I have noticed many comments (on Muddy Colors as well as other sites) over the years, pointing out that the lack of basic business education was a serious problem for illustrators starting out. Sixteen years ago I started a class at CCA – Professional Practice for Illustrators – to address this problem at our own school. Over the years it has become a key part of our program and Adam McCauley and I have worked together to update and expand its scope and reach. Today, many schools have similar classes.


This month I wanted to revisit and update an earlier article I wrote here about ten foundational principles which I think every illustrator would be wise to consider. These are based on a presentation originally developed for our class.

1: Avoid Unnecessary Legal Complications

Generally speaking, lawyers make way more money than you do, so if at all possible, it is best to settle disputes without their help. Better still, prevent or avoid disputes in the first place. Legal advice may be needed from time to time, for example to review a contract.

Having a complex contract vetted by a lawyer before you sign it may prevent expensive litigation at a later date. Do not confuse seeking legal advice with avoidance of legal complications.


2: Avoid Debt

In our field it is best to maximize all the variables in our favor.  Debt is not a good thing- and do not be taken in by those who suggest that debt is required to aquire credit. Credit card debt is the worst and should be the first to be discharged. You should avoid carrying credit card balances forward and pay the balance off every month. If you can’t do this, you may be living beyond your means.

3. Keep overhead low

My long- ago representative, Barbara Gordon, once told me that keeping overhead low was the most important factor in long term financial stability in illustration. Ive never forgotten that advice. Reducing overhead makes all kinds of sense, optimize your spending priorities to help you do your work. Consider the opportunity cost of all your expenses and whether individual choices might put additional financial pressure on your work.

4. Play the Long Game 

The Count of Monte Cristo,(master of the Long Game)  Illustration by Mead Schaeffer

5: Pay unto Caesar

You have to pay taxes, acceptance of this reality allows you to plan objectively. Deal with it-Wishfull thinking in terms of tax law and the consequences thereof are, for illustrators, a potential time bomb.

6: Do not get behind on bookkeeping


It seems self-evident, but it is well documented that failure to keep up to date records is the number one reason that small businesses fail. Few businesses are smaller than an individual working alone, which may make you disproportionately vulnerable to the consequences of procrastination. Also: you cannot make informed decisions about your business if you don’t have objective facts at hand.

7: Sales Taxes can be applied applied only once (if at all) , to the end user.

The Death of Socrates, by Jaques Louis David.

The government prefers to collect taxes on materials once you have made them more valuable. This may significantly effect the price of your art supplies, since there may not be sales tax applied to them (your state may vary) if the tangible expression of the art (including the art supplies used)  is to be sold (and perhaps taxed) to an end user.

8. Contract Law is the Foundation of American Business.

Never sign a contract you do not understand. Most post -graduation problems have to do with the lack of (or the lack of understanding of) a contract.

9: Understand the power of compound interest.

Sometimes attributed to Albert Einstien is the observation that  compound interest is the second most powerful force in the universe (after gravity).

10: The Golden Rule


Illustration by Norman Rockwell (obviously)

In addition to the Golden Mean, The Golden Rectangle, The Golden Ratio etc.,it might be a good idea for the art school to spend some time on the “Golden Rule”.In the long run, everything comes around. Be nice, kind and supportive to others around you. Be generous to those who are doing worse than you. Do your best work, not only because it helps you but because it helps your clients, colleagues and helps your fellow artists. Understand that you have a symbiotic relationship with your clients, colleagues,and the world as a whole. It will all come back to you.