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.


37 Replies to “Low Pay, No Way”
  1. Yes yes yes. I’m working with a side job to improve my skill. And yes I have already been offered small jobs doing an illustration. Lately I have done a small illustration for my side work, and when I named the price, people around me was saying “arent that a bit high, it’s just a small drawing?” or “can you really get that?” I was lucky that my boss who was offering me the job, said “it’s fair, if I went otherplaces, to a studio, the price would proberbly be higher” Then I had to explain and explain people around me why it was a fair price, the preparation, ideas, just the time spending on that, and then working sketches, presentation the ideas with sketches, before using the rest of time on the really illustration.

    Other specs people often forget too, is the time in getting your skill high enough, so you can deliver the quality people want in their product. Try to look at it like this… you are sick and need a surgeon. Now you can choose any man on the street and ask him to do it think you get what you pay for, yes…..if you wonna high skilled sugeon, it’s going to get much more expensive. Because that person have used many many years to get his skill up there to do the job right. And often paid for that time of his own pocked. It’s totally the same way with artist, they use many many years of practice, to deliver that high skill level, with practice practice practice. Then people goes “yeah but you did it just for fun…it’s was your hobby” Do you really think people take many years of education, working hard to become good, making loans in the bank, if they didn’t liked what they were doing. I dont think so.

    Just had to back you up on this. Sorry about my bad english, and yes I’ll come down again;)

  2. Hi Daarken,
    Very well put together. It’s worth to add that any graphic services in the times of websites like peopleperhour and general crowd-sourcing are being extremely under-appreciated. In US the minimum is$8, I’m sure there are countries where people get $2 or less so they might appreciate producing an illustration for a 100. The Internet does not care really.

    Another valid point, maybe not strictly applicable to illustration (as of what you say you generally have the clients approach you) – as opposed to a low-wage (or any contractor for that reason), you job has no continuity whatsoever. If you get the cash at the end of the week for the 3 illustrations your client has comissioned, that’s nice, but there is no work the next week. In short, when making the quote one should also account for the time it takes to bid for new clients, look for possible work and the sum of marketing expenses.

    Good article.

    • pkuncewicz – You bring up a very valid point. There are certainly countries where $100 holds a lot more weight. Even in this country there are people who think $100 is a good rate, but realistically most people can’t survive off of making $100 per illustration without some other source of income, in the US anyway.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with you. Even though I am no artist, I can easily see the what the problem is: people think artists are artists because of their love of art, and that they know they can’t make much of a living out of it. And they have always known it, and nonetheless they decided on that career path. So, they have to take whatever they are offered, right?


    Of course a quick sketch at a convention will always be $5-25. And that’s fine, because sometimes it’s the only way a fan will be able to meet an artist and tell him “I love your X or Y piece. Can I have a quick sketch of it on my playmat?” But, although there are some artists who can make a living out of this, they are more the exception than the rule.

    So, when an artist tells you that it’ll be 100 or 200 or 1000 or whatever it is for an original piece or a commission, don’t haggle (unless you’re at a flea market). They know their art is worth that much. And now you know it, too.

  4. The more artists are willing to work for so little money, or for free, the more they are making it harder and harder for every other illustrator trying to make a living. I am starting to get so resentful of people who think it’s ok to offer artists so little compensation for their time, skill, conceptual thinking, knowledge, and professionalism. Include the multitude of “authors” now self-publishing books and you often end up having to be an editor, graphic designer and book designer as well. You may quote by the illustration and then find yourself designing pages and spending time working with the typography for pages that don’t even have an illustration on them.

    Another thing in comparing the minimum wage worker to a self-employed illustrator is that the minimum wage worker gets to keep his whole check but the illustrator then still has to take out another 7.5% for social security.

    I had an ad agency I had interned at contact me about creating a logo. They said they could pay $200. When I asked if they couldn’t do better than that, they said if they pay me any more they wouldn’t make any money on the job. They really said that. Twice. (Yet they once proudly showed me all the awards they had won in their office) This would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. When we’re asked if we will work for free, or so little money, we should ask “Is your printer working for free?” “Are your suppliers giving away the office supplies and copy machines for free?” “Did the client ask you to work for free?”

    It’s unbelievable to see on sites like that an offer to illustrate a children’s book for $300 gets so many bids.

    We can only hope to find clients who understand an illustrator’s time is worth something, just as theirs is, and that money spent for good conceptual thinking, skilled execution and professionalism will only enhance their product/ organization/ project.

    A good article to share with self-publishing authors:

    • Donna – Thanks for the comment! Yeah it is hard for companies to increase their art budget when artists keep working for such a low rate. As for people working full-time, they don’t get to keep their full check, they still have to pay taxes. They still have federal, state (unless you live in a state with no state income tax), social security, medicare, etc. taken out of each check. It also depends on how many dependents they claim, etc.

  5. Yes I have had these and no not worth it especially with 3d sculpting and modeling as a decent model can take from just the concept to the actual modeling, sculpting, texturing, skinning, rigging and animating or rendering etc etc etc …. could be done in days, weeks , hours it all depends on the details but in general it is not a few hours or a day of time. The time taken learning the craft is also steep. This being said even over seas can be quite a good sized bill for the work involved.

  6. I was on a forum once, for start-up sci-fi writers it seemed, and jumped into a thread discussing book cover art.

    Mostly they were discussing how much they paid these guys. One person mentioned they got a cover from a guy for twenty dollars…..



  7. so how is it about pricing? not many are willing to talk about that clearly. anyone knows how we know whats the right thing about prices, like a book or sth? or is it more a thing about what i would like to have if I do good or really really good stuff. or is it like it took me 8 hours so i take 10 per hour or what?

    • Thomas – There are several reasons why most people don’t talk about how much money they make. For one, it usually isn’t very polite. Two, some people just don’t feel comfortable telling the world how much they make. Number three, and this is one of the most important reasons, most contracts actually state that you are not allowed to tell people how much money you make.

      Clients typically don’t want you to advertise how much you are being paid. This could be due to a couple of reasons. One is that they want to hire people for the lowest price possible. The other is that they don’t want any conflict between co-workers. Imagine if your boss found out that you make more money than he/she does. That could cause a lot of problems and hostility in the workplace.

      That being said, there are books like the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines that gives you a range of rates you can expect. There are also websites like and You can also find hourly rate calculators, but they are pretty involved. You could always figure out what you need to make in order to pay all of your bills and then add however much you want to make on top of that. So maybe double it or add 30%, it is really up to you.

      One big problem though is that most clients will tell you what they are willing pay and most of the time there isn’t much room for negotiation. They have a set rate and if you aren’t willing to accept that rate, they will go find someone else.

  8. Hey Daarken, about the last part, I remember Dave Rapoza saying in a livestream that countries don’t exist in freelancing. My question is: am I less likely to being hired by an american company for not being american? Let’s take Wizards of the Coast for example, let’s pretend that I’m just as good as the artists they usually hire, maybe even a little better, will they ignore my existence because I’m brazilian? Or is Dave right and I can get hired by anyone in the world?

    • Mateus – Location has absolutely nothing to do with getting jobs. All you need is the internet and a good portfolio. My clients don’t care where you live, they only care that you do good work. Right now almost all of my clients are located in other countries.

    • Ricardo – Well, “good pay” really depends on the artist, the client, what type of work they are doing, where you live, how much your bills are, if you have a family or not, there are just so many variables that it is hard to tell people what good pay is. Working for minimum wage or less is not good pay in my opinion. I know I haven’t given you a concrete answer, but I would really rather not go into how much money I make.

      I will say this, if you can pay all of your bills and still have enough left over to live comfortably, then I would consider that “good pay.” You might want to take a look at my response to Thomas. I gave him some resources to help him figure out what good pay is in the US.

  9. Good post Mike, I’m hoping more artists just starting out become aware of this. I’ve taken these $100 jobs at the start as well, and thought nothing of it. This is no where near an acceptable rate. Honestly, if you have the skill to work with these companies, you’re probably not too far off from the bigger ones.

  10. Thanks for this message.

    Many of us say this, and many of us also took these crappy paying jobs when we started. This is not hypocrisy. For me at least, when I started out, there was no chorus of professionals telling me to STAY AWAY from these bum deals. If my art idols had been out there warning me, I would have heeded them (hopefully).

    These days, there is no excuse if you’re starting out. Heed your elders! DON’T make the mistakes we made. Do better than we did.

  11. Great article and I’m glad you’re saying these things.

    Now, I’m not at the professional level yet, however I have experienced this whole thing and my opinion as to why this is has been the same for a number of years, tho I have got heat for it in forums.

    I am of the opinion that the reason we got to this $100 figure, that wages for artists haven’t risen, has to do with the older professionals and their lack of spreading the information or organizing the profession. Every time someone spoke the word “guild” or “syndicate” or something, pros got chills as if they were talking about the Mafia. So, their reluctance to organize and find power in numbers simply helped lessen their and ultimately our strength, because instead of keeping a RATE, we got into a situation where we accept a WAGE or a BUDGET, as if we shouldn’t know our value and have it dictated.

    And next and foremost, info…I have been asking forever what people get paid for various jobs and asking that such info be posted again and again and again in forums. All I got was high and mighty douchebaggery by older pros who also gave the excuses of not wanting to share such info as to not alert the “competition” (with whom they have no problem sharing techniques and knowledge tho) or even the wacky one that the IRS is waiting to see their post and check them up (not that they might not, but ok paranoia much?).

    What this resulted in was creating new generations of artists who, with the advent of the internet, had a plethora of knowledge and went on to storm the market but had no damn idea a Magic card pays only $500, I found that out just recently with the PACT thing, no one would ever tell you what a Magic card paid a year ago, EVER.

    In the meantime you have the competition rising the level so high that you have to spawn little Michelangelo masterpieces by the dozens for smaller companies, thinking that when you have the skill to impress Wizards you will get thousands for Magic art (as one should), only to find out that pay from the highest player is not much more than the rest, and that you’ve overshot your skill level in comparison to pay, skill wasted on such a bad product and a bad job.

    You might say that skill isn’t wasted, that you can get better jobs, as you say in your article, but it’s the broken info pipeline that creates a mess even in the lower levels, and in time it will even in higher ones, which used to be higher I’m sure. There is no reason someone would pay you $5000 for a cover, when now he can get some one to do it for $1000 and have all the rights, because to that idiot, it’s a dream job in comparison to doing the $500 illos for Wizards, or the $100 Star Wars and Lord of the Rings pieces for Fantasy Flight Games…it’s outrageous! Just $100 for a Star Wars piece, whose license must have cost FFG gazillions and from which they probably make a googolplex!!!!

    Instead of making thousands you make a measly $500… the same money Frazetta was paid for his first damn cover back in the 60’s (which amounts to about $3600 today inflation adjusted)… and all because the older pros were afraid (more like fistfed propaganda to think like “rich people”) to let us know what to expect and help us not undervalue ourselves and overwork ourselves, but they, at least they showed us how to do an under painting 6000 damn times. Now the Pandora’s box is open, and things look bleak, but I’m glad some newer pros aren’t scared any more.

    • Michael – I don’t think it is a matter of pros being douchebags about not wanting to disclose how much money they make. If you actually read the contract, most contracts state that you are not allowed to tell people how much money you are being paid. So rather than people just wanting to be high and mighty, it is actually more that they don’t want to break their contract. Plus there is the fact that it is usually isn’t polite to ask people how much money they make and they also probably don’t want a bunch of strangers on the internet knowing how much they make. Instead of blaming the artists for their silence, I would blame the clients who added the clause telling us we can’t disclose any information.

      As for the Magic card, I’m not sure where you are getting your information, but it isn’t very accurate. I dunno, maybe WotC has some sliding scale I don’t know about.

  12. This article is a sad reality I deal with constantly. Art – a necessity yet, not worth the money right? Can you save hundreds of thousands boarding out a feature but, don’t have money in the budget to pay someone what they are worth? When you hire a CEO with all the credentials to save you money you pay top rate to get them right? Do storyboard artists even get credits on the movies? Nope. But, catering does. Hell, the PA does. Don’t even get me started on the helpful union end since the LA union considers them “on call” which means you technically can’t even charge over time if you need them starting at 10pm…How about advertising? I don’t have any money in the budget, but my whole campaign depends on the art so that I can make money and get this idea produced. Oh, and 30 days is a very generous time frame. 60-90 is more the average. That’s with constant calling asking where the money is. How about: why would it be that much money when it took them an hour to do? My dad has a saying (being in the art world for 40 years) “You are not paying for the hour, what you are paying for is 40 years of experience that allowed me to get it done in an hour”. Gaming and publications? They are the worst. They make the most money and pay the least. They hunt down artists in places like diviant art looking for artists that are so smitten with the idea of doing the art they don’t either know or care what they are making. Starter rule of thumb for me: estimate how many hours you are going to need to do the work x $100/hr to start. If you are fast, double the price. Don’t give your art away either. There are usage fees. If they cant afford them, up your rate to compensate. Artists can and do make over $1000/day, even more. When you take a job that low you are not only lowering the bar for yourself, but every other freelance artist out there. That’s my quick 2c being an artist and being an artist agent for 11 years. You know if you can compete if they are calling you. Be proud of the work you do. You will get more respect in the long run. Anyone with no budget wont be back again, or they will and keep taking advantage of what they know is a killer deal…

  13. I understand the clauses of not disclosing such information, and I wasn’t implying that someone start giving out exact numbers, but an estimate wouldn’t hurt. Plus, I don’t think there would be any problem disclosing such information after the job is done.

    My gripe with the pros on comes from the logic of analogous work for analogous pay. For instance, what kind of pay did Larry Elmore get for a particular illustration, or sets of illustrations, which would indicate level of skill, level of detail and hours of work. Knowing some round figures, attached to some pieces, the illustrators coming out in the early or mid 90’s would be able to know how much their art is worth. There would be no reason for someone (in the sake of trying to compete with Elmore) to bust his/her ass, way surpassing Elmore’s skill level and hours of work, just to get the same job for the same pay. And once you go down that hill, it starts an avalanche.

    Had a scale existed, newer artists would have a gauge. But instead, we’re shooting in the dark, and all we have that’s tangible, is the quality of work, and that’s not all that substantial when you account for style, rendering method etc. There’s a matter of “fame” as an artist yes, but under that logic, it should be peanuts for you until you get “fame”, which takes the quality work thing and throws it in the trash. And how many names sell art…5? 10?

    I understand politeness, but it only goes so far when we’re dealing with matters of business. Companies aren’t polite in screwing people when they can, cause their end goal is profit, they don’t care about politeness, why should we? This is a business, not Mrs Doubtfire’s teapot society.

    As for the info on Magic art, it’s been posted around by various artists while the Art PACT campaign was going on, that was what brought my attention to it (and I WAS surprised) and I confirmed it when talking personally to some artists who’s tongues loosened with PACT. They told me that it’s $500 for a card, but higher for promotional stuff of course, and so are the specifications, which is logical. And I’m not saying it’s not good practice, but don’t you think it’s bad pay when the artists who made art for Magic in ’94 got the exact same pay as today? (Randy Gallegos seemed to imply this in his promotional post for Art PACT on the CGHub forums) Wouldn’t that knowledge have helped newer artists? Or help older artists get more somehow?

    But even if my info about Wizards is partial (which again, proves my point, I should be able to easily find out what work I’m expected to do, for what type of job and what it would pay, a fact that’s easy to find in almost any other market but ours), I still find it absurd to find out that many of the “second players” like FFG I mentioned, or the tons of high production online games being made, would pay the $100 price, and they do…and it’s a shame cause many artists are outputting way too high quality work for that small pay.

    We can’t magically expect things to get better of course, and the whole “work harder” thing is a fallacy (within a certain threshold of course…) because there’s more quality artists out there than ever, and they’re being paid less than crappy artists of previous decades, a fact which shows that quality work alone just guarantees better quality products for business, not better pay for artists.

    • Michael – I’m not sure you understand how contracts work. Just because the job is done doesn’t mean you can suddenly break a contract and disclose confidential information. A contract doesn’t dissolve once the job is done. If that was the case then people could suddenly say “hey, the job is done, therefore I own the copyright to my painting again.” Or the client could say “I know we agreed to pay you x, but since the job is done, we are now only going to pay you y.”

      Yes I realize this isn’t some Mrs. Doubtfire teapot society, but when it comes to random strangers asking me how much money I make, I’m not about to break my contract and publicize to the world how much I make. It has nothing to do with cutthroat clients or companies screwing people over, it is because I was raised to not ask people how much money they make. If you don’t want to be polite, that is fine. What I am saying is, if you start asking random people how much money they make, you better be prepared for a lot of silence. You say politeness only goes so far when dealing with matters of business, but when you ask perfect strangers how much money they make, it isn’t business at all. It is personal. You aren’t approaching companies and asking how much they pay their artists, you are asking artists how much they make. I’m not sure how artists suddenly became lumped together with cutthroat companies who only care about profit.

      There are resources that give pay ranges. The Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines book gives pay ranges for many different parts of the industry. Sure there isn’t really a section on fantasy illustration or TCG illustration, but most of the rates they do give are pretty comparable. Sites like and give yearly salaries of jobs like concept artists and they say which company the person works for. For example, a concept artist at EA makes an average salary of $58k.

      Well, from what I know about the pay for Magic cards, your figure is way off. I’ve been painting Magic cards for 6 years now and the pay for “normal” cards has remained the same. The pay for more exclusive cards has actually increased over the past few years. Like I mentioned before, maybe there is some sliding scale that I don’t know about. What I do know is that the original Magic artists back in the 90s were getting royalties as well. The game became incredibly popular and the artists were getting so much money in royalties that WotC had to change the policy.

      Yes it is unfortunate that pay hasn’t increased in the past 10-20 years, but a huge part of that problem is that people keep accepting those $100 jobs so companies don’t feel the need to increase their rates when people keep working for the low rates. That is something I hope PACT can help change. Would it be nice if we could all just go find rates easily? Of course. Again, that is something I hope PACT can change.

  14. I am finding this thread highly informative. Thanks for bringing the topic up and discussing it Daarken. My daughter is an aspiring artist, and these are things she will need to know to have a better chance at success.
    Being a supporter of the arts, I have purchased dozens of original pieces from various artists. True, some sold for a lower price than $100, but many for more. As with all things in business it comes down to supply and demand. I know that a work done by a talented and usually well known artist can easily bring in a thousand and more. (As it should.) Likewise, some great pieces done by beginners or the obscure can sell for far less than they should. It seems to me that an artist can make money on prints, rights for publication, and the original piece itself. One should also keep in mind that even signed sketches/preliminaries can be sold for a tidy sum. I would consider myself in the lower middle class income bracket and can tell you for a fact that anyone (especially a business) that offers only $100/$200 for something that took a day or more in total is low-balling you. It is the nature of the beast. Making a name for yourself and sticking to a competitive price appears to be the best strategy. Everyone starts somewhere, and if they tried to sell their work for too much they could never pay for their art supplies and improve.
    As for artists out of the U.S., there is always tax, insurance, shipping/handling prices to add to their lower cost.
    Another tact is to make yourselves more available to private collectors, such as myself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to find an artist’s site only to either find nothing for sale, or nothing for sale with a price listed. Contacting the artist/seller is always an extra effort and even if only good intentioned, makes the potential buyer wary. Make your work easily found and purchased. If you are only making your wares available to the many Cons, then one is missing out on thousands of possible sales. Price your work, and price it fairly. If you know it is worth a thousand, then put that price on it. As Ruben Suarez said above:
    “So, when an artist tells you that it’ll be 100 or 200 or 1000 or whatever it is for an original piece or a commission, don’t haggle (unless you’re at a flea market). They know their art is worth that much. And now you know it, too.”

  15. Hmm, I realize my vigor may have made me express myself in a way that seems too absolute, the written word can have limitations when one isn’t a writer.

    To explain, I wasn’t implying that total strangers share what they make, I am not interested in asking say, how much you make a year. The information I suggest that would be helpful is a figure of pay, from a group of clients, say medium level TCG companies, per card, with a few indications of illustrations as examples. I don’t see anything unreasonable with this. Quite the opposite, knowing that X illustration should equal Y pay (inflation adjusted) may lower the probability of artists accepting the $100 compensation.

    Instead tho, what one sees as a “formula”, when a newer artist shows you a piece and asks “What should I be getting for this, if this is a full page color illustration for a book”, is something like “Think what your monthly expenses are, add some for your profit, divide in working hours in a month, calculate how much time you’ll work on it, and there you go”…now, it’s easy to see that this isn’t a good piece of advice, yet it’s the only one around.

    As for contracts, if there is no clause in the contract which states that you agree to not disclose your fee, there is no reason to not hint at the figure after the fact. Still, why would we be prohibited to state the average compensation we got per piece of art 3-4 years ago if it’s not a clause in the contract? If that were the case, then all the artists sharing this piece of information lately, are in breach of their contracts, the same goes for every pro athlete, actor or any professional who’s general pay has been disclosed. An NDA, at least those I’ve read, prohibits one from disclosing information about the work, images etc. I am aware that there can be and do exist contracts that prohibit from amounts being disclosed, but I’ve never read one, signed one, nor do I know if this is the case with Wizards (and I’m not really targeting Wizards, it’s just that they are the top client, and they present the highest in the particular market no?).

    Now, if everyone who’s posted said figure, in a couple of threads pertaining to PACT, discussing the economical issues, as well as those artists I talked to who have shared the info with me as I have with them, during discussions, are all wrong or are just out there to yank my chain, that is something I cannot know.

    If you’re making more (and you should be), then I can attribute it to one thing…you are being a business person, marketing yourself and negotiating the highest rates, which is great and how it should be. But this, is in itself also a skill to be honed. Trying to become professional artists we are not alerted to this set of skills needed until it is too late, and although the Graphic Artists Handbook has guidelines, it’s very very different than reading and discussing the matter in the areas where one gets their prime source of knowledge and inspiration.

    I for one didn’t have any info on all this, but very early on (and quite by chance) got alerted to some bad tactics, and in many many cases refused low pay or adjusted the work I’d do for the $100, and stated it to the client from day 1. I don’t see anyone else at my level doing this (from those I know). The result of course is that I’m ultimately being cornered by my will to get better and charge more, and my need to eat while being competed against by fellow artists who will, unwisely, put in 3-4 times more hours into their work for the same pay, unwillingly undercutting me, you and the whole profession. I took the only advice older artists were willing to give, which is not to kill the profession, but I’m now between a rock and a hard place, and so is the profession. Of course I’m not saying my opinion is gospel, it’s just a guess. I hope PACT will help, as much as you do.

    The thing with companies and artists being clumped together, I don’t really understand where you thought I said this, probably just misunderstood my somewhat garbled writing, sorry about that, and about writing so much…

    • Michael – All of the contracts I have signed with clients state (and I am paraphrasing) that you are not allowed to divulge any non-public information relating to the client and/or the information contained within the contract regarding the services rendered, information about any products or projects, any market data, any financial data, any reference material, or any code. They also state that you are not to disclose any of that information directly or indirectly. Do people still discuss this information even though they have signed a contract? Of course they do. Is it illegal to speed or run red lights? Yes it is. Do people still do it? Yes they do. Just because some people are doing it doesn’t mean they are doing so legally. Do pro athletes or actors have to sign this same type of contract? I have no idea, so it wouldn’t be very responsible of me to assume so given the fact that I have no idea what type of contracts athletes or actors have to sign. I do however know what the contracts say that I sign.

      To be honest, I didn’t negotiate any rates with WotC. They have a set rate that they tell artists and there isn’t much you can do about it. If you want to accept that rate, fine. If not, be prepared to lose the commission. In my 9 years of professional experience, most clients who have a set rate don’t budge from it. A few have, but not many.

  16. It’s interesting to see that the contracts you’ve signed have that specific clause. I haven’t so far, not that I ever felt that I wouldn’t or shouldn’t, and I’ve negotiated quite a bit thankfully, but of course I am at a lower level than you, so maybe there’s roof for that. However, since, within a certain threshold of reason, these discussions can and do occur, I feel it’s a good thing, for us, the working force. I hope you understand my view as being intellectual, not dogmatic. What I’ve been stating is a proposal based on observations, a perceived cause and effect of sorts. We’re all trying to interpret our surroundings in the end. That’s why I am discussing this with you in connection to your article, to get the perspective of someone in the higher ranks, who’s also relatively new in the industry (ie not 15-20-30 in it). That’s an important factor I feel.

    Of course, there is the flip side as you state, that clients who have their own steady rates don’t budge from them. And that’s the real problem here isn’t it? The fact that there are too many companies, with too many rates being low, too low. Now, I don’t know what Wizards does, from your account there seems to be some sort of scale…which could also be a fair thing, I don’t see is as a bad thing really. And from what I know, they are awesome to work with, a thing which is very very important (I’ve had bad experiences). Do you feel it’s a good, how to say…cap? What I mean is, do you feel that from what they, as the Giant, pay, being considered the top player, that those rates may tend to compress the competitors’ downward? For instance, if they raised the rates, would that sort of cause the same to happen with the competition? Or if the reverse happened would the others lower theirs? Has anything like this happened while you’ve been working?

    • Michael – Well, from my experience rates don’t really change. It isn’t like the gas station on the corner where they change their rate daily due to competition across the street, supply and demand, etc. This industry seems to be fairly static. The companies paying $100 nine years ago still pay $100 today. I’ve never seen any competition in terms of rates between companies. Of course maybe they are doing that behind the scenes, so who knows. It could also be partly due to the fact that rates are so secret, so it might be harder for companies to compete with each other when they don’t really even know how much the other company is paying.

      If my client isn’t an individual person, like someone wanting a CD cover for their band or an author wanting a book cover, they almost always have a set rate. Even after working with that client for 5-9 years, that rate still doesn’t change. I’m not just referring to rates going up either, I’m also including rates going down. Out of all the major clients I have worked with, only one of them has ever lowered their rate. Actually, there was another client who lowered their rate too, but I got them to increase it back to my old rate because I told them I wouldn’t work with them unless they did.

      Like you mentioned before, this is a huge part of the problem with this industry. The cost of living goes up every year, yet our rates don’t. Instead of getting paid more each year, we have to go out and look for more work. So instead of working on 4-5 paintings at a time, you have to work on 8-10. Of course next year rolls around and you might have to start working on 12-15 at a time. The workload just starts to snowball.

  17. I was aware that things were bleak, but I had no idea they were static, at least not in the sense of rates not going down either, seems surprising. I hadn’t thought of the part of my argument you just exposed, that is, the lack of competition stemming from rates not being known. But of course this stagnation’s the major issue, as you said, having to do too much work.

    This makes me think that a better proposition, via PACT maybe, would be a sort of loose, friendly agreement between artists, of making known what some acceptable BASE rates would be, per experience level, type of work etc, just as an aim for artists to shoot for, and for companies to know what their collaborators (because I like to think of it as a collaboration, working WITH a client/ company rather than FOR) would be pleased with. It’s not something set in stone, it’s something that could be debated and ironed out and we also kept personal. There are no guarantees that companies would care of course, however in the logic of the PACT rating system, as part of the whole process, it might affect a few clients along with a rating. What do you think?

    Also, your article made me think more of something I have been pondering for a while, as a result of long term personal aims, discussions with other artists and also noticing some artists doing something of the sort…what I am talking about is personal content. For instance, making say a book with a theme, with ones own art and promoting to sell it, or a calendar etc. Sort of what Brom’s been doing for some years and what some artists like Dave Rapoza and Noah Bradley seem to be doing. In your experience, how does this fit in the business of being a freelance artist and as an alternative, a successor or a game changer to the typical freelance career?

  18. Great, brave and clearly remarkable Post Michael. But there is one BIG reason illustration rates have not risen in 40 years. Becuase there are millions of well trained artists in China who can render and illustrate like any of the classical masters. This is a “skillset” issue. There is NO shortage of talent in the world. Maybe rates would increase if American illustrators raised thier rates. But I doubt it. I think Art holds more value when it goes beyond the craftmaship. The most valued Art is work that makes an impact in the world. If the work doesnt inspire or make a difference its just a craft. And its clear , craftmanship is only valued by supply and demand.

  19. Just a quick comment to thank you for posting information like this. You’re a huge inspiration to me, and it’s really helpful as a mid-level freelancer to get peeks into what it’s like at the top. Looking forward to seeing more.

  20. Thank you so much for the info. I was truly oblivious to the chump change that illustrators make. I am now extremely depressed and I think I might just give up on a career in illustration, altogether. I’ve been working on some pieces for a major gaming company that holds most of the major properties. I thought the enormity of these intellectual properties in the entertainment and gaming worlds meant I would be fairly compensated. Now I know that I can only expect a payment that is essentially symbolic.

    Also, I was very inspired to learn of PACT. Then I visited the site and saw that it is yet another thing I’m expected to shell out money for. After all this talk of low pay, beginning artists are expected to pay for this info. Very disappointing.

    I’m going to go close Photoshop now and cry myself to sleep.

    • Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of money in this industry and you can make a very good living off of being an illustrator/concept artist, but there are also a lot of people who make virtually nothing. If you have the skills and the connections, you can make a lot of money.

  21. Well written piece, but you still haven’t given anyone a better idea of what to offer artists for their work.

    • It is extremely hard to give an actual amount because there are so many variables. How good is the artist? How big is the company that is hiring them? What are they hiring you for? Is it concept art, illustration, graphic design? What are the deadlines? How will the image be used? Do you retain any rights? How complex is the image? Where does the person live? What are their bills like? Is it digital or traditional? Those are just a few variables.

      So as you can see, I can’t tell people a generic rate because it wouldn’t be accurate since I don’t know all of the variables. What is important is that clients need to realize that paying $100 for something that could take days, weeks, or months is obviously not worth anyone’s time.

  22. As a Photography and Video Artist, I often feel either under-rated or underpaid to say the least.

    The one half of me wishes to just keep doing what I’m doing, ” Which is what I am currently doing ”
    The other half of me wishes to just stop, BUT if I where to JUST STOP, II would never proceed forward.

    As far as monitary compensation is concerned, the nature and time of each contracted project will vary from job to person.

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