This article is part of a series on advice for freelance artists.
- How to Be Skilled Enough To Get A Job
- Choosing a Career Path as an Artist
- It’s Who You Know
- Time and Project Management
- Being Discoverable Online
- Active Marketing
- How To Make Money ←
- The Most Important Thing
Talking About Money Is Uncomfortable
Most discussions about money are uncomfortable. Sending an invoice to your client is often an uncomfortable experience. Sending an estimate or a quote for a job is uncomfortable. Am I charging too much? Will the client go with someone cheaper? Those are all thoughts that will go through your head.
Learning to talk about money is one of the important skills you will learn as a freelancer, and one you’ll want to get good at quickly. It gets easier over time. You’ll get more confident with your pricing and you won’t procrastinate sending invoices as much.
It’s one of the reasons why I feel it is important to take on small low-stakes jobs when you are learning as an artist. It’s good practice working with clients and asking for money. When your skills are at a professional level, you’ll already be experienced with money, and it won’t become yet another thing you have to learn to have a successful freelance career.
Bank With a Credit Union
Before I get into how to generate income, I want to briefly recommend where to keep it. Instead of going through a bank—such as Chase, Bank of America, or Wells Fargo—I highly recommend you bank with a credit union.
My experiences with banks has been negative: monthly fees, surprise charges, and credit accounts that were always in good standing being closed without warning. I’ve never had those problems with credit unions.
Banks are for-profit institutions. Credit unions are non-profits. Both are FDIC insured. They offer all the same services as a bank, including credit cards and loans. Credit unions are member-owned and the interest rates will be more reasonable than that of a bank.
You may be concerned about going with a credit union because they are usually local and only have a few branches. What happens if you need to use branch services or ATMs where your credit union is not located? What happens if you move?
Many credit unions are part of the CO-OP Network. The CO-OP Network allows you to use an ATM at participating credit unions. You can even walk into the branch and use a credit union’s teller services as if it was your own bank.
If you decide to start banking with a credit union, be sure they are part of the CO-OP Network for both ATMs and Shared Branches.
Commissions for Individuals
Getting art commissions from individuals (as opposed to businesses) is usually the first place artists start their freelance career. Individuals don’t have the same budget as a business, so the scope and price is going to be much lower.
Examples of this type of commission work are creating portraits of someone’s original characters. These include online personas and role-playing characters. Doing portraits of just the character’s head is very common due to the low price, and the myriad of places a customer can display that image online.
Someone may want complete illustrations of multiple characters and a background. They may need illustrations for a story they are working on. Due to the complexity, those types of images cost a lot more, and may be harder to get hired for.
Game Artwork for Solo Developers
It may be harder to get paid for this type of work because the game programmer may be a hobbyist. Usually these arrangements are profit sharing. I recommend charging a small fee that the hobbyist developer can afford, and then have a royalty sharing agreement. Making the assumption that the sales will be miniscule, and that you won’t need to count on that money to pay your bills.
Creating artwork for games does give you a lot of notoriety though, and working on long-form projects is a great experience to have. But it has a high risk of being very draining and bring you hardly any money.
If you are interested in creating artwork for video games, here’s my recommendation:
Do Not Agree to Do Artwork for a Game Until the Developer Has a Working Prototype With “Programmer Art”
“Programmer art” Is placeholder art created by someone who is not an artist, usually the programmer, thus the name. It consists of ripped sprites from other games, solid squares representing the player and enemies, stick figures, and so on. Before you agree to do artwork on someone’s game, make sure they have something playable first. Play the game in the unfinished state. Is it fun already? If it is, then go for it. If it’s not fun, then people probably won’t buy the game and you won’t make money off of royalties. However, if they are willing to pay you upfront to create art for a not-fun game, then that’s fine if it’s not playable or not.
Otherwise, don’t agree to do artwork for a game if the programmer has done very little. Every time I was brought on to create artwork for a game before any substantial programming work was done (i.e. before a functioning gameplay loop), the project failed and the programmer moved on to something else.
I have stacks of stories, scripts, concept art, and in some cases music that I made for other people’s games that didn’t go anywhere. This didn’t happen once or twice, I’m talking about multiple games. Sure, I gained experience, and that experience helped refine my craft, but that’s all I have to show for the work. I can’t do anything with those artifacts because I don’t fully own the copyright to it.
Freelance for Businesses
This is where the big money is made. It can be difficult for an illustrator to get their career to the point where they are regularly working for companies that need artwork. The path to this level in your career is the same as others. It takes marketing, knowing the right people, being in communities where those people are, and enough time. And of course, your skills have to be good enough.
The path to this is often the same as being a freelancer. Most positions for full-time jobs are not posted on job boards. It is thought to be around 80% of jobs. It is referred to as the “hidden jobs market,” and it is why networking is so important. You want to be part of the jobs market where employers already know you and want to hire you as soon as they find out you are available. You want to be referred by other employees to fill a position at a company.
How Much Should I Charge?
Charge a little bit more than you feel comfortable charging for your services. Why? Because people almost always undervalue themselves. You’ll be surprised what people are willing to pay.
When I was freelancing I tried to charge 15% more than I felt comfortable with. Does it work? Yes. The only time when it didn’t work was because their budget was half of what my estimates were. In those cases I make it clear that if they don’t have the budget, we can lower the scope of the project to fit within their means.
If you are nervous about charging too much, then charge 5-10% more than you think you are worth. Over time you can increase your rates on every project by a small amount until you find the point where your services cost too much or clients frequently complain. Then you can reduce your rate if necessary.
I generally don’t tell people what my hourly rate is. I use it as a tool to inform me if a project is worth my time. I charge based on the value of a project. There are times when I work below my hourly rate because the work is simple and doesn’t require a lot of skill or stress.
If you have a full schedule of commission work for a couple of weeks or so, raise your prices. Whenever you are busy, you raise your prices. Always.
What about pricing competitively? You may feel like you have to compete with the low rates of other artists to be competitive. You don’t. Like everything else in this world, not everything is about price. It’s about specialty, style, customer service, loyalty, and dumb luck. It’s okay to charge more than other artists who are providing the same quality of work.
This is especially true in the online commission market of various fandoms. It’s a global market. There are artists who can charge a lot less that you because money goes a lot farther in their country. Again, don’t compete on price. There will always be someone charging less than you. If you are always trying to price competitively, you’ll never be making enough money. Don’t do price matching. Your are not a mattress.
Your time is the most valuable resource you have. Time is more valuable than money because once you spend time you can never get it back. Ever.
When you work for someone else, you are exchanging your time for money. If you already have a full-time job, your spare time comes at a premium. You could be spending that time with targeted learning, or working on your own project that will bring in passive income later. But instead you are choosing to spend that time on someone else’s project. So charge a premium for your spare time.
I recommend that your hourly rate be at least twice the pay of your current job (or what it would be if you had a job). That is a bare minimum. Anything less than that and I think there are better things you could be doing with your time and your own personal growth as an artist.
If you are jobless then you may need to go lower, but I caution against that. The type of people who pay very little are often the worst to work with. My worst clients where the ones that I had to lower my rates for. My two lowest-paying clients tried to get away with not paying at all. In my experience there’s a strong correlation between how low the pay is, how difficult they are to work with, and the likelihood that you won’t be paid at all.
I said that your hourly rate—at a minimum—should be at least twice that of a full-time job. I think a freelancer should be making at least three times their hourly rate of a full-time employee. Agencies start at 4 times that of a full-time employee. I commonly see agencies charge 6 times that of their employee’s rate.
The real answer to, “How much should I charge?” is whatever the client is willing to pay. If a client is willing to pay $10,000 for a simple WordPress site, then that’s how much you charge.
Project-based pricing is a better way to price projects because you may have a system in place where you can produce work very quickly in a small amount of time. But the value to your customer could be immense. So your pricing should be based on the value the client is getting, and not a function of how long it took you to create it. It took you years of training and creating your own procedures and systems and starting points. That is what people are paying for.
Project-based pricing is also easier for your clients. The price is fixed and there won’t be fluctuations in pricing because you took longer to complete a project.
Figuring Out Your Client’s Budget
It’s really hard to guess what a client is willing to pay. It depends on where they are located, what business they have, if they are a bootstrapped startup or if they have investors. You need to do your research about the client first before giving them an estimate.
“What is your budget for this project?” is absolutely something you should ask your client. The client will probably play the game by answering your question in the form of another question. They may ask, “How much do you think it will cost?” Your answer should be something like, “It depends on how much work you want me put into it. We can do a one-size-fits-all minimum viable product to get you started, or we can do some research and design work to make sure we are building something that will better fit what your needs are.” At that point your can start a meaningful discussion about the budget.
If they say they just want a minimum viable product, then you can give them a fixed cost of what you think that type of project will be. But you’ll have to make it clear that this project is just the minimum, and that if they want extra research and design work done on it, that will require additional work orders to expand the scope of the project, and the time put into it. Those extra work orders will probably add up to their total budget anyway.
It’s a good strategy from the client’s perspective to incrementally work with you and only commit to small portions of a project at a time. It’s very similar to the methodology of agile software development, which is a topic I recommend artists and designers learn about. Software developers have gotten pretty good at dealing with projects that have a lot of uncertainty. Agile development means splitting up a project into small manageable chunks of work to get products done quickly so people can start testing it and paying for it.
How Do I Stop a Project From Going Out of Control?
Have a contract.
The contract states what the scope of the project is. That way if the client wants you do to more work, then you can say that it is outside the scope of the project according to the contract. You can do that work, but it will have to be a separate work order with it’s own scope and fee.
Your contract should also state how many design choices you will give the client. In addition to design choices, the contract should define how many revisions you will do at each state of the design process. You’ll need to clearly define what a revision is in the contract so the client understands. Be sure to explain the concepts of design choices and revisions in email because sometimes clients don’t read the contract! That way if the client wants you to make dozens of revisions on a design that is technically done, those requests for revisions will count against the number of revisions stated in the contract. An additional work order with it’s own scope and fee will allow the client to get more design work done, and ensure you get paid for the extra work.
It is very important for you to get some money up front and receive regular payments throughout the course of the project. Set deadlines in the contract on when payment is due. Usually it’s tied to a stage of completion for the project (e.g. design brief stage, research stage, sketch stages, and production stages). This lets you receive payment every week, or every other week. Find out what their payment schedule is. A lot of companies send out checks on a fixed 14-day schedule. If you send your invoice in at the wrong time, it may take you 3 weeks for you to get your check. Don’t get angry, just figure out what their payment schedule is.
In your contract it should explicitly state that you will keep all money that is paid to you, and that if the contract is terminated by either party, that those payments will be considered the termination fee. If they pay you for the work, then they own the copyright to it, even if it is unfinished. That way the client can hire someone else and continue work where you left off. It also means you can fire the client! If a client is bad or the project is a nightmare, your contract gives you a way out. You get to keep your money, and they still get to keep the work you did. Everyone wins because of the contract.
The worst case scenario is that you lost a couple week’s pay on the project, but that is far better than not being paid at all or have a client demanding their money back.
At Squirrel Logic, we are very excited about services like Patreon and the Brave Rewards system created by the Brave web browser. He highly recommend creating accounts on both platforms. (Brave is a pretty new browser, but our interest in it is immense. We’ll be doing an article on Brave soon.)
Even if you won’t use Patreon, if you are a freelance artist and you are regularly releasing artwork online for free, I recommend setting up an account. It provides a way for your superfans to give you extra money. You don’t have to maintain the Patreon account. Just set it up and provide a link to it on your website, social media accounts, and art galleries. When you want to actively start utilizing your Patreon account as part of your business model, post your process sketches and bonus material there as bonus content. If you start seeing interest in your Patreon campaign, then you can consider posting exclusive finished artwork to get more traffic to it.
Ready for the next topic? Here’s the list of articles in this series: