illustration and monetization - the spark youth empowerment platform in nigeria

Illustration and Monetization: Three Hypotheses


Artistry in our clime is unfortunately not as well appreciated or even understood, as it should be. 


– By Justin Irabor

I am going to make three hypotheses, in rapid succession, and invite you to turn it over, gently and with care, in your head, as you read the rest of this:

  1. Unlike most other professions, very few people attempt to be illustrators with the original aim of making money,
  2. If you meet an illustrator who is also a banker, illustration is the job they really want, and banking is the job they have to have, and
  3. The world doesn’t have nearly as many artists/creative people as it deserves to have.

Let us begin, with a collection of anecdotes (exactly the sort of way to make an emotional argument, but not a logical one. Then again – if we were all perfectly logical, we would be down artistically by several pints):

illustration and monetization - the spark youth empowerment platform in nigeria

First hypothesis: the money question is the wrong question

The first thing I remember drawing was a horse. Of course, like every other child, I must have started life by drawing squiggly lines and circles, so I should probably amend my statement to say the first interesting thing I remember drawing was a horse. It was in one of those classes ostensibly designed to allow kids engage their creative side, but were really an opportunity for the teacher to catch up on a much-needed nap.

“What’s this?” a girl, Sophia was her name, asked.

“A horse,” I said.

There was silence.

“It does not look like a horse,” she decided finally. “Legs too fat.”

And so began her remarkable career as an art critic (I hope), and the hint of my future filled with bruised egos and misinterpreted ‘art directions’.

My father saw the horse and declared, ‘Justin is definitely going to be a famous artist!’ and my mother, well, she said, ‘oh my God, this is so good – you must have traced it!’

‘I didn’t!’

‘Then you are very good! Help me squeeze the Maggi into the pot?’

And so began my first experience receiving raving reviews from well-intentioned people who aren’t completely sure what you’re on about.

illustration and monetization - the spark youth empowerment platform in nigeria

I have come a long (or short, depending on how you look at it) way from that moment, and in that time, one thing has become apparent: people will compliment your art, and ask you to make art for them, and they will totally expect you to do it for free.

Why’s that? I suspect the answer is in society. Or more accurately, social conditioning. Arriving at the utilitarian value of art is a convoluted process, and I do not even pretend to understand it myself. As a result, there is art which us plebs consider overpriced [often hung in galleries, with a bespectacled fella telling you about the type of emotions it’s supposed to ‘evoke’ in you], and then there’s art which is just one step away from ‘internet memes’ in (perceived) value. And that is the art that people often want to give you ‘exposure’ for, because, they imagine, you must be doing this because fame is your only goal.

Your drawings will be considered ‘cute’, but not ‘important’, unlike a career in, say, software development (earth really needs its websites, apparently), and as a result, the sort of person who becomes an illustrator becomes one, not because it’s such an obvious source of income. They do it for a completely different reason, which leads me to hypothesis number 2:

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Second hypothesis: your favourite [illustrator] has no choice

If you’re looking for the textbook definition of love, look no further than to that fella (or lass), hunched over an insignificant piece of paper, drawing line after line, flipping it this way and that, adding colours, removing detail, and replacing with form, until they straighten, their spine snapping in a million stress pops.

You think that sort of person does it because they expect to be millionaires? You think they cackle over a cauldron, their eyes tinted green with glee, as they anticipate the dollars that shall come in?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is: many illustrators have day jobs they don’t like (or day jobs they like a little less than they love illustrating), and the day job keeps them alive and solvent enough to buy more papers and crayons.

There is an interminably long phase where an illustrator would draw for fun, for friends. Their work in this phase is rubbish, but original and fun, you know? They’re out there, making things! They do not care for money, and many are content making non-publishable rubbish. However, your favourite illustrator will push themselves, and get better, and better, until they are good enough to get paid for the first time.

I call that the ‘holy shit’ moment, and it [often] happens without their own orchestration. Someone sees their work, and says ‘I really like it! Can you do this for me, and how much would you like to be paid for it?’

The illustrator realizes that their work which has always been valuable to them has become valuable enough to someone else, in such a way that they are willing to part with cash for it.

Holy shit.

illustration and monetization - the spark youth empowerment platform in nigeria

Third hypothesis: we’re several illustrators short at any given time

I have been drawing, unprofessionally, for as long as I became aware of my cognitive abilities. Professionally, fairly recently. I only just started to get paid to illustrate. The money is not yet enough for me to quit my day job, so it’s not the reason I continue to be an artist.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about babies.

Given the number of babies who are natural Picassos (drawing on everything in sight: wrappers, walls, curtains), you’d expect more adults to be artists, right? After the GIGO fashion. But that isn’t really the case, and most artistic inclinations are leached out of kids early on in life, that only the ones in the right environment, with the right friends, or with the right level of stubbornness, continue to hold on to such a skill that many consider a pastime.

Today, thanks to the internet, we can instantly see that not all illustrators are equal: some will be magazine cover illustrators, website illustrators, background artists for billion-dollar animated cartoons, concept artists, comic book artists, and the list goes on.

As with everything, once you figure out the kind of illustrator you want to be, and double down on those 10,000 hours, you are almost totally guaranteed to emerge on the other side of the curtain with that delightfully titillating message to future clients:

Sorry. Fully booked this year; no longer accepting commissions.

Oh the joy – it would mean that illustration has become your one and only joy.


Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.

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