Drive for Show, Putt for Dough

December 4th, 2014 | Posted in Freelancing



The other day writer extraordinaire Mark Evanier posted an interesting article on his must-read blog about making a living as a writer. Some of the post is about how people you might think are rolling in money are actually struggling to get by, but the gist of his message is that in order to make a living as a writer (or anyone in the creative field), you need to write (or do whatever your creative skill is). That sometimes means you take on jobs that others looking from the outside in might think to be “selling out” your artistic integrity. Mark tells a story about a well known “creative person” who is doing projects that others condemn him/her for as “selling out”. Mark points out that others should reserve judgement until they’ve walked a mile in the other person’s shoes. The creative person in question has some financial difficulties and needed the work. Jack Nicholson, when asked why he sometimes did lousy movies instead of waiting for nothing but Oscar bait roles, famously responded: “I’m an actor. Actor’s act.”

The world of illustration and comics is a little less high profile than say acting or writing for TV and film. Cartooning is cartooning and there are not many jobs I would equate as going from doing Oscar worthy films to direct-to-video B-movies. That said, when I tell people about freelance illustration as a living I always point out that basically no one makes a living doing Time Magazine covers or similar, even the people that do Time Magazine covers. There is just not enough of¬¨‚Ć that sort of thing out there. Virtually all illustrators make the bulk of their living doing work for clients few people have ever heard of, even the really famous illustrators. For every cover of Time they do, they probably do twenty illustrations for publications like Financial Planning Magazine, Snow Country Magazine or Basket Weaving Monthly. That’s certainly true for me… I’m still waiting for my first Time cover!

That’s not to say I’d take any job that comes my way. I do have standards… which is kind of funny coming from someone that draws for MAD Magazine. However my standards do not have anything to do with ego or the need to be sure my work is only done for “a certain level of client”. My taking on jobs or not is based on three criteria:

  • Time
  • Fee
  • Personal Code

The first is basic reality. I have to have the physical time to do a job. If I am backed up or the deadline is impossible with my current workload, I have to turn down the job. This is sometimes physically painful. If the other two criteria are in place I try and justify taking on another project by thinking I can just stop sleeping for a week or so. That’s something I am learning to not do anymore. I’m getting too old for that crap.

The fee is something that is a little bit based on what we in the mid-west call “being uppish”. I cannot take on jobs where the fee is not at a level I have set for my work. This is kind of related to the time criteria, because if I do jobs with lower fees, I might have a problem with the time thing when another project comes along that will pay a more reasonable fee. This is a bigger problem these days when anyone with a computer and a bit of software thinks they are a publisher, you are only a few keystrokes away from being accessible, and the internet has devalued creative work badly thanks to legions of amateurs doing tons of work for nothing or next to it. The bottom line is I have set a bottom line for what I am willing to accept as a fee for doing a job. It’s probably a lot lower than you think, and maybe lower than it should be, but I still turn down some jobs because they won’t pay enough.

The third criteria is “personal code”, meaning stuff I won’t do no matter if the other two criteria are met (even for ridiculous money). I won’t work for big tobacco. I won’t do pornography. I won’t do anything that glorifies drugs or that I feel encourages kids to use them. I won’t do any work that reinforces any kind of hate speech. There may be some other things I would turn down based on my personal beliefs, but I think that pretty much covers it. I don’t begrudge others for doing that kind of work, although I might not want to be your Facebook friend if you do any hate speech work, but I won’t do it. Personal choice.

One thing I do tell young illustrators asking for advice is to expect to need a day job for quite a while in order to make a living in the freelance world. Mark points out in his article that getting a job doing anything in your field, even if it’s not the most glamorous of work, is preferable to waiting tables but that can sometimes be impossible. Drawing live caricatures was what paid my bills for many years until I got my freelance legs under me. That was not only directly related to my goal of being a humorous illustrator, it allowed me to hone and practice my skills while I paid my bills. I encourage a lot of young cartoonists to give live caricatures a try as a potential financial stabilizer as they try to “break in” to the freelance business. Breaking in takes years, by the way… and that’s doing it at warp speed.


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