Unless you’re intent on liv­ing on the streets, work­ing side jobs, or are for­tu­nate to have the sup­port of wealthy par­ents and bene­fac­tors, most of us at one point or another have to ask our­selves — “what prices should I charge?” Pric­ing out and valu­ing your work is a great mys­tery.  If you look around the Inter­net and even ask oth­ers for advice, the amount of money — espe­cially for artists, ranges a very wide gamut. The price point is very dif­fi­cult to gauge with so many peo­ple out there. Of course to some degree, what you can charge is indica­tive of your skill level, but for the sake of this arti­cle I’m just going to dis­cuss what an aver­age busi­ness­man, free­lancer, artist, and even pho­tog­ra­pher should be charg­ing at the very minimum.

For the sake of this arti­cle, I’m going to use my expe­ri­ence as a free­lancer for close to the past 10 years and run­ning my com­pany, LunarStu­dio. The same expe­ri­ence should apply to most peo­ple in a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent situations.

The Inter­net — The Global Price Mediator

At one point before the Inter­net grew in size and pop­u­lar­ity, if you wanted a tele­vi­sion, you would drive around town to var­i­ous elec­tron­ics store. The price would have prob­a­bly remained rel­a­tively fixed. If you drove to a com­peti­tor in the same neigh­bor­hood, you might have found sev­eral hun­dreds of dol­lars in sav­ings. If you drove even fur­ther — per­haps to another state — the price may have gone down or up sev­eral hun­dred instead. There really was no base­line com­par­i­son from place to place. Prices were more or less reg­u­lated to the avail­abil­ity and gen­eral income of where you lived.

Enter the shop­ping world of the Inter­net. No longer were peo­ple con­fined to the neigh­bor­hood elec­tron­ics store. If you saw a tele­vi­sion you liked at a phys­i­cal location/store, you could come back home and do a search for that same TV online. In the Internet’s infancy, you could dis­cover huge sav­ings on the same exact prod­uct, per­haps even includ­ing free ship­ping and no taxes. Sud­denly, you were aware that there were great deals to be had online. You saw what one com­pany was charg­ing at one loca­tion, and what another was charg­ing in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent part of the coun­try. This is com­par­i­son shop­ping on a larger, more instan­ta­neous and con­ve­nient level.

The Inter­net had the effect of expos­ing exor­bi­tantly high prices in one area, and show­ing “rock bot­tom” prices in another. Over time, the highs and the lows across the coun­try evened out to a degree. Your local store started to honor TV deals that you could find out on the Inter­net. The bound­aries orig­i­nally set by a lack of infor­ma­tion and geog­ra­phy started to evap­o­rate. The Inter­net became the great price mediator.

Now you may be ask­ing your­self, how exactly does this apply to your busi­ness? The same anal­ogy applies to many of your ser­vices. As prices of goods around the coun­try start to level off, the highs and lows of what you can charge has also been affected. Every­thing includ­ing aver­age income and salary starts to aver­age out.  In some parts of the coun­try, there are still higher costs of liv­ing and major dif­fer­ences in salary, but these dif­fer­ences are going to even­tu­ally fol­low suit.

Let’s take for exam­ple two dig­i­tal artists that work remotely off of the Inter­net. One is out in farm coun­try — some­where out in Okla­homa. We’ll call him “Artist A.Artist A has a very low cost of liv­ing. He pay $500/month in rent. Most of his bills tends to be rel­a­tively inex­pen­sive for him.

Now let’s take “Artist B.Artist B lives in the heart of New York City. His rent is $2,000/month. The costs of liv­ing are gen­er­ally much higher for him.

Let’s sup­pose that both of these artists pro­duce a sim­i­lar qual­ity of work. Guess who has to charge more in order to keep up their liv­ing expenses? Artist B.

Unfor­tu­nately, Artist A can eas­ily under­cut the more expen­sive Artist B. On the other hand, is Artist A really doing him­self any favors by dras­ti­cally under­cut­ting the more expen­sive Artist B? In the short-term, yes. It costs a lot less for Artist A to stay alive. But guess what — the prices of the TVs they were look­ing at ear­lier still remains the same now. Artist A in effect has to work harder to afford that tele­vi­sion because he’s charg­ing much less. Artist B also has to get more jobs in the door (because he’s charg­ing higher prices) in order to com­pete with Artist A in order to buy that tele­vi­sion. Both artists have made more work for them­selves sim­ply because more com­pe­ti­tion has entered the field via the Internet.

So what is the solu­tion to this prob­lem then? You can choose to wait out the “great Inter­net medi­a­tion” — as to how long that will take is anyone’s guess. We all have to wait irre­gard­less. You could also try pro­duc­ing sub­stan­tially bet­ter work and charge more, but there will always be peo­ple who don’t rec­og­nize bet­ter qual­ity and sim­ply go for the low­est prices. You could also per­form lower qual­ity work, and at that point it becomes a num­bers game as to how many clients you can shove through any given door before they real­ize they’re get­ting sub­stan­dard work. In essence, you’re still mak­ing the same amount of work. If you want qual­ity — then you have to pay for it.

What the aver­age per­son has to do (assum­ing that your skills are aver­age in nature) is to find the mid­dle ground — a happy medium. A price point which isn’t “too high” and not “too low.” As your skills progress, you should be able to charge more over time as your ser­vices come into greater demand.

The point is that you’re not doing any­one any favors by under­cut­ting your fel­low artist (or busi­ness­man) in the age of the Inter­net. In fact, you may be doing more harm than good. Ulti­mately, you need to pro­vide a qual­ity prod­uct with a qual­ity ser­vice, and hope that makes all the dif­fer­ence. In a per­fect world, we would all be charg­ing sim­i­lar prices, and only those that charge higher are pro­duc­ing bet­ter quality.

Com­par­ing Others

So you have looked around the Inter­net and checked to see what other com­peti­tors and col­leagues are charg­ing. You have one rel­a­tively unknown per­son in the mid­dle of nowhere try­ing to charge $25 for a pho­to­graph. On the other hand, you see another per­son with a lit­tle bit of bet­ter work charg­ing $250. Which price should you charge? Per­haps like most peo­ple, you con­sider your­self an “unknown” too and are just start­ing out or try­ing to make ends meet. The first incli­na­tion may be to charge on the lower end of the spec­trum — $25. But are you sell­ing your­self short? Per­haps if you charge closer to $250, oth­ers will see your work as “more pro­fes­sional” or “more valu­able.” It’s a tricky ques­tion with a seem­ingly tricky answer.

In order to answer this ques­tion, we can look at other var­i­ous indus­tries for a base­line number.

Take for exam­ple a plumber or an elec­tri­cian. They can eas­ily charge $100-$150/hour. If your elec­tric­ity goes out or your toi­let stops work­ing — you have no real alter­na­tive aside from try­ing to fix it your­self. You’re more or less forced to pay those prices. How­ever, there’s a rea­son why you pay them these rates. Even at those prices, I don’t see many plumbers and elec­tri­cians liv­ing in man­sions. The stan­dard of liv­ing fac­tor­ing in risk and reward (for run­ning your own busi­ness) all aver­ages out.

How about pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers? They’ll bill out $1,500-$2,500 a day. What is not appar­ent to the aver­age person/onlooker is that they’ll spend a few days prior nego­ti­at­ing with poten­tial clients, a few days in post process after a shoot, and a few days clean­ing up all of their pre­vi­ous negotiations.

As for archi­tects, how much do you sup­pose their com­pa­nies bill out on a hourly basis? The aver­age is around $125/hour. The prin­ci­pals? They can push $200/hour.

Now let’s take a look at my archi­tec­tural illus­tra­tion work. Run­ning my com­pany (art­work cre­ation, 3D knowl­edge, self-education, mar­ket­ing, invoic­ing, sales, etc.) is more com­pli­cated than any other job I’ve per­son­ally ever seen and requires mul­ti­ple skill sets. What do you think I should be charg­ing if I spend an hour’s worth of work on something?

You may say to your­self, “well, art isn’t a neces­sity.” How­ever in my field, I argue that it is. My illus­tra­tion work helps sell mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar build­ings based on ideas and blue­prints. If some­one is plan­ning to put up a $50 mil­lion dol­lar build­ing and it all hinges on a pretty pic­ture, do you think it’s worth spend­ing $10,000 or more? It sure is. My work gets ordi­nances passed by town boards. It com­mu­ni­cates to design­ers what some­thing will look like even before it goes to man­u­fac­tur­ing. And it helps fill spaces quickly. That’s a very use­ful ser­vice to peo­ple and companies.

So I’ll ask the ques­tion again — what do you think I should be charg­ing? My work is more com­pli­cated than aver­age and it is very use­ful. I know from per­sonal expe­ri­ence that I’ve spent almost 10 years, work­ing and study­ing 16 hour days, almost 7 days a week with no vaca­tion doing this. Shouldn’t I gain some level of reward on top of all the energy and extra efforts I’ve put into my craft?

I’ll make the same point as I did in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion. You’re not doing your­self any favors by charg­ing low. That only works for the short-term. The same applies for charg­ing high unless you’re deter­mined to pro­duce a bet­ter qual­ity and pro­vide a bet­ter ser­vice. You need to find that mid­dle ground.

Cost of Liv­ing Breakdown

Now that I’ve more or less made my argu­ment that geo­graph­i­cal loca­tion is becom­ing increas­ingly irrel­e­vant in today’s dig­i­tal age, let’s assume that you’re an aver­age pro­fes­sional artist liv­ing in a city all by your lone­some in an apart­ment. You’re sin­gle with no chil­dren. All you do is free­lance for work. This “should” be the most com­mon sit­u­a­tion. Let’s tally up your expenses:

  1. Rent: $1,500/month or $18,000/year.
  2. Elec­tric­ity: $250/month or $3,000/year.
  3. Heat­ing (assum­ing it’s effi­cient): $250/month or $3,000/year.
  4. High-Speed Internet/Digital Voice/Television (hey, it’s bun­dled): $200/month or $2,400/year.
  5. Cell Phone with data access (most peo­ple have them): $80/month or $960/year.
  6. Car loan or finance: $300/month or $3,600/year.
  7. Gro­ceries (we all have to eat): $200/month or $2,400/year.

TOTAL: $33,360/year.

This means that you have to make at least $33,360/year in order to just pay your bills. I’m not even fac­tor­ing in credit cards, health insur­ance, and mis­cel­la­neous equip­ment expenses — that could eas­ily add another $8,500 to that total. So let’s add in those items:

  1. Health Insur­ance (aver­age Mass­a­chu­setts plan): $300/month or $3,600 year.
  2. Credit card (you ran into trou­ble and have to pay it off monthly): $150/month or $1,800/year.
  3. Misc. equip­ment expenses (ie. a high end com­puter for graph­ics, soft­ware, repairs, .etc): $2,500/year
  4. Pre­vi­ous total: $33,360/year.

REVISED TOTAL #1: $41,260/year.

So we’re up to a lit­tle over$40,000/year. That’s not includ­ing 1/3 busi­ness taxes, 10%/annually in retire­ment sav­ings, sav­ings for your poten­tial kid’s col­lege edu­ca­tion, and sav­ings for a nice down-payment on a home. I like round num­bers and I’m going to jump a few more steps to include these items.

REVISED TOTAL #2: $60,000/year.

That’s right. You need to make $60,000/year just to sur­vive in a city by your­self. How do most peo­ple do it? They man­age, but they often strug­gle to just keep their heads above water. It also gen­eral requires a dual income either through hav­ing room­mates or through mar­riage. Add to this eco­nomic uncer­tainty such as the global depres­sion in 2009, and you’re sit­ting on the edge. Here are some sta­tis­tics as to the aver­age income and salary within the United States.

I’m not try­ing to scare any­one here, but rather I’m point­ing out that you should at the very min­i­mum be tar­get­ing $60,000 year in 2010 just to earn a living.

How Much to Charge

Let’s say that we agree on $60,000/year as a tar­get fig­ure. How much does that mean we need to make per week at a min­i­mum? Let’s say that you work 50 weeks out of the whole year. That breaks down to $1,200/week or roughly $4,800. Again, I like round num­bers so you need to earn $5,000/month.

Let’s say that you’re an artist and you’re lucky to get two jobs per month that take a week per job. Each job would need to cost $2,500 in order to meet your tar­get goal of $60,000/year.

Assum­ing (and this is a big assump­tion) that all of your mar­ket­ing duck­ies are lined-up in a row and that you can man­age to pull four jobs per month, then maybe you can charge $1,250/per job at the very min­i­mum. At that min­i­mum price point, you are really risk­ing your own liveli­hood and future. Truth­fully, you can’t just risk stay­ing at the base­line, but should instead be focus­ing on get­ting ahead.

So. how much should a per­son charge? Real­is­ti­cally, you may only get two jobs per month — if that. Most artists don’t. Either you’ll need to seri­ously improve your mar­ket­ing strate­gies and obtain more jobs, or fit the aver­age quan­tity of jobs you receive per year into that $5,000 month target.

Guess how much most pro­fes­sional ren­der­ing artists at the top of their game charge per image? $4,000 on up. I’ve heard of fig­ures on the order of $12,000 per image for the very best. They may spend half a month work­ing on a sin­gle image, but that may be the only image they get. If they receive two or more, then they’re often happy. The next month they may have none. You’re doing your­self and oth­ers no favors by low-balling one another. All it does to serve in the long-run is lower the over­all qual­ity of work involved.

I’ve also heard of some well-known 3D stu­dios charg­ing around $10,000 per image. Is it high­way rob­bery? Absolutely not. They’re sim­ply try­ing to meet their over­head in a rapidly chang­ing economy.

You may be say­ing to your­self, “haha, I don’t live in a city so I don’t need to charge nearly that free­lanc­ing amount” or “I’m mar­ried so that doesn’t apply.” I have news for you — pull your head out of your ass. We are liv­ing in a dig­i­tal age now. Those bound­aries and rules do not apply. It’s also a mat­ter of time before the play­ing field is more or less lev­eled. There’s no rea­son why any of us should become com­pla­cent to sim­ply strug­gle and “get by” on keep­ing that car of your run­ning on fumes. If you value your work and hard-earned efforts, than that value has a min­i­mum price tag you should try to meet. You need to change your mind-set. $2,500 per image at the very least is a good tar­get goal when start­ing out on your own. It’s not always real­is­ti­cally pos­si­ble, but you should keep that tar­get fig­ure in mind. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you should be tar­get­ing over $4,000 per image in your mind. The more you value your work to be that fig­ure, the more it will actu­ally become to be worth that amount. Don’t sell your­self short.

Tak­ing Your Prac­tice One Step Fur­ther — Get­ting Ahead

So now that I’ve hope­fully con­vinced you that you may be charg­ing too lit­tle, I’d like to point out another angle. Pre­tend for a moment that you are an actual busi­ness with an employee. Not only are you tak­ing your orig­i­nal fig­ure of $60,000 that you had to make, but you also have to insure their salary over the course of the year. That fig­ure alone could eas­ily run $50,000 (or more) in a very tech­ni­cal field. You also wouldn’t sim­ply want a help­ing hand — you deserve to make a profit for the addi­tional risk and respon­si­bil­i­ties you’re putting upon your­self. So you’ve basi­cally more than dou­bled the amount of work you must do and charge in order to keep your head float­ing above water.

The artist needs to stop think­ing of “me, me, and me.” Unless you have an extra­or­di­nary gim­mick, luck, or style — that “fame” you might be seek­ing will often prove elu­sive. You need to take your ego out of the mind­set of being the lone artist. Pre­tend for a sec­ond that you are a full-fledged com­pany. What­ever charges you pro­posed in the pre­vi­ous sec­tion starts to quickly look small. Not only are you tar­get­ing that $4,000 mark, but you have to set your sights even higher than that.


I have many rea­sons why I wrote this arti­cle. In par­tic­u­lar, I’ve seen many artists ask them­selves over the years, “how much should I charge?” I’ve seen many crazy answers. I also speak from per­sonal expe­ri­ence. When a lit­tle more than half of all small busi­nesses fail within the first five years, I con­sider LunarStu­dio to be a suc­cess in that depart­ment. By help­ing fel­low artists and busi­nesses alike through healthy dis­cus­sion about this topic, in turn I hope to raise my own stan­dards and rates. If we all work together (and stick together) to help deter­mine the low­est com­mon sin­gle denom­i­na­tor any sin­gle one of us can charge, then we can pre­vent dras­ti­cally under­cut­ting one another which often leads to more harm than good. Artists and free­lancers alike need to start valu­ing their work, time, and efforts and stop sell­ing them­selves short. As much as I don’t like think­ing of our art­work “as a busi­ness” from a philo­soph­i­cal per­spec­tive, being a “pro­fes­sional artist” entails that we carry our­selves in a pro­fes­sional and respec­tive manner.


33 Responses to What Prices to Charge as a Freelancer or Artist

  1. Is our work any dif­fer­ent then archi­tec­tural illus­tra­tions from years gone by? We tend to place the value in the soft­ware and not the skill of the per­son. I read and study a lot on com­po­si­tion, what makes a good image good, and this is what we need to focus on.

    The soft­ware is get­ting eas­ier to use guys! We need to con­cen­trate on the art of illus­tra­tions, this is were we’ll be val­ued in the indus­try. They will not know why our images are so nice; they’ll just know they are nice images.

    How can you place a price on skill? If you have skill you can charge good money for it. Let the less skilled illus­tra­tors charge what they want; you get what you pay for!

  2. cleo says:

    I think the soft­ware has def­i­nitely become a lit­tle eas­ier — it’s still very dif­fi­cult to learn. We also have grown in our own knowl­edge so it’s become eas­ier to us that have been in this field for a while. Com­put­ers are a lot faster as well.

    I can’t speak for Revit — but pro­grams like Max haven’t become any eas­ier in the past 10 years. Slightly faster, yes. Eas­ier, no.

    Pho­to­re­al­ism takes a lot of skill. The actual art and “taste” aspect is not always some­thing you can actu­ally instill in some­one will­ing to pur­chase ren­der­ing work. I think how­ever peo­ple wrongly view real­ism from more of a pro­gram­mat­i­cal per­spec­tive — noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth.

    But I def­i­nitely agree with you in what wrote. I think it’s wise (and fun) to branch out from pho­to­re­al­ism and try to come up with more styl­ized work.

  3. Scott says:

    I’d like to know the shci­ester of an elec­tric com­pany you’ve got. Even when I lived in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia, in my over-priced apart­ment, my elec­tric was never over $60–80 a month and that’s with a 4-pc ren­der­farm. If you’ve got a cell, you don’t need a land line. You don’t need that much heat, your sys­tems run bet­ter in the cold. AC is an issue in the sum­mer though. But that’s not 12 months a year.It can be done, you just have to have more money sense and drop your bloated sense of enti­tle­ment for high priced images.

    Liv­ing a bit more effi­ciently and not always sav­ing for a kid you may not even have yet col­lege fund, and/or screw­ing the retire­ment plan for a bit, and you don’t need to save for a home right away, you can drop your liv­ing expenses and there­fore drop your billing rate. The PC costs, hard­ware and soft­ware, are one time costs. Not yearly. Unless you buy a new sys­tem every year and you cer­tainly don’t need to stay 100% cur­rent with soft­ware updates for Max or Revit, or what­ever. You also have to face that many free­lancers work on pirated soft­ware. Yes, it’s the harsh truth.

    One thing we all need to face, most of the clients we will deal with will ALWAYS go for the low­est bid­der. Right now, with this econ­omy, price trumps qual­ity. Liv­ing like you are prac­ti­cally home­less is what free­lanc­ing is about in the early years. You have to pay your dues and besides, free­lanc­ing is becom­ing far too over­pop­u­lated now since every­one has been almost forced into it. The com­pe­ti­tion is incred­i­bly fierce. Clients have a pick of the lit­ter and guess what they use as a bench­mark? If you think it’s qual­ity, you’ve deluded yourself.

  4. Scott says:

    Before I get flamed as some bit­ter husk of an artist, let me say this. I’m all for qual­ity over price. I’ve lost sev­eral jobs to com­pa­nies out­side the US that charge around $200 for a ren­der. The qual­ity is down­right awful, but the price was right. One thing that this indus­try will always strug­gle with is the fact that you can get just as good of an idea of what your build­ing will look like from a 30 sec­ond sketch on a nap­kin as you will from a $100,000 render.

  5. cleo says:

    Mass­hole Elec­tric?
    I have over 10 com­put­ers here (but leave most off unless nec­es­sary.) Dual mon­i­tor and a dual quad setup. Also a gf which never turns things off and is always wash­ing cloth­ing, run­ning the iron, leav­ing her hair iron on, and blow-drying her hair. I’ve tried to quell the prob­lem, but there is no get­ting through.

    I dis­agree about the cell. I hate cell recep­tion. I think when you’re try­ing to be pro­fes­sional, crystal-clear qual­ity is impor­tant. As much as we can be run­ning out of our parent’s base­ments, most clients don’t like to hear that.

    As for heat, you need heat in the Northeast.

    “The PC costs, hard­ware and soft­ware, are one time costs.“
    No, they are not. I update my com­put­ers every sev­eral years to stay ahead of the curve. Also, you need to do the same with soft­ware unless you’re okay with con­sis­tently pro­duc­ing shitty work (which you may very well.)
    –I don’t recall say­ing yearly, but if you’re legit — than things like antivirus are on a sub­scrip­tion basis.

    “Unless you buy a new sys­tem every year and you cer­tainly don’t need to stay 100% cur­rent with soft­ware updates for Max or Revit, or what­ever.“
    –This is true — I don’t think I’ve ever said to the contrary.

    “One thing we all need to face, most of the clients we will deal with will ALWAYS go for the low­est bid­der.“
    –Not true. A lot of clients will select in the middle.

    “Right now, with this econ­omy, price trumps qual­ity.“
    –lol. Maybe you know some­thing I don’t? Because that’s news to me.

    “If you think it’s qual­ity, you’ve deluded your­self.“
    –There will always be peo­ple that select qual­ity over crap. Not as many, but there are. And besides, crappy work is at the end of the day — crappy work and crappy ser­vice no mat­ter how low you think you can charge.

    “One thing that this indus­try will always strug­gle with is the fact that you can get just as good of an idea of what your build­ing will look like from a 30 sec­ond sketch on a nap­kin as you will from a $100,000 ren­der.“
    –I dis­agree:
    1) I’ve never seen a $100,000 ren­der. Bit of an exag­ger­a­tion there? I’ve seen $12,000, but not $100,000.
    2) You can’t con­vince me for a sec­ond that a Sketchup model com­pares to a full-blown ren­der. If that was the case, we would all (other than SU peo­ple) be out of busi­ness.
    3) I’m not try­ing to brag here, but per­haps you haven’t seen my clients. I’m just say­ing — you seem to know more than I do. So show me your list.
    4) P.S. I’ve seen nap­kin sketches. I’ve also seen really good draw­ings from some very big firms. And do you know what, they still come knock­ing on my door. So your point is moot.

    I’m curi­ous about you. You’ve come on and basi­cally attacked my premise. You talk big but you haven’t linked your port­fo­lio. Talk is cheap. I want to see what your work looks like (non-personal work and stuff you did solo) so I can assess what con­tent (or crap) you’re able to deliver — than I’ll deter­mine whether or not you should be taken seriously.

  6. cleo says:

    Fyi, if you’re reg­is­tered with the Vray Chaos Forum, you can see our dis­cus­sion on this arti­cle here (it’s over 40 replies long.) I think most of us “pro­fes­sion­als” are pretty much in agree­ment:

  7. matt says:

    Excel­lent post and argu­ment… I’ve seen this dis­cus­sion so many times on var­i­ous forums but never has any­one made as clearly artic­u­lated an argu­ment for a par­tic­u­lar price.
    Do you mind if I paste a link to this post on formZ and Maxwell Render’s forums?

  8. ScottS says:

    Whoa, slow down there tiger, I never meant to attack you. I was just merely offer­ing coun­ter­points to your argu­ment and show that there are some cost-cutting options. I’m not going to get into a dick mea­sur­ing con­test over our port­fo­lios, but if you must There, can I be taken seri­ously now? Not that you’ll think any­thing I do is worth while. You’re going into it with a biased view. Just because I don’t splay my work every­where means I can’t be taken seri­ously? I won’t, how­ever, give you my client list sim­ply because I don’t want ama­teurs com­ing in and under­min­ing my bids. Why do all of the work for some­one else?

    Like it or not, Sketch-Up and Revit are tak­ing some of our work due to it’s ease of use and almost, make pretty pic­ture but­ton. What my main point was, you gotta start some­where. We all can’t be Neoscape’s right from the get go. If that means mak­ing deals with the devil and work­ing in Sketch-Up just to get clients, then work your angle from there. No, Sketch-Up can’t com­pare to full blown ren­ders. But that’s mine and your opin­ion, not the end bean-counting client! You might not want to believe it, but price is the biggest sales point. Why do you think you’ve lost bids? It wasn’t because other peo­ple were bet­ter than you, they were cheaper.

    You seem pretty bit­ter about this whole thing and it feels as if you only want to hear com­ments for your point of view, and you want noth­ing to do with counter-points. When I bid for projects, I don’t include the girl­friend cost either.

    Oh, and con­grats on the CGAr­chi­tect main page plug. With pub­lic­ity, comes counter-views. Is this how you react when a client wants to make a change to your render?

  9. cleo says:

    Sure Matt. That would be great.

    Look. The prob­lem is that peo­ple are grossly under-charging because they may have the artis­tic skills, but lack fun­da­men­tal knowl­edge on how-to make ends meet (some sem­blance of busi­ness “sense.”)

    My main point is that as a group, we have to set some stan­dards sim­ply to live rea­son­ably and com­fort­ably. Those rates are based on forward-thinking and current-thinking. I think the exam­ples that I have given are fair and objec­tive — and would accom­mo­date most peo­ple liv­ing in sim­i­lar eco­nomic situations.

    I wrote this arti­cle for sev­eral rea­sons:
    1) To help out the com­mu­nity.
    2) Increased traf­fic to the web­site.
    3) To “try” to level the play­ing field.

    I don’t have to share any per­sonal opin­ions or infor­ma­tion with any­one so take this as my opin­ion and free advice (albeit per­haps not the best.) Whether or not you fol­low my opinions/recommendations for a min­i­mum value as to not under­cut your fel­low artists is up to you.

    My whole point in pulling out the “client” or “port­fo­lio” card is to sim­ply say, “hey, if you want to knock my opin­ion, look at my back­ground first and then make your assump­tions after­wards.” It’s not to put any­one down.

    Yes — I am pretty bit­ter when a scrub (not imply­ing you but any­one that defends ridicu­lously low prices) comes along and charges dirt-low rates that devalue our work as a whole. Sorry, but it does tend to piss me off.

    Yes, peo­ple do have to start some­where. And some­times it does take a low price to get the first few jobs through the door. But even­tu­ally from a “career per­spec­tive”, one has to take sim­ple eco­nom­ics into the equa­tion and you can’t be work­ing for­ever at min­i­mum wage.

    “When I bid for projects, I don’t include the girl­friend cost either.“
    – Some day when you have a wife, kids, car pay­ments, and rent (or mort­gage) — I’d hope that you would take those things into con­sid­er­a­tion when try­ing to make ends meet. To do oth­er­wise would be irresponsible.

    “Is this how you react when a client wants to make a change to your ren­der?“
    – I charge them for it (if it’s not my mis­take), and they don’t complain.

  10. Saturn says:

    I’d have to say that it is extremely tough out there. You both are very lucky to be get­ting any kind of work. In the south­east things are really slow and archi­tec­ture firms are clos­ing left and right.

    Cleo, I agree with what you are say­ing about qual­ity. I do not think we should have to reduce our­selves to try to com­pete with China or India as it per­tains to ren­der­ings and ani­ma­tions. Unfor­tu­nately, there are too many peo­ple out there that dis­agree. Those peo­ple are the ones that are not only shop­ping 3D artists but are also shop­ping Archi­tects, Con­trac­tors, and every­one else in the design/construction com­mu­nity. They know that things are rough and that peo­ple will take a loss just to get the work in their office.

    Now I haven’t been doing the whole free­lancer thing for a long time but I have dis­cov­ered that there is a happy-medium as you described. I have had a FEW clients that do under­stand qual­ity and are will­ing to pay for it. I have had A LOT of clients who only want a $500 ren­der­ing and are will­ing to go over­seas to get it. In those cases I have done a $500 job. I write the pro­pos­als as such out­lin­ing the time spent in each phase of the job. If the client wants me to spend addi­tional time in a cer­tain phase, they pay me hourly to do so.

    The only time that I am able to charge $2500 a ren­der­ing is when I am con­tracted by an Archi­tect to do so. This is because typ­i­cally in the con­tact between Archi­tect and Owner it is out­lined in the scope of ser­vices. The Archi­tect under­stands qual­ity and can edu­cate the owner about a qual­ity prod­uct. Too few times do we the artist get the oppor­tu­nity to give such educations.

    That being said, I believe that we as the design com­mu­nity have a right to our­selves and to each other not to under-value our abil­i­ties and ser­vices. How­ever, if I have to do a job at a lesser value, then I will do so to put food on my table. But I will let the client know that he is pay­ing for a $500 job and that is what he is getting.

    Thanks for the article.

  11. matt says:

    A few thoughts…
    Once upon a time when I was a free­lancer, I used to pro­vide quotes that sep­a­rated mod­el­ing from ren­der­ing, which seemed to be an approach that clients appre­ci­ated and could under­stand. After they con­veyed what level of detail they thought they needed by look­ing at my port­fo­lio sam­ples, I’d say “this job will cost ‘X’ to model a par­tic­u­lar scene and ‘Y’ for each view ren­dered of that scene.” The first view was usu­ally a higher cost than addi­tional views if the light­ing and entourage didn’t need to change. The rea­son I’m shar­ing this his­tory is to make the argu­ment that the artist can jus­tify higher fees if the client can be edu­cated to under­stand the whole process. FWIW, I charged 1500–2000 for a sin­gle image in 1996. That was pre-kids, pre-house, etc. :)

  12. ScottS says:

    Cleo, I’ll con­tinue this on the Vray forum. But I think where the US and many other devel­oped coun­tries are on a steep learn­ing curve is what exactly is a com­fort­able liv­ing expense. Do you really need $60,000 a year, or can you make it on $30,000 and be just as happy? Do you really need to 400″ TV or can you get by with 24″. Do you really need 9,000 cable chan­nels or can you get by with free TV or basic? All of which, turn into price points for a free­lance artist. I can tell you that a lot of the unem­ployed are learn­ing this right now. Not that money isn’t nice, but it’s not every­thing. What you thought in the past was the poor­house, now seems like the rich man’s domain after this reces­sion eases.

    I think you are want­ing to make Aston Martin’s, which is fine. Go for qual­ity and a high sales price. You cer­tainly get your worth for that. And hon­estly, it takes more work to estab­lish your­self doing do, but in the end I think it’s more ben­e­fi­cial to you.

    But at the same time, you can’t get all pissy when Honda, Toy­ota, Hyundai, Kia, etc come along and out­sell you by about 40,000 cars sim­ply because they have a cheaper sell­ing point. That’s Cap­i­tal­ism. Yes, they aren’t a nice fancy cars, or nice to look at and they won’t turn any heads on the street. But that $12,000 car will get you from point A to point B just the same as the Aston Martin.

    So I think we have to agree to have two dif­fer­ent view points about this.

  13. cleo says:

    I agree — the econ­omy has thrown us all for a loop. But there’s only so much of this economic-downturn we can lament over. Oth­er­wise, our busi­ness as 3D artists becomes unsustainable.

    I can under­stand and sym­pa­thize with doing these one-off jobs to pay the bills in the mean­time. But at some point, we have to all start charg­ing rea­son­able prices again.

    As for out­sourc­ing — I’m run­ning a web-design/experiment right now. I’ve had noth­ing but a dis­as­trous expe­ri­ence up to this point. I will write more about that later.

    Also, I talk with a lot of prin­ci­ples on a daily basis. A few have had some expe­ri­ences with out­sourc­ing. Almost all of them told me it wasn’t worth the has­sle, time-difference, and mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I’m not mak­ing that up. More often than not, they ended up spend­ing more money in man-hours locally than if they just kept their work here in the States. But if you (and them) want to believe they can get sim­i­lar work over­seas, then feel free to believe that. A project or two later, those same archi­tects and devel­op­ers will come crawl­ing back, cry­ing on our shoulders.

  14. Saturn says:

    I absolutely agree. The amount of time the Archi­tect has to spend with the over­sea artist just to get a few aspects right is incred­i­ble. I have been involved in that conversation :).

  15. cleo says:

    Look. My gro­cery bills don’t change. My Inter­net price doesn’t change unless I want to go back to Net­zero. My car pay­ments don’t change (and I don’t have an Infiniti, BMW, etc.) No — most things around don’t change — in fact, they go up. Five years ago I drove around this city in a used 1985 Cadil­lac Fleet­wood Brougham. So please, don’t assume that I don’t know what it’s like to be that starv­ing artist. I don’t come from a rich fam­ily and I didn’t get my parent’s sup­port (unlike a lot of busi­ness owners.)

    No — $30,000 liv­ing in a medium-sized city here in the US and try­ing to run your own busi­ness with seri­ous risks involved is [exple­tive.] You deserve to be com­pen­sated for dif­fi­cult work, espe­cially when run­ning your own busi­ness. In my opin­ion, you should be mak­ing at least 4X that amount of money (but that’s wish­ful think­ing.) What do you think VFX com­pos­i­tors in Hol­ly­wood make?

  16. ScottS says:

    I’ll have to agree with you on this. I think you and I, and every­one else, are going to wit­ness the Renais­sance of this indus­try in the next 5 years. Hope­fully, peo­ple will finally real­ize that just because it comes from over­seas, doesn’t make it bet­ter. In fact as a com­pany, you need to sink tons of money to edu­cate and train your out­sourcers. I know of one com­pany that sank upwards of 300k into an out­source in Sin­ga­pore. But now, when the get assets back they are exactly right and need zero fix­ing in the main pro­duc­tion house. A sin­gle home comes with pages of instruc­tions and exact guide­lines as to what is expected. Only after a large ini­tial invest­ment is the out­source pay­ing off. So it doesn’t mean all out­sourc­ing is bad.

    If you just give them prod­ucts and say, “You. Make pretty.” You get hor­rid results, which in turn you have to fix in house, which in turn costs you even more money. Unfor­tu­nately, this is the US approach to out­sourc­ing that I’ve wit­nessed firsthand.

    This econ­omy has done a few things. One it has cleaned out all of the sub­stan­dard com­pa­nies. At the same time, the top tier com­pa­nies have had to lay off a large work­force that’s now into the free­lance mar­ket. With every­one demand­ing high prices, dig­i­tal pros­ti­tutes can make a clean sweep. Think of it as strip­ping to pay your way through med school. We won’t do it for long, but we just need to get by.

    Though with most of us, if the free­lance gig holds out, even when the reces­sion lifts many com­pa­nies may be strained to hire on peo­ple. Why work for the man again? It’ll be an inter­est­ing next few years, but there a lot more stormy waters in the bid­ding war ahead.

    Another poster nailed it. If you can edu­cate the client, you can charge a decent rate. How­ever, many clients are hav­ing a hard time lis­ten­ing past the absolute low­est price they can find. If you want to work on cre­ative, one of a kind ren­ders then you can usu­ally edu­cate the client and you are com­pet­ing for qual­ity. How­ever, these can be tough to find and jobs may be few and far between. If you want steady work, you have to com­pete with price before you com­pete with quality.

  17. cleo says:

    Well, even the archi­tects are get­ting some­what frus­trated and they’re feel­ing the out­sourc­ing pinch as well. They’ve seen their work go over­seas and come back in sham­bles. Most archi­tec­ture firms are small — so they can’t afford to spend 300k to get another firm over­seas “up to speed.”

    Another thing you’ll encounter is that some of these economies will catch up. How long did it take South Korea or Tai­wan? Any coun­try that doesn’t catch up to sim­i­lar rates — I have to won­der if there’s some­thing wrong with their sys­tem. The ques­tion is — how long?

    With Sin­ga­pore, many of the peo­ple there speak eng­lish as the pri­mary lan­guage. India is sim­i­lar. How­ever, I’m part Asian and let me tell you that the lan­guage bar­rier between the US and China is very steep. I think it’s dif­fi­cult for peo­ple here to work with non-english speak­ing coun­tries due to the lan­guage barrier.

    “Though with most of us, if the free­lance gig holds out, even when the reces­sion lifts many com­pa­nies may be strained to hire on peo­ple. Why work for the man again?“
    – This is no offense to any­one, but I find that most peo­ple can’t cut it or lack the dis­ci­pline required. I’ve had my fair share of work­ing with free­lancers to know that most suck at it.

  18. Cleo:

    Excel­lent break-down of what free­lancers need to con­sider when set­ting fees. Your post helps not only those in artis­tic pro­fes­sions, be all who have ago­nized over what price to charge. We have to stop low-balling and under-valuing ourselves.

  19. Ross says:

    Thank you for the great article!

    I’ve passed it on for oth­ers to read.

  20. Dan says:

    Over­all, I agree with the ati­cle, I just think it cal­cu­lates run­ning costs, depre­ci­a­tion, invest­ments requirede, edu­ca­tion included (many years, includ­ing aca­d­e­mic titles!), pen­sion, (health) & insurance(s) and so on — even too low. I live in Ger­many, and IMHO you need about 80k$ (55k€) at least to make a liv­ing (with­out becom­ing rich!). I can’t imag­ine it’s really that much cheaper in the U.S. unless you for­got the taxes or so.

    The point for me is: Why should I stum­ble and try to com­pete with that high-level skill (that other artists also have) even for 5000$ a month? Is it worth all the has­sles? If some chi­nese or indian guy thinks he can live for 1000$ a month, fine, let him do his job and let your cus­tomers be happy with his new friend.

    Some­body men­tioned per­fectly cor­rect the lack of ‘busi­ness sense’, that is what all is about! I lacked it too. Later I started expand­ing my busi­ness to a wider field, doing web-design, graphic design, teach­ing and so on. The whole pack­age is (by far) more reli­able as a source for income then just the “3D-stuff”. Cre­ate more ‘value for the money’, give cus­tomers the feel­ing to hire some­body with taste, edu­ca­tion and an open mind for dif­fer­ent kinds of art. And go to the cham­ber of com­merce, give courses, intro­duce your­self to impor­tant peo­ple, be a cos­mopo­lite (all this is impos­si­ble to the ‘cheap 3D-prositutes’. I can just rec­om­mend every­body to open up his/her eyes and look for areas he or she can use skills in. In the end, it’s about your money and life-quality. Remem­ber: The asians won’t care about us!

  21. cleo says:

    Thanks for the valu­able input Dan. You have some good points about expand­ing beyond just 3D and apply­ing those skills to dif­fer­ent areas as well.

    From my own per­sonal stand­point, $65,000 isn’t enough to live in any major city in the US. But, US peo­ple have to com­pete with oth­ers in the US where the cost of liv­ing is much lower. I thought by actu­ally rais­ing that “value”, peo­ple read­ing this arti­cle would have a harder time under­stand­ing the basic costs.

    Truth is, the amount one needs to makes need to be much higher for run­ning your own busi­ness. I think twice as high because you’re going to have very slow years (like 2009) where it’s com­pletely dead. $50 is a bare bones min­i­mum, but it should be at least $100 in all truth­ful­ness. There’s no rea­son why a plumber or an elec­tri­cian should make more than what we do (no offense to those trades but this is dif­fi­cult work.)

    Back in 1997, I was out in the Los Ange­les area and a friend told me that “if you’re not mak­ing at least $100,000 a year here, than you’re not mak­ing it.”

    Com­ing from a smaller part of the US, I couldn’t even “wrap my head” around what she said. I was lucky to make $15/hour at the time (almost fresh out of school) and the aver­age salary through­out the US was $30,000. But she was absolutely right con­cern­ing LA — you had to make that kind of money out there oth­er­wise you were strug­gling. And this was back in 1997…

    It’s not fun to strug­gle — trust me lol. One year maybe — two per­haps. After five or even ten it gets old pretty quickly.

    @Karen and Ross. Thank you. When you write arti­cles like this, you don’t know who’s going to read it or whether or not they find it use­ful (or even if peo­ple will agree.) I have to thank Jeff Mot­tle over at CGAr­chi­tect for post­ing this. You’ve made it all worthwhile.

  22. Great arti­cle, exactly what I have been say­ing in forums over the years, stop shoot­ing our­selves in the foot! One of the rea­sons a lot of archi­tec­tural firms are clos­ing down left and right is that they have screwed them­selves for so many years that they don’t make enough to set aside for a rainy day, do we really want to fol­low in their foot steps?

    Of course we won’t change the mind of the per­son who has no over­head and can work real cheap, but hope­fully in 5–10 years the stan­dards of liv­ing and expected com­pen­sa­tion will level out and we will have a level play­ing field to com­pete on.

    As for peo­ple pick­ing on the num­bers you used, it is pretty ridicu­lous to com­plain about $60.00 a month for elec­tric­ity, wait until you live in a house and it is $300-$400 a month.…. Any­one can just insert their own cost and work it out.

  23. Tom Livings says:

    I think the $4k mark is hard to hit with­out a good under­stand­ing of how to hit it. You need to offer the client incen­tives to spend that money. I usu­ally try to get around $4k for a ‘job’, but that usu­ally entails more than just deliv­er­ing 1 image. I’ll not work for less than $2k, its not worth the has­sle. A low-balling client invari­ably wants their pound of flesh ten times over.

  24. cleo says:

    I agree with you Tom — that’s a per­fect tar­get. I also found the same issue — when people/companies are being fru­gal, they tend to expect you to jump over­board for every lit­tle detail. I hate to be neg­a­tive openly or to gen­er­al­ize, but some of the most dif­fi­cult jobs I’ve encoun­tered were for the least amount of money. It turns into a has­sle, even to the point where if they make enough changes, it can ruin an image on a dead­line. It seems like the deeper the pock­ets, the eas­ier peo­ple are to work with. It almost seems as if it should be the other way around.

  25. Tom Livings says:

    exactly. another trap is the ‘cheap first job’ for a client. a dou­ble edged sword with two bad edges. you need to estab­lish the pay-scale and have the free­dom (time) to really impress. the first job you do for a client should be over-priced if anything.

  26. Inspatia says:

    Oh man, this is a SUPERB arti­cle for all renderers/architectural illus­tra­tors who have been work­ing their asses off to get some­where with their hard-earned skills. Super help­ful. I’ve been bang­ing me head against the wall for years strug­gling with these issues. As I write this, I am quot­ing on a bid to a poten­tial client (and a poten­tially great client who does super cool work, I might add.) I want to work with these guys so badly after a long dry period, but don’t want to do it for min­i­mum wage. And yes, some­times (espe­cially with ani­ma­tion), you can paint your­self into a cor­ner where– when all is said and done– you real­ize that you’ve been work­ing 90 hours a week for about $5/hour.

    Thank you very much, CLEO, for writ­ing this and giv­ing voice to all seri­ous free­lance artists.

  27. Anon says:

    I really appre­ci­ate this arti­cle. I was recently hired as an in house ren­derer on a major project and have been so stressed out about my pro­duc­tiv­ity. On day one they asked me how many of these views can you get done in 14 days? I said, 7, not even know­ing what, if any­thing was already mod­eled, much less mod­eled or designed cor­rectly. I esti­mated at first, that I would be able to turn out a ren­der­ing every two days. Of course, my employer and project team thought I would come in, “press the magic but­ton,” and all of their hand sketches would be 3D & pho­to­re­al­is­tic in about a week.
    Well the scope and num­ber of views con­tin­ues to expand. I’ve been employed for a total of 21 work days and I have put out 11 ren­der­ings that have been through one to two red­line reviews. I also designed and ren­dered 5 vari­a­tions (3 views each) of a large design ele­ment dur­ing this time. Now I’ve been sent an e-mail request­ing 3 more large scale ren­der­ings of new scenes and com­pletely reori­ented views due in a day and a half. Eek! I’d bet­ter get busy.

  28. cleo says:

    @ Inspa­tia Thanks. I tried to frame it as log­i­cally as I could and I hope it helped.

    @ Anon First, I always ask for plans and addi­tional infor­ma­tion. I can give some­one a very rough esti­mate, but I hate to do that with­out see­ing what I’m tak­ing on. If they can’t pro­vide you with the plans, then there’s a good chance that they’re not entirely seri­ous about the process or that they’re just phish­ing for esti­mates for their own work.

    I always assume a base­line of a day min­i­mum for mod­el­ing. Another day for light­ing, tex­tur­ing and ren­der­ing. And another day for changes. It’s not a per­fect for­mula, but I think it’s some­what com­fort­able to work with. It can vary — like I said, I need to see plans. Work­ing with inte­rior design­ers can be even longer as they made need spe­cific items cus­tom modeled.

    If it’s a model where the addi­tional images only change angles, then I might be able to squeeze out two or more ren­der­ings com­fort­ably in that time-frame. If it’s some­body else’s model, I might have to spend time fix­ing it.

    Of course, I could pro­duce more but there’s always a bal­ance which needs to be struck between qual­ity, time and costs.

    If it’s 14 busi­ness days, I would have said 4–5 images. If you can bang out more and they’re will­ing to pay for it, then great. There’s a bal­ance between telling some­one what they’d like to hear, and tak­ing con­trol and telling them what it’s going to be like. Any­one worth their salt is going to be upfront and hon­est and be able to come up with some snap answers.

    When peo­ple call me, they are look­ing for some­thing. I am the expert in the field and have con­trol. If they’re look­ing for a five fin­ger dis­count, they can go some­where else. You see, with this type of mind­set or “atti­tude”, I add value to my work ver­sus being in an uncer­tain posi­tion. It’s a much bet­ter approach than look­ing at it like, “yes sir — I’ll do as you com­mand.” You give peo­ple an inch, and they take a mile. You’re the artist and they are com­ing to you. Of course, you need some­thing to show for that as well.

    Again, the num­ber of ren­der­ings really depends on your qual­ity and equip­ment. Highly real­is­tic ren­ders take much longer to process. If I was just work­ing with some­thing more cartoon-like or Sketchup, I’m sure I can really knock those out but that’s not the look I go for.

    It sounds like your sit­u­a­tion is out of con­trol. It’s “fine” when you’re 21 years of age with a ton of extra energy, no spouse or kids, live in your mom’s base­ment, and you don’t have a life out­side of work. But as you get older, you’ll find that you need to keep your san­ity by bal­anc­ing work with stuff out­side of that. You’ll hardly ever find some­one in their 30s or 40s with a fam­ily work­ing those long hours unless they’re truly des­per­ate. When it’s time to clock out, they sure as heck clock out. It’s even worse when employ­ers expect that younger peo­ple should put in the extra time and energy with­out being compensated.

    Sadly, you’ve prob­a­bly cre­ated an unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tion that prob­a­bly hin­ders the rest of us “nor­mal” peo­ple (or at least the way it should be.)

    Work­ing very hard, long hours under very unre­al­is­tic con­di­tions can be viewed two dif­fer­ent ways:
    1) Admirable.
    2) Foolish.

    Pick which num­ber I think this sit­u­a­tions falls into lol.

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