Three quarters of illustrators have worked for free — and half regret it

A new survey of 1,443 illustrators found that 77% have previously worked for no payment, while 70% had invoices paid late last year.

Illustration by Ben the Illustrator

Research has found that over three quarters of illustrators have worked for free previously, and over half of them say they never will again.

The online survey has been conducted by Somerset-based freelance illustrator Ben O’Brien, otherwise known as Ben the Illustrator, alongside advice organisation Hire an Illustrator, and saw 1,443 responses from the UK and beyond.

Three quarters have worked for free

The research has found that 77% of those surveyed have previously worked for free, and 53% of these say they never would again, while 24% have a more optimistic outlook, saying working for free had “paid off in the long run” or that they do it often and are “indifferent” to having to do so.

“It’s almost seen as a rite of passage, especially when you’re starting out,” says O’Brien. “I did it myself after graduating in the late 1990s; I would work on music videos in exchange for records, t-shirts and passes to clubs, or even for nothing.

“There are two negatives to this,” he adds. “Firstly, you could have used that time to work on a personal project, and secondly, someone else is profiting from your hard work — whether it’s used in a magazine, a poster or on merchandise, the ‘client’ is making money from it. Hopefully this research will change people’s minds before they agree to work for free again.”

Most illustrators also mention receiving late payments, with 70% saying they had at least some invoices paid late in 2018, and nearly three quarters of all respondents – 73% – saying they do not earn enough from their job to live comfortably. The majority – 60% – say their gross income came to less than £20,000 in 2018.

Only a tenth ask for up-front payment

Illustration by Ben the Illustrator

Additionally, only a tenth — 11% — of illustrators demand a deposit from clients up-front when they are commissioned, and over half — 57% — say they do not feel confident when estimating fees for clients. Over half — 55% — say they base pricing on previous commissions or what other illustrators are charging, while over a third — 37% — say they base pricing on the time required to complete a project.

This comes after trade body, the Association of Illustrators (AOI), pulled much of its pricing advice for members earlier this year after it received “legal advice” to do so, making it harder for freelance illustrators to know how much to charge for individual commissions.

“Pricing is one of the biggest issues throughout the illustration community,” says O’Brien. “Being confident at what you’re pricing and getting the fee you should be earning is tough. The AOI is launching a UK campaign soon to address worries around this, and I think illustrators are also wising up and actively looking for information.

“I feel confident that this year will bring positive change and illustrators will have clearer resources to sharpen up their businesses and build a stronger income,” he adds.

Association of Illustrators taking action

Three quarters of those surveyed — 74% — also say they have anxiety and confidence issues to do with their career, while nearly two thirds — 64% — say they wish they could get more exercise, while 41% would like to get more sleep.

The AOI says it is “committed to addressing” problems in the illustration industry, including lack of understanding around pricing, difficulties getting by financially on one job and mental health issues that arise as a result.

So the organisation is launching a campaign in April, which will include a range of new member services, including advice on business strategy and client negotiation, meetings where members can learn about budgets and earnings, accounting and insurance support, self promotion and social media training, and an online fee calculator.

Nearly all illustrators feel motivated

On a more positive note, nearly all of those surveyed say they are motivated in their jobs and in improving their practice, both creatively and financially; 96% say they feel motivated to be a better artist, and 89% feel motivated to be a better business.

This is the second year O’Brien has conducted the survey, with last year’s research gathering 1,200 responses. Some of the last survey’s main findings were that 69% of illustrators could not get by financially from only an illustration job, while 79% said they had anxiety and confidence issues.

See Ben the Illustrator’s survey for 2019/2019 in full here.

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  • mike dempsey March 12, 2019 at 12:56 pm

    This survey doesn’t surprise me at all.

    Over the past decade, the sheer volume, choice and international diversity of illustrators, along with the ease of using them, has exploded along with big variation in fees.

    The notion of getting illustrators to work for free is particularly galling because all illustrators want to do is illustrate, and their enthusiasm makes them vulnerable to exploitation and fall for those old cliches of, “This will be good for your portfolio.”, or “If you could just do this for no fee, I can promise you a big job on the way.”

    While I applaud the illustrators for being so honest about the issue of working for free, it is not the case with design groups. Few would admit to working for free on a pitch, but I know that many do, and not just the startups, you would be very surprised. Because of their willingness to do this ‘under the radar’, it has become the industry norm to accept free pitches, or agree to ludicrously small amounts of money that wouldn’t cover lunch, in order to make it appear ‘legit’, it undermines our industry.

    Our creative industry has turned into an aggressive jungle and I feel so sorry for all those bright, enthusiastic individuals all sadly ready to be exploited.

  • Savyra Quyn March 18, 2019 at 7:55 am

    Mike Dempsey, I couldn’t agree more. This is why I’ve now turned to writing, albeit screenwriting, which I can support with worlds and characters illustrated by me. Rather sell a product, than be dependent on the whims of clients.

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