Sunday Mailbag

July 14th, 2013 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Much of my illustration commissions remain of the personal gift variety, and therein lies the problem. I’ve always tended to charge ‘per person’, with an hourly studio rate added based on detail. This is no problem with two or even three people in one illustration, but as you can imagine the price very quickly jumps up when it’s several folk, or perhaps even a group. I subsequently find myself A) feeling bad for quoting private individuals such a high price, even though it’s indicative of the extensive work involved, and/or B) not hearing back from clients who, not unreasonably, balk at paying so much for a one-off gift.

I recall reading on your blog that you don’t charge by the person when creating illustrations, so may I ask how you do calculate your quote so that’s it’s appropriate and competitive, yet doesn’t price you completely out of the job?

A: You are talking about two very different things, illustration for publication/commercial use and original art as a personal commission. The pricing for an illustration is different than that of a commission. For illustration, the client is paying for the rights to publish it, and that is based on the circulation and going rate balanced against their budget. They do not care how long an illustration takes me. I have a basic set rate for a single page illustration, for example, and it doesn’t matter if it is a single simple image or a complex crowd scene. That price will only fluctuate if the magazine or media in question is of a very small or very large variety (I’d drop the price a bit for a local magazine and raise it for TIME or some national mag), or if it’s a rush job, which costs more. In the end, the client has a budget and in most cases they don’t mess around, they just tell me what they are offering to pay and I either accept or not. In rare instances I will say I need a bit more, and they will either take it or leave it. There is very little bidding on jobs these days in illustration.

For commissions, you are selling original artwork, so the time it takes you should be a factor. You have to charge based on the complexity and time it takes. Yes, gigantic group scenes will take a very long time and you need to charge accordingly. There’s no way to tell what the client’s expectations are for what they will spend, so you are simply guessing. The best thing to do is to set prices for single, double, triple on up that you are comfortable with and just stick to them. You will lose some commissions to cheapskates, but if you charge a decent price you will always lose sales to people who were never willing to pay a fair price for what your work is worth in the first place. On the other hand, anyone would buy a commissioned caricature from you if you charge low enough, but you would be undervaluing your work and time doing that. The trick is finding a price that you feel comfortable doing the work for, and that gets you enough work to keep you satisfied with that end of your business. I’ve always found it better to set a price and then spend your time figuring out how to market that price to a level of client willing to afford to pay for it rather than trying to figure out a price that works for any potential buyer. Another strategy is to educate your potential client as to why you charge the rate you do, and why you are worth it.

I also understand your feeling bad asking for a what you consider a high price from a private individual who is only looking for a personal caricature. That’s one of the reasons I basically do not do personal commissions, it feels like I am being an egotistical jackass asking for the kind of prices I HAVE to ask for. In order to consider doing a commission, I have to charge a similar amount as I would for a decent freelance job, because the commission takes away from time I would be filling doing a commercial job. Therefore, I have to ask a price I frankly don’t think my work is really worth. So, I don’t. If I was doing commissions as part of my usual workload, I’d be charging a good but less lofty price I’d be more comfortable asking for. It would still be higher than many would be willing to pay, though. You should be confident in your skills and comfortable your clients are getting value for their money, and you are being compensated adequately for your time and talents.

Thanks to Mike Giblin 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. N Gomes says:

    But how you make sure that work won’t be used commercially like on business cards, web sites etc. Do you get into a written legal agreement while doing personal commissions. And the client (who’s asked for personal commission as gift) could argue that if he uses it for commercial purposes even then yours ( the artist’s) time and effort spent remains the same. And there’s no surity that he might just scan the art and re-sell it or use it for advertisement of his business etc. Do you give a digital file as well in personal commission.?

    • Tom says:

      You can’t stop that if the person you do the commission for uses it without telling you. All you can do is educate them that use of the artwork for anything other than hanging on the wall would require payment for the copyrights.

  2. N Gomes says:

    Hmmm….. thanks for the reply. I guess there’s no 100 % safeguard against that.

  3. Mike Giblin says:

    Thanks enormously once again for your insights Tom. You’re a true gent.


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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