Sunday Mailbag

September 16th, 2007 | Posted in Freelancing

Q: I’m curious how much money can a cartoonist or a digital artist could make? Could they make as much as 6 figures, or not that much?

A: The short answer is there is no definitive answer. There is a limit to your income because there is a limit to the time you can spend working. The freelancer is only one person, and therefore can only produce so much work. The ways to make more money are:

  1. Get as much work as humanly possible to do
  2. Get more money for the volume of work you can produce
  3. Hire assistants to do some of the work for you, so you can produce higher volume

I know a few freelance illustrators who make in the six figures, but they are rare and work their behinds off to do it. Deals with royalties on books or merchandise sales are the only ways to make serious money off your personal work, and that is more about merchandising your work. Just doing per piece illustration, even for advertising which pays better, is a hard way to earn big money. Unless you are a big name illustrator who gets top dollar for your work (and even then you have to be busy 24/7) it’s a tough way to make a highly lucrative living. There are only so many Time magazines out there that pay a lot for an illustration.

In cartooning, the big money comes from syndication, which falls under the category “Get more money for the work you do.” If a syndicated cartoonist is in 500 or more newspapers (depending on the circulation of the papers, but lets say the major ones) they are certainly earning well into the six figures. They do a cartoon a day, but sell it to 500 different people. Only a select few syndicated cartoonists make that kind of money, but the bigger names make serious dough. At it’s peak, Peanuts ran in 2,600 newspapers around the world, plus merchandising, books, TV, ads… Charles Schulz was arguably the most successful cartoonist in history.

Of course there are lots of different ways to make money as an illustrator or artist. If you are creative and have some entrepreneurial skill you can figure out how to make very good money. Take airbrush artist Dru Blair, for example. I was told this story in the early 90’s after meeting Dru at an airbrush show in Atlanta. I’m paraphrasing from memory, and this has become somewhat of an urban legend since, but here’s how I remember it: Dru is an excellent airbrush painter, and he had done this incredible painting of a fighter jet skimming the surface of a mountain lake (it was entitled “Power”, I think). Anyway he approached Air Force Magazine with the artwork and they wanted to use it as the cover of their magazine. They asked how much it would cost them, and Dru made a deal instead for ad space inside the publication advertising the sale of prints of the painting. That painting became the biggest selling aviation print in the world, and he followed with many other best selling prints that must have netted him millions of dollars. That’s combining art and merchandising.

So, doing illustrations for magazines and advertising need not be your only source of income, but for most of us that’s the bread and butter. In some respects the sky’s the limit on income, but within the traditional model a six figure income would be a tremendous accomplishment.

Thanks to Jordan Troyer for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Philbert says:

    Gosh, if six-figures is the goal then I’m doin’ great! But you didn’t mention the decimal points.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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