Everything I Learned About Being a Professional Artist, I Learned in 4th Grade
Although I create a fair amount of my own independent art, I’m a producer at a commercial company where we offer video, animation and design services for hire. Due to the nature of this business, I often spend more time educating the public about “how commissioned art works” than I spend actually creating art. Whenever I’m struggling with a client that wants the “trifecta” (fast, good, and free/cheap), I return to the lessons I learned from my first troublesome client in fourth grade. For fellow artists, writers, designers, and creative people in general, I have included hover-over footnotes that relate this fourth grade story to getting paid for commercial arts in the real world.
I was always good at drawing, but I didn’t realize until fourth grade that it was a very effective deterrent against bullies. People would find some reason to pick on me, but once I started drawing popular animated and comic book characters, everyone – including the bullies – gathered around to watch.
One day, Lance* (name has been changed to protect the guilty), the prematurely humongous bully that got away with everything because his mom was the lunch lady, spotted me at the drinking fountain. I froze like a deer in headlights as he came towards me. He looked around to make sure the coast was clear before he talked to me, the awkward nerd girl with the funny accent and stutter.
“Uh, can you….draw me a picture of this?”
He reached into his backpack and pulled out a crumpled comic book featuring a big-breasted Amazonian woman with white hair.
I blushed. “Uh…I…I dunno who that is.”
“Don’t you know anything?” he snorted. “It’s Glory from the Youngblood Strikefile! I want a big poster of her for my wall. Like…life sized. Or bigger! Can you do it?”
I considered the logistics of the project for a moment. Something told me that parents and teachers would not approve of this young lady fighting crime with her boobs hanging out like that. And if I didn’t do the project well, Lance would tell all of the other kids that I was a lousy artist, and the bullying would start again. I figured that if I worked after school before the late bus came every day for a solid month, I could create a great-looking poster without getting into trouble with my mom. But I would need some help to get started.
I bit my lower lip and braced myself, “I can do it for $35.”
“Aw, come on, can’t you just do it for free? That’s like three weeks allowance!”
“I don’t get an allowance at all, so I have to making drawings so I can buy stuff.” 
“That’s weird. Why doesn’t your mom just buy you things? Oh, right, I forgot. You’re family’s poor.” He laughed and snorted.
I blushed, put my head down, and turned away, “Well, okay, I gotta go now…” 
He stomped his foot, “It’s not fair, why won’t you just DO this? I can’t draw, and drawing is FUN for you.”
I turned back around. “Nuh-uh! I don’t even like this character!”
“But she’s popular. And if you make it good enough, maybe Marvel comics will be impressed and let you work there.”
“Oh, man, that would be so cool…but wait. How’s Marvel gonna see the picture if it’s in your house?”
“Uh…I have an uncle that works at Marvel. He makes all the comic books.”
I considered this for a moment. “Awesome!” I furiously flipped in my sketchbook. “Then I have a bunch of my own original ideas I want to show him and then maybe we can make them together!”
“Oh, he’s far-far away in Hollywood where all the artists live.”
“Wait. Huh? Then if he’s all the way in Hollywood, then how’s he gonna see anything I draw at all?”
“Come ooooooon, please? Are you gonna draw this for me or not? My mom will give you an extra chocolate milk at lunchtime for the next month!”
“Oooo…..but wait. Mom says chocolate milk makes you fat. And I can’t trade chocolate milk for art supplies. And I’m gonna need a LOT of peach crayons to color all of this boob skin.” 
“Wait a sec…”
Lance dug through his backpack and handed me a mangled box of dirty crayon stubs with a small pad of drawing paper. “There, now you can do it free because I gave you everything you need.”
I looked at the powdery mess of wax. “There are no peach crayons in here and the paper is too small.”
“Art teacher says you can melt all of the other crayon colors into the one you need. And then you can glue the pieces of paper together to make them really big.”
“I’m not allowed to use matches. And gluing paper together looks crappy.” 
“Fine. I have a thing of quarters I’ve been saving next to my bed. I’ll see how much I have so we can trade.”
“That sounds fair.”
The next day, he brought in his barrel of change and we counted it out. $15.25.
“Ok,” I replied. “Maybe I can do a little-er picture and-”
“No way! I want the biggest picture ever! WALL SIZED! Can’t you just do it for cheaper?”
“But it’s gonna take me a whole month to make it! I won’t be able to make my own art projects or do drawings for other people that whole time, and I’m saving up quarters to beat Dark Stalkers at the arcade.”
“Well, if I give you any money, how do I know you’re gonna finish it?”
“I have an idea,” I said, doing math in my notebook. “Okay, so if you give me $15.25 now, then I need $19.75 when it’s done. I’ll make a receipt thing like they give at the store, one for you, one for me. And I guess we both sign it?”
“That’s a good idea. And I’ll just get the rest from my brother. I’ll tell him that you ever become a famous artist, and then the picture will be worth a lot of money. And then you’ll buy it back from us, right?”
“I’m not sure that’s how it works. I think teacher said the value of art increases when the artist is dead.”
“Okay, then we’ll wait for that.”
As expected, took me about a month to draw the semi-pornographic poster in secret. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, afraid that someone might see it and take my barrel of precious video game quarters. The delivery day finally came and we decided to meet in the lunch room by the trash cans.
“You got the picture?”
I pulled it out.
“WHOAH! Her boobies are the size of my head!”
“Hold on a sec, do you have extra money?”
“I forgot it. I’ll bring it to you tomorrow. But I want to show this to my brother tonight!” He made a grab for the picture.
I got a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach.  “Uh, I think it would be better if you gave me the rest and then I gave you the picture.”
“Just give it to me now!” he started to get louder.
“Stop, you’re gonna wrinkle it!” I screamed.
Just then, Lance’s mom happened to walk by, donning her lunch lady garb.
“Just what is going on here?” she said in a booming voice.
We both froze in place. “Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhh…”
“Give me whatever you are fighting about. Right now.”
Her eyes grew wider with each she unrolled the picture. I was terrified that she was going to rip it up and toss it into the heap of discarded green beans and tater tots.
“You drew this?” she asked me.
I nodded but did not look up at her.
“So why were you trying to take away her drawing, Lance?”
“I paid for it, fair and square.”
“NUH-UH!” I dug around in my packback and pulled out my copy of the receipt. The lunch lady looked at it closely. 
“Lance, this is your signature.”
“Yeah, but my brother changed his mind. But I still have the drawing. So make her give it to me.”
“Why did you lie to this poor girl? Your brother doesn’t have any interest in…this…nor does he have $19.75.”
The lunch lady dug around in her apron and pulled out a $20 bill. “Here you go, dear. Keep the change.” She turned around to glare at Lance. “I’ll just take some of it out of his next allowance. The rest he’ll earn by mowing lawns.”
“Hey, if you buy something on credit, you need to pay for it! Time is money, sweetie-cakes.”
“Moooooom! Don’t call me that at school!”
So why do “starving artists” exist? Is art really only valuable after your dead?
The answer is no.
To non-artists, our trade seems fun and glamorous. Even worse, now it seems “easy”. Heck, I cringe every time I see a commercial on television for “handicams that make it easy to make HD movies” and “software that will make you paint like Van Gogh.” The technology has changed a lot since the days of cranking silent film cameras and hacking off ears as a form of expression, but I promise being a good craftsperson and storyteller has not. You can have an unlimited budget, the top-of-the-line technology, and still create total garbage (Example: Wolverine. Budget: $150 million)
It’s your duty as an artist to refine your trade and remind clients why you are valuable – no one is doing you a favor by “allowing” you to be an artist. You don’t see people walking to the fancy coffee shop and demanding lattes for free because the barista only has one year experience making coffee. Working commercial jobs for free sets a bad precedent and undermines yourself and your fellow artists. If anyone complains, blame the scary 6 foot tall
pimp producer lady you heard about from the internet for forcing you to ask for money.
If you’re just dabbling or want to build your portfolio, donate work to a small charity in need or make a collaborative/ independent project that you actually enjoy. Don’t look at other artists as your competition. Meet fellow creatives, compare notes, heck, compare rates! My most loyal, fair, paying clients have almost exclusively been word-of-mouth referrals from my artist colleagues.
As for Lance? He was miffed at me for about a week. I avoided him by playing Dark Stalkers with my newly earned money at the arcade (I beat it, by the way). Eventually, his friends saw the blazing Glory art across his wall and got jealous. He was so delighted to be the only kid on his block to own boobies the size of his head that commissioned me to draw Rogue from the X-men on his Trapper Keeper (her boobs were more reasonable). In high school, he and a group of bullies even bought a bunch of my weird ceramic palm tree lamps. Of course, I was horrified when I discovered that the lamps were popular because they were easy to convert into bongs, but that’s another story.
Awesome photograph provided for non-commercial use, courtesy of photographer & artist, Lavinia Marin
-  Always consider logistics before giving a quote. A good rule of thumb is (time it takes to make project x your hourly wages based on experience) + Materials/Rentals + 10% contingency. Additional costs to consider: +25%-35% for rush jobs, “hazard pay”, travel, facilities. ↩
-  Yes, artists have bills, too. Even in the 4th Grade. ↩
-  If a client is being abusive to get you to lower your rates, walk away. It’s okay to “fire” clients. ↩
-  Don’t let people convince you that you should work for free because “making art is fun”. ↩
-  Beware of doing work for the promise of “exposure.” Most people are full of malarkey. ↩
-  Bartering is good, but make sure it doesn’t affect the quality of your final product. ↩
-  Do not let a client skimp on materials if you know if will affect the final product. They’ll blame you if the final project looks bad or does not last. In the case of structural artists like architects, it can cost lives. ↩
-  If a client has a limited budget, offer a mutually-beneficial scaled-back solution. If you reach for the money without the proper resources, you won’t even get off the ground. If your client still wants something ambitious, they will find the budget. People pay for things that they value, and you become more valuable by establishing a good reputation for creating quality projects. ↩
-  Clients & artists both benefit from a contract. Even if it’s in crayon. Also, read the darned thing! ↩
-  Always trust your gut. Do not deliver your final project without your final payment. You’re an artist, not a collection agency. ↩
-  Don’t be afraid to refer to an agreement if terms are not met – even if the client has “political connections”. ↩