Sunday, 22 September 2013

A response to a discussion on FB

Long comment is loooooong.   Too long to post on Facebook.  So I posted it here.  This was written in response to a discussion at ArtPact's FB page

Sustainability is key, and that was one of the keywords from the seminar that Rich Thomas and myself delivered at GenCon on making a living as a freelance artist. (I wore my ArtPact T shirt with pride) The talk interested me even as a panelist, since both Rich and myself transitioned out of arguably successful freelance art careers into more managerial positions. (I'm an AD, though I still paint a lot at the day job, still freelance a lot on the side, Rich less so as far as I know). 

Freelance is also a keyword, and important to framing the discussion usefully IMHO. If you want to be a self-publisher, or a gallery artist, or something else? That's really cool. And could form an incredibly important part of your living.  It might make you healthy, wealthy and happy. This also means you'd be a part time freelancer and a part time something else.  

Of course a major concern is does the "something else" part require more time and attention, and pay more money than the freelance part? In which case you have to look very hard at the point of freelancing at all. Freelancing does have value, but you may find it doesn't have enough value to warrant your attention if you have a successful self publishing business, or licensing business, or you're teaching, or working conventions, or galleries as your mainstay. 

Or intriguingly does the freelance part remain important because without (for example,) being a Magic artist do your other enterprises lose value?  So freelance become less a wage earner and more an investment in another business?  And with that in mind how could you regulate the worth and thus pay of freelance work?  Interesting stuff. 

In this day and age it seems less common to just do one thing. Just painting pictures and expecting to be well paid seems like it's not enough, or unrealistic. There are a bunch of other things to do too in order to be successful. 

It's important too to think about whether you're solely viewing that grass on the other side of the fence as greener than it really is.  I know artists with incredibly successful licensing businesses, some self publishers, and a load of gallery artists. All of them work extremely hard, long hours to make the money they do. Or else they make less than a successful freelancer, but consider the perceived freedoms as worth it. Gallery art seems especially difficult to succeed in - that's where I started before quitting that to focus on the more lucrative and stable work of... Freelance art. For real. 

All of the other available avenues come with inherent frustrations and issues. A lot of people self publish via CreateSpace, or use Kickstarter. Those avenues come with significant hurdles that seem smaller because they are less well discussed.  CreateSpace makes you beholden to the whim of Amazon. Kickstarter can bankrupt you if you do it wrong.  Even done right you could wind up managing a large project and a large sum of money over 12+ months. That's a skillset all of its own. Ironically enough a lot of these avenues need the skills of... A publisher. Those who fight monsters etc etc etc. 

Freelancing also has prevailing conditions that we might not like one bit, but are hard to deny. Right now for the majority it is arguably a young person's game. A few of us make it into a sustainable job that is suitable for a person in their late 30s and onwards. You'll need a lot of savvy and ability to achieve that, and it simply isn't available for most people who want it. Arguably precisely because so very many people do want it. And as many of them are young, they (to generalise wildly) have lower overheads and a greater financial agility than those of us discovering that long term freelancing gets more difficult to sustain.  When I was 20 I could live happily on a small amount of cheap food, in an inner city dump. And was prepared to do so to further my dreams. Now I'm 40 I have a mortgage on a nice house and 2 kids to feed. I won't feed them cheap food or lose my house to further my dreams.  

Are my changing needs solely my responsibility, or should there be a market for me that is sympathetic to those needs, in equal measure to how much it benefits from age and experience?  Does it benefit from age and experience, or can it trundle on quite happily employing young agile talent, and cherry-picking a handful of experienced artists to pay the big money to? And the more young folk that join, the less need there is to up pay - you up pay when there's a need.  Is there a need? Should everyone get long service rewards?  Should anyone?  These are questions I wrestle with daily in my AD role. 

There has never been healthcare or pensions paid for freelance work. Understand the very nature of freelance - the service publishers pay for is the benefit of an employee (bespoke art on their timetable to their design which often they own) without the costs of an employee (pension, holiday or sick pay, healthcare, commitment to salary). That's the deal with freelance. If that sounds unpleasant or unworkable then it might not be for you. If you didn't know that was the deal then god help you, why aren't you paying attention?  Again, when you're 24 these things are less important than when you're 44. And IMHO that's ok. That's life. 

Freelance of course has its upsides. I've always made sure I worked when I wanted to work, taking advantage of being my own boss, had more holidays than many of my full time friends. I enjoy my own company and the lack of office politics. I enjoy listening to whatever music I want all day at work, and I relish working from home.  I enjoy taking on the jobs I want to do and turning down those I don't.  I loved chatting all day on Skype with artist chums. I loved working one to one with clients.  I really liked where I could help a company define itself via artwork, and then move on. Once I really found the kind of work I love making (that occurred maybe 7 years into full time freelance) I *really* loved it even more. 

I didn't love chasing invoices and the constant worry about how much money I'd earn in a given month. I didn't love being treated as a second class citizen at the bank, despite pulling in $60k+ per annum (not big money by any "real world" standard, but ok for freelancing in fantasy art).   I found that my considerable work ethic was slowly getting divorced from reward, which really troubled me.  I'd work a really hard or lucrative month, and that seemed unrelated to what I could expect to get paid. That didn't seem right or healthy long term, and as I wanted the things people in their mid/late 30s tend to want. 

Now all of those things are typical for any small business offering piece work. That's not unique to art - plumbers have those same problems. These are self employed problems not artist problems. I'm ever cautious of the tendency to martyr ourselves as artists.

It's also important to remember that pursuing other paths in addition to straight freelancing is to offer up the solution: "go part time as a freelancer". And there's nothing wrong with that. 

It's debatable though whether it dodges the core mission of ArtPact. Does the core advice from ArtPact boil down to "most of us can't make a sustainable living freelance"?

Maybe that's just true and we shouldn't piss in the wind pretending otherwise. Or maybe things could be so significantly changed that freelancing as a fantasy artist becomes unlike other freelancing. I don't know in all honesty. 

Perhaps for most of us freelancing full time just isn't a realistic goal to pursue. Whether that's because the market just can't support it for more than a handful of people, or because it's not a long term career prospect for most people. And in saying that I'm very keen not to denigrate those who do this full time. Did it myself for 10 years and whilst far from easy, on balance it was satisfying and worthwhile. But for me it wasn't a permanent calling. At least not full time. With age and responsibility I realised it wasn't something I could pursue indefinitely.  And I'm ok with that. And hey, who knows. Perhaps I'm just on a break?

As the very first comment on this post shows one of the real problems facing freelancers wanting to earn that living wage is the huge supply of artists willing to take less in order to earn something, anything as a freelancer.  It's a completely double edged sword - a job so desirable that people will do it for peanuts just to do it. 

This is a (if not THE) big issue for ArtPact I think. Just as the various magazines, online tutorials and all the other marvellous online resources now available have increased the number of would-be freelancers, and thereby kept down rates, so providing loads of help on the business side will also swell the ranks of aspiring freelancers.  Excessive supply I would argue does more to push down prices than abuse. 

So something of real value I think ArtPact can offer is some guides to those other possibilities. And a realistic view on the longterm viability of freelancing for most artists.  IMHO these need to be really pragmatic, practical guides from people who have longterm experience of those things. Not aspirational thoughts (guesses?) from people who think there must be an easier way. 

I guess from a brutally commercial perspective I see a danger in convincing ourselves that our work has intrinsic commercial value simply by existing, regardless of market concerns, and that if we can just find the right venue we'll make so much more than $100 per day (or whatever). 

Make no mistake: Know that value does in part come from sheer hard work and a huge amount of smart work - be it building up relationships with publishers and upping the quality to be one of the few who can successfully freelance into later life, or if it's the endless punishing toil of setting up a publishing business to market your own work.  Or heading off into the completely different field of tutoring.  Or a mix of a little bit of everything.  Hard work in itself.

And critically recognise that value also derives from the market rather than from the work itself.  This is key to understand in order to make those sustainable choices that will provide a viable income. 

In closing this sermon of biblical proportions I want to acknowledge that I am aware that some of what I say will vex people. Maybe spark some discussion. Good. 

I could write any number of self pitying listicles "another 15 ways to really annoy artists!!" and get a whole bunch of likes.  But I tire of those things almost as much as I tire of requests to work for free.  Everyone in every walk of life has a version of "this job would be great if it weren't for the customers". So I think it pays to tease out which complaints are valid unfair treatment that can be addressed, and which are just "it sucks to have to work". Cos yeah. It does. Now get on with it. 


  1. Great post Jon! I am now at the age where all I want to do is settle down and work full time on my illustration career - however it seems I may have gotten it all backwards...In my early twenties I was unsure of myself as an artist so I did a number of part-time jobs in retail, admin, accounting, graphic design etc. Unfortunately my art suffered and so I suffered... It's now as a 34 year old that I gave myself permission to pursue Fantasy Art (for a long time I thought it wasn't serious enough) that my art has improved in quality and quantity. I am also currently unemployed and have been looking for work (mainly in retail and admin), so when not sending out resumes I am studying, creating and promoting my art. I wish I had of had someone like you around to give me advice when I came out of uni!

  2. In my experience, much of this is far worse within small niche markets with low barriers to entry (the sf&f market, especially anything to do with RPGs, comes to mind), than for freelance illustrators, as a whole. When almost anyone can pick up a few jobs here and there, as they can in the RPG market, people are going to get unrealistic expectations, and the market's going to flood with hopeful amateurs (some of them very skilled, others not so much).

    It sounds a little harsh, but I am hoping that one effect of movements like Art Pact will be to raise the barrier to entry, both in terms of quality and in terms of demands of reliability, in these niche markets, so it's closer to being in line with the mainstream. I'd like to see art directors commissioning smaller amounts of higher-quality illustration, and paying better for each piece. I'd like to see more single-artist books and product lines, and less bags of artists churning out hundreds of similar pieces, to match somebody's "house style."

    I have no idea whether Art Pact, and movements like it, can actually achieve any of this. But I encourage anything that gets people talking, and acknowledging a desire for change. I do think, if illustrators with proven records of reliability and great work begin a trend of pricing their work out of these types of markets, some companies will just hire from the many hopefuls who're willing to work for peanuts, but those who want to work with these artists will, over time, rethink their business models.

  3. Wonderful post. As someone who has fought tooth and nail to maintain a freelancing career into his late 30s now, all I can say to all this is: what you said.

  4. Thanks for all the responses here and on FB. I'm slightly boggled anyone made it all the way through that! :)

    I dunno, it seems the more I do, the older I get, the less I know. I used to have answers, but now all I can present is a bunch of questions framed at great length.

  5. I agree, but I think that we can get more creative about what the other 'day jobs' can be. We don't just have to slot into a generic day job or a 'supporting' role (teaching, retail etc). I'm all about a push for the artist as entrepreneur... Finding markets that no-one has thought about yet... becoming inventive with your products and services. Every business has to innovate or they get eaten by competition... that's why Apple brings out a new iphone every 5 minutes because someone else copies them and they lose their advantage... but there's no limit on creativity and innovation so they just think up something new and because they understand markets and their consumers they continue to hit home runs. There's no reason artists can't do the same thing if they begin to build business skills and gain an entrepreneurial mindset. Thinking outside the box shouldn't be hard for us creative types but we so often just expect to fall into preconceived categories of what 'work' we can do. Think big I say. Create the equivalent of the next iphone in your niche... Who are your customers and how can you blow their mind so they'll keep coming back?

  6. I think you address an important point, Lara, which here I was not particularly addressing.

    I did reference it in passing here:
    "If you want to be a self-publisher, or a gallery artist, or something else? That's really cool. And could form an incredibly important part of your living. It might make you healthy, wealthy and happy. This also means you'd be a part time freelancer and a part time something else."

    My concern here is what ArtPact is seeing as it's mission. As an organisation does it focus on freelance work, which seemed to be the basis of what it was funded on, and which the title (Professional Artist Client Toolkit) seems to infer.

    Or does it need to take a wider view and should ArtPact be addressing those wider income streams - but thereby run the risk of inferring that freelancing is not actually a viable trade in and of itself.

    It's going to be a challenge to credibly do both. To say in one breath "freelancing is a professional pursuit worthy of respect and better pay and conditions, but hey, I make more money more easily selling my work using a completely different model".

    I know several really successful people making fantasy art and selling it in wholly different ways than freelancing for companies.

    But is that what ArtPact is about?

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