Making Money as an Artist
How do you make a living as an artist? It’s a question you might ask yourself or hear from others fairly frequently. You make art because you love it, but, if you need your work to support you, you also have to master the art of making money as an artist. Our article “How to Stay on Track and Get Paid” offers the nuts and bolts for making money as an artist, but it help to see how real artists have put these ideas into practice. I was looking back at our interview archives and was particularly inspired by a 2008 interview with illustrator and art director Erik Rose. You can read the complete article below to find out how Rose combines freelance illustration work with teaching and being an art director, which allows him to do the work he loves without worrying about his next paycheck. Read more about other working artists in the 2014 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market.
Keep creating and good luck!
Erik Rose: Art direction from both sides of the fence by Erika O’Connell
If you’re familiar with the humor/arts/entertainment magazine Tastes Like Chicken (www.tlchicken.com), you already know the work of Erik Rose. His alter-ego, Night Watchman, is an art director, editor and writer for the now internationally-distributed quarterly that began as a free, student-run newspaper at the Columbus College of Art & Design in Columbus, Ohio. Rose graduated from CCAD with a BFA in Illustration nearly five years ago, and he’s been working as a successful freelance illustrator/designer ever since. His client list includes Cartoon Militia, Chron X, Image Comics, The Limited, Dime Magazine, Futures Mystery Anthology and Troma Films.
Although he studied art in high school, Rose’s small hometown of Bryan, Ohio didn’t offer much in the way of creative inspiration (other than being home to the Ohio Art Company, manufacturer of the popular Etch A Sketch). Fortunately, he was raised in an artistic family that nurtured and supported him with inspiration. “I really don’t remember a time that I wasn’t drawing,” says Rose. “My grandfather painted and sculpted, my aunt is an amazingly talented artist, my mom drew and painted, and even my dad used to color in the comic strips; so the inspiration was always there.” Rose spent much of his youth drawing Spider-Man, Superman and Kiss, which led to making comic books with his friends. “After that it was a yearbook covers and designing posters for plays and dances in high school.”
Currently residing in Chicago, Rose is a film buff and an avid music fan. He played guitar and sang in a band for about seven or eight years between graduating from high school and attending CCAD. He now looks to hobbies such as these for artistic stimulation. “I’m probably one of the easiest people to inspire,” he says. “It’s everywhere for me—movies, music, books and architecture. The environment you live in can be a huge inspiration. A city like Chicago has all kinds of amazing sights every day.”
It’s obvious from looking at Rose’s work that he’s also a fan of comic books and graphic novels. “There are so many amazing artists in that field alone,” he says. “There are guys like Tony Harris, Lee Bermejo and Duncan Fegredo who are just the most amazing draftsmen ever—these guys can draw anything from any angle, and it always has such power.”
Originally hooked on comics by artists like Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean, Rose still finds them the most inspiring. But he also admires the new crop of artists who have “reinvented” comics (Greg Ruth, Teddy Kristiansen, Scott Morse and Danijel Zezelj), as well as classic illustrators like Bob Peak, Bernie Fuchs, Martin French, Robert McGinnis and Ralph Steadman. “Throw in some great fine artists like Kathie Kollwitz, Egon Schiele, Jenny Saville, Joel Peter-Witkin and J.W. Waterhouse, and you can just imagine how big my library is.”
In addition to his ongoing role at TLC, Rose has written and illustrated a graphic novel called Downstairs, due for release in mid-2008. “It’s a dark, voyeuristic thriller,” he says. “It’s the first of several graphic novel ideas I have in the works.” He’s also been working on a pitch for a comic called . . . the know with a writer in New York. “If that gets picked up, it’s going to be a long project—at least 12 issues.” Rose says he hopes to be able to do more magazine portrait/editorial illustration work in the next couple years. “I’ve been working on a bunch of my own stuff and miss the pace and challenge of doing regular magazine work.”
Here Rose talks about his journey as an artist and offers guidance for those who wish to follow a similar path.
Were you blessed with natural talent, or did you have to work hard to learn the basics?
I think I had a little artistic talent passed down through the genes, but the rest of it was just practice and more practice. It never really felt like work until I reached a certain point; I think it’s that point where most people give up. I wanted my drawings to look like this artist or that illustrator and was frustrated that the marks I was making didn’t match up. Little did I know that those marks I was making were my very own “style.” It took a long time to get comfortable with my own marks once I reached that stage where you start comparing yourself to everyone else. A few years of not doing anything with art went by until finally I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I reached a point where I felt like I wanted to go to college to fill in the blanks in my self-taught education, and it did wonders—not just in my ability to draw, but in being able to see and analyze what I was looking at.
Do you think your art/design skills would be as refined at this point if you had never gone to art school and simply practiced on your own?
I don’t think so. One of the biggest things that art school taught me was time management. I had tried to do many projects for myself before going through college but never finished them. I didn’t have a real deadline, or I was always waiting for the muse to hit me. Then the pace alone of a school like CCAD made me have to work harder than I ever had before. I got the projects done. I learned how to estimate how long projects would take me, and how to come up with design ideas on the spot instead of waiting for inspiration to strike. That made all the difference in the world for me.
I think if you are a very motivated person you could go through a foundations program at a college (color theory, 2D design, drawing, anatomy, painting, perspective), and the rest is just practicing those skills. If you could push yourself, by yourself, you could do pretty well. But you would be missing out on some of those wonderful interactions: critiques with fellow artists and instructors. The people you meet at school are so incredibly important to your development. I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without the people I met while going for my degree.
How did you land your first paying job as a freelance artist?
It was through a friend at school. He had been doing some work for a small magazine, and they were looking for some new artists. It was about female skateboarders, and I think I made 20 dollars plus a copy of the magazine. But as soon as I saw my stuff in print, there was no turning back. To this day my work doesn’t seem real (especially work done on the computer) until it’s been printed. Around the same time, I won a poster design contest in one of my classes and made a few hundred bucks, so that really made me want to do much more freelance while still in school.
In what ways has the “art world” changed and evolved over the years since you’ve been working as a freelance artist?
I think there has steadily been more and more work available for illustrators again in the past four to five years. It’s definitely changed from a lot of the things they were telling us in college. A lot of old-school illustrators were saying the field was dead, that there was no more work. (Just what you want to hear when you’ve gone tens of thousands of dollars in debt.) But it wasn’t dead; it was just changing. Sure there wasn’t as much print or magazine work anymore, but now there was the Web. There was the combination of a lot of different disciplines—graphic design, illustration, Web design, and photo manipulation. It became much more about finding your own niche.
As far as how the process for creating art has changed, the Web and instant e-mail contact have made a huge difference in the way people do business. No more faxing sketches; no more mailing out original artwork—it’s all e-mailed or uploaded. Of course, with that you find that sometimes deadlines are much, much tighter, but you learn to adapt. As a designer or illustrator your primary talent is not making type look good or drawing a really cool character; it’s about problem solving. Anticipate the changes and find a way to make them work for you, and you’ll always have work.
Are you able to make a respectable living from your freelance work, or do you have to supplement with a “real” job?
I could make a living doing nothing but illustration if I took on any job that came my way. But I’ve found that to make a steady living on illustration alone I’d have to do a lot of work that is just not me. Can I draw the 10 biggest U.S. Bank buildings in the United States? Sure. Does it represent the kind of work I want to be known for? No. I have a lot of interests—a lot of areas where I can work on interesting stuff, but it doesn’t always pay the most. I take my work seriously. I really enjoy doing it, but if I am not engaged by a project I know I’m not giving it my all. So I teach [at Harrington College of Design], and I really love it. I love the interaction and seeing that process of discovery. I vividly remember what it was like to be a college student, maybe because I went a little later in life, and I think a lot of instructors forget that. They forget what it was like to be sitting there learning this stuff for the first time.
With teaching, my bills are paid. I don’t have to miss paying rent because some company doesn’t cut checks until three months after you’ve done a job for them. I can accept only the jobs that are the kind of work I want to do, which keeps my passion for illustration up and the quality of my work up to a certain level. I know that you have to toil in the trenches to get your stuff out there, and I just want to make sure that anything people see with my name in the credit is something I’m proud of.
What’s your favorite medium/style to work in?
I really like pen and ink; just the physical act of creating with it is an amazing Zen-like experience. I’ve experimented with using nothing but the computer, but I feel a little too separated from the final project, so most of my work is pen and ink in the physical world and color and painting done on the computer. Most of my work is very similar in style. What you would call that style is another matter. Neo-realist comicism? I don’t know—it’s just “my stuff.”
Is it easy to jump from one medium to another (e.g., learning to paint if you’re a skilled sketch artist)?
I think success in one area makes it easier to transition into another. I actually learned a lot about how to physically paint by painting on the computer. A few years ago I started experimenting with drawing straight into the computer using a Wacom tablet. At first I didn’t tell anyone and asked if there was anything different about the result, and most people couldn’t tell the difference. I’m always learning new things in one medium and applying them in different ways to another medium. It’s nice to understand those different ways of thinking so you can pull them up if you need them for a certain effect or a new approach.
Other than using Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market (of course), how can artists find the right markets/clients for their particular talent/style?
It really depends on what you’re interested in doing. I love doing magazine work, so I’ll just go to the newsstand of some big bookstore and flip through different magazines to see what kind of work they’re buying. Even if you’re using AGDM, you should go seek out physical examples of the magazines to make sure you could see your work in there. I always do the Could I do better illustrations than this? test while flipping through. If so, I’ll get the art director’s info and send them some samples.
If you’re in school or planning to go to school, take advantage of those job postings and internships. You should be getting freelance work while you’re in school if you can; you will learn so much from that it will help augment your coursework. Go to gallery openings, alumni functions, and pass out business cards—anything you can do to get your name and artwork out there in front of people. You never know who is looking or who knows someone that could get you work doing exactly what you’ve always wanted to be doing.
From your experience, what are the best ways for an artist to promote his/her work to an appropriate market?
Today you simply have to have a Web site. The days of people reviewing your portfolios one-on-one are pretty much gone. Go out and meet people; make contacts at gallery openings, online—there are lots of great online artist communities. Find out what’s going on in your own neighborhood. Don’t be afraid to do a few “freebies” to get your work out there, and don’t forget the old standbys: send out postcards; go to conventions; set up at an art fair. Any place is a good place to start. I’ve done live painting in clubs, selling all the stuff I do that night to the crowds; you pass out some business cards and suddenly you have some freelance gigs or commissions.
How much of an impact has your Web site had on your success?
It’s been an amazing tool to get the word out about my work. It is also very rewarding because I get to hear from so many people that like what I’m doing. A lot of times as an illustrator you only get feedback from a handful of people—the peers that you trust to tell you whether your work sucks or not, and maybe from the art director that you do the work for, if they’re not too busy—that’s usually about it. The Web is a great marketing tool. I’ve gotten so many jobs from having an easily accessible portfolio, and I’m constantly getting commission work from private collectors.
How do you stay motivated/find time to keep up with the demand of all your assignments, commissions, etc.?
In college I was working full-time and going to school full-time, so I got very used to the concept of using my time wisely. I don’t think of the week as five days of working and two days off—every day is a workday. To me, illustration is a lifestyle, not a nine-to-five job. As far as staying motivated, I just try to choose those kinds of projects that challenge me and allow me to investigate the things I’m most interested in. I work really quickly and am very aware of how long it takes me to do a project, so I am also honest with myself as far as how much I can take on at one time. I’m never going to overextend myself to the point where I might miss a deadline—that’s just not an option. Having the right music to listen to is also a great motivator.
As an art director, what do you expect (in terms of professionalism, quality, etc.) from other freelance artists?
Deadlines are number one. If you can’t get something to me on time, get out of this business. There are a hundred other people that are waiting for their opportunity who will get it in on time. I’ve had to tell really good friends that I wouldn’t hire them again because they couldn’t get something in on time.
Stay in contact, but don’t be annoying—it’s a real fine line, but figure out where that line is. If I don’t hear from someone for a really long time, I forget to offer them jobs; it’s as simple as that. Send some new images of things you’ve been working on every couple months.
Don’t send me an amazing thumbnail and then turn in a final that is a totally different idea. Even if you hit it out of the park with the new version, I’ll start to wonder if you’re able to deliver what I need when I say yes to a sketch.
Oh, and did I mention deadlines?
What can artists do to stay motivated and ensure that their work remains fresh and interesting (especially if faced with rejection)?
The truth is, either you need to do this because you need to do this, or maybe you should go find something a little easier to do for a living. Because there is always someone else out there who does need to do this, and it shows in the work they do. Always be looking at both new and old art. Find things that inspire you. Do some work for yourself and send that out there to try to scare up some contacts. It’s much, much easier to do work you want to do than having to mimic a bunch of other artists’ styles to try to make a living.
Be willing to listen to anyone who is willing to critique your work. You don’t have to take their advice, but sometimes we become so wrapped up in what’s in front of us that we need a new set of eyes to see through. Above all, keep moving forward—art, illustration and design are all things that take lifetimes to master, so keep pushing yourself and never allow your work to drop below a certain level. If you stay true to yourself and your ideals, the rejections won’t hurt as much.
Do you have any other advice for aspiring freelance artists?
If you have a passion for this, it doesn’t matter how many rejections you get; just be honest with your own set of skills. It’s never too late to go back and learn something you missed out on. (I didn’t end up in college until eight years after I graduated from high school.) And of course, do the work you want to do—not the kind of work you think would sell. The rest of it is just working hard.