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Illustrators provide their artistic talents to a range of clients, including advertising agencies, publishers, stock image services, web content providers, and other businesses.
As a freelance illustrator, you can take your skills in a number of directions. You might work for advertising agencies, stock image houses, magazine or book publishers, record labels, greeting card companies, digital properties, merchandisers, or other businesses. Some illustrators serve such narrow specialty niches as courtroom sketch artists, or niches in fashion, medicine, or technology. Or you might primarily work in fine art to be sold to customers directly or through galleries or agents.
Who is this business right for?
You must have artistic talents and an entrepreneurial drive. This means that your skill set must encompass both the ability to continually find work, to complete it to your clients’ satisfaction, and to continually find new clients.
What happens during a typical day at a illustration business?
Your typical workday will include a range of activities that include practicing your art and maintaining good client relationships. Here’s how a typical day might look.
- Sending out marketing materials and placing calls to obtain new business
- Phone, email or in-person meetings with clients to get assignments and go over project details, budgets and deadlines, or revision needs
- Working on your billable assignments
- Networking with others in your field and maintaining your professional social media presence
- Investigating new software and technologies and buying supplies to stay current and ready for your next assignments
- Invoicing clients and keeping your business afloat
What is the target market?
Anyone who has a need for and an interest in your art. This might be commercial clients from your chosen areas of expertise or consumers who admire your artistic talents.
How does a illustration business make money?
You’ll charge a fee for your business that’s often based on your estimation of hours to complete the job. Some clients will let you quote an hourly rate, but most will want to hear a flat fee.
What is the growth potential for a illustration business?
That depends on the direction you take your business. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics gives Graphic Designers -- a related field -- an outlook of one percent growth rate between 2014-2024. But opportunities are expanding in various digital multimedia fields, including storyboards for animation and other Silicon Valley assignments. Another example of a rising field is book jacket covers for independently published ebooks (though rates aren’t high).
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful illustration business?
Stay adaptable -- and keep learning. The technology, the tools and the opportunities are constantly changing. The career you undertake today will look nothing like what you’ll be doing in 20 years. That’s the good news! Stay curious and you’ll be able to choose from multiple paths to career success.
What are the costs involved in opening a illustration business?
The good news is that you’ll probably not need a studio or employees at first. Your overhead will be rather low. However, since a great deal of illustration work today is done digitally, you’ll need to invest in technology. Here’s how your main startup costs might break down.
- Hardware -- $2,000 or higher. This includes a computer, a printer, a scanner, and a digital camera. You might already have some of this equipment, and some might be unnecessary to how you do business, but the investment will most like fall in this price range.
- Software -- $1,000 or less. Again, your needs will depend on the work you take on, but some of the general must-haves of illustration can be found in the Adobe Creative Cloud bundle for around $600 a year.
- Art supplies -- $500 or less. These are the non-digital tools of your trade, and can include brushes, markers, paint, canvas, or whatever other materials you use.
- Marketing -- A few hundred dollars and up. This covers your website and portfolio, as well as promotional mailings and social media.
What are the steps to start a illustration business?
Once you're ready to start your illustration business, follow these steps to ensure that your business is legally compliant and avoid wasting time and money as your business grows:
- Plan your business. A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. A few important topics to consider are your initial costs, your target market, and how long it will take you to break even.
- Form a legal entity. Establishing a legal business entity prevents you from being personally liable if your illustration business is sued.
- Register for taxes. You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
- Open a business bank account. A dedicated checking account for your illustration business keeps your finances organized and makes your business appear more professional to your customers.
- Set up business accounting. Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
- Obtain necessary permits and licenses. Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
- Get business insurance. Insurance is highly recommended for all business owners. If you hire employees, workers compensation insurance may be a legal requirement in your state.
- Define your brand. Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
- Establish a web presence. A business website allows customers to learn more about your company and the products or services you offer. You can also use social media to attract new clients or customers.
Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.
Where can I find a business mentor?
One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.
Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.
Recommended: Fizzle.co offers video courses and a supportive online community of like-minded entrepreneurs. Try one month membership for for free.
What are some insider tips for jump starting a illustration business?
Get significant work experience before you go off on your own. This will not only show you how to find clients and complete jobs successfully, but it will help you build your portfolio for when you’re ready to go solo.
Also, consider networking if there are other independent illustrators in your area. You might join or form a cooperative to share such costs as studio space, website and promotion. Here’s an example of one such cooperative.
How to promote & market a illustration business
All you have to sell, initially, is your work. So make sure that all of your prospects can see your talent in terms of your website design and portfolio, as well as in your promotional pieces. One inexpensive form of promotion is a simple postcard showcasing one or more of your illustrations and directing recipients to your digital portfolio. If you have additional funds for self-promotion (or are willing to spend more for a few good prospects), consider investing in coasters, matchbooks, refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, or other atypical canvases for your work.
Recommended: Get started with local advertising for your business with a $300 credit from Yelp.
How to keep customers coming back
Once you’ve drawn a client base with your work, you’ll keep them -- and make them valuable referral sources -- with your commitment to their satisfaction. Make sure you take direction well, gracefully accept revision requests and turn in your assignments on time and on budget.
How and when to build a team
Chances are, you won’t have a team -- or the unnecessary cost of employees. But you might collaborate with other artists, photographers, or others serving your client base in order to expand your services and raise your rates.
State & Local Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate an illustration business. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, check out our informative guide, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.
For more information about local licenses and permits:
- Check with your town, city or county clerk’s office
- Get assistance from one of the local associations listed in US Small Business Associations directory of local business resources.
Illustration businesses should require clients to sign a services agreement before starting a new project. This agreement should clarify client expectations and minimize risk of legal disputes by setting out payment terms and conditions, service level expectations, and intellectual property ownership. Here is an example service agreement.
Recommended: Rocket Lawyer makes it easy to create a professional service agreement for your illustration business when you sign up for their premium membership. For $39.95 per month, members receive access to hundreds of legal agreements and on call attorneys to get complimentary legal advice.
How much can you charge customers?
There are so many different types of jobs for illustrators -- ranging from animation storyboards and book covers to wine labels and print ads -- that it would be difficult to flatly state what you should charge. But here are a couple of factors to keep in mind:
- Commercial illustrators tend to charge between $25 - $100 an hour, based on talent, experience, client roster and what the market will bear.
- Large corporate clients can afford to pay more than startup merchandisers working from their spare room. What this means is that your job estimate will often depend on what you think your client can afford and is willing to pay for the job. But whatever that amount is, take an honest appraisal of the fee in terms of the time the project will consume, and see if the hourly rate makes it worthwhile. (Sometimes the potential for additional business from that client, entry into a new field of specialty or cash flow needs offset misgivings about a disappointing rate.)
Consider joining The Graphic Artists Guild. The annual cost of membership is between $75 and $200 depending on your circumstances, but it includes a free copy of The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. In addition to the valuable pricing guidance for a range of projects you’ll find in the handbook, the organization offers additional business guidance and advice.
What are the ongoing expenses for a illustration business?
Once you’ve stocked up on your hardware, software, and supplies, your ongoing expenses will be few. You might spend a few hundred dollars on self-promotion or on transportation costs to get to appointments if you’re meeting clients in person.
Other than that, your only costs are likely to be whatever you’ll need to live on until your revenue grows to the point where you can support yourself. This is a good argument for starting your business slowly, maintaining a full-time job and moonlighting to serve a few clients until your business grows to the point where you can operate without an outside paycheck.
How much profit can a illustration business make?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has a category called Fine Artists, including Painters, Sculptors and Illustrators, and lists a mean annual wage of $57,410 for that category. BLS also lists Graphic Designers, a related field, at an annual mean wage of almost $48,000. Of course, your earnings will only be limited by the reputation you attain, the clients you attract and the work you put out.
How can you make your business more profitable?
Consider specializing in leading-edge fields. For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists annual salaries at a median rate of $65,300 and rising to as high as about $116,000 for work in such fields as computer games, movies, music videos, and commercials. Do research to find the specialties and subspecialties where the pay is most attractive and find a way to secure those assignments.