MONEY TALKS - Katie Chappell


Last month I shared the first in my MONEY TALKS series and the reaction was fantastic. Initially I’d intended to do one article and feature a few illustrators being open about their earnings, but once I started getting responses I realised it would be a shame to condense all of the words of wisdom from everyone. Also I understood it was a little nerve-wracking and so I went first, so we could see what the reaction would be.

My post has been read nearly 3000 times in 2 weeks and I’ve had nothing but positivity from people. And so here is the next story in line, from fellow illustrator Katie Chappell. She has worked with brands such as Dove, Stella Artois and House of Fraser. Please do comment below to thank Katie for sharing so much here, I know this will be so interesting and helpful for many of you!

Can you tell me a little about your career path?

I’ve been working as an illustrator since 2012 officially, but drawing for as long as I can remember. I’m registered as a sole trader.
All the usual GCSEs and A Levels... I nearly studied popular music performance but swiftly realised I was too shy and awkward for singing and playing guitar on stage.

Foundation Degree in Animation

BA(hons) Illustration & Graphic Design

*5 year gap*

MA Illustration

After graduating with my BA I was snapped up by a marketing agency and worked as an in-house graphic designer for a grand total of 3 months before I was ready to hurl my computer across the office. I HATED IT... Also, I was fired (another story for another time) - so I took a studio space in Newcastle and happily went back to my retail job selling bath bombs. I worked 3 days a week in retail, and I illustrated for the other 4 days. No days off!

I was barely covering rent, couldn’t afford to run my ancient £250 car (that I hadn't even been able to afford to buy myself), and I’d maxed out my overdraft. It was a bad time financially. Looking back I now know I was majorly undercharging.

I found it difficult to switch gears from being paid minimum hourly wage in retail, and figuring out how to price jobs to cover all my costs as a freelancer. The way I saw it, anything above minimum wage was great. UGH. ***shakes past-self by the shoulders***

After 2 years of scraping by like this, my relationship ended and I moved to Italy to be a nanny. It was glorious! Sunshine, cheap wine and no rent to pay. My nanny family housed me, fed me, and gave me a wage, and I had evenings to work on my illustration and graphic design stuff. I stayed for 7 months and then moved to Berlin. By that time I was a bit sick of illustration, and nannying felt easier. I knew I was good at it, and I knew what to charge for it. There was zero self doubt. I drew for fun because I always had, but I wasn’t making much money from it. Nannying was my main job for those years.

However, I still loved drawing all the time, and the odd job came in without putting myself out there. I let my illustration 'career' tick along by itself. At that point though, it was more of a hobby and absolutely not enough money to sustain myself on.

I came home after travelling and applied to do a masters at Edinburgh College of Art.

Ok I’m going to be totally transparent about this - the ONLY way I was able to afford to study at that time was because of an inheritance. That covered my tuition fees, and I also took out a credit card to cover my living costs. I had to move in with my Mum and drive an old car to make it all work.

I’d dreamed of studying at ECA so I really didn’t mind making those sacrifices. I still feel so lucky that I was able to study there and that year of my MA was SO SO GOOD. I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I don't think you necessarily need formal qualifications for illustration, but doing an MA gave me renewed confidence, I felt justified in charging more, and it also opened up the opportunity to work as a lecturer.

After graduating from my masters it took about a year to pay off my credit card and I spent that time figuring out illustration jobs, pricing and new ways of working.

Now I lecture part time, do a lot of live illustration, sell paintings/products online and take on commissions. I also nanny for 8 hours a week but I have no plans to continue that for much longer. It's finally a sustainable amount to live on but it took years to get here. Nobody told me that when I first graduated! Building confidence has been the main thing.


What kind of illustration work do you do?

In the beginning I was illustrating anything. 5 years ago I was freelancing for a card company, customising their personalised card designs. That was my main freelance work, but I’d also get odd jobs for PR companies. I remember designing an illustration to go on a cake. I designed patterns for baby shoes, posters, invitations, created animations, illustrated brochures, designed adverts for a newspaper for a while. Yeah. Anything. Now I am much fussier.

Live illustration is currently a big chunk of my illustration work and I find it easiest, it pays well and I really love doing it.

Going forward it is my aim to work primarily with companies and educational establishments that are concerned with sustainability, equality and the environment. In the past I’ve worked with Edinburgh University’s sustainability department, as well as Newcastle university for projects on sustainability and representing women in STEM subjects in schools. I’ve illustrated water-saving goals for a big water company, and I hope to do a lot more of this sort of work and use my illustrating powers for good in the world.

I also lecture in illustration and design part time. I paint and draw while travelling and then put my work into books and calendars. It’s not a huge earner but I love doing it! I also earn an income from private commissions from people buying gifts for their loved ones. I was also co-running creative workshops for children for some time but recently have been winding that down.

As time goes on I’d like to think I’m getting more discerning about what I work on. For instance, I will not do logos or branding anymore. I had a realisation earlier this year that I do not enjoy it. This week looked at % of income per service, and how much time I spend doing each thing. It was really useful to see, and made me think that perhaps my Etsy shop is not worth keeping open... Overheads are high, it's time-consuming, and profits aren't great.

It also goes without saying but I never ever work for free, and I also do not work in exchange for products or exposure. I have rent to pay! I cannot eat free pens or makeup! Some potential clients are well-meaning, others are rude about it.

Have you been able to support yourself as a full-time freelance illustrator for the past 5 years?

No! My partner and I go 50/50 on everything. He is also self employed so there’s no magical pot of money to fall back on. When things go quiet I have to come to my own rescue.

When I was studying full time this was the hardest thing to deal with. I also had a quiet spell in May 2017 and panicked and took on a 6 month ESL contract teaching Chinese children English. It was fun sometimes, but it was so draining! I had no energy left to create.

Here’s a list of the other jobs I’ve done to support myself over the past 5 years:

Nanny/babysitter / Conversational English teacher (in Germany) / Server in a curry van at German food festivals / Yoga studio cleaner / ESL teacher for Chinese children onlin / Bar work at events & festivals / Cleaner / GCSE tutor

Being able to do jobs when things go quiet is good, but I am getting better at putting money aside for those times now so I don’t have to go scrabbling around and panicking.

Another bonus to having more than one income stream is that you can refuse to work for low/bad pay. If a job doesn’t pay well, or a client says you are too expensive, you can bid them good day and get on with your life. I love being able to say no.

ig post food live illustration.jpg

How does the thought of being open about your earnings make you feel?

Nervous! I was brought up being told that it’s rude to talk about money, it’s rude to ask somebody what they earn, and weird stuff like “if you cant see the price then you cant afford it”. I’m slowly learning that a lot of the messages I picked up as a child around money were BS/passed down through generations without anybody thinking them through.

When I see other people, especially women and those in the creative industry be open with their money stuff I find it useful and inspiring. I’m hoping that sharing this is going to be useful to at least 1 person.

Also, I now know that it takes time! When I was fresh out of uni burning myself out nobody ever said “Hi, most successful illustrators are like 40+. Chill out. It’s a marathon not a race. Also, charge more.” That being said, a kind man at a PR company DID tell me to charge more in 2013! He told me to double my quote... That just shows you how low my fees were at that time.

So yes, charge more, don't be afraid to say no, get a back up job so that you have the luxury of telling people to F off when they ask you to work for free.

How you manage your money?

I do my own accounts and use a simple spreadsheet. Money in, money out, profit. Keeping it simple has made it possible for me to keep it up to date and not freak out about maths. Numbers are not my strong point but as soon as I got my head around the fact that accounting literally meant in - out = profit my mind was blown.

Everything comes into one account even though I know it shouldn’t! I have different pots in my bank account though and they are labelled like this:

Play / Freedom / Long Term

Every time I get paid for a job I put a percentage into each pot so that I know I’m covered for fun stuff, accessible savings for holidays/time off, and long term savings that I do not touch.

If things carry on going the way they are right now i'd love to employ an accountant for my next tax return.


How do you know what to charge for jobs?

I have used the AOI pricing service in the past (I know they’re developing a calculator which I am looking forward to using!)

I also know that I am only able to work for a few hours a day, so if I’m working out an hourly rate it has to be quite high otherwise it’s not sustainable. I do not/cannot work 9-5. It’s more like 7am-11am and then my brain turns to mush / I get very tired in the afternoons.

This rate also has to take into account the fact that I do not want to work 7 days a week (more like 4), and that I usually travel for at least 2 months of the year. I'd rather do one big day of well paid work and relax all week than take on lots of smaller jobs that don't pay as well.

Do you have an idea of what you’d ideally like to earn each year?

Yes! I’d like to earn £40k net (or over) next year. My income has been building year on year and I’d like to keep that going. When I was earning very little I had no financial goals. I was just happy cycling around Berlin, doing yoga and babysitting, but now that I’m back home, I am 100% done with being all starving-artist/poor-student.

That being said, balance is important and I know that I am a sleepy human who needs lots of rest and downtime so working 4 days a week is plenty for me.

Illustration can be lucrative, have you any examples of this that you’d like to share?

Any jobs I’ve done for bigger clients have always paid better. Earning an entire year of babysitting money in one job is always a lovely feeling! (And makes you question why you are still working as a nanny...)

Having a contract is very important. I’ve had clients cancel jobs - having a contract in place means that they still have to pay a generous percentage, even though you don’t do the work. It’s a lovely feeling! The Association of Illustrators have contract templates which are extremely useful.

If you do one thing, USE CONTRACTS! I highly recommend joining the AOI too.

Do you have a pension or any insurance such as critical illness insurance?

I started a pension in 2018 after doing some research online and I contribute a teeny tiny amount (£20) per month. I started at £10 per month so I’m gradually increasing as my earnings increase.

My goal is to take out critical illness insurance this year. I have recently heard more professionals talking about this - not only illustrators - and it's very wise as a freelancer to have back up.


What advice about finances would you like to share with illustrators who are new to the industry?

Think of yourself as a business. University only teaches you a tiny slice of this, and that’s a good thing. If you are motivated to be self employed, then you should be motivated to learn about fees, licensing and contracts.

Get clued up on pricing quickly - do not undercharge. It undercuts the industry, devalues your work, makes you feel awful and ultimately it is not a sustainable business practice. Better to say no, than to work for low rates.

Get all clients to sign a contract.

What have your earnings been from illustration only, over the past 5 years?

2014/2015 - £ 2,400 - living in Berlin. Nannying a lot (I earned about £10k from childcare)

2015/2016 - £1,209 - My living costs in Berlin were really low, this was the year that I lived off my childcare earnings from 2014/15 and went travelling around SE Asia.

2016/2017 - £8,478 - in full-time study for Masters degree/living with my Mum.

2017/2018 - £16,338 - still studying for about half of this year but no longer living with mum #adulting

2018/2019 - £26,500ish (still 2 weeks to go until the end of the tax year!)

And finally, where can we see your work, and any other comments?

I’m @katiedraws on the internet, and Instagram is my favourite place to hang out.

There’s more to life than money, but earning your own cash means you have freedom, independence and it also means you can make a difference in the world.