Well, isn’t this the million-dollar question ;)
How much money does a freelance artist make? What is a freelance artist's salary? I don’t really have a straight answer to these questions I’m afraid, because they are a bit like asking ‘how much is a house worth?’ or ‘how much does it rain on Tuesdays?’
I can tell you how much a particular house is worth, I can tell you how much it rained on a particular Tuesday, and I can tell you how much a particular freelance artist made in a particular year if you like.
On top of this, just because one artist earned a certain amount in a certain period means very little for all other freelance artists, and other time periods.
How much money a freelance artist makes depends on a long list of factors - what kind of art they make, who they are making art for, how often they choose to work, how in-demand they are as an artist, how well they negotiate, whether they have built other streams of income…
This article is written for 2D artists working in the entertainment industry - fantasy and science fiction art work made for films, games, comic books etc. If you aren't targeting this niche, I'm sorry, I dont have the data, but this whole site is geared toward fantasy and sci-fi artists, since that's my expertise.
The truth is, as a freelance artist your income will go up and down over time. What you earn one day will be different the next; one week, one month, one year, different to the next. It fluctuates a lot, and you will not be able to entirely depend on it being stable.
Your income will also probably trend upwards over time, though it may take a lot of personal effort on your part to make it happen.
General Industry Rates for Freelance artists
I’ve put together a table of pay rates across the entertainment industry below, sorted into likely pay grades based on experience level. These are just guide figures, and meant as an indication of the kinds of rates you can expect.
The data in this table is compiled from the personal experiences of myself, my acquaintances working as freelance artists, and from sources around the internet, and large part of which is this article by Artpact http://artpact.artisfy.com/Articles/32/PACT-Pay-Scale-Guidelines-for-Review/
Some of the above rates may seem absurdly good at first glance, but it’s a very rare freelance artist that is able to just crank out paid art-work non-stop week in and week out, year after year.
There are so many other things a freelancer has to take care of, both with your time and your money. Please don't get excited that just because you can paint an expert level book cover in a week, you'll be able to paint one every week for the rest of your life and make $260k a year.
Unfortunately, in reality it doesn't work like that.
In reality, a freelance artist can expect to make in a year about 1000 x their hourly art rate from freelance work.
If you are skilled enough to be doing those 5k covers, you spend 40 hours on one cover, that makes your hourly rate $125, and therefore I’d project a max income of $125k IF you had enough work and worked hard for the whole year. Obviously this is just a basic estimation, and it's still a nice amount of money, but it's much more realistic.
How to climb up these pay grades
Quality, speed, work ethic, brand and demand are of utmost importance.
The quality of your art work is a large factor in what kinds of work you'll have access to. If you want to get into that $5000+ expert book covers range, you need a portfolio and reputation that reflects that. You need to look at what qualifies as an expert book cover, and get yourself into that position OR BETTER. No one is going to hand you that work, you have to earn it.
Art directors want to hire artists who can do the job, they don't want to train you to be ready for the job. They have a specific budget and a specific deadline - they just cannot afford to take risks on their artists, and risk blowing part of the budget or missing a deadline. If you want a particular level of work, get good enough to do equal to or better, and then get consistent at it. Once an art director is confident you can do the art they need consistently, they won't feel like it's a risk to hire you.
Another factor is speed - how fast you can produce art. Obviously, the more art you make, the more customers you can have/the higher your income potential, and the more often you can get paid.
Your work ethic also affects income. If you struggle to paint client work regularly, your pay cheque will reflect that. Working on your productivity will pay dividends down the line.
How much time you are able to work on your business. Art and marketing both take time, so generally the more time you have for them, the more money you'll be able to make. If you ave lots of clients offering you work, you can be much pickier about what work you take on, and ultimately demand higher rates.
How in demand your work is. The more people want your work, the more you can charge for it. The more recognisable your art and name is, the more valuable your work is going to be to a client. Building yourself as a brand will increase your ability to negotiate rates. If Jakub Rozalsi was to work on an indie game, it would bring that game attention, he has built his name/work a a brand and now it has value.
Rights affecting pay
Many of these rates are work for hire - the client is paying for outright ownership of the art, they can do with it what they want. They can use it on the intended product, but also use it for adverts, and put it on other products. They can sell it as a print if they want to.
What rights over the work are being transferred from you, the artist, to the purchaser. Just because someone bought art from you, doesn't give them the right to start printing that art on t-shirts and mugs. If they want that right, typically it costs a premium.
Rights are extremely valuable.
Keeping your rights as the creator of the art will provide all kinds of opportunity for money down the road. Where you can, retain your rights, and negotiate for it if you can.
Also understand that unless the rights transfer is down in writing, by default the art belongs to you. You have the right to print it, put it in artbooks, whatever. Of course, you don't want to mislead clients and sell their commissioned art to other clients too, but this does give you options for income.
This is the main way to combat lower industry rates, keep the rights and find more ways to make money from the same piece.
How does location affect income
The cheaper your living expenses, the easier it will be to survive on lower income.
Since freelance is normally digital, remote work done online, it gives you the freedom to live somewhere cheaper while still being paid by first world companies. I used this to my advantage by living in Thailand for 3 years at the start of my freelancing journey, so that it would be easier for me to get by on these lower rates.
Some examples of other common income streams
Supplemental income is a common and extremely important part of a freelance artists career.
Just as an in-house artist will usually progress up the career ladder and become a senior artist, then lead artist, then perhaps art director etc, freelance artists will BUILD their OWN ladder!
As a freelance artist, you have no idea if youll always be able to find work and have something to work on, so putting that time toward supplemental income is the no brainer thing to do. It also then means when you're short on client work in the future, it doesn't matter as much, because you've built these extra income sources.
There are many potential supplemental incomes to pursue:
Selling prints of your work is extremely common, and flexible, and you may even be able to retain the rights to print some of your freelance work, such as private commission work.
Some artists also like selling merchandise, like T-shirts, mugs and adult coloring books on sites like Amazon.
Patreon has created all kinds of opportunities for digital artists, and some are earning vast amounts of money there.
Youtube presents an amazing opportunity for digital artists, if they are willing to put themselves or their work on camera. Money comes from youtube ads and linking to all the other things you offer, such as the aforementioned prints, merhcandise, gumroad, affiliate links, courses, sponsorships etc.
Similarly, you can stream yourself working on Twitch, and earn subscription/donation money on top of linking people to your products.
Your income depends on YOU and you only - no one is going to give any success to you, you have to make it happen for yourself.
Having said that, a good community and mentors can help you get there, help you identify what you need to concentrate on to improve your portfolio, or give you advice etc.
Our discord community is awesome, highly recommended!