paychecks, so make sure you have enough clients and projects to spread your income around. You don’t want to go one or two months with no income. This can be tricky since you never know when new deadlines might come up.

In the beginning of your career you might not have the freedom to turn down projects that may not seem that interesting or that may not pay as much as you had hoped. Your goal is to make enough money so that if there is a dry patch, you can handle it. I would say save enough for at least 3-4 months worth of bills.

How may you ask can you achieve this? By learning to become independent. By that I mean that you don’t depend on one or two sources for income. What happens if your primary source of income doesn’t give you any work or they reduce your workload? The way you can create a safety net is by making sure you have many sources of income. Maybe you have an online tutorial that trickles in some side income, 4-5 clients that give you steady work, an iPhone app, DVDs that you sell online, conventions that you attend where you sell prints and drawings, an art book, there are countless possibilities. I’m not saying become a marketing whore, but just be smart. After all, your job as a freelance artist is to go out and find work.

Now that you have clients and projects, you need to invoice. I use a Mac for all of my work (yeah yeah, you PC users are probably groaning) and I invoice with a program called Billings. It is a great program that allows you to keep track of your clients, projects, invoices, and it has the option to time how long you spend painting if you are charging by the hour. You can customize your own invoice templates too. I tried another program called Macfreelance, but it wasn’t nearly as good as Billings.

Paint with Integrity

Always strive to do your best. I have been a firm believer in always producing the best work I can given the circumstances, regardless of the pay. Maybe I’m a sucker for this belief, but when the audience looks at your work all they are going to see is the work. They aren’t going to say “hmm, I bet artist x didn’t spend a lot of time on this piece or put much effort into it because the pay was lower than some of his/her other projects.” All they are going to see is a crappy illustration and think you are a crappy artist.

I put the same amount of effort into a painting no matter what the pay is. Of course it also depends on the deadline for each project. If I am given 2 days to complete a painting I will obviously not be able to put as much time into it as opposed to one that has a month deadline.

All I am saying is do your best with what is given to you, leave the pay at the door. Again, this is just my opinion. One drawback from this type of thinking could be that clients receive a certain standard of quality for a lower price, and therefore, they continue to expect artists to reach that same level of quality for that same price. If you feel that something isn’t worth the pay, then maybe you should just decline and look for other projects.

Death and Taxes

Everyone’s favorite subject, taxes. As you may know, everyone has to pay taxes. Paying taxes has been drilled into our brains since birth. The same is true with freelancers, although it is a little different. As a full-time employee you have taxes taken out of each paycheck automatically, not so with freelance. Since nothing is taken out of a freelancer’s paycheck, you are required to pay quarterly taxes called Estimated taxes. This is something the IRS expects you to figure out on your own. I love how important life lessons like knowing how to pay taxes is never talked about in school. They just expect you to know everything automatically.

Figuring out how much to pay in estimated taxes can be tricky since, as the name implies, it is an estimation. You have to try and guess how much money you will make in the coming year and base your estimated taxes on that amount. As a good rule of thumb I save at least 30% of each paycheck and put that aside for my estimated taxes. Estimated taxes are due on April 15th, June 15th, September 15th, and January 15th of the coming year.

Ok, let’s put this to an example. Right now it is March 3rd, 2011. So far this year I haven’t paid any estimated taxes for the 2011 tax year because the first payment isn’t due until April 15th. How much will I pay on April 15th? Well, I have to guess how much money I will make this year, take roughly 25% of that amount and divide it by 4. That is how much you should pay each quarter. This is only a rough guess. You probably won’t owe that much since you have to calculate your deductions and whatnot. Save all of your receipts. As an artist you can write off a lot of things, like art supplies, health insurance, computers, software, art books, etc.

Now this is very important…get an accountant! The best advice I can give is to just hire an accountant. Figuring out taxes, deductions, paperwork, and all that is a lot of time and stress. Time that can be better spent working or taking a vacation. The price of an accountant is definitely worth it in my opinion. They can also help you figure out a more accurate amount for your estimated taxes.

Oh, and you have to pay estimated taxes for federal AND state, don’t forget. Not to mention if you sell products, like prints or DVDs, you are required by law to have a seller’s permit in your state and also a business license in the city you live in. Every state and city is different, so be sure to check.

Back to School, or Not

This is another topic that everyone asks me about. Do I need to go to art school to become a professional artist? The short answer is no, hell no. I’m sure all of my teachers are shaking their heads right now, but it is the truth. Basically what it boils down to is do you want to experience going to an art college or would you rather just stay at home? Everyone is different in what they want to experience or achieve and everyone learns differently.

As for myself, I graduated with a BFA in traditional illustration from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco back in 2004. I had a great time there and I learned a lot. Did I need to go there? Absolutely not. Did I want to? Yes. You have to ask yourself, do you want to experience the college life? Things like living in dorm rooms, meeting and hanging out with people that have similar interests, going to class and being pushed to be a better artist by your fellow peers, meeting and learning from industry professionals, attending figure drawing workshops, making industry contacts, the list goes on and on.

The downside, of course, are school loans. Art schools can be very expensive and it is very common to go $100k in debt. Do you want to spend the next 20 years paying that off? Some people think it is worth it while others think it is a waste. Again, it is up to the individual.

I will say this, you will never be asked for your diploma or even where you went to school. Clients are only interested in your ability, not where you came from. I’ve worked with almost 20 different clients, and none of them ever asked me about or required that I have a degree.

I also know tons of industry professionals that are either self taught or they dropped out of school. With the internet at our fingertips we have the ability to learn anything and everything. The amount of reference material, online tutorials, online classes, and just plain information in general is staggering. You can go to an art forum or social networking site and talk to legends like Brom or Todd Lockwood.

What I’ve noticed over the years is that people are getting better at a younger age, and I think it is because of the amount of learning material that is so readily available on the internet. Nowadays you can find 18 year old artists that are freaking amazing, and I’m not talking about this being a rarity,  but rather this is becoming commonplace. Just go to CGHub and look at people’s profiles, it can be very daunting.

BUT, and there is always a but, teaching yourself requires a lot of dedication and focus. Are you the type of person that will push yourself to draw everyday, all day long? Are you going to go out of your way to learn and better yourself, or are you going to sit back and play video games? Some people need the motivation and inspiration a school can offer. They need that outside force telling them they have to finish their homework by 3:oopm tomorrow.

Online resources/tutorials
Massive Black
Gnomon
3DTotal
CGHub
Conceptart.org
CGSociety
My store
My free YouTube tutorials
Feng Zhu’s YouTube tutorials
Dave Rapoza’s Livestream
Schoolism

I know everyone says this and it sounds so cliche, but your college days are probably some of the best days of your life. Do I sit around and reminisce of my college days? Sometimes, yeah.

Let’s think about it. You are probably around 18-19 years old, you move out of the house for the first time to a new place, possibly a new state, you are meeting new people and going to school for something you love, and a lot of people aren’t worrying about rent or jobs.

Most students will probably get a school loan, while the rest might be lucky enough to have a college fund. Either way, you probably aren’t worrying about how you will pay your bills. If you have a student loan, yes you have to pay it back with interest…but seriously, how many 18 year old kids are sitting around stressing about paying back their school loan, not too many. I know a lot of people who were excited about their school loans because that meant they could take that money and buy a new computer.

So you are now in this new place, going to a new school, meeting new people, living off of a school loan so you don’t have to worry about rent and you probably don’t have to worry about a job right now either (most of my friends didn’t have jobs, including myself), sounds pretty good right? If you do go to school, be sure to take advantage of it. Ask questions, make friends, make contacts, attend every workshop possible, and go to class with a good attitude. What you put in is what you will get back. Oh yeah, try to find out which teachers are the good ones. Every school has good and bad teachers, so you definitely don’t want to get stuck with the bad ones.

Whew, longest post ever. If I think of any other good tips I’ll try and post them on here. I hope this helped! Thanks!

Updates

Crit!

No I don’t mean hitting for more damage, I mean asking for critiques. As an artist I am happy to critique other people’s work, but please be sure to understand that it may take me a few weeks or maybe even a few months to get back to you. I always try to reply to every e-mail, but sometimes I become distracted or I forget. If you haven’t received a reply, just send me another e-mail, but please don’t send another e-mail if it has only been a few hours or a day since you sent the first e-mail.

If you are sending an attachment of your work, please be sure to resize your images. My inbox can only hold a certain amount of space, so please don’t send 10 meg attachments. Make sure all of your files are 72 dpi. It is also much easier for me to critique a piece if I can see the entire image without scrolling. Opening an image and only seeing a knuckle is a bit unreasonable.

I’ve also had people get mad with my feedback or tell me they don’t care about what I have to say and that they are going to continue doing what they want. If you can’t handle constructive criticism, don’t ask for it. If you plan to be a professional artist, you are going to receive criticism ALL the time.

Definitely not “one and done”

Ahhh, the glamorous life of a freelancer. Everyone wants to be a freelancer right? Make your own schedule, sit around all day playing video games, wake up at 3pm and party until 5am, finally pursue that lifelong dream of learning how to make sock puppets with your free time…that’s what the life of a freelancer is like right?

Wroooooong. Well, mostly wrong, I do play a lot of video games. I must admit, I had some of these preconceived notions back when I was young and inexperienced. I’ve come across a lot of people that think freelancers can pump out one painting a month and just sit back and enjoy the rest of the month doing whatever it is they do…like I dunno, collecting coins and eating rice crispy treats. Ok ok, I do have a Domo-Kun piggy bank full of shiny coins and I do enjoy the occasional rice crispy treat, but you know what I mean.

I think Chuck said it best in his post about the life of a freelancer, although I have Chuck beat in terms of commute. All I have to do is sit up in bed, slightly move to my left and pick up my computer. I can then sit in bed for the next 12 hours working and then, you guessed it, put my computer back down and go to sleep.

I won’t repeat anything that he already talked about since he is 100% correct. What I do want to do is give students a better understanding of what the life of a freelancer is really like and give them a peek at my daily schedule.

Being a freelance artist is not easy, there is a lot of work involved. People always ask me how I balance my work life with my personal life, and the answer is I don’t have much of a personal life. If you want to be a freelance artist and be able to provide for your entire family, be prepared to give up a lot of your personal life.

There was one point where I went 6 months without playing a single video game. I can almost feel your sarcastic responses, but for me that is a big deal. I’m sure there are artists out there who make enough money from a couple paintings that they can sit back and relax, but I am no where near that status. If you are a regular Joe like me, you gotta work your ass off.

 

So behold! The all powerful freelancing calendar of doom.

All of the orange entries are paintings that I have to finish for that given day. One thing to keep in mind is that even though there might only be one orange entry, it can mean that several paintings are due for that project.

Today there are 3 orange entries, but in reality I have 8 paintings that I have to finish. The other day I finished 9 paintings in one day. I am currently juggling projects for 6 different clients.

Depending on my workload, my work week can be anywhere from 40-120 hours/week. Yeah you can make your own schedule, but you still have to put in the hours.

Chuck mentioned how he feels guilty about taking a day off, that is completely true. I think in the past 4 years I’ve only taken maybe 4 weekends off. Even when I’m on “vacation,” a.k.a. at a signing event, I am still drawing and signing cards all day long. Sometimes I have to take work back to the hotel because my playmat queue gets too long.

Some people may say “you should be grateful you are getting that much work, stop complaining,” or, “stop taking so many projects then.” Well, if I don’t take that many projects then I can’t pay my bills. I’m not trying to be ungrateful or complain, but simply show that freelancing can take up a lot of time. I actually count myself lucky that I get this much work and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

One good thing about this much work is that I can support my family, but the downside is that by the time I had reached 28 I had developed carpal tunnel in both wrists and cubital tunnel in my left arm. What really worries me is that it only took 4 years of working for me to develop that much damage. How much longer will my career last? What will I do if I can no longer paint? Just something to think about and to keep tabs on. Make sure you have good work habits and take frequent breaks. I’ve talked about this many times before, but it is really important. Take good care of your wrists. If I can prevent other artists from damaging their wrists then it is worth beating a dead horse…with a stick…with a nail on the end.

Now you may ask yourself, what is the moral of the story? If you want to pursue a career as a freelance artist be prepared to work, a lot. Don’t let people tell you being a freelance artists is a breeze or that it isn’t a real job or that you will starve as a freelancer. I know when I attended state universities if you mentioned that you were an art major people would stifle a snicker and turn their nose and probably say something like “art isn’t a major” or “ah, that must be an easy a.” If you have the drive and dedication you can live very comfortably as a freelancer, just watch those wrists.

tunnel syndrome x3

Photo Jan 14, 4 08 03 PM

Protecting my wrists with Handeze Flex-fit gloves.

I have noticed that the topic of wrist/arm pain has become quite a hot topic amongst artists and illustrators alike over the past several weeks. As many of you already know, I was diagnosed with Carpal Tunnel in both my wrists and Ulnar Neuropathy (Cubital Tunnel) in my left arm. The past 3-4 weeks have been especially hard on me in terms of getting work done because of the pain. Maybe if I recount my story I can persuade people to be more careful with their work habits and take breaks more often.

I was (and still am) notoriously bad about remembering to take breaks. Sometimes I would put in 18 hour stretches with only the occasional break to eat or use the restroom. I always had people tell me to take breaks, but once I start working I tend to keep my head down and work continuously. One of my problems is that if I encounter something that I can’t solve or can’t figure out, I will keep working on it until I do. It is extremely difficult to pry me away from something that is bothering me. So long story short, after working professionally for 6 years on the computer I developed problems in my wrists and arm. The funny thing is, I am right handed, yet I have Cubital Tunnel in my left arm.

About 2 years ago my wrists and arm started really bothering me at work. Me being me, I just shrugged it off and worked anyway. People kept telling me to go to the doctor, but I did the typical guy thing and said nah. I figured the only thing they would do is tell me that I have to cut back on my hours…which I can’t do because I have bills to pay. Now if someone wants to give me a huge raise to work less hours, I am all for it.

Other people live in the real world and have to work their ass off in order to make a living. Sooooo, yeah, I just kept working through the pain. As the years passed, my art improved and I started getting more and more work…which didn’t help my situation at all. Then I started getting really crazy deadlines, which again didn’t help. I finally got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore, so I made an appointment with a neurologist.

For some reason my neurologist was backed up with appointments for another 2 months, so I had to wait. I finally go to the appointment and she says that I probably have carpal tunnel in both wrists and cubital tunnel in my left arm. She then schedules me for an EMG test the following day. I don’t know if you have ever had an EMG test, but they suck. You know when you shock someone after rubbing your feet on the carpet? Now imagine that feeling multiplied by 100 that lasts for almost 40 minutes straight.

Oh, and the shocks are on your nerves, which causes your arm to jump and spasm every single time you are shocked. Now that is the easy part. After that they stick needles into your arms and hands, and I don’t mean they just put it in and take it out. They put it in, leave it there, and then continue to move and shove the needle around inside your muscles. The ones they put in the palm of our hands are just lovely. They also put a needle into my neck and moved it around…that one was fun too. This goes on for probably 20 minutes…and they had to do this on both my arms. They will also ask you to flex your muscles while the needle is still inside.

After the EMG test my hands and arms spasmed constantly for several hours straight. It also felt like I just worked out for 5 hours straight. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to work for the rest of the day. I also might have Fibromyalgia, so that might have exacerbated my pain. I also have never experienced any painful procedures or events in my life before (never had my face punched in, never broken a bone, never had cavities, never had major surgery, etc.), so this was the most pain I have ever felt in my life.

Pew pew!

So what am I doing about it now? Well, I’ve been wearing these wrist braces on both wrists while I work…which can be extremely frustrating. The braces have palmar stays, which means I can’t bend my wrist. It also means they are pretty bulky and it is tough holding the stylus and pressing keys on my nostromo. My work speed has decreased significantly since I started wearing them. I am also supposed to avoid bending my arms while I sleep, easier said than done. I have had many people tell me to stop bending my arms while I sleep…but I can’t exactly remember to do that when I am asleep now can I? I tried putting pillows on both of my sides to try and prevent me from rolling on to my side –> fail. I wrapped bath towels around both of my arms to prevent me from bending them (I looked like Megatron) –> fail. I wore my wrist braces while sleeping –> fail.

I also started using one of those stress balls to try and increase my grip/wrist strength. I keep one with me at work and one at home. Squish squish. My good friend Tom Scholes also told me about a nifty little program called Workrave. Workrave is a free program for PCs that reminds you to take breaks. You can set the timer and specify how long the breaks are. I have mine set to remind me to take 30 second breaks every 15 minutes and 3 minute breaks every hour. Workrave also shows you some stretches you can do while you are taking your break.  Now I need to find a good one for my Mac. There is one called Workpace, but it is $70.

Ahhh, medication time. After my diagnosis, my neurologist put me on Cymbalta to treat my nerve pain (even though Cymbalta is used to treat depression). Let me tell you, Cymbalta sucks, or at least it did for me. Let me preface this rant by saying that I was only on Cymbalta for a week and a half, which means I probably wasn’t on it long enough to receive any of the benefits because it didn’t help my nerve pain at all. Instead I was beat down by numerous side effects.

Side effect number 1 - Nausea. Nausea is supposed to be the most common side effect of Cymbalta, weighing in at 30%. From the time I woke up in the morning until the time I went to bed at night I felt like tossing my cookies. You don’t realize how debilitating nausea can be until you experience it for 12 hours straight, 7 days a week. Sitting down seemed to help some. I also tried taking the medication at night so that most of my symptoms would occur while I was asleep, nope…didn’t help.

Side effect number 2 – Drowsiness. Drowsiness is the second most common side effect at 21%. When I say drowsiness I don’t mean I felt a little sleepy, I mean by 3-4pm I was falling asleep and by 7-8pm I was completely passed out (many times I passed out on the floor). I was so out of it that I would wake up and not know where I was or how I got there, which I don’t remember happening. Imagine getting home from work at 6pm and by 7pm you were out for the rest of the night. I wasn’t able to work on any of my freelance work…unacceptable in my book. Oh, did I mention that most of the side effects of Cymbalta have opposite reactions? You could experience weight loss or weight gain, constipation or diarrhea, chills or sweating, extreme elation or thoughts of suicide, drowsiness or insomnia. Why oh why couldn’t I have had insomnia instead of drowsiness? Curse you Cymbalta!

Side effect number 3 – Dizziness. Yup, I had trouble walking from time to time.

Side effect number 4 – Yawning. Considering I was sleepy all day long, yes I yawned…a lot.

Side effect number 5 – Headaches. Yup, I had headaches. I seem to experience headaches a lot anyway, so I dunno if it was from the medicine or from something else.

Side effect number 6 – Sweating. I would start sweating even when it was cold or when I wasn’t even moving around.

Side effect number 7 – Weakness/fatigue. I felt like a walking zombie all day long but without the insatiable need to eat brains.

Add all of these side effects together and you get crap. I could’t wait around to see if my body would adjust to the side effects, it was completely destroying my ability to work. I contacted my neurologist to see if there was something else I could take ,like Gabapentin, or if there was something that I could take for the side effects, like Provigil. She said that Gabapentin is very good, but it will also make me sleepy. She also said putting me on Provigil was a bad idea, but didn’t explain why. Instead she suggested a new medication called Savella. Savella is used to treat Fibromyalgia and guess what, it has almost identical side effects as Cymbalta with the exception of drowsiness. I started out with a very low dose, 12.5mg. I am now up to 25mg. So far I haven’t noticed any adverse side effects, but I also haven’t noticed any improvement in my nerve pain.

Update – Well, Savella didn’t help at all so I went back to the doctor and she put me on Lyrica. Lyrica actually helped me a lot and I no longer have nerve pain. I did have a few of the same side effects as Cymbalta, but not nearly as severe. Everyone is different, so what worked or didn’t work for me might not work for everyone else.

My desk layout

If you have a full-time job and you develop carpal tunnel while on the job, be sure to file for workers comp. I filed for it a few weeks ago and they sent out an ergonomics expert to evaluate my workspace. Since many of you are freelancers and might not have the luxury of having an ergonomics expert pay you a personal visit, I figured I would share his input.

He started out by taking my history and then measured various aspects of my workspace (chair height, monitor height, table height, etc.). The first change he made was on my chair. He moved the seat of my chair forward so that there were only 2 finger widths, instead of 4, between the back of my knees and the front of the seat. This change was to add more support and decrease the amount of pressure being put on the back of my legs.

To the left you can see the awesome drawing I did of my workspace and the changes he made. My many years of art school training allowed me to create that awesome drawing. The first drawing is of my original workspace. I have one of those angled desks where my computer is in the little nook. Directly in front of me is my tablet with the keyboard in front of that. The mouse is next to the keyboard on the right and my Nostromo is to the left of the keyboard. In front of those are my three monitors.

The arrows depict the angle of my arms when I am working. Since my tablet is in front of me, my arm is bent at an angle (maybe around 45 degrees). My Nostromo is pushed back pretty far, so in order to use it I have to extend my arm quite a bit. I also have to extend both my arms in order to type. These are all big no-nos. Extending my arms like that for significant periods of time puts stress on my ulnar and median nerve.

Image from Amazon.com

Image from Amazon.com

In order to alleviate the stress, the PT pulled the Nostromo a lot closer to my body so that my arm is bent instead of extended. He also raised the arm of my chair so that my elbow rests comfortably while using the Nostromo (before my elbow wasn’t resting on anything). He then moved my tablet to the right so that my arm was resting straight out instead of at an angle. I then moved my monitors to their maximum height so that I wouldn’t have to look down (to avoid stress on my neck). Next he took a look at my stylus and suggested I use one of those squishy pencil grip things that were popular back in middle school. I think that is the technical term for it, squishy grip thing. Although I am not sure how that will work since I won’t be able to use the trigger on the stylus. He also suggested that I drink a lot of water during the day and he stressed that exercise is very important, cardio in particular. I know I know, I never exercise anymore, but the last thing I want to do after working 80-100 hours in a week is workout. I dunno, maybe I will start skating again.

Anyway, I hope this wall of text helped inform some of you of the severity of carptal/cubital tunnel. I know when I was younger I didn’t really care about it because I had that teenager mentality that nothing bad could happen to me. All you have to do is take breaks every so often and stretch/exercise. It may seem like a lot for your busy schedule, but it is worth it. You definitely do not want to end up in my position. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know. Thanks!