Hey Kali, I'm an illustration student at MICA, and I was wondering if you live off of being an artist, and how exactly that works? How you get hired for enough jobs? I'm just really concerned about the future haha
Hey there! I do live off being an artist! The rest of my answer is kinda long, but I’ll give it my best shot.
How it works: It’s tough in the beginning, but it gets better. You probably already know that you need to promote yourself in order to get jobs—email ADs, network, send postcards, get involved in social media, make a website. You build up a base of jobs, one at a time. Sometimes you may get repeat jobs from one client, or maybe a bunch of random jobs from various people. Some people’s work is more suited to a particular section of illustration—book covers, business-y editorial, kid’s work, whatever. (figuring out where your work fits or where you want it to fit can take some time, but it’s good to have some goals!)
Eventually a snowball effect happens—after a few years art directors contact YOU now, once your work starts to be seen more and more. Which is nice!
Now, the money management part during all these times is where it can get a bit tricky. Usually at the beginning you need another job, preferably part-time so you still have time to work on whatever freelance jobs you can get. When I first graduated I worked part-time as a concept artist at a local videogame company, which paid my rent while I was contacting editorial AD’s and getting a tiny trickle of freelance work. (heads-up—this part is hard. Working any 2 jobs is hard!)
Living in Baltimore helped because cost of living is cheap. I also had been saving money in a savings account since I was a kid (any holiday/birthday/summer job money went into the bank). 8 months after graduation, the videogame I was working on was cancelled and I was let go from the company, so I decided to give full-time freelance a shot. Luckily I had that nest-egg of saved money to help get me through a lot of rough patches in the beginning, and over time I’ve been able to keep a relatively stable amount of savings to tide me over slow months. It always seems like I’ll get a bunch of jobs one month, and very little another month. Because of that instability, it’s important to recognize that you need to be frugal! (and also take opportunities when they come!)
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how I can change the direct time-to-money relationship that pervades illustration. I’m kinda slow at drawing, so it limits the number of jobs I can take on & the money I can make. One small thing I’ve been doing is selling prints—which means that I can reuse some of the illustrations I’ve already made and make additional money from them. Making my own book or product seems like a smart move, since I could get continuing royalties off it. I’ve also heard some illustrators talk about selling some of their old work as stock images.
Getting into finances is smart, too. I’m lucky to have an uncle at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, and every year I put some of my earnings in my Roth IRA account (so I’ll have some income when I’m old and decrepit) and I also have some money invested in stocks. I really think that art school should come with financial classes for artists—money stuff can be complicated and intimidating, but it can also be important for your future comfort & happiness. I’m just scratching the surface right now, there’s a lot I don’t know!
In any case, short answer: Keep working, save your $$$, and look for additional opportunities to make bank ✧
This week I had the pleasure of interviewing a talented young artist based in England who writes and illustrates her own children’s books and brings to life such stories as Hercules and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She is finishing her last year at University and, at 21, Briony May Smith is already producing work that exudes a unique style and free spirit. She seems to effortlessly capture the magic she is inspired by, and it is easy to recognize her love of nature, folklore, and the supernatural. Briony is able to merge the roughness of visible pencil strokes with the beautiful shapes of her animals, people, and environments in a way that is nothing short of lively and full of emotion. What I love most about her work is that she inspires me to pick up my favorite adventure books and illustrate a passage of my own!
Even after 18 months of working on the picture book I’m finishing this week, this is still true. No matter how many sketches and color studies and plans I make, the final art is still a new drawing. I can’t trust the sketch to tell me where to put all of my lines. I have to trust myself, and the drawing that is taking shape in front of me.