Sunday Mailbag

September 7th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q:  What do your contracts look like? Do you get paid for all the work you put in on a job, or only for a finished project? Once your pencil hits the paper, do you get paid for each step along the way?

A: Let’s tackle the middle question first. It’s a bit of a common misconception that an illustrator gets paid for the artwork they create. Technically that is not true. What an illustrator gets paid for, or more accurately what they sell, are the rights to use the artwork they create. A magazine illustrator sells the rights to reproduce their artwork to a publisher. In advertising, the illustrator is selling the rights to use their art for marketing or packaging or product advertising. Although they are being hired to create the artwork to the specifications of the client, and their ability to create that artwork is the reason they are given a job, what they are actually getting paid for are usage fees. Even if the illustrator is doing “work for hire” or agrees to let the client have all copyrights to their artwork, that is still what they are really being paid for.

The difference is significant in that an illustrator should be charging based on the usage and not on the time it takes to do the artwork itself. That sounds bizarre but it’s quite accurate. An illustration done for a feature article for a trade magazine or small circulation single interest magazine would be a smaller payday than one done for a nationally circulated major magazine, even if the illustration itself was exactly the same. Alternately, a piece of art that is very complex and takes forever to do is not worth more to a client than an very easy one… a full page illustration is a full page illustration to a magazine, regardless of the work involved for the illustrator.

The instrument by which the rights of a given piece of art are assigned to a client is a contract. It’s a very necessary piece of legal bother. It spells out exactly what both you and the client are getting, paying for and expecting from each other. Proceeding on any professional job without a contract is not a very good idea, especially with an unfamiliar client. My contract specifies the details of the job, the rights assigned (and limits thereof), the pay and the pay schedule as well as the delivery schedule. It’s all in black and white, and makes sure no one is guessing about anything nor can anyone claim they were not aware of any aspect of the job.

Contracts can spell out a lot of specifics, and for new clients I try to get as specific as I can. I don’t usually require an advance or payment schedule, but in some cases I do. I’ve done a few product design jobs recently where I required a 1/3 advance payment, a 1/3 payment after approval of pencils and the balance upon completion of the project. I always require this for any job that is “work for hire” or in which the client is getting 100% of the copyrights of the work. That’s because they own it all, inlcuding the pencils, roughs and concepts, so I should be getting paid for those stages as I go. Also with new clients you never know if they might take forever to pay you, or never pay you. This summer I had to take two clients to task for not paying invoices due me, some dated back in January. In retrospect I should have required some kind of an advance from them. I did eventually get paid for both jobs, BTW.

What do my contracts look like? Well, I took them directly from the Graphic Artist Guild’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines Handbook, which contains an appendix filled with contracts and forms for a great many visual art and design agreements. I use the “Illustrator’s Estimate and Confirmation Form” which doubles as both an estimate if bidding a job and as an agreement for the final art. It’s worth noting that most publishers have their own agreements and contracts that you need to sign, and they often are the only thing you need. Just make sure you read the fine print and charge accordingly if the publisher is including web use or other rights besides the main ones you are expecting in their agreement. Clients like MAD and Scholastic have their own contracts and agreements, so I don’t bother with mine.

Thanks to Robert and Margaret Carspecken 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. SteveH says:

    Great question and very interesting and informative answer.


I’m in LA doing back to back Caricature workshops. Here’s the class illustration of workshop no. 1. Visit for all the details and to see where others are scheduled in 2018!

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