Interview: Three Malaysians Share How They Make A Living Out Of Art And Illustration
There’s a myth that you can’t turn creative work into a full-time career. This is especially prevalent in some Asian communities, where, as the joke goes, you can’t pick a profession beyond the parent-approved trifecta of doctor, lawyer or engineer – lest you want to incur the wrath of your ancestors.
Thankfully, that isn’t true. It’s possible to build a full-time career – and a thriving one, at that – out of creative work like visual art. But you don’t have to take our word for it. We asked Charis Loke, Farid Nad and Syarifah Nadhirah to share their experiences on how they’ve made a living out of art and illustration.
Illustrator and comics editor
Charis Loke is an illustrator and comics editor based in Penang. She describes her work as being rooted in Southeast Asian cultures and influenced by traditions of speculative fiction.
Before going into illustration full-time, she built up a financial buffer working as a public school teacher and at an arts education nonprofit. During this time, she also worked on freelance jobs while taking online illustration workshops and mentorships to learn about the business side of freelancing. “Once I was reasonably certain of being able to have a somewhat steady income, I went into freelancing full-time,” she said.
Most of Charis’ work is done on a freelance basis for clients, specifically in book and editorial illustration – this includes magazines and other periodicals. She earns income from the artwork fees and its subsequent licensing (for instance, when maps for a book are reused in other language editions of the book).
Other sources of income include support from subscribers on Patreon. She also holds a part-time role as a comics and illustrations editor at New Naratif, an online journalism platform that publishes stories on Southeast Asian current affairs and experiences.
When pricing her work, Charis looks at the context and scope of the work and the market that it is catering to, who the client is, and what usage rights they require. “The bigger the client, or the more places they would like to use the work in, or the more complex the work is, the higher the fees,” she said. She also looks up online databases like Litebox, which list how much clients have paid for similar jobs. For particularly niche jobs, she consults other artists who may have done such work before.
But she notes that the market for book and editorial illustration is not very developed in Malaysia, and that there’s a lack of understanding of copyright and usage rights.
“The rates are far from competitive with those of the US or UK markets,” she said. For example, a book cover for a small to large US publisher could be anywhere from US$1,000 (RM4,200) to US$3,500 (RM14,700). “I’ve never been offered more than RM2,000 for a book cover locally, and I know of Malaysian publishers who offer around the same amount for a fully-illustrated thirty-page picture book.”
It’s unfortunate that Malaysian publishers tend to underprice the work of illustrators – not least because it’s a highly skilled craft – but also because producing and practising it can incur a lot of expenses. Charis has compiled a list of her business income and expenses during her first year of freelancing, which notes one-off costs like printers, and recurring costs like web hosting.
The biggest misconception that people have about what she does for a living? That she just draws. “I also spend time keeping up with what other illustrators are doing, what publishers are putting out into the world, researching topics and gathering reference materials for my illustrations, reading widely, learning from what artists and researchers in different fields are doing, handling administrative work like invoices and receipts…” she said, “…and living.”
- Start budgeting and keeping track of your money if you don’t already do so.
- Get over your discomfort with talking about money; be ready to discuss budgets and fees with clients and peers.
- Save up a buffer before freelancing full-time as it will give you that extra peace of mind and the ability to turn down exploitative jobs.
- Have a realistic assessment of your own work – what’s good about it, what could be improved, what markets are available for it, who might enjoy it – and get input from professionals in the field, not just family and friends.
- Learn to proactively create opportunities for yourself instead of just waiting for clients to find you.
Farid is a full-time freelance illustrator whose work features themes of identity, belonging and hope. He has worked on personal art commissions since he was 12, which he described as a gateway to art as a side income.
“I hold a degree in English for Professional Communication, and am a JKM-registered OKU for mental disability, and use a wheelchair or a cane for mobility aid due to my physical disability,” he said.
This has put him on the short end of discriminatory hiring practices. “Most of the job interviews I attended were before my osteoarthritis diagnosis, so my disabilities were not as visible. When I bring up my disability at the end of the interview, it always turns south and invasive questions are asked, only to not get a return call afterwards,” he said. This prompted him to further explore art as a source of income. “Pursuing art as a full-time career was more of necessity than want, but I had been able to make it work.”
Farid picks up projects by browsing newsletters and job boards. He uses his skills as a certified linguist to pitch ideas and submit them to calls for artists. “This approach has granted me a notable portfolio of published work including some in-print,” he said. He was recently published in Sound, a comics anthology featuring Southeast Asian writers and illustrators (also co-edited by Charis Loke). Farid also takes personal art commissions and sells web zines on itch.io and Ko-Fi.
When pricing his work, Farid uses a base price list. This takes into account how much time and effort is needed, as well as current exchange rates.
“I also take into consideration the demand of my work and my capabilities to reach that demand,” he said. “For example, I used to price coloured refined sketches from the waist-up at US$35. From analysing the amount of demand I received for it the previous year, I found that I could barely keep up while still struggling to make ends meet. Since then, I’ve increased my prices for it to US$50 which receives less orders now but earns me more a piece. This lets me earn a living without sacrificing my health.
“A lot of it is informed by my socioeconomic position, my own limits as a disabled person, and my client base. I am a B40 who has to account for city living costs but manage to do so because my client base is international and I mainly get paid in US dollars.”
However, he notes that there is a general misunderstanding of art and profitability. “Most people’s ideas of art as a way of living stems from older concepts of art galleries and physical pieces, which isn’t the only method of earning with your artwork anymore,” he said. With digital commerce, earning an income from art doesn’t have to involve the exchange of physical goods at all.
This misconception appears in the local art scene as well. “The local art community, and to an extent, society as a whole, are still stuck in the mindset and preconceived notions of art from decades ago,” said Farid. “Art isn’t just about huge canvas paintings of palm trees and metal-work sculptures anymore. While they are beautiful works by themselves, the local scene has to look beyond blueprints from the 50s.”
The problem with this mindset, he shared, is that most local art residencies and grants center around final products that align with these concepts of art. “Financial aid becomes inaccessible, forcing those [who work] with more contemporary art or digital-based mediums to choose between pursuing their passion or putting food on their plates.”
Freelancers already have few resources to depend on for financial security. “While I am thankful that SOCSO has programs such as their Skim Keselamatan Sosial Pekerjaan Sendiri (SKSPS) specifically for freelancers, multiple other challenges such as the lack of paycheck documents and employer references still plague the trade,” he said. “As someone who is mentally and physically disabled, these lack of accessibilities double down to our already inaccessible system.”
To aspiring full-time artists, Farid suggests investing time in learning the basics of professional communication. This includes common courtesy, negotiation and persuasion – skills that can help with approaching art as a business and with socialising in general.
Additionally, seek out learning resources on art-related skills, as this can be beneficial to the technical aspects of producing your work. He also suggests making use of planners or organisational tools, which would help both your career and general lifestyle.
“Finally, always remember that your fellow artists are not competition to be squashed but rather a community to grow together in,” he said. “The toxic capitalist idea of individualism and artificial scarcity is what has brought artists and art as a career down as something perceived as unsustainable or even shameful, which is far from the truth. We can grow together and thrive as a loving, helpful and connected coalition of creators by starting from ourselves in making sure nobody gets left behind.”
Visual artist and author of Recalling Forgotten Tastes
Syarifah Nadhirah is a visual artist who experiments in printmaking, watercolor and digital illustrations.
Although she majored in architecture, she felt adamant on pursuing a different path. While she was still practising in an architectural firm, she took commissions, learned about factory printing and the technicalities of product design. Eventually, Syarifah set up Paperweight Studio with her partner, Alani Iman. The studio focuses on illustration, wedding suites and product design projects.
“At the same time, I practised as a visual artist after attending an art residency in Rimbun Dahan, working on research and documentation projects pertaining to the indigenous knowledge of plants,” she said.
This research led to Recalling Forgotten Tastes, Syarifah’s illustrated guide to edible plants and traditional culinary practices of the Semai and Temuan Orang Asli communities in Selangor and Negeri Sembilan.
So how does a visual artist, author and business owner spend her working hours? “My working day usually starts with checking and replying to emails, tidying up on finances and managing our online Shopee store. I would start packing orders afterwards and make trips to the post office on certain days of the week,” said Syarifah.
“Pre-MCO, I would visit printing factories to check on our ongoing projects, look for the right paper materials, do color proofing and fix any technical issues on site. Some days, I would focus only on design work at home and catch up on deadlines.”
On the other hand, other personal projects – such as the development of Recalling Forgotten Tastes – would take up around 40% of her time, as they include field trips, interviewing people, researching, writing and illustrating.
Her current revenue streams include profits generated from Paperweight Studio and sales of her artwork, which include paintings, art prints and books. She also receives visual art grants to run research projects.
When deciding how to price her work, she determines what sets the work apart from others’ and looks at competitors’ prices. She also weighs up other factors like hourly fees, printing cost and materials. The process also involves a lot of advice-seeking from fellow artists.
However, she added that the age-old conflict between artists and clients – low payment and the concept of valuing one’s work – is a challenge.
“Unfortunately, this side of the world still regards creative work as low-paying careers,” she said. “While running the studio, I always seek advice from fellow peers and try to educate clients on the reasons we should be paid accordingly and on time, of which we struggled with while building the business from the ground up.”
People tend to romanticise the successes that come with starting up small businesses, but not the extreme labour behind it, she shared. Syarifah made sure to have at least six months of savings before starting the studio, and only saw a steady cash flow after two years of ups and downs. “It is, however, a privilege to be able to leave a stable job and carve my own path,” she said.
For those who are looking to pursue art full-time, Syarifah suggests looking for a sparring partner or a community for support. “It will greatly help to keep your mental health in check,” she said.
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