10 Things to Consider When Pricing Illustrations

A Designer’s, Art Director’s and Illustrator’s Cost-Guide to Pricing Illustrations

One of the delicate business challenges for professional designers, creative directors and illustrators alike is how to fairly estimate the cost of illustration. Yet, equally important to setting a price is evaluating peripheral issues associated with a project. Illustration costs can vary dramatically from market to market, and even from one client to another within the same market. Likewise, a wide variety of art styles, techniques, and individual working methods make quoting flat and/or hourly rates difficult for illustrators. For art directors and designers with fixed budgets, this creates an obvious and unavoidable lack of uniformity to illustration rates, making it essential for everyone involved to review the interrelated aspects of a project before setting a dollar-amount. An awareness of the topics listed below can establish a reasonable balance between the illustrator, the client, and the creative staff in formulating pricing agreeable to all.

1) A Review of the Options for Client Usage and Rights

Clients can purchase an illustration in three ways: paying one-time usage rights, purchasing a buy-out for all or partial usage rights, or as a work-for-hire.

With one-time usage rights, a client purchases the non-exclusive right to publish a commissioned illustration for one time, for one or more specific uses. Any uses beyond those initially agreed-to are considered separate transactions (normally priced at a percentage of the initial cost for the illustration). The artist retains copyright to the art in one-time-usage commissions.

For buy-out rights, the client pays a somewhat higher fee which allows (non-exclusive) use of an illustration for multiple applications for a pre-determined fee, with no additional income to the artist (yet those use-limits can be set). In this arrangement, the artist also retains the copyright to the work (however, a client can also purchase the copyright to the art in this scenario).

With work-for-hire contracts, a freelance illustrator becomes a “temporary” employee of the client (without benefits). This one-sided transaction allows a client to own the art and anything else the illustrator creates during the commissioned work-period (including all rough sketches, concepts, design solutions, character development, etc.). The client can use all the above wherever and whenever they choose with no additional payment(s) to the artist. While negotiation possibilities may exist in work-for-hire arrangements, for the most part illustrators who agree to work-for-hire conditions give up all rights to their art. Often, the artist cannot even use their final art for promotional purposes (website, etc.). Everyone involved with this working agreement needs to consider the huge benefits to clients when they set an illustrator’s one-time fee for work-for-hire images.

[Related: Aaron Draplin: A Checklist for Handing Off Design Files | Illustration, Illuminated: Turning a Critical Eye Toward the History of Illustration]

2) Reasonable Deadline

Illustration prices should be based on a reasonable turn-around time for delivery of finished art. If a client’s deadline is tight, most art directors will adjust the final price to reflect this “rush” aspect to the creation of the image. If a client changes the deadline in mid-stream during the art’s production, the client, designer and illustrator can discuss an added cost to the initial quoted price to compensate for the change of terms. 

3) Project Description and Timeline

After an initial verbal or e-mail review of the specifics of an illustration, it’s wise for illustrators to submit a brief written project description detailing a synopsis of the assignment: the style, the medium, the size of the original, the reproduction size, the delivery format, the deadline, the client’s usage rights, and any additional information regarding the work (a valuable tool for all parties). This can be written in an e-mail or can be a separate PDF document which includes the quoted price. Also helpful is a tentative timeline or production schedule estimating the artist’s creative time. This will inform the client and creative team as to what and when they’ll review work in progress. 

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Above and below: This institutional illustration created for a Baylor University “Walking Tour” was sold as a buy-out to the client, with the artist retaining the right to utilize the image for his own (not-for-profit) self-promotional needs (differing from work-for-hire arrangements where this option is often not allowed). (The art was hand-drawn and digitally assembled.)

The illustrated map of the Baylor Campus in Waco, Texas is used on line by the university, in print form and in on-campus signage with no additional “use” charges (typical of a buy-out).

As per the initial price quote/project description for this assignment, the artist was also compensated for travel expenses to visit the site where he met with university personnel as well as completed on-site research for the illustration. Annual updates to the campus map art are charged in addition to the original total cost of the assignment.

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4) Revisions

The very nature of commercial design and illustration is that everyone can usually expect revisions to work in progress. But, it’s reasonable for clients/designers to compensate an illustrator if numerous alterations are required. Redundant or contradictory revisions as well as client changes that hamper the deadline are events that can cause a quoted price to increase after the fact. Some illustrators prefer to attend to such potential incidents, and the fees for such, in their initial quote where they establish the maximum number of allowable client alterations during the rough sketch stages. 

5) Additional Costs

In every artist/client agreement, there should be wording that releases the artist from extra expenses incurred during the course of a job: the purchase of props, products, or any other non-illustration-related expenses beyond the cost of creating the final art. Secondary costs typically surface after work is underway, so it’s best to address the responsibility of (potential) additional charges at the outset.

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6) Payment Terms

The standard illustration payment term is net 30 days (though there may be exceptions and some clients may have longer payment terms). Some artists choose to include additional fees for late payments beyond the 30-day due date. Also, for projects that may span a few months, it’s not out of line for illustrators to request partial or percentage payments at keys points during production.

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An editorial illustration for Adventure Cyclist magazine depicts one man’s cross-Europe bicycle trip as recalled from his 1968 visit. The artwork was created and sold as one-time use only for use in the magazine’s printed edition as well as its “digital features” and “on-line features” sites. Any future uses beyond those noted in the original project description would be charged at a percentage of the original cost.

7) Transfer of Rights to the Client

The right to reproduce illustrations legally transfers to a client only after final payment. An essential point that should be noted in an illustrator’s initial price quote as it informs that reproduction rights are assigned only after the artist is compensated and can assure speedy resolutions to any unforeseen difficulties that may have arisen during the art’s production. This is especially important with work-for-hire assignments as work-for-hire contracts should technically not become valid until an artist has been paid. 

8) Artist’s Credit

It’s wise for artists and designers to discuss the inclusion of an artist’s credit in any reproductions of work(s) created (either by retaining the artist’s signature in the art, or with a typeset credit line, or both). This may seem like an obvious insertion, but some markets take issue with an illustrator’s signature appearing on the artwork (advertising illustration is an example). Most will cordially comply with this request (such as editorial), but it’s best to address this point during preliminary negotiations.

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Created under a typically tight advertising deadline, this illustration was sold at a one-time use fee, but those uses covered several areas from print brochures to magazine promotions for Marriott’s Fairfield Inn & Suites in Chicago. The illustration was designed to depict the hotel’s central location in the city environs in a non-technical, yet fun and accurate manner. The original illustration, rendered in ink with watercolor, was purchased by the hotel at the completion of the assignment for an additional fee (beyond the initial price) for on-site display in the hotel.

9) Illustrator’s Right to Promote with the Art

A very important sentence to add to every illustration contract should state, “The artist retains the right to utilize the image(s) produced for his/her own (not-for-profit) self-promotional needs.” This allows the illustrator to reserve the right to use the art on a Website, in print advertising, or in magazine articles and books. In short, anything at all that the illustrator deems as his or her own “self promotion.” (The term “not for profit” here refers to the obvious fact that an illustrator will not be producing “for sale” products using the image(s) created for a client (unless initially allowed)).

Although one may assume this is a logical right for illustrators, some clients challenge artists’ usage of works created. Even on one-time-use and buy-out projects, clients may feel they are paying for the sole use of an illustration. Clients and creative staff need to understand that freelance illustrators depend on their ability to showcase work they’ve produced as a means to acquiring new clients. Even with works for hire, where this option does not exist, illustrators should to try to negotiate this usage right.

10) Ownership of Original Art

Except in work-for-hire situations, ownership of original art is always retained by the illustrator. Treat the purchase of original work as a separate sale unless otherwise noted in the price quote. (Not a big concern in this digital marketplace, but often an original painting or drawing is created in conjunction with a digital illustration, and it’s wise to address the ownership of those pieces at the inception of the assignment.)

Lastly, it should be noted in the terms of a project that no one but the “illustrator” is allowed to revise or alter the final work(s) of art. Though rare, the “touching-up” of finished illustrations by clients does occur. 

The “Purchase Order”

So far we’ve been talking a lot about the illustrator’s written “price quote,” but a client’s reciprocal “purchase order” is the legal document that will really dictate the final terms of any assignment. A Purchase Order (or P.O.) is a company’s internal paperwork stipulating that they are “ordering” an illustration from an artist within specific, spelled-out terms and deadlines. Any matters raised in the illustrator’s price quote will most likely show up in the client’s purchase order…or the P.O. will refer those terms by stating, “…as noted in the artist’s price quote of ( date ).”

While the points covered above are, for the most part, common knowledge to most professionals in the field, having these factors out in the open prior to launching a project helps clarify the requirements and responsibilities of each party allowing all to begin an assignment satisfied with the quoted price and its terms. 


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