-by Arnie Fenner

‘Scrooge McDuck’, by Carl Barks

I bring up the topic of “income” every so often. While we can talk about philosophy or technique or aesthetics or the purity of expression, the bottom line is that artists have to eat. Unless you’re an heir of Bill Gates or have a significant other who is very supportive (and has a well-paying job), you have to make your art work for you if you want to pursue a career in art.

And let’s be frank: these days it isn’t easy. Competition is incredibly stiff and increases everyday. The internet, with its access to “free” content (whether legitimately offered or surreptitiously loaded), has contributed to a basic devaluation of the creative process while ironically increasing demand: people want more, they just don’t want to have to pay for it. Changes in the marketplace—in publishing, in advertising, in manufacturing, in retail—has altered the economic landscape for artists, whether they’re on staff or freelance. Assumptions and expectations based on how things “used to work” or “should be” can be pitfalls because the market changes quickly, popular styles are hot one minute and stone cold the next. Well-paying commissions come and go; the Flavor of the Month can go out of fashion in a heartbeat.

Clients tend to want more for less these days, some because they can get it, but others because of those marketplace changes I mentioned. Work For Hire is a common aspect of the entertainment and comics industries: that model is not going to change. Artists can legitimately complain about stagnate rates, but should also understand that with the growing shift to digital media and entertainment…stuff in general doesn’t sell as much as it once did. And if stuff isn’t selling like it used to  it’s often pretty difficult for a client to justify rate increases. When I hire illustrators I routinely pay them the maximum amount the project budget allows (which doesn’t necessarily make my boss happy): the amount hasn’t changed in a decade though it probably should have.

It probably should have gone down, considering softening sales of various titles and the overall increase in operating expenses and in overall manufacturing and distribution costs. Many clients are in the same economic boat…which means that as much as we, as art directors, might like to pay more for commissioned work, in most circumstances the budget won’t allow it. If a publisher approaches you to do a cover for the new Stephen King novel, you’ve got some negotiating room; if the commission is the cover for Joe Dokes’ first book…the fee offered is most likely all that’s allowed.

No one is irreplaceable: just as there are many qualified people who would be delighted to have my job, there are many qualified artists that will gladly take the jobs others turn down. I receive multiple samples from illustrators and reps every day looking for work and I can only use about 2% of them. Not because the art isn’t good but only because there’s only so much work I can assign.

And when it comes to the gallery/fine art market…it’s the same. The economy always has an impact on the arts as it does with any other “luxury” item. Sales wax and wane, galleries open and close, and even though there are regularly news stories about sales records being set for one artwork or another, they tend to be the exceptions when times are tight, not the rule.

It’s important to try to understand the marketplace (as best anyone can) and be adaptable to change when it comes. Which means always exploring new opportunities, to network with your fellow artists and clients whenever possible, to promote your work aggressively and regularly.

You may primarily want to create book covers or draw comics or work in advertising or design for films or produce gallery art…why not be open to doing it all? People delight in compartmentalizing artists, but that doesn’t mean you have to let them. Do not expect opportunities to fall into your lap: actively seek out new clients and new challenges. Work with a wide variety of businesses and try your hand with a host of subjects.

When it comes to the advertising arena, freelancers should consider signing on with an artist rep. Sure, they take their percentage (just as galleries do), but the benefit is that they have contacts with the most lucrative clients and can make the connections that translate into long-term and substantial earnings.

Likewise you can utilize an artist rep for gallery contacts. Click here for an interesting pros and cons article.

Above: Frank Frazetta’s “Sea Witch” started out as a cover for Eerie magazine and continued to earn Frank an income through the years as a poster sold via his wife Ellie’s business and as a licensed piece of stock art for book and album covers and as the basis of a collectible figurine. The funny thing about this is that Frank never really owned the copyright: James Warren always did. But Warren had such respect for Frazetta that he turned a blind eye to Frank’s licensing the art. Another publisher might not have been quite so magnanimous.

If you retain the copyright to your art, create a digital archive and let visitors to your website know that you can license your work for secondary use applications as well as for stock art purchase. The argument can be (and often has been) made that stock art undermines original commissions, but it’s here to stay. And again a sales rep can be an asset, not only in seeking out clients but in negotiating contracts and collecting fees and royalties.

But you can also create your own revenue stream by nurturing a fan base and offering original art, prints, and merchandise for sale. Have a store on your website with a secure gateway to take orders; establish an estsy or some other web store separate from your own site so that more people can find you.

Exhibit at conventions or art shows to help establish or maintain yourbrand,” grow your audience’s awareness, and, yes, make money. I’ll refer you back to my earlier post about working a show, but will also point out that shows are an investment or time and the pay-off isn’t always immediate. And while no one can do them all (the art has to get done some time, right?), you should plan on doing more than one a year, again as a step toward increasing your audience. Anyone who insists that making a wad of cash at any particular show is a “sure thing” is either misinformed, naive, or a dirty fibber, I don’t care which event they name. Regardless of the size or location, there are always good years and lean ones; there will always be those that make a lot and those that don’t and there’s no way to predict who will be who. But giving up after one or two or five disappointing shows is a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot: everything takes time. There certainly are benefits to setting up at shows, personally, professionally, and ultimately financially, especially if you think of it as an, again, long-term investment.

That’s the key: working in multiple ways to sustain an art career by recognizing the challenges and devising ways to turn them to your advantage. And above all, to not put all of your eggs in one basket.