I love working as an independent illustrator.
It’s pretty much like being an entrepreneur, except your start up company is your illustration work, and you are the only employee.
You set your own schedule.
You decide where you want to live.
You decide how much vacation time you get to take.
You decide what projects you want to work on and what you get to say no to.
You decide what people you want to work with.
You have to pay entirely for your own health insurance.
You bill people, and then are in charge of following up with them.
You do all your own promotion.
The more creative, and smart you are in these areas the more successful as an illustrator you will be.
Many illustrators work with reps or agents. These people take 15%-30% of every deal they negotiate for you. But if they are good at their job, you'll make enough money for it to be worth it.
The most successful illustrators I know needed 5-10 years to get their careers going strong enough to start making a comfortable living.
In that time they either relied on their spouses income, they worked a day job while growing their illustration career on nights and weekends (me), or they just lived a bohemian lifestyle with zero dependents.
They needed that time to build their network, master their craft, grow their audience, and wait for everything to click.
Many independent illustrators, myself included, rely on multiple revenue streams to make their living.
So far this year I've gotten an advance payment for a children's book, a couple royalty checks for books I've done in the past, sales from my online shop, sales from online classes I've sold, sales from live workshops I'm doing, money from a convention I attended, money from youtube videos, money from amazon affiliate links, and money from a speaking engagement.
There were a few months there where very little money was coming in, and then in May I made $40K. So you need to be good at managing your money. Don't expect a steady paycheck.
I guess whether or not being an independent illustrator is a good fit for you depends on your personality. If you need financial stability, are risk averse, and not very entrepreneurial minded then I would pursue a career in animation, video games, or entertainment. You'll get a steady paycheck, good health benefits. You just show up, do your work, go to a few meetings, and then you don't have to think about it at all until you arrive to work the next day.
However, if you are constantly coming up with ideas for making money with your art, are willing to bet on yourself, don't like people above you calling the shots for you, and are willing to fall on your face frequently, then there are ways to make an illustration career work for you.
Sometimes I feel like I’m way in over my head and the work load is too much. But each challenge has refined me and made me stronger and better equipped to handle the next project I take on. This wasn't always the job I wanted, nor could do, but I'm very happy where I am right now.
This post was taken from a response I wrote to an email I received from a student at BYU named Conor Searing. Conor had a bunch of questions about choosing illustration for a career as apposed to entering the animation industry. I answered him privately and with his permission I posted our correspondence here to hopefully help others in the same situation as him. Here’s what he asked:
I was wondering if I could ask you what you do as an illustrator? Has money been a huge stress for you? Do you feel you have enough time to commit to being a good artist as well as spend with your family? If you had any doubts about making a career of illustration how did you over come that?
Thanks for the questions Conor!