Make Artist Earnings Great Again

Nov 22nd, 2021
Make Artist Earnings Great Again

Eons ago, I majored from Graphic Arts and Design at the University of Costa Rica. Long before that, I dreamed of building a career as an animation artist — back when that meant 2D drawing and not 3D CGI. However, the Internet started pulling me in other directions mid-careeer, which set my main career course as an UX/Front End developer to this day.

I confess my initial plan was to give this web thing a try for 2-3 years to make some money and then get back to my artistic swing, only to find out that I wasn’t going to make on this “swing” of mine as much money or find jobs as easily as it could be with IT. In fact upon this realization I quit drawing for a number of years — something I now regret deeply and has me rushing to make up for lost time.

There was an underlying, fearful reasoning to it all: The constant menace of becoming yet another “starving artist” (yes, that thought runs deep, very deep). I don’t come from a family with artistic backgrounds. Both my parents were typical office workers with no knowledge about art. Despite yours truly falling in grace of a very generous and encouraging Arts teacher in high school, I had no artistic relatives to look forward to. However, my parents did never question me about my choice of an artistic career in college — although they probably were somewhat worried about my financial future.

The cheapening of the artist career

Pre-1980s, pre-computers in design, artists really had to show their chops in order not only to have a career, but to keep themselves in business. Not much of a chance to cheat with analog tools. Either you really knew what you were doing, or you didn’t.

Graphic Designer, 1982

The introduction of the Macintosh Computer changed the graphic design game upside down. Tasks that were either tedious or highly complex with analog techniques now were becoming a point-and-click affair. Desktop publishing was born, the techniques once expensive and exclusive to giant publishing houses now became cheap and available to the unwashed masses. And gradually, the knowledge (and earnings) of the chosen few who mastered the art of analog compositing began to become irrelevant, as computers seemingly were capable of doing it all now. What once required the services and fees of a dedicated drafts man could now be obtained in the form of cheap and abundant clip art.

Somewhere along this way, the idea among laymen that design, and consequently everything related to it (painting, drawing, etc) became an easy, push-button affair began to take helm in the general culture, thus changing the perception of the arts as something easy and cheap to do, and consequently something of little value as a career — unlike becoming a doctor, or any of the so-called STEM careers every finance-conscious parent wants their kids to get into.

Were things really better before?

Let’s take Kelly Freas for an example. One of the most celebrated and successful American illustrators of the 20th century by any measures, Mr. Freas’s heyday as a highly recognized, on-demand illustrator was from the 1950s through the 1980s. Hundreds of covers for MAD Magazine and other science fiction publications, advertisements (illustration was still a highly demanded resource for advertising), even Queen’s News of the World album cover… the man did it all and then some. And sure enough he commanded not just a living wage, but a very good one enough to sustain his family on a single income.

Need more examples? Take Al Capp and other comic strip cartoonists from the 1920s and 1930s. Before TV and the Internet, newspaper comics were the most accessible and popular form of visual entertainment, and their top artists (and even most second-rate others) were commanding huge wages that could be translated to millions of dollars today. They were truly the entertainment kings of their era.

Then technology came and little by little ended up inverting the artist’s work value equation, perhaps forever. Was it unavoidable? What’s the scenario now?

Technically wise, it has never been easier or cheaper to learn the ropes of artistic creation. There are tons of online courses you can take, at a fraction of the price of an old arts conservatory, and from the comfort of their old home. Resources for artistic creations are aplenty. Therefore, the former Olympus of a selected few became flooded with millions of talented creatives fighting tp the bone for recognition and a place in library shelves, Netflix or the big screen. And you know what happens what that happens, right?

It’s nothing but a new twist on the market’s supply and demand law. Scarcity creates value, and the opposite (abundance lowering market value) also becomes true.

And if on top of all this artists are never taught about the basic ways of money and finance, as it happens too painfully often in art schools, it is a recipe bound for disaster.

You can spend years at art college and never hear a thing about financial management.

No wonder artists can’t tell why they are always getting the short end of the stick. They end up selling their hard-earned art skills for peanuts because frankly they don’t know better. No one cared to teach them the ways of money and the market. And media moguls —count on it— use this lack of knowledge to their advantage, every time. Artists get being constantly used, abused and exploited by the market and somehow we’ve ended up normalizing what shouldn’t be normal by any standards.

Illustrator Lily Williams recently published a tremendous blog post named “Artists You Need to Charge More” which in turn inspired me to write this one. Lily has gone into the subject far deeper than I could even aspire to and it is a highly recommended read. A huge eye-opener. But just in case you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, here are its main takeaways as I see them.

Just because you enjoy making art doesn’t mean you don’t deserve money for it. Long story short: the only way to become the best you can be at your craft is to make it into a profitable, thus sustainable career, so you can dedicate the amount of time it needs to hone and perfect the skills that will make you valuable in the market. Time you would otherwise have to split into multiple jobs to make ends meet. With age, you begin to realize time is a more scarce asset than money so you don’t want it to go to waste. Easy to do? No, not at all. Hey, illustration for me is still a side gig and IT jobs are still my bread and butter. But this is why I’ve been building the foundations to make a transition that works for me and hopefully paves the way to a fair retribution for my art work.

Art isn’t any easier to do or master than any other career. Don’t let anyone else kid you otherwise. Here I quote Ms. Williams directly:

Art is not only valuable to society, as history has shown, but a practice that takes time, education, and knowledge.

Sure most kids instinctively took a bunch of crayons and draw for joy, but between that and the virtuoso work we come to admire and be ecstatic about later in life, there are years of countless, thankless, hard hours of practice, learning, and practicing again. Experts in any field, as much as we’d want to, don’t sprout overnight. And it is just natural to demand a fair retribution for all your hard work. But how do you define “fair”? Hint: it is not looking at whatever your favorite artist charges and pretending you can charge the same. A million factors in between must be considered.

Do your homework, browse the market, then set your price. Do you know how much money do you really need to cover your living expenses? Can you pay rent, basic services, groceries, your car down payments (if you have or need a car) and still save some cash to save for later or to splurge yourself from time to time? Or are you drowning in seas of debt?

Browsing the market to get a feel for market averages is also neccesary. Can you really make ends meet selling $20 commissions that may take you more than that in man-hour costs? Which market would you rather cater to, the $20 commission market or the $200 commission market? What does it take to get high roller buyers for your art? What unique value can you bring to the table? What is your audience willing to pay for?

All of this said, the following is what I do to be aware of the pricing that works for me.

Make friends with Excel (or Google Sheets)

A side consequence of having been zero exposed to financial education in art college is that I didn’t become acquainted with spreadsheets until much later in life, after deciding to fix the financial mess I lived in more than 15 years ago. Through a dear friend’s example, I started building my own budget & expense spreadsheets via Google Sheets. Excel is the classic workhorse for this but something I love from Google Sheets is being able to access it anywhere and with any device at hand. There, I track each and every expense during the month — fixed expenses, variable expenses, casual expenses: everything goes in there. I punch in the total amount of my grocery shopping right after paying the cashier. This may sound like too much at first but over time it becomes an habit — a healthy one, actually. Then, at the end of every month, I compare my expense numbers versus those of my bank account, and if everything looks pretty much the same, I just pay my credit card in full (yes, I place all expenses on my credit card, but that’s a subject for another story).

By visualizing your real monthly expenses you can not only seize which is your absolute minimum to get by from month to month, but also to identify which expenses are superflous and which you can make off without. Can you trade your daily $4.95 latte at Starbucks to making your own coffee every morning and push the savings towards that new computer or tablet you so want to have? At first it won’t seem like much, but over time those little amounts do add up… and if you are smart enough to deal with investment funds or CDs, you can exponentially grow those little things into one big sum in less time than you think, in a completely legal and standard way. You would be surprised.

These days, there are plenty of avenues for creativity. Perhaps by tradition, we tend to think in very academic terms as creative outlets are concerned: paintings in art galleries, illustrations for children’s books, or graphic novels (they look trendy, but they really aren’t). But the Internet has opened new profitable alternatives to creativity. If you are willing to overcome the learning curve that comes with 3D and programming, you could easily set yourself to bring your creations to the nascent Web3 and metaverse ecosystems.

In a market of millions, you can find for sure an audience of a few thousands willing to like and support the kind of work you do. The hardest part, though, remains making them be aware of your existence. But they all are down there, somewhere.

But above all, be aware of your worth and start charging a fair price for your work, your clients, the market, your living and your life projections down the road. Getting to that magic number is your homework as an artist. The sustainable future of this trade we love depends on it.