Making Your Living as a Comics Artist

Making Your Living as a Comics Artist

Updated: May 28, 2019

Let’s all agree that the stereotype of the Starving ArtistTM needs to die. It doesn’t matter if you see yourself more as an artist than a craftsman. What takes your skill deserves someone else’s money because what we are all ​really ​selling, is our time.


However, we can’t completely ignore the fact that making a living out of a creative endeavour is much harder than going mindlessly through the day at a nine to five office job. Being a full-time employee does take away a lot of your time and freedom, but it also clears up your mental space. Having somewhere to be every day lessens the responsibility of decision making and there’s no existential dread of a fluctuating paycheck.


That being said, I don’t know many artists who would wilfully and happily run into the arms of a company for the promise of fixed working hours. We like our flexibility. Creative juices are hard to command and sometimes they flow the best at 3 a.m., something a corporate overlord would have a hard time coming to terms with.


Now then, it’s all settled. You are a freelancer. Your family knows (and thinks you don’t really have a job), your friends know (and will at one point misunderstand what ‘free’ in freelancer stands for) and most importantly, the state knows (and is very much looking forward to your tax return).


It’s time to make some money. But how...? Maybe you’re not yet well-established. Maybe you’re getting some clients, but not that many. Maybe you simply find it tedious to do the same thing every freaking day. Fear not. Here are eight ways of creating income that you might have not thought of:


1. Illustrations, comics and what not



The first obvious piece of the puzzle is, yeah, do the thing you were planning to do in the first place. I would advise you to take some time and find out what kind of artist you are before you jump into it. Do you work digitally most of the time, are you willing to do visualisations, adds, and storyboards? Or is selling your creativity as commercial work a no-go? Write down your targeted clients, not just the audience.


Do you see yourself as a book illustrator? Comic strip artist? Character designer? I know that especially in the beginning there is this very real urge to take any job that comes your way, even if it requires a technique you’re not familiar with or a theme you find unbelievably dull.

I advise you not to, even if it means having to find other sources of income. Don’t spread yourself too thin. If you do, soon you’ll have no idea what you actually enjoy creating and you end up burning out before you even turn thirty.


2. Commissions and Fanart



A lot of artists find their niche in a specific online community. Fan Arts can pay royally, as fans are usually quite happy to support someone who is also pouring their heart into the fandom. Seeing your favourite artist share love for a character can be a very satisfying and a sufficient reason for commissioning an art piece.


The downside of this, which should not be overlooked, is that you need to be present in the said community and contribute not just with your art, but your time, energy and the very idea of ‘you’ as well. The parasocial relationship that emerges as a result can be very nerve-wrecking, as the fans can eventually see the artist to be somewhat of a friend. This exchange is unbalanced and there have been backlashes at authors just for stating that artwork done for the community is still ‘just work’. Many people can forget that your online persona is not the real you. The emotional labour needed for sustaining this business model is very real.

However, this kind of work can bring you a lot of popularity and can serve as a good starting point for your next big thing, as you will have already created a fanbase and a decent portfolio. Keep in mind that your followers will probably always appreciate the fan art you create more than any personal project you come up with. Not all of them though! Sites like Patreon can provide you with some extra money even if you’re not feeling like watching the new episode just to draw a fanart later.


3. Tattoos (and Facepaint for you, doubtful ones)



Do you want to create work that actually lasts? Maybe not forever, but until the day your canvas deteriorates for sure. Not to be all morbid, honestly, but a lifetime of exposure is much longer than most artworks get, as what is once posted on the internet is usually soon lost forever in the vast universe of online clutter.


Tattoos grow more popular every day. The younger the generation, the harder it is to find someone who doesn’t have at least one. Gone are the days of tramp stamps, cow skulls and dream catchers. Nowadays, the style and the originality are what counts.


There’s a significant financial investment if you’re eyeing this profession, not to mention it takes time to move from tattooing citruses and artificial skin to the real thing. The money is good and people are willing to pay it, as one is usually quite careful about what to put on the body that will stay there ‘forever’. But if you don’t have any mental space to learn a new skill or you are simply not interested, you don’t have to go all the way. Find a respectable and friendly tattoo artist, create a bunch of flashes (ready-made tattoo designs for one use only) and then split the earnings. Seeing someone proudly carrying something you created on their skin is far more satisfying than 90% of commercial work.


Still feeling queasy about this business? Here’s a family friendly advice for you: learn some face-paint. I am serious. It keeps surprising me how in demand is this service, especially when it comes to children festivals and family days. If you don’t mind drawing eight butterflies and eleven kittens per hour and you’re alright with being around children, go for it. The initial investment is pretty doable and who knows, maybe one day you’ll get that one weird kid who wants to be Deadpool without the mask.


4. Teaching



Those who can’t do it, teach it. The whole saying is a little bit longer, but as much as discouraging: People who are able to do something well can do that thing for a living, while people who are not able to do anything that well make a living by teaching.

I disagree completely.


When I took my first teaching job, I was very reluctant. I saw way too many burnt-out professors at my Uni, who stuck around just to get the paycheck. As much as it seemed like they still had enough time to be creative, a lot of them couldn’t handle how much mental space was the teaching taking up. As a result, they almost ceased to do their personal projects completely. In my junior eyes, they end up being bad at two things at once, while only succeeding at being miserable.


I also didn’t like the idea that my freedom will be restricted by regular working hours, even though the contract was mere two hours per week. If I get to experience all the disadvantages of being a freelancer, shouldn’t I at least be able to whatever whenever?

All these very real anxieties were going through my mind as in the end I accepted the job, partly because I was very bad at saying ‘no’ back then and partly because I had already mentally spent the money it was offering.


It turned out to be... pretty okay. I want to emphasise that I am not one of those people who find teaching 100% fulfilling and energizing. On the contrary, I find it

exhausting. You have to prepare in advance, especially with kids, who are less likely to be entertained by theoretical ramblings, as adults often are. While teaching, you have to be completely present. You have to be ready to interact any given moment, sometimes juggling more than one conversation.


But there is one particular advantage of doing this to support your ‘real’ career. Amongst your new batch of fresh new students will be a very special one... you! And no, this is not one of those articles that try to make you feel grateful for seeing children discover the creative process and learning from their unlimited imagination. (As much as that might be true, what I learnt from kids is that any comics can be resolved by an explosion. At least on paper!)

The best way how to thoroughly grasp an idea or a concept is to try to pass it on to somebody else. When you’re explaining a fairly niche technique, there’s no room for confusing definitions and misleading explanations.


By clarifying how page composition works and how different panel shapes can enhance storytelling, you are in fact making it evident to yourself as well. In one’s creative process it is fairly easy to get lost in half-abstract procedures. We often follow our instincts, not knowing what precisely hides in its core. Teaching forces you to pin it down and use it consciously next time.

I do advice you to be careful with how many hours you’re willing to take on. As I said: teaching is by no means an easy job. If you let it consume you, you’ll wake up in ten years-time having not touched any personal project whatsoever.


5. Selling merchandise and originals



Here lies the Holy Grail of doing the thing you enjoy the most. It’s only you and your creative process. There’s no boss asking you to move something one pixel left or add contrast to a black and white image. But also no one to pay for your time. Is there a way to monetize this thing that led you to art in the first place?

If you’re creating personal artwork (and getting positive feedback online), this must have already crossed your mind. If they like it, they will pay for it. Right? Well, not exactly. There are a few steps in between that need to be done nevertheless. Here are two ways how to go about it:


You can load your art into the mouths of digital e-shop giants such as Socite9 or Hivemill. The biggest and the most obvious advantage is they take care of almost everything. You can have your art printed on anything from mugs to bath rugs. The questions of course is: do you want to? A fine piece of art often grows from a certain emotional state and seeing the visualisation of something so personal on a towel can be very bittersweet. Last but not least, you are still the one responsible for marketing. These websites are oversaturated with artist eager to make money and metaphorically speaking, you’ll be selling wood in a forest.

The other way is a lot more time consuming, as you take care of purchasing the textile or overseeing the printing process yourself. Bear in mind that printing ten t-shirts is so much more expensive than printing a hundred. You need to invest a lot of money first and you won’t be paying just for the printing process and the merchandise, but also all the time you spent running from print-shop to post office. The upside? You keep all the earnings, no middle-man will take a cut. Your fans will probably also appreciate your merchandise more, as the whole transaction will feel personal.


The middle ground is to find a local company, preferably someone you can actually meet in person. Don’t sacrifice your values on the way and pick someone who is actually interested in creating good products. After all, you don’t want your images to be printed with the blood and sweat of the poor Asian underage workers, right?


6. Portfolio consultations



Are you freshly out of college and feel like you have nothing valuable to bring to the table? I disagree! Your portfolio might not be the greatest and you haven’t caught any big-name clients yet, but you have something a mature, established artist doesn’t: the knowledge of what universities are like.


With the ever-changing way how our structured education works, few people have the slightest notion of what universities require and offer. If you have experienced it first hand, be sure that there are people out there wanting to know and hopefully willing to pay money for this information.


What do I need to do to be accepted to this or that faculty? Will this professor be able to push me where I need to go artistically? Is the school cafeteria any good? Remember how it felt when you were applying yourself, carrying that huge folder of what you considered to be your best work back then. Would you have done anything differently, knowing what you know now? Maybe you wouldn’t apply in the first place!


Keep in mind that as much fun as it looks like - telling people your opinions and being considered an authority - it also brings a huge chunk of responsibility. How will you feel if you give your best advice, take the money and your protégé́ ends up being rejected?

It’s easy to grow proud and arrogant in this line of work, as you find yourself patronizing people probably quite a lot. Stay humble and always look for ways to improve your service. Ask around, keep your tabs on universities you haven’t been to, dig a bit to get an idea of what the school abroad offer as well.


And don’t forget to work on yourself! People will decide on whether to ask you for advice if they consider getting to where you are now desirable.


7. Workshops and talks



Am I making up tips just to pad the runtime of this article? Shouldn’t workshops be filed under number four? I’ll let you decide!


Workshop fees are an important part of my monthly income, even though I can hardly predict how many I will be asked to do. After all, for most clients, they are a one-time thing, therefore, doing workshops is perfect for people who detest any regularity in their schedules.


The most common clients are school, libraries, festivals. I often present as a part of an art competition or exhibition as well. The big advantage of comics is that is still a pretty niche skill, meaning not everyone can do a presentation on them or teach it to somebody in the course of two hours. The most expensive thing is, after all, experience.


If you’re not sure how to start and you don’t feel like lurking around teachers’ lounge to get invited, look for programs that focus on extra education. They often offer a range of experts from different fields in a sort of human catalogue and have already established connections with interested schools. Don’t forget that different age groups require different kind of communication and their attention span varies significantly.


8. Copywriting and Content Marketing



As we have already mentioned a few times, having your niche is very important. It might be hard to be on the top of a societal hierarchy pyramid, but what if you’re the one who put the pyramid together? Be the king of the kingdom of your creation and you’ll be soon producing something the clients didn’t even know they wanted.


That is true especially in copywriting. As our knowledge of the world grows more and more detailed, it is hard for professional journalists to cover every possible direction. That’s where you step in! Are you good with watercolours? Maybe the manufacturer would benefit from producing how-to videos! Are you familiar with digital artists working in the movie industry?

A film blog might be interested in articles about this field of work! The options are endless, it solely depends on what your speciality is. It doesn’t even have to be art related!


Be prepared that a lot of your potential clients might be enthusiastic about the idea, but willing to ‘pay’ you in exposure only. Have in mind that you’re not doing this for the warm feeling of being validated. You’re here for the money, not helping somebody else achieve their dream.


Conclusion


You can probably see the pattern by now. These are all things I do. Some more enthusiastically than others, sure. But what’s important is that by the end of the month, I have not only just paid my bills, but found quality time to spent on my personal art. What sense would it make if I could make enough money by creating comics, but I wouldn’t want to read any of them? That’s why I prefer this messier, but in the end more satisfying way.





Author: Štěpánka Jislová


Štěpánka Jislová is a Czech Illustrator and Comics artist. Born in 1992, she resides in Prague and apart from numerous illustrated books and two stand-alone graphic novels, she enjoys doing tattoo and cloths designs, teaches, writes and gives talks and presentations. She participated in the comics symposium The Superheroes of Eastern Bloc (2015) and was awarded a prestigious Getting to know Europe grant at Wilkinson College, CA. She’s a co-founder of the Czech branch of Laydeez do Comics. Main focus of her work is storytelling via symbolism and archetypes, which she explores through carefully crafted compositions and precise line-work.


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