Illustrator/visual artist/designer/author (for the past 23 years) Marloes De Vries answers questions about illustration, being an artist or creative life in general. → Ask a question here.
Very often I am thinking about changing my job from marketing to something more inspiring for others, like art, writing, nature, happiness and mindfulness. Therefore I am wondering how much money a successful illustrator/artist earns. Maybe you could give me a broad range in what your income is, as I totally understand that you won’t give me your actual income.
I can imagine you’d like to have a ballpark figure on what you can possibly earn when you’re switching careers. The thing is that there’s no clear answer to how much a (successful) illustrator or artist earns. It depends on many factors, like how many hours you work, where you live on the planet and the niche you’re working in. And what you define as ‘successful’ of course 🙂 For many freelancers income fluctuates, as one year you’ll get to do big or many projects, and the next it’s slower. As a freelance illustrator you have to be able to deal with income being inconsistent.
‘Starving artist’-myth is true and it’s not true
Let’s talk figures. An illustrator or artist can earn anywhere between nothing to millions. Yes, really. Your name would have to be David Hockney or Jeff Koons for the millions, but it is possible. In general the groep of millionaire artists are a lot smaller than the other groups.
I’m wondering if this is the market that has the biggest differences in income, because the range is so crazy wide. People often talk about ‘the starving artist’ and while for some that may be true, I know quite a few artists and illustrators that make amounts of money that make my head spin.
In general it’s safe to say that becoming an artist or illustrator just for the money is a big gamble in which very few succeed. You have to get into it because you feel a passion for creating, you won’t last long in this business otherwise.
In the beginning, I struggled to earn a decent living with illustration. I was in my eighth year of doing it when it got better. In the first few years of my career I had part time jobs to keep me afloat. I was illustrating picture books and for magazines, and in my country (the Netherlands) that’s the kind of work with the lowest financial reward. Commercial illustrations for advertising for example pay more.
About 50% of illustrators earns over €20,000 a year
Let’s pick an illustration niche: how much does a children’s book illustrator earn? Stephanie Fizer Coleman (USA) held a survey amongst this niche. Almost 50% of illustrators earn less $10,000 a year from illustrating children’s books. 22,5% earns between $10,000 and $20,000 every year. About 11% earns between $20,000 and $30,000. About 18% earns over $30,000 a year (of which 1.7% earns over $100,000). The rest of the numbers can be found here, but I think this gives a good idea of what can be earned in this particular niche and what you can expect. Coleman self stated she earns over $100,000 a year, of which most comes from teaching online courses. This is important to mention: illustrating picture books alone might not suffice to gather a suffice income, but combined with other jobs like teaching it’s very doable (more an that below).
What I can tell you that if you illustrate for example a picture book in the USA you will earn about 5-10 times as much compared to illustrating a book in the Netherlands or Belgium. In my experience the fees in Europe (especially in the Netherlands and Belgium) for illustration and art are much lower than in the USA. So, if you want to earn a more money in art or illustration you’re better off working with clients in the United States. In the Netherlands you will earn somewhere between €500 and €3,000 for illustrating a picture book, but sometimes other prices are offered too. Sometimes they don’t offer you an advance and just royalty’s.
For a few years illustrator Ben O’Brien (UK) held a survey amongst illustrators. In the last survey of 2020 we learn that 40% of illustrators earn at least £20,000 a year.
With over 12 years under my belt as a professional illustrator I’m in the 40% group but I didn’t make that kind of money in the first few years. Like I said, you have to see it in context: I live in the Netherlands. We pay a lot of taxes: about half of everything I earn goes to the government. If you live in the UK for example, you pay a lot less taxes which means you get to keep a bigger chunk of the payments you receive. Bluntly put, I have to work more hours for the same amount compared to a freelancer in Hong Kong, UK or USA but an illustrator from Israel pays even more tax than me so they have to work even more for the same amount. For a big part it depends on where you live how much you earn after (income) taxes, but also costs for housing, health care, food, etc. determines a lot on how much you need to earn.
Supplimenting your income: teaching
If you want to earn more money I recommend (online) teaching or coaching. Teaching creativity and arts is booming at the moment, and from my research I can conclude that by teaching arts you can supplement your income greatly, compared to when you’re solely working as an artist or illustrator. A few teachers I know earn around €100,000 a year (after taxes and everything), but some earn less. With teaching the differences can be big as well.
If teaching is your thing I recommend getting experience as a working illustrator/artist first. There are many teachers that don’t work as artists or illustrators and sometimes their teaching is therefore lacking experience and practical knowledge. This won’t be noticed by beginners, but as soon as you get students that are a bit more experienced, your credibility will lack. I bought quite a few online courses myself that were taught be people that didn’t really know what they were talking about, so also when you buy an online course: check the experience and credibility of the teacher.
Making money as an illustrator on Patreon
Another way to earn more money as an illustrator is Patreon. In order to earn good money on Patreon, you first need to have a loyal audience. I’ve tried Patreon myself in 2020 and with an audience of 130,000 people on Instagram I still didn’t manage to build a big enough audience to make sure I got paid for the hours I invested in creating content for the platform.
But good news: this totally depends on your kind of audience and what you can offer. Another illustrator earns over €5,500 a month with her Patreon, thanks to 600+ patrons, whilst her Instagram-audience was around 40,000 people. The difference was that she is focused on teaching and offered a community.
There are illustrators on Patreon that earn €20,000 a month, but most earn less. And then there are illustrators that invest a lot of time into it and earn €40. It’s hard to tell how much you can earn on a platform like Patreon, but one thing is for sure: you need to work hard to get the ball rolling. If you know what people are looking for and you can give it to them, you have your gold.
Conclusion: if you got the skills to teach others about art, then online teaching is a way to make good money as an illustrator or artist.
Can you make a living from illustration?
Back to where we started because this isn’t about what illustrator A or artist B earns. Can you make a living from illustration or art? Absolutely, although it takes some time before you get the motor running (in my experience). But ask an online art teacher with a good amount of clients or someone who makes commercial illustrations, and they’ll tell you otherwise. That’s because it depends on what kind of illustrator you’re asking: a character designer at an animation studio, someone who makes illustrations for advertising, a full-time art teacher, a children’s book illustrator, a greeting card designer, etc. There are so many fields within the illustration business and with that comes very different pay checks.
If you want to have a ball park figure of how much you can earn, ask an artist that’s exactly in the field you want to be in and who also lives in the same country as you (or the country you pay taxes). That’s quite important!
Keep in mind: numbers don’t mean anything unless you know how they have to spend it and how much of that amount is left after they’ve paid their bills.
How much money do you need?
My top tip is to first understand how much you need to sustain yourself. When I started out I carefully looked at what I spent every month. I wrote down my expenses for rent, insurances, health care, groceries, etc. I calculated how much money I’d need if I’d get sick, for retirement, set aside money for business investments like a new computer and supplies, to hire an accountant. Also: do add a bit of extra to your costs for unforeseen expenses: there will always be costs you didn’t expect beforehand, trust me.
Then also figure out how much taxes you need to pay and how that system works in your country. Do you only need to pay a percentage of each invoice you send out, or do you need to pay extra taxes every year on the profit you made? I multiply the costs of my expenses (and everything else I just mentioned) by two, as about half of what I earn needs to be paid to my government. If I wouldn’t have thought of before I started freelancing, I would have gone bankrupt within my first year.
I highly recommend getting help from a financial advisor that knows a thing or two about freelancing is useful before you launch yourself into a career in the arts. Once you know how much you need to earn, you can decide which route to take.
I hope this helps!
Best wishes and best of luck,
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All text and images © Marloes De Vries