The state of illustration

Recently 1506 illustrators from all around the world participated in a survey about the state of illustration. A large number of questions were asked about backgrounds, money, agents, work/life balance, mental health, etc. The results were published in an annual report by Darren Di Lieto from hireanillustrator.com and spread over social media.


The results were tough sometimes. A lot of information was stuff that was already well-known: there's more money to be earned in the USA than Europe, for example, and the UK can be tough with rates sometimes. Mental health took a toll during Covid-19, and many struggle with their work/life balance. Nothing new there. What struck me though, was how this report was shared on social media.

The image above was circulating on Twitter, which lead, understandably, to shocked reactions. The median income for illustrators from the UK and Europe were especially low.

I also had participated in this survey, but felt I was an exception on the rule on many subjects. The numbers didn't represent me at all. Which is possible of course, maybe this just proves I'm a highly successful illustrator. But I'm a bit more sceptical about that: at the time of writing, I've only worked 1,5 years as a fulltime freelancer and even though it's going well, I still have lots and lots more to learn about the industry and being my own boss. Surely many older and experienced illustrators are doing better than me?


Let's look a bit more into these numbers. As I'm an illustrator from the Netherlands, I will look into the European numbers. It says in the survey 23,7% is European (excluding UK), which calculated to roughly 357 people.


From the total of 1506 worldwide respondents, only 42,1% describe themselves as fulltime illustrators. Roughly 5% of them has a secondary job, we don't know if this is needed to sustain themselves or not. 46,6% is a part-time illustrator, and 11,3% has no commissions at all. We don't know about their situation, if they are struggling or not, if they have a rich spouse or are still living at home.


Then there's this graph on the right, which shows us the type of jobs these 1506 illustrators typically do. It's clear who are the two most popular areas are: private commissions and children's publishing. Two areas of expertise I'm personally not familiar with, but have read a lot about over the years. The truth is, the money in children's books has been stagnating for the last couple of years (I'm talking about the Dutch and British market right now, I don't know about the situation in other European countries). It's very, very hard to survive on children's books alone. It's a very time-consuming process, with illustrators sometimes working for over 6 months on one book, earning maybe €1500 - €2000 (NL) or £5000 - £7500 (UK).

Private commissions are also not known for being the most lucrative option. I've seen rates going as low as €5,- for a sketch. It's very rare an artist can earn a decent hourly rate with these types of jobs, and they need A LOT of jobs to survive. This means constant pressure to perform and promote the work they make on social media.

Editorial is in third place, and is also known to have frozen their rates for the last 30 years or so. Here, it's also a case of getting a lot of jobs in order to make a decent living. Litebox is a platform that speaks more open about this matter, on their website and on Twitter.


Also on this graph: various types of jobs that I know can be way more lucrative, but don't seem to be very popular with the respondents. Advertising, animation, corporate and live illustration can pay very well, yet they're all under 10%. These are also areas where it's normal to license your work based on the usage needs the client has. This gives me the idea that the most of the respondents are working in areas that are very hard to sustain them. We don't know if they have this information, if they even want to work in other areas, or if they find it hard to break into them.


Then there's this: €18.434,19 a year is a meager income in the Netherlands. In Romania, it's better. Europe is very divided in income and cost of living. I live in Amsterdam, which is the most expensive city in an already expensive country, which means I have to earn more that someone living in the countryside. It's not fair to compare both incomes.

I also know that in the Netherlands alone, there are 2000+ professional illustrators working either fulltime or parttime. 357 European respondents equals to a very limited percentage of illustrators throughout Europe. Where are they from and what is their background? Do they have a family to back them up? Do they have cheap housing? Are they thriving or really struggling somewhere? We just don't know.


The craving for publishing and editorial jobs

What I do know and what we also really should talk about, is the craving and admiration for getting published as an illustrator. I talk to a lot of students and I get the thrill it gives you when a publisher or big newspaper is interested in using your illustrations for printed work. It's exciting to see a book with your cover in the bookshops, or an article headlined with your name next to your art. The sad thing is that 50 years ago, this could be considered a well-paying fulltime job for some illustrators. But in those 50 years or so, the rates haven't been risen. At. All.


The truth today is that it's very, very hard to sustain yourself in solely publishing or editorial work, especially if you live in an expensive place. This is why a lot of successful illustrators I know are doing a lot more as well: live illustration at events, selling merchandise in their webshops, animating, teaching, creating illustrations for brands and marketing companies, etc. I think it's necessary to have this conversation with young people. What is their expectation of the job, what are their dreams and goals, and are they realistic? We need to accept that editorial and publishing aren't fulltime jobs anymore unless rates are risen. That sucks, but there are other options.


To end on a positive note: I think it's definitely possible to make a good living out of illustration. I know a lot of examples of people who do. The illustrators I speak to are making turnovers from €30k - €40k a year, I even know a couple who're making €100k a year (though they are rare). The trick is to treat your work as a business, be mindful that not all of your jobs are going to be exceptionally fun and make money in different areas. And be patient.