No job, No freelance, No regrets

Throughout 2015, I have taken no outside employment. My last real job hasn’t been since late 2013, when I was fired from Kabam. I spent much of 2014 chasing down other people’s fan bases and consulting on other people’s companies. I did a lot of teaching and freelancing, thinking all the while that I would someday I would have the free time to make my own creations. Last December, I turned in a pretty ugly card illustration that prompted the art director and I to have words with each other. That was the last time I worked for anyone. That might be the last time I ever work for anyone.


Opting to work for one’s self is a choice that very few people make and that’s probably the right one. To me, the choice to put my family’s future in my own barely capable hands was essential. I need to be the one making choices and knowing how things work in order to be satisfied. I love learning systems. Operating a small business is like playing a never ending game where the points are scored with real money. It’s like Dark Souls meets gambling and you can never turn it off. Good choices can be rewarded with tens of thousands of dollars while bad choices can be punished just as brutally.

Recently, I was told that my brother had recently received a raise of $10K a year, my first thought was “That’s great!” and the second thought was “That’s weird!”. Someone was simply giving him permission to earn that much more. If I wanted to make $10K more a year, I would have to come up with an idea that would either gain an extra $10K in income or prevent $10K in liabilities. There is a direct correlation between the value of my choices and the quality of my compensation. That makes me happy and I want to keep it that way.

While 2015 was a mixed tapestry of successes and failures, the net benefit of the whole ordeal has come out positive. The experiment will continue, the show will go on and I will rudely correct people they assume I work freelance.

People I know on the Internet aren't doing great.

I’ve started to notice that my worldview doesn’t really jive with many of the most prominent speakers in the fantasy art space. Art directors and tastemakers seem to be painting a picture of world where people start at the bottom and work their way to the top. It’s the whole busboy, to restauranteur narrative that is equally popular (and often despised) in the foodservice industry.

“You work hard at this job kid, and some day you’ll be owning the place!”

What I’ve heard when I talk to working artists seems very clear to me. A lot of incredibly hard working people have a very scattered level of success. Some of them seem to be doing extremely well, with incomes that allow them to live comfortable lives as part the middle class or higher. Meanwhile, the vast majority seem to be working equally hard, only to scrape by at or below the poverty line. A freelance artist's success seems to have much more to do with one's ability to fulfill the specific tastes of the commercial industry more than anything else.

Last week, I put out a survey to poll freelance fantasy artists about their income to start the conversation about how much people are really making. The survey itself was hastily written and very flawed. Ultimately, it showed that the people who reply to my surveys seem to be doing about as well as the people I’ve talked to anecdotally. Which is to say, not very well.

74% of the 317 respondents answered the question “What was your total art related income in 2014?” with an amount of $20,000 per year or less. With 62% of that group making less than $5,000 per year.

On the other side of the scales, 11% of respondents reported making over $50,000 per year or more. An income which many would consider a middle class income in America. Proof that some people are doing well with the right assets and opportunities.

As I said, these numbers are totally unsurprising to me. This survey sample is so horribly skewed towards the people that I’m likely to be in contact with that I can’t say it represents the industry at large. The reason I’m publishing this is to start the process of doing better polling as well as to explain the origin of my worldview to those who disagree with me.

I urge you to refrain from seeking to find any real conclusions from these numbers. The number of possible narratives the data seems to support are both numerous and contradictory. This is a starting point at best, a chart with exactly one point on it. I’m planning on creating a far more insightful poll for 2015 with the help of people more experienced in statistics. So hopefully, I’ll have something more meaningful to share in a few months.

Thanks to everyone who participated! I believe that keeping the flow of information open feels both positive and necessary for the well being of the art community.


People think your art is bad.

It seems that one cannot write an article about artists without reiterating that they are their own worst critics. So, let’s get that out of the way right now. We’re terrible at assessing our own work. What’s worse, artists as a group tend to have very different tastes from the populous at large. Keeping the opinions of your artwork inside the bubble of professional opinion can be dangerous. Regardless, striving to achieve greatness as an image maker is still worth perusing. Your power as a craftsman can be essential to your success. However, being successful as an artist involves more than making expertly rendered paintings. In fact, it's likely that the business around the art matters more than the artwork itself. Some of the most accomplished craftsmen in the world do very poorly while some people whose work that you think sucks are doing great. That’s because our individual judgement over an artist’s work is basically meaningless in the marketplace.

There is a decent chance that if you are reading this piece, you are an artist who thinks that they aren’t ‘good’ enough (whatever that means). In fact, there are people out there who agree with you. They might say passive aggressive things like you “aren’t there yet” or describe your work as not on a level with “so and so”. That’s bullshit. You may not have work that fits the needs or taste of a particular art director or taste maker but that doesn’t mean your work is ‘bad’. And yes, people do call your work ‘bad’. I can say that confidently because I’m sure no one has escaped being called ‘bad’ by somebody, somewhere, sometime. If you haven’t been called ‘bad’ before, then you are in real trouble because that means no one is looking at your work. There is no art so immaculate that someone will not assault it, that’s just a painful truth about being an artist.

As artists, we desire to express ourselves, but that is ultimately an embarrassing process. Saying something honest and heartfelt in a public space opens up the most extreme fear and shame response that a person can have. Making good art is like making a public speech that never ends because it never goes away. We wrap our feelings in superficial barriers that protect our more intimate selves from this embarrassment. This is where I think artists tend to subvert their own work. It's easier to aspire to be like some famous artist that everybody seems love than to be yourself. It's a trap that's so easy to fall into and I see it happen all the time.

There are many many criteria to judge our work on. So, let’s reject the idea of assessing ourselves as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Even if you are bad at art, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t entitled to whatever success you can achieve. If you can create consumer demand for your work, art directors can reject you all day long without consequence. Gallery owners, collectors and other important figures make up a tiny fraction of the art buying world. Being in their good graces is nice and sometimes profitable but hardly necessary. If you could get past what they think about your work, you could make anything. In fact, you CAN make anything. Any thinking that leads you to believe otherwise is the quiet, yet familiar whisper of your own fear.

Trust what your fear tells you, it will always lead you in the exact opposite direction you should be heading.

A House Divided

I wrote something on Facebook that made a lot of people mad.

“If you want to buy exposure for your art, don't pay entry fees to publications, just buy an ad.”

The responses to this got were hostile on both sides. My own writing in the heat of the moment was openly vicious. I was angry. Not really about fees or advertising, but about a community that sometimes feels as though it is doing bad by its most vulnerable members.

Over the past year I’ve reevaluated a lot of the things I held true about being a professional artist and it has begun to make me feel increasingly expulsed from the illustration community. Separating from traditional values has helped my life and career in a number of ways but it’s also revealed a lot of problems that I didn’t previously see. The worst of which, is that some of the advice being given by many of the smartest, most passionate and most successful people in the illustration world is so similar that its leading many artists to confusion, failure and poverty. Seeing this makes me want to help, but helping means telling some important people that I think they are wrong.

A commenter wrote that my advice is “damaging” and that’s probably the truth. My views and values are harmful to some people because they might lead them away from things that would help them succeed. However, for a different group of people, those same values might lead them to a greater success and vice versa. Looking at it through the distorted lens of Facebook, these multifaceted truths distort everything and everyone into a twisted, monstrous version of itself.

Identifying what truth is correct for which person is not easy and not for me to say. Those of us who are not served by the common wisdom of the illustration community do not wear a sign. We don’t conform to separations of genre, medium, age or gender. We’re like the androids in Blade Runner or Battlestar Galactica. We live among you, we look like you, but we are fundamentally different (I ingest sulfur to survive).

The real problem, as I see it, is not that anyone is giving bad advice, it’s that we are risking a monoculture of ideas. With much of the illustration culture valuing a very narrow criteria for professional success, many aspiring artists are being led away from their personal success. Scores of aspiring artists subvert their interests in order to conform to goals which they’ve been led to believe are essential (Magic, book covers, gallery shows, Spectrum, etc.). The inability for many people to achieve these things implants the false idea that they are either lazy, untalented or unworthy. What feels more true to me, is that there are a lot of unique ideas out there that aren’t being heard because too many people are infatuated with tiny, albeit attractive targets.

For example, thousands of artists pay significant entry fees to apply to juried annuals each year. That number is exploding in part because the common wisdom around them is that it they are fundamentally worthwhile, valuable and important. It’s easy to believe that such a thing is true when everyone around you believes it. And they might believe it because it’s fundamentally true for them. But what about those of us for whom it is not true?

I am personally not going to be entering any more paid annuals again, not on principle, but because it just isn’t worth it for me. I’m also going to continue to advise most people (not all) to do the same. If I can successfully convince artists who are a bad fit for annuals to stop submitting, it will not tear down an institution which many people hold dear. If I succeed, it will open up more space in a crowded market for those who truly value it.

There are an endless number of paths to success and not all of them are right for everyone. Just the other week, JAW Cooper was on my show describing the way she balances commercial work, personal work and camping. It was the exact opposite of anything I would ever do myself but she made it seem like the best idea in the world. That was an awesome moment. Seeing someone find balance in their own way and make success on their own terms makes me happy and I want that for more artists.

I hope this clears things up.


What does it mean to be an independent artist?

What does it mean to be an independent artist?

Many artists share the same dream. We want to create imaginative images and share them with other people. Whether that’s by recreating our favorite characters from pop-culture or by creating new worlds from whole cloth, our ambitions are very similar. The one common barrier that we all share is sadly practical. We need money to pay our bills and take care of our families. The way we overcome that barrier is often what defines our career. Some of us find work in studios, while others work from home as freelancers. I have found much more happiness and success as an independent artist. Being an independent artist is not a label that defines the sorts of art you make, but how you choose to make a living off of it. It means making the majority of your income directly from your fan base without working through an intermediary like a publisher or studio.


Why now?

Part of what makes the independent career possible is the fact that we are currently going through a period of expansion within the world of genre fiction. More fans than ever are pouring through physical and online marketplaces. Attendance at the world’s largest pop-culture conventions are exceeding the capacity of the world's largest venues. Meanwhile, online spaces like Tumblr, Imgur and Instagram are providing engaged fan bases in the millions to artist that spend the time to attract them. With so many customers, with so many diverse tastes, there is a seemingly endless amount of space for creators to bring their products to this market.


What do I need to be independent?


Some people believe that there is an opportunity to get rich quick in this business. That’s possibly the biggest misconception you can make. To acquire the skills to create a strong product in the independent art market, you need to spend years learning to draw and paint. It takes as much dedication to build this skill set as it takes to become a surgeon. On top of that, you must also spend the time to learn how to create and operate a business for your art. This is not a shortcut to easy success.



You will fail many times on your road to becoming a successful independent artist. These failures will come in every conceivable form and you will likely fail in every way possible before you learn to do better. Having the capacity to absorb these failures and learn from them is as necessary as any other trait. If you are lucky, a thought may occur to you that will make you realize that your mistakes cost you vast amounts of money, years wasted or relationships trashed. This should not be avoided, this is the toll you must pay to succeed. Anyone unwilling to pay that price will not be able to move past those failings and do better.


Business Acumen

We live in a world where you are only as powerful as your most powerful spreadsheet. That’s not any less true for us as artists as it is for any other industry. It is essential to step apart from the inward facing world of the artist so that you can see your work as a business. Learning the trade skill of business is not any more complicated that the trade of painting, but it requires a level of analysis that is deeply uncomfortable for some people. You must coldly evaluate your work, your time and your expertise. It’s a strange and ill-fitting hat, but it has to be worn in order to be your own boss.


Where does the money come from?

As an independent artist, there is no right or wrong way to make money. As artists work differs, so too does the business around the work. However, there are some common threads.


Website sales

Having an online store is the backbone for many artist’s income. It’s also easier than ever to make one. I use Squarespace to build my sites and it usually doesn’t take more than a day to completely build or overhaul a beautiful looking website with an integrated storefront. A good website, with appealing products, fed by strong traffic can provide enough income to support an artist wholy. The most common products for sale are often original art and reproductions. However, many artists also invest in developing books, gaming accessories and apparel that can bolster their sales substantially.


Convention Sales

Traveling can be a burden, but it can also be a boon. Going to where your customers are instead of waiting for them to come to you can mean the difference between success and failure, especially in the beginning. With a seemingly unlimited numbers of comic cons, anime cons, art festivals, music festivals and gaming expos, the only limitation to the number of events you participate in is your tolerance for the rigors of travel.


Crowd Funding

Websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Patreon have allowed creators to create online sales campaigns. This can mean making some extra side cash, foregoing traditional publishing or even creating a treadmill of income that funds your entire life. The nature of these sites speak to the heart of being independent as an artist and reward its core values.



The old adage that “those who cannot do, teach” is fundamentally wrong. The people

who have learned the most are the best equipped to make money with educational products and services. Creating online tutorials and running personalized mentorship programs are an opportunity to enjoy the satisfaction of teaching while also making a sizeable amount of income.


How does the pay compare?

There is very little talk of money in this business. It’s a deeply personal matter to many and discussing income can be seen as offensive, insulting or degrading. This is understandable but a lack of discussion on this topic has lead to the propagation of a folk wisdom that can be hazardous to the artistic community at large. I believe in erring on the side of openness and honesty, so let’s talk real numbers.


The Low End

Most people will make less than $10,000 per year. That’s a normal place to start but it’s not enough to live off of. There is a lot of space for people to succeed in this business, but there is infinitely more space for them to fail. Finding a track where you can begin to find your market is hard and you may never be able to do it.


The High End

The upper end of the pay scale is very very high. There are millionaires in this space but there aren’t a ton of them. There is at least one independent artist I know of that’s broken $1,000,000 a year in income are there are certainly a few more that I don’t know of. There is technically no upper limit to pay in this market. That can be both deceptive and encouraging at the same time. Don’t count on it.


The Middle

In the middle, there is a lot of space to make a livable wage. We can define this as around $30-60K per year. If you have invested smartly in your work, making this much is very doable. It’s actually more doable than most people give themselves credit for. Dedicated artists who have carved out a small, dedicated fan base can make this much if they make good, well informed business moves.


With only a few slight adjustments and a little time, more seasoned independent artists make $100-200K per year. What’s interesting about this is that those adjustments are rarely related to the craft of art. It’s the strength or your vision and your business that can make the difference between $30K and $150.


How to get started?

This is the part where I plug my workshop. Along with five other independent artists, I’m helping to teach people how to get into this space. We’re holding a 4 day workshop and symposium where we are going to be helping artists become better at being independent. It’s called One Fantastic Workshop.


This year’s workshop is in Nashville, TN on November 5-8. Tuition covers room and board. You will spend four days working alongside, hearing talks by and meeting one on one with people who do this every day. Come out and meet us!

The problems with artist pay on Magic

Working on Magic:The Gathering is a life goal for a lot of artists. It’s a goal for many that signifies “making it” as a fantasy artist. The sad truth, is that it’s not as good of a deal as most people think. For some, it’s worthwhile for them to work on the project anyways. Fantasy art is a tough business and Magic is a relevant breaking in point for a great deal of artists worldwide. It’s too bad that it ultimately doesn’t provided a sustainable income for most of artists that work on it. In fact, it’s probably paying a small fraction of what it should be.

This is not a condemnation of the people I’ve worked with. The creative team treated me better than I deserved. They are a sharp crew with a deep passion for creating great things. Everyone I worked with was deeply capable and empathetic to the needs of the artists they worked with. That’s not in question. The problem here is the way that the corporate decision makers at Wizards of the Coast and the Hasbro executives above them choose to compensate artists for the value they bring to the Magic brand.

There are three main problems and they are all pretty bad, but I don’t want to confuse them. These are issues that need to be addressed separately and with different departments within WotC. It’s not a change that could happen overnight but it’s a change that should happen.

1. The base rates didn’t keep up with the times

Back in 1999, WotC switched over from a primarily royalty based payment system to an upfront payment system. Artists hated it, but there wasn’t getting around it. Magic had the opportunity to grow fast and paying royalties was potentially a huge barrier to doing so. The amount they ended up paying at the time was substantial decrease, but it might be argued that for the time it was a fair re-adjustment.

The really problem is that those rates were frozen in time between 1999 and 2014. At which point they bumped the average rate up by around 20%. In that same time, Magic has grown from a hobby shop hit, into a worldwide cultural phenomenon. When the product grows somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000%, the people who helped get it there should get to share some of that success. If WotC were to set aside a tiny portion, even as small as .1% of the net profit to split up amongst all the creatives that helped it succeed, they could make the pay from Magic a long term sustainable part of artist’s lives.

Magic is still the highest paying gig in gaming, but that’s not exactly a fair comparison. Tabletop gaming is tiny industry and most products are selling units measured in thousands as opposed to the hundreds of millions of units that Magic has sold. When most card games pay $125, they are actually paying a far larger portion of the project’s gross income back to the people who helped make it. The slice of the Magic pie that gets side aside for paying artists and writers is insignificant. This extends to the small staff of creatives that work in-house at WotC as well as the hundreds of contractors that they hire to make all the art in the game.

2. Licensing is big business and we're left out

The real dirty laundry in my opinion is the licensing deals. As a Magic artist, I can’t print my art on to anything other than a piece of paper. This means that playmats, deck boxes, t-shirts, card sleeves, etc, are all verboten. Meanwhile WotC has made all of those out of my work and also included it in products like video games and action figures. The non-negotiable contracts that come with all employment at WotC make this totally standard and legel.

Not being allowed to print rubber mats with fantasy characters on them might seem like a small issue but the truth is that it’s actually a life changing disparity. When Ultrapro printed playmats of the 3 god cards I illustrated, they paid WotC a sizable fee for the permission. If I had received that fee instead, the amount of pay I got for creating that illustration would potentially be 50 times greater than the amount I was paid. That’s just for the playmats. Looking at all the work of mine they sold the rights to, I’m pretty sure I missed out on enough licensing money to provide a comfortable life for my family for the next 10 years.

When the upfront pay rate was established, WotC was essentially paying artists for their time to create the art. Many of these licensing opportunities simply didn’t exist. As they have become increasingly common, the pay for these "work for hire" jobs has not increased with it. So while WotC has made millions off the merchandise and licensing surrounding Magic, they haven't be liable to pay anything back to the people who created the art they sell. In fact, they have grown accustomed to requesting that the card art be created in ways that make it easier for them to re-use and license in multiple different ways.

3. Ownership of the Intellectual Property

When you create a popular comic book character, setting or story for Marvel or DC, they pay you royalties to reuse them. When Killer Croc appeared the Batman animated series, Don Newton got paid. When Erebos appeared in Magic: Gathering commercials, I don’t.

The conflict within the comic book industry is often about how many people and how much royalty money should get paid. Currently, that just a fanciful daydream for Magic artists. No creative person who has helped to define the IP for Magic is getting paid for royalties at all. Which is especially astounding considering that Magic is becoming noticeably more rigid about the imagery that appears in the game. As the product has matured, the “everything goes” attitude that defined the early expansions has been replaced by a carefully crafted set of unique worlds and characters. Hundreds of unique characters, locations and story elements are being created for a billion dollar entertainment juggernaut without paying a dime in royalties. It’s enough for Walt Disney to pop out of his grave to give everyone at Hasbro a high five.

When fans support Magic, they think they are also supporting the people behind the game and it sad to see that it’s not the case. I believe that there are a lot of people who want to see this change. Fans, artists and team members at WotC are certainly behind the idea. Even though I probably won’t work for them ever again, I thus won’t benefit from any shift in policy, I would still like to see a change that improves the quality of life for my peers.


-Pete Mohrbacher

Post Script: 

The worst part about writing my recent article is that no matter how hard I try to explain that my complaints are not the fault of the WotC Art Directors, I can't seem to avoid harming them. These critiques are related to policies that are set by executives that dictate the terms that the ADs must work within and exist in themselves.  Regardless, there seems to be no way of firing shots at the faceless corporate juggernaut that is Hasbro without causing them to land in the chests of the few people over there that I actually care about. 

 The ADs at WotC have been allies to the artists there and have been their strongest advocates for compensation over the past 20 years. Jeremy Jarvis in specific has personally done more for me than any other AD I've worked with and has arguably enacted more positive change for artists than any other person from within WotC since Hasbro acquired them. Which makes me especially sorry that I've continued to cause him and the rest of the creative staff hurt over the few years I worked with them.

I'm probably not the best person to carry the torch on the subject of rights and compensation because of my checkered history with breaking/bending rules around them. As people have brought up, those instances make my recent arguments look especially ill willed and I realize that. My hope is that by raising awareness of the situation as it is will help people discuss it honestly and openly.

Why I think Spectrum Live should move to LA

This topic has come up a lot in private, so, I figure it was worth talking about publicly.

I think this Spectrum Fantastic Art Live should move to a different city, probably LA.

I got this idea when I was listening to an interview with Terry Crews. You know, the muscular black guy from the Old Spice commercials. Before becoming an athlete, body-builder and actor, he was an aspiring artist trying to make a name for himself in animation. And of course, that passion hasn’t gone away. Terry Crews loves art. In fact, there are many celebrities and people working in the entertainment industry that love the kind of art that we love. I believe this is the reason why LA has become one of the few places in the US where galleries focusing on genre art have been able to make a foothold.

So there are two points here. The first is that there is a regional nature to nearly all conventions. While many of the exhibitors come from all over the world, a large portion of the attendees travel significantly less to attend. While Illuxcon proved that aspiring artists, collectors and professionals are willing to travel to hard to reach towns in order to spend time together, there hasn’t been any proof that more casual audience is willing to do the same. You can point to the success of San Diego Comic Con as evidence for fans willing to travel, but to me it feels more like the exception that proves the rule. While I’m more than willing to travel to KC once a year, I think that Comic Con shows us what kind of event that needs to happen in order for consumers to go to the same lengths.

The other point is about the nature of celebrity. I don’t think the opinion of famous people is important to what we do but I do think they have influence. I want to see Spectrum grow larger and genre art become in higher demand. If actors, comedians and other celebrities are seen enjoying an event like Spectrum, more people will follow. I know Patton Oswald would enjoy the show but I don’t expect him to go through the same hassle we are willing to go through. If it doesn’t make sense to invite these folks as guests, lets entice them to come as attendees by making it easy on them.

Ultimately, I may be making just as much of a case to move it to New York (afterall, I would love to see Louie CK wander up to my booth some day with his kids). But the point is, I want there to be events that primarily feature genre art and I want people to be driven to them. If it can be anywhere, I want that place to be where it will attract the most attention.

Feel free to email me and tell me what you think.