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.

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.