69% of illustrators do not earn enough to live comfortably off one job, survey finds

An online survey of over 1,200 illustrators has found that the majority think they would struggle financially if illustration was their only source of income.

Over two thirds of illustrators feel they cannot live comfortably off an illustration job on its own, according to a new survey.

The Illustrators’ Survey 2017 was completed by Ben O’Brien, a Somerset-based, freelance illustrator who goes by the name of Ben the Illustrator.

O’Brien put together the survey and published it via online platform Survey Monkey, then put out a call on social media for other illustrators to take it. It was conducted throughout December 2017 and January of this year, with respondents asked to look back retrospectively on 2017.

In total, 1,261 people took the survey, over half of which were female – 53% – and just under half – 49% – were in the 18-30 age bracket.

The majority create work for books, magazines, newspapers, exhibitions and advertising, while far fewer create illustration work for digital platforms such as apps, motion graphics and animation. The majority – 79% – went to university.

69% said they could not live comfortably off illustration

The survey found that the majority – 69% – of illustrators felt they did not earn a suitable amount to live comfortably from illustration alone, and less than half – 45% – said that illustration was their full-time job, with other respondents saying it was either a job on the side alongside another full-time job, or alongside being a student.

On this statistic, O’Brien says: “A lot of illustrators are holding down other jobs, or fortunate enough to have a partner who can support them. Interestingly, when I asked what people’s business goals were, a huge number of people said they just wanted to make a living and live happily – very few mentioned getting any kind of fame or fortune from illustration.”

Not enough exercise, job anxieties and late payments

Other key findings were that 81% of respondents said they work from home rather than in a studio space or employed in-house by a business, and over two thirds – 69% – said they felt they needed more exercise. Nearly half of them also said they needed to sleep and socialise more.

The majority – 79% – also said they have anxiety and confidence issues to do with their career. “This is huge, and perhaps signals how much could be done within the industry to look at mental health,” says O’Brien.

The majority also said they had experienced late payments for commissioned work in 2017, at 71% of respondents.

But illustrators love their jobs

On a more positive stance, the majority said their main reasons for doing illustration was because they loved it as a job, and half of respondents said they had more commissioned work in 2017 compared to previous years.

On putting the survey together, O’Brien says: “Conversations with illustrator friends led to me thinking that it’s difficult to know how the industry is going as a whole.

“It’s hard for freelancers to be vocal about work in difficult times, so I thought the survey would give people the chance to share their circumstances and comment on problems they might be having. It was also a good opportunity to find out and share the positives.”

Read the Illustrators’ Survey 2017 in full here.

All illustrations by Ben the Illustrator.

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  • Mike Dempsey January 19, 2018 at 3:32 pm

    I am not surprised to learn this. Over the past 15 to 20 years virtually every creative individual and company working in the ‘commercial’ arena has had to adjust to the realities of the digital age. It has democratised virtually every area within the creative world; graphics, photography, filmmaking, music, publishing and of course illustration. The latter has seen an enormous growth in digital or digitally assisted illustrators and the talent now available from around the world 24/7 are astonishing and competition fierce, and industry fees have got tighter.

    One of my early jobs back in the 1960’s was working as an in-house designer at an artist’s agent. They specialised in supplying illustrations to publishers for their hard and paperback covers or work for woman’s magazine stories and feature film posters. All of the illustrators at the agency back then were in high demand, as there were so few really talented ones. They, of course, worked in the traditional way, often using staged photographs to project directly onto their drawing boards.

    I have lived through many changes in the creative world and there was a time in the 1980’s when everyone, including illustrators, was doing very well indeed fees were better than today. Enter the disrupter from silicon valley. Everything changed. Many didn’t see it coming and fell by the wayside, others embraced it with open arms. The fact is from that moment the creative industry grew at an alarming rate and continues to do so. Apart from web companies, who seem to do very well, we all had to accept that there is less money, and fewer commisions to go around, not helped by the fact that so many will agree to unpaid creative pitches. We all have to learn to adapt and be more resourceful and should feel lucky that we can inhabit a profession that gives us such satisfaction and pleasure. So many people hate their jobs and from Monday morning they long for Friday to arrive. That is sad.

    I have always had enormous admiration for those individuals who have no need to plug anything in order to work. The traditional hand and eye crafters of the world of engraving, letter cutting, scraperboard, pen and ink illustrators and calligraphers. The sit there at home, dog or cat at their feet, coffee to hand and radio 4 in the background. They are a treasure.

  • Amy Williams January 22, 2018 at 8:26 am

    Thank you Ben for taking the time to do this survey and share your thoughts – it’s so helpful to see statistics like this.

  • Hsin-Yi Yao April 11, 2018 at 11:28 am

    Thank you for sharing this with us. All the best to you.

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