MONEY TALKS - Ben Tallon
My guest on this third edition of Money Talks is super successful Ben Tallon. Ben has honed his unique and distinctive style over the years and this has led to commissions from clients such as The Guardian, The Premier League and Unicef. Below he talks to me about his career so far, and is open about his year on year earnings. Have a read, there are some real nuggets of wisdom here!
Can you tell me a little about your career path?
I've drawn since a very early age. At 15, after telling a school design/technology teacher I liked to draw and did not wish to go on a traditional work experience placement, I was invited to the local art college where i spent two weeks drawing. I loved the place and had a taster of what it might be like to go there. I ended up on a BTEC ND in Graphic design, followed by a degree 1st year graphic design, then a full degree in illustration in Preston at UCLan. From here, I spent two years in various full time jobs, saved up some money, built a portfolio and eventually, after one false start, went full time freelance as an illustrator. It's been 10 years.
What kind of illustration work do you do? (has that changed over the past 5 years?
My illustration style is energetic, hand drawn, sketchy in aesthetic. It generally fits a younger audience, but often lends itself to more serious topics too. I work with many sporting clients, i create album covers, work for moving image, set design, book covers, custom fashion, murals, posters, advertising campaigns and more. I build my work with fun, enjoyment of process in mind and seek clients who will value and benefit from what I do the most. I use my knowledge of various topics to get work, build relationships with people and make sure I explore my passions far beyond illustration, which doubles back by opening doors to opportunities others may miss. Over the last five years I have become gradually more business savvy, meaning I will say no more and trust that the time I save will steer me towards clients that pay well and love what I do. Usually the feeling is mutual. The visual shift has been gradual, more simplicity, naivety and a broader use of my ink in 2d and 3d environments.
Have you been able to support yourself as a full-time freelance illustrator for the past 5 years?
Yes, I've been able to make a reasonable income from illustration. Though my character is one that needs variation to stay inspired and this has lead me to many unexpected opportunities. I find myself in a position where what was 100% of my income coming from illustration for my first 5 years, is now 75%. This is a choice. I fell in love with writing, which lead to a book deal (Champagne and Wax Crayons) and subsequent podcast (Arrest All Mimics: The Creative Innovation Podcast). Through both of these things, I do a reasonable amount of guest lecturing and workshops. It means I stay energised, make money from these activities and retain my passion for illustration thanks to the range of people based projects and solo studio time.
I've had quiet spells like the next person, especially in the first half of the decade i've been doing this. They were scary, but I got through. These days I save as much as humanly possible without compromising a lifestyle that enables me to be happy and stay enthused. I am able to rely on that to a degree, but I try not to where possible.
How does the thought of being open about your earnings make you feel?
I'm pretty open about these things, but I understand why people are reluctant to talk figures. We feel embarrassed, whether they are high or low, we compare ourselves to others and feel like we are somehow giving away a part of our soul, our secrets! Maybe it's a British tendency, or perhaps more indicative of the tender soul of those with artistic inclinations. I feel the increased amount of conversation around the business side of what we do is urgent and healthy. Too many of us suffer from adhering to the age old 'starving artist' stereotype and prefer to spend our days only creating new work, neglecting the crucial need to market, know how to price, deal with copyright and carve out new opportunities.
How you manage your money?
I have an accountant who is very affordable (£300 per year) to whom I hand over my expense receipts and invoices. They work with me to make sure my house is in order and i get the brutal letter in the mail telling me what I have to hand over, that what looked like a handsome figure is no more than a ghost...
How do you know what to charge for jobs?
I should say i am represented by Illustration Ltd who work closely with me, a process of negotiation to agree a figure to quote to any client. But independent of their help, I try to keep an open dialogue with a range of professionals in my industry, ask their advice and maintain an understanding of market values for many projects: A book cover, a magazine spread, a t-shirt deign, an album artwork. With this in mind, I apply my own variables to personalise my own quote without damaging the industry with guess work - experience, time it will take me, how much I would like to take on the project/work with a client, how well suited I am, speed (note: that something is quick to execute usually reflects a hard earned efficiency, so should be paid for appropriately, not used as an excuse to whittle down a price. Time is only one small factor when pricing a job) and specialist knowledge (Many of my fav jobs have been won through a knowledge of a subject or brand). From here, I will ask a client's budget and depending on their response, negotiate, agree or reject the work.
Do you have an idea of what you’d ideally like to earn each year?
I know my required monthly earnings to live comfortably. As long as over the year, I hit this goal, that is enough. Some years I do much better, others just slightly below. Happiness and creative freedom is my priority because this job is my profession and my passion, so I will not allow that figure to reach a stage where I am stressed and working all hours. To me, comfortably is enough to pay the bills, enjoy a social life, go on a couple of holidays a year, pay the vets bills, invest some into moving my business forward and live in a safe part of town. Some months I exceed it, others fall short, but on average, I make good. I have longer term ambitions and currently use the free time I protect (a day or so a week) to plant those seeds, so even if a year's earnings does not quite make or exceed the previous one, this is ok because I believe that i will earn well enough, with a great degree of excitement and happiness down the road.
Illustration can be lucrative, have you any examples of this that you’d like to share?
I've spent many, many years developing and protecting a style and an ethos that is born of my character. That has manifested itself in a stripped back, naive visual style. This means I am able to execute jobs to a high standard, much quicker than many other illustrators with more laborious styles. It was not done so I could make more money, but there have been projects that have wrapped very quickly, for a handsome fee. But it is a specialist skill and to provide clients with speed and quality is a valuable asset. Once you understand the way licensing and copyright works, it becomes about usage and value to the client, not time spent or quantity of work. Why do you think whoever invented the 'baby on board sign' is worth over £100m? On this basis, I came very close to landing a £2k job to draw, scan and send a stick man for a major U.S. TV show.
Do you have a pension or any insurance such as critical illness insurance?
No. I probably should, but one grown up thing at a time. I'm still digesting the fact i have made out a will and on it is custody of my dog, with specified money to feed and care for him. Immediately after I ordered another wrestling t-shirt on the internet as some kind of juvenile kick out at adulthood.
What advice about finances would you like to share with illustrators who are new to the industry?
Do not shrivel and die when someone says the word business and try not to surrender the second anyone offers to pay you for your creative skills. You've worked long and hard to become great at what you do and like every other skill, it should be paid properly. Only you can ensure that this happens, so go and do a business plan, talk to peers, know your worth and behave like the business you aspire to be. For too long we have allowed the vultures to take the piss out of us because we are sensitive people, victims of the fact that 9 times out of 10, our job is also our hobby. Whilst this might be a huge positive, it should not mean you are paid less than any other qualified professional.
Please can you share your earnings for the past 5 years? (In reading please note these figures are total earnings before tax)
1 Jan 2014- 31 Dec 2014 £29,000
1 Jan 2015 - 31 Dec 2015 £32,000
1 Jan 2016 - 31 Dec 2016 £37,000
1 Jan 2017 - 31 Jan 2017 £35,000
1 Jan 2018 - 31 Jan 2018 £43,000
And finally, where can we see your work?
http://bentallon.com for an overview
http://illustrationweb.com/bentallon for illustration specific portfolio
My book on turning your creative passion into a profession: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Champagne-Wax-Crayons-Creative-Industry/dp/190779493X
My creative industry podcast: http://soundcloud.com/arrestallmimics
A big thanks to Ben for being so open with his many pearls of wisdom. If you’ve found this useful reading then please comment below or head to twitter to shout if from the rooftops! And if you’d like to read the same questions answered by other professional illustrators then head to the links below.