Art Career Planning by Darren Yeow
Hi there, I’m Darren.
A bit about me before we get started so you can figure out if you want to skip this article or not: I’m a professional artist / designer who has worked in the games and film industry although I am currently helping to corrupt the world one illustration at a time with slot machine illustrations. I’ve also done marketing art for properties such as Minecraft, Batman and Walking Dead, although to be honest I am probably better known for being a pants-hating memes monger who also founded the Nomad and Etchr premium artist carry products.
The business side of creativity has fascinated me for a long and I’ve been blessed with a 15 year art career, that so far that has only driven me to anger management and substance abuse maybe like, once. For 10 of those 15 years, I have paid the bills solely as a freelance artist so a lot of what I’m writing will have a freelance artist perspective.
I’m going to put aside my meme-loving social media shit-posting persona for a second to try to give back to the art community in the form of a few points regarding the exciting oft-thought about subject of Art Career Planning…Yeah right, if you’re anything like me at the early stage of my career, you probably think about strategic career planning about as often as retirement – ie. Never. You’re just trying to survive, I get that.
But because I’ve been around for a while and haven’t flaked out, people ask me career advice relatively often. Often they're just asking for little tips here and there to get by, but I think a lot of artists miss looking at the big picture for their career, which I think it actually more important than the minutia of day-to-day operations.
So, if you’ll allow me a second to spin things a little differently by encouraging you to think about your career in a more encompassing overarching light, I’ll try my best to lay out some of the major components that I keep in mind in a no-nonsense gut-check.
1. Establish / Grow Cash-flow
I’m going to assume you’re at a decent professional level – if you’re not, doing this stuff is probably going to be a soul breaking waste of time. If you’re not there yet, get a rich parent or failing that, pay the bills with non-art related job and spend all your free time working to attain pro level skills.
Once you’re there, priority one is cash flow – you need money to be flowing in, otherwise everything else grinds to a halt and you’ll be doing some ugly crying.
At the inception of my professional art career (0-3 years field experience) that meant working an extra non-art related job (or two) to pay the shortfall in cash and the odd freelance gig here and there when I could score them. I was less worried about how much I was getting paid for my art, than accepting assignments that would best showcase my abilities.
As my art career established after a few years (4-7 years field experience), I earned my cash exclusively from art gigs, writing for art magazines, career consulting and private teaching students who wanted to be professional artists.
In my more recent mature artist years (8-14+ years field experience), because of my workload, I no longer do any career consulting nor private. I have however built side businesses to diversify my income streams to reduce my financial risk, which in a field such as commercial art, is very very high.
You never know when a client is about to sink beneath the waves until they do, eliminating a stream of income, or worse, eliminating a stream of income and not paying their invoice before kicking the bucket. It happens all the time so you better hedge against it. My method of hedging against this was to create consumer products (bags) which reduces exposure to individual client woes.
2. Increase Profitability
Earning more and more money doesn't mean much if your discretionary spending increases proportionally - which is what happens to most people, they earn more, so they buy more random unnecessary shit, which means their bank balance (that I refer to as the War Chest) doesn't grow.
That's a mistake a lot of people with growing disposable incomes fall into because you don't see the consequences of that early, you'll only feel the consequences at the twilight of your career when you're unable to retire or wind down and you're forced to keep working to pay living expenses - or worse yet, they fall prey to ageism and they lose their income and have to live destitute.
So, you need to get somewhat familiar reducing your money outflows (expenditure) in comparison to money inflows (income) in order to attain significantly greater future rewards, meaning you need to improve overall profitability, and this is done in various ways such as:
a. Make budget to establish your financial guide posts
If you don't know how much you're making and spending (and on what), it’s akin to drawing in the dark...you’re going to draw a shit picture with no lights on. If you control what you're spending, then you'll likely have more money in the bank at the end of the day.
Simple concept that almost zero people (not just artists) undertake – sure it’s a pain in the ass, but you’re going to have to do some things that are a pain in the ass if you want to be successful. Quit the whining, just do it.
b. Increase your freelancing fees
As your skills and experience increase over time, you should be increasing your fees commensurate with this experience, earning more for the same amount of time spent working.
c. Improve workflow efficiency
If you streamline your workflow so that you can get 4 hours of work, done in 2 hours, that's a fantastic increase in profit.
So of course, you should be investing in ways to reduce workflow drag through increased technical means eg. adding 3D to your workflow if you're a concept artist, upgrading your workstation or better workflow efficiency eg. better project management methods, getting sleep so your brain functions better, etc.
d. Financial Structuring
Whether you work for yourself or a company as an employee, there are more effective ways of structuring your finances. For instance in Australia where I am from (throw a koala on the barbie), as an individual, you're taxed at a various increasing rate brackets the more your earn, which can top out at close to 50% of your income if you've pushed into 6 figures.
But if you set up a trust, you can distribute that same amount of income over numerous family members, allowing your income to be taxed at lower rates, meaning you retain and control more of the money that comes in.
Simply put, this step in increasing profits is really taking the volume of money you're making from step 1 and finding legal ways to retain more of it.
Talk to a good tax accountant and good independent financial planner about this – you’re not going to be able to set this up yourself.
3. Future Proof Skillset
Constant learning is a given, but I think you need to apportion it appropriately with an eye on long term viability, because even if it's something you love with all your heart, if no one needs it or is highly susceptible to low cost competition, you're going to go broke, so you need to act with a degree of pragmatism.
Improving your immediate skillset now, is great, it helps you earn more cash-flow and thus more profit, and is of immediate concern - but you also need to keep an active eye on where the world economy is heading and business trends so that you can tailor some of your time into learning skills that will allow you to retain your viability in the workplace.
For instance: typesetting as a viable career path in most first world countries is long gone. If you're personally interested in it, by all means have fun learning it, but if you're talking business, it makes very little sense to invest significant amounts of time into building this particular skillset.
In my own career, I've held the long term assumption that traditional illustration and production art jobs will be increasingly scarce, while motion graphics will have more medium term viability so I apportion my time as appropriately as I can towards this split.
And longer term still as more production is able to be off-shored due to increased global connectivity, art direction becomes increasingly valuable and insulated from offshoring and thus an area I more proactively pursue.
The key take-away is that you need to make sure your income generation ability continues long into the future by upgrading your skills to continue being useful to clients.
4. Invest For the Future
While you can absolutely earn good money selling your artistic services to profitable niches, I’ve always held the view you can't become financially independent (cough...rich) by only doing so - you need to keep working, and the minute you stop, the money ceases to come in.
You need to take the money that you save, and buy things that will grow in equity for the long term (a stake in a business, property, financial security instruments, fine wines, crypto, whatever I don't care) putting your money into high quality growth assets, means that your long term net worth grows with or without you actively working on it - that is how wealth is generated, not through earning an income no matter how good.
In order to do this, I'd recommend getting your financial housekeeping in order and seeking out the expertise of good advisor who can help you pull the various things like income protection, wills, health insurance, investment strategies, etc together into a cohesive plan against which you can measure your performance.
Personally, my long term investment plans needs to do a number of things for my family and I:
- Provide for expensive schooling fees for my children.
- Provide a comfortable life for my wife and I.
- Reduce my requirement to work to zero, so I 'choose' work because of fullfilment reasons, rather than income requirement.
- Hedge against inflation.
- Hedge against property pricing allowing me to help my kids out when they eventually want to purchase a home.
- Buy cool shit, because I like to buy cool shit.
- Have a sizeable multi-million dollar estate which I can pass on to my future generations and the community at the end of my life
- Allows me greater creative freedom
I chose commercial art as a career hearing many of the sad sad stories – you know the ones: art is a great way to be broke; it’s just going to end in disappointment; you’re never going to make a viable living out of it; etc etc ad nauseum.
But I chose (perhaps naïvely, perhaps arrogantly) to never buy into this collective view of art as a profession. Maybe it’s a bit dramatic, but I think it's highly detrimental to put a ceiling on what you can achieve, I prefer to push on ahead, and try to figure out a way to make it work.
BUT (and this is a big but) you can't just hope it will turn out differently from that ubiquitous sad story, I think you need to actively to work it, and not just tentatively, I mean full bore balls to the wall, make it an obsession, and then throttle back once you have cash in the bank and things are going well.
OK that's it - I’m not saying this is the only way to run your career and I’m not saying it will work for everyone, but it's working well for me and really, that’s the only vantage point I can write from. Hopefully you can take one or two things away from it and run with it.
Cheers. Ok and get back to work.