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Startup Costs

While it may seem like simply creating art in your bedroom, when you begin your career as an illustrator, you’re actually starting your own business. One of the things you’ll need to be aware of are the startup costs for getting yourself up and running. The good news, though, is an illustration career has a very low overhead. You don’t need employees, transportation, or retail space like a lot of other businesses. All you need is a website, some materials to work with, and a few hundred promotional mailers. (OK, you might need a little bit more than that, but not much more.) Here’s a basic list of what the average illustrator needs to start their business and the associated costs:


This is essential. There are many options available—you could go with a free site like Tumblr or Cargo or roll your own hosting using a CMS like WordPress or Stacy. We’ll discuss those options in a future posting, but, in the meantime you’re going to want to spring for your own domain name at the very least to make yourself seem more professional. You can find domain names for as cheap as $4/year and paid hosting plans from $7/month up if you choose to go that route.

Cost: $4/year – $200/year depending on options.


Every illustrator needs a computer. You can find them used if you must, but for starting your own business, I’d recommend splurging and getting a new one. It will last longer, work better, and just be less of a pain than that old one that takes 20 minutes to open Photoshop. Most likely you’ll want a Mac of some sort since that’s the industry standard. Laptops are great, but be aware that, for color accuracy, desktops like the iMac seem to handle it better. A nice compromise might be to buy a laptop and an external monitor for when you really need it.

Cost: $1,300 – $3,000


A scanner’s also a must. It doesn’t matter if your work is solely vector art or done on a Wacom tablet, there are going to be times when you just need to scan something in—whether it be art or a contract that needs to be emailed. Quality actually does matter quite a bit with scanners. If you do a lot of painted work and need good color accuracy and a large scanning area so you don’t have to stitch your art together from a million different scans, it’s going to be well worth it to cough up the dough for the Epson 11000XL. Unfortunately, those run around $2,500. Of course, if all you need is a small, lightweight scanner to capture the occasional image, go cheap. You can find nice ones for under $50.

Cost: $50 – $2,500


While we’re veering towards a paperless society, we’re not quite there yet. A printer is still a necessity. If you plan on making a lot of prints of your work to sell, investing in a good printer can actually be a money maker. However, if all you need is to print out the occasional email or manuscript, a cheap one will be just fine. If you purchase your computer at the right time, occasionally the Apple store even throws in a free (or steeply discounted) printer! Just beware—while printers are often super cheap these days, the ink cartridges are ridiculously expensive and will be a hidden cost.

Cost: Free – $1,000 + $70 for your first set of ink cartridges


OK, I know a lot of people still pirate software, but it feels s-o-o-o-o good to be legit. Plus, Creative Cloud memberships are fairly affordable—particularly with the amount of programs you actually get! At the time of this posting, Adobe Creative Cloud runs $49.99/month. However, there’s some good news: if you’re still a student, just about to graduate, or are a teacher, you’ll be eligible for the educational rate at $19.99/month. Additionally, some schools even have free licenses for their students which you can use for up to a year after you activate it. Check with your school to see what benefits they have before purchasing a license on your own.

Cost: Free (if your school has it) – $59.99/month


This will obviously vary depending on the type of artwork you produce. If you use a lot of paint, canvases and other materials, that will be quite a bit more expensive than the artist who just uses bristol board and some Micron pens. Keep in mind, though, that there are also a lot of hidden supply costs like envelopes for selling prints and mailing back contracts, ink cartridges (see the Printer section above), fonts you might want to use, and organizational things like clips and staplers. I’d budget for at least $500/year worth of supplies.

Cost: Varies, minimum $500

Promotional Expenses

The easiest method for art directors to be exposed to your work is still the tried and true postcard mailer. You probably won’t do a giant 1,000 person list for your first mailer (I’d suggest against that until you get some jobs under your belt), but a more concentrated mailer of around 250 – 500. We’ll discuss promos and lists in a future posting, but for the moment let’s skew towards a low number and say 250. At that amount, a typical 4″ x 6″ promo mailer will run you around $90 including shipping to your home. Don’t forget, though, that you need to mail these suckers out once you get them! Currently a postcard stamp runs $0.33, so that will be $82.50 for the mailing. Additionally, you’re going to want to do 3 – 4 mailings a year so we’ll multiply this all by 4.

Cost: $690


One other cost you might want to consider is submitting your work to annuals like ones run by the Society of Illustrators or American Illustration. Entries are over $25/piece so that can get quite expensive. It is worth it to budget a little bit of money for these things though. Maybe $200/year?

Cost: $200


You’re going to need a desk and a chair. Maybe even a dedicated drawing table. Chances are, by now though, you probably have those things and can make due with whatever you’ve got. For a startup, though, let’s estimate $300 for various furniture or things you might be lacking that you’ll need to help fill out your workspace.

Cost: $300


You could do your taxes on your own, but it gets really difficult once you’re buried in 1099s. Free yourself up and get an accountant. It’s well worth it.

Cost: Varies, we’ll average at $300


Finally, there are all the miscellaneous costs that you can’t foresee like props for photo shoots, research materials you’ll need to acquire, lunch meetings, etc. Also, some illustrators may need to add things like Cintiq or Wacom tablets and other peripherals. I’d allow $500 a year for unforeseen expenses.

Cost: $500


Adding up all these figures we come to a grand total of roughly $3,954 on the low end and $9,250 on the high end. Now, this also assumes you’re going to use your cell phone and home internet for your business and won’t have your own outside studio. Obviously, if you do get a separate workspace, your startup costs will be significantly more expensive.

If almost $4,000 seems a bit much, keep in mind that a lot of these startup costs are onetime fees or longterm investments like computers that won’t need to be replaced for another 5 years. Additionally, you may already have a lot of these materials from before you started pursuing illustration professionally, in which case, you can lower your total startup cost by a great deal as well. Finally, remember that, even for the amounts we’re talking about, starting up your very own business for under $4,000 is pretty darn good! Just think if you were a restauranteur or owned a clothing store!

My advice: begin saving money as soon as possible to invest in your business and try to acquire whatever items you can before going out on your own. Do that and starting up your freelance illustration career will be a heck of a lot cheaper!

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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