Stock illustration– your thoughts?

March 1, 2007

Earlier in the week a fellow named Jamie Tucker wrote me with some concerns, and I figured I’d address it here and find out what you think. He writes:

 “My colleagues and I recently graduated from the Illustration course at Sheridan College two years ago. I have found many of them now keeping a profile at and selling stock illustration for like 5 dollars or something like that. They sell a lot of it and are making approx. 400-500 dollars a month. This has led more people from my circle of friends to join up. I’m really against what they’re doing and have heated arguments with them over it. My one friend justifies it to himself by creating a different persona and illustration style for this work.
My personal view is that places like these are killing the industry. Because why would someone want to pay 600 dollars for an illustration when they can get one or a dozen for 10 dollars each. My friends are just saturating the market with their wares. They are talented people so its not like they’re churning out garbage. So people are getting quality work for pennies.
The allure to them is they think it is quick easy money. And it is a very strong pull, especially for strarving illustrators who don’t want to work full time at a 9-5 and Illustrate on the side. (which is what I’m doing)”

I’m torn how to feel on this subject to be fair. On one hand, I really don’t like stock illustration because yes, it does devalue the work that goes into it in some way, even though you do get the opportunity to use an illustration more than once and then get paid for it. But on the other hand, it seems to me that it doesn’t entirely kill the industry– it serves a different purpose. There are some art directors who treat illustration and photography as just another element to pretty up a page– it’s like picking out a font treatment. Or their topics are so common that a very typical image could personify it. Or their budgets don’t allow to hire an illustrator (although this last idea is more wishful thinking– I’ve done my fair share of work for alternative newsweeklies and they on a whole don’t have big budgets). But could we use stock illustration for everything? I don’t think so.  Moreover, I think other art directors dislike the idea of stock illustration and then as a result go and commission illustrators to make an image.  I may have a pretty close-minded view of the field I admit– I only have been doing this a couple of years, so I suspect there are some veterans out there with a better idea of how it actually works… But I think while I am not a fan of stock illustration and probably wouldn’t do something like sign up with a site like that, it serves its own purpose. I don’t like it, but fortunately illustration has expanded in enough ways that there are still people who want custom illustrations, whose purposes aren’t served by your every day stock illo.

Anyway, I’m curious of your thoughts as well– I guess I have a different view than some, much as I do on the whole ‘illustration is a dying animal’ topic. It doesn’t seem dead to me, but then again I’m not old enough to know how it used to be? But anyway, feel free to comment with your thoughts about stock illustration– do you like it? Hate it? Why? I guess if you can bang out a ton of stock illustration without a lot of effort, perhaps it’s worth it– but the way I work, it’d be pretty useless.


27 Responses to “Stock illustration– your thoughts?”

  1. Sketchee said

    I think you’re right Meg. There may be some great stock illustrations, but custom work usually gets a custom price. They get first rights to the image which an illustrator may often resell anyway for use in a publication with a smaller budget. There’s room for both. It’s hard to be a fan of stock illustration, but I can see the necessity.

    A second thought, it does give less experienced illustrators a chance to get some work out there. I don’t think too many stay in it as they get past a certain level?

  2. Bjorn said

    Stock illustration is not the big, bad bully it was years ago. Selling your work as stock is now one of the tools an illustrator can use to sell their work. The quality of these kind of images has gotten better and better.
    Stockagencies just serve a side of the market that is actually pretty big. I’ve done graphic design and DTP and you would not believe how many times a client made up their mind and wanted an image right before the deadline. No time to hire and illustrator or a photographer. If it is just to fill a gap stock is a pretty nice solution in this kind of circumstances.

    I personally think that a decision to use stock-images never has a creative reason to it. Almost always stock is used in times where there is little time and/or little money available. And I also think that a lot (and I mean a lot!) of art-directors and editors still favor custom made illustration because it is custom made!
    Brad Holland used to crusade against stockagencies. He once made a comment I will never forget. He said that stockimages should cost much more than custom made illustrations because of 2 reasons. 1) The client immediately sees the final image. So no surprises. 2) The client is able to use the image right away. No waiting.
    But that will never happen I guess although I support his statement.

    The internet does have its negative influences on the way people see images and value them I guess. It is easy to ‘steal’ an image on the internet. And websites like Flickr and Deviantart have a lot of succes. Nowadays you do not have to be a good illustrator to see your work published. Everybody can upload their pictures to website like the ones I mentioned. Illustration is no longer the terrain of professional artists. The only people who can be a treath to illustrators are bad art-directors. People who do not understand the value of illustration and do not know how to handle illustration.
    But no illustrator with a heart for what he/she does wants to work for people like that.
    Stock is here to stay. It will not fade away because there is so much money to be earned with it. And frankly, I am glad it is there so that I do not get bothered by clients who have no idea what illustration is all about.

  3. I think what has driven the illustration market down more than stock art is photography. I found a 1950’s issue of “Punch” magazine, which had dozens of ads and illustrations for stories, non of which were photographs. Underwear, pencils and alcohol were all presented in hand drawn black and white images from realistic to cartoony. With the hundered or so magazines I can find at Border’s very few have illustrations at all. Hopefully the day will come when art directors will find once again that an illustration designed around their product will have more impact than a digital photo or piece of stock art.

  4. meg said

    Good comments so far, everybody.

    Sketchee- I guess I’d just be wary that inexperienced illustrators aren’t whetting their teeth on the whole workout that is dealing with an art director. When they do actually leap into the fray, they might not understand how to deal with clients as well? Or how it actually works to give and take, submit sketches, get many edits, and deal with creating a finished piece that makes everyone happy?

    Bjorn– I really like that Brad Holland quote– it totally puts it in a different perspective, even if it’d probably never happened. I think you make good points about why stock has its place in the field, though it’s a whole different realm.

    Ken, are you going to the same Borders that I’m going to? I’ve been on several different outings and while I don’t deny there’s a lot of photographs and I think that it has kind of driven the market down, there’s a) quite a few more than a hundred magazines (at least, I’d imagine double that. I’ve flipped through tons of them– maybe it’s just wishful thinking!) but also more importantly b) I actually find a lot of magazines that use illustration. OK, maybe they’re not like the glory days of illustration where illustration floods the pages, but I’ve picked up a substantial part of my mailing list by finding magazines in Borders… at least to me, it seems like magazines haven’t given up on illustration– more that they use a mix of illustration and photography. And I’m actually okay with that.

  5. I think we should differentiate stock illustration and stockhouse stock illustration…
    I have no problem selling 2nd rights for a price fair to its purpose. There is a market for stock and don’t mind contributing when approached.

    My problem is the fact that stockhouses are too good at making cheap cheap illustration available. They also have no qualms about selling rights in perpetuity for a relatively small price. and it doesn’t bother them because they sell in bulk. It’s like competing with Walmart.

  6. Bjorn said

    I never saw photography as a huge competitor for illustration. Sure, in the ‘old days’ when guys like Rockwell dominated every magazine with their art Photography was becoming a competitor. But you have to realise that in those days photography was still in the beginning of development and illustrators were send out on the field to document a certain event for newspapers etc. Illustration does not have documentary skills…. Photography does. So no wonder that illustrators were used less back than when more and more people started to use camera’s.
    Think about it, illustration and photography are two different media. They both have qualities the other one doesn’t have. They both speak their own language. It’s up to the art-director to choose the appropriate medium for the job he’s working on.

  7. wignke said

    I tend to flip flop on this issue, but if you have a back log of spot illustrations I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to put them out there. People who are going to use stock will no matter what. At least this way they are using the old tired “50’s” clip art. I’m not a fan of the places that have rounded up old stock and are selling it without the original artists getting credit/compensation like CSA Image Archive. I remember when Charles Anderson came to my college to speak and one of our illustration instructors was just giving him a tounge lashing. He didn’t seem to care and was more interested in his profit margins.

  8. Ken said

    Points well taken regarding the magazines and photography. I guess I was a little cranky when I wrote my post.


  9. Geoff said

    There are many who think that Stock Illustration is a great evil and that it’s going to cannibalize the traditional illustration market. You can see an example of this at Not only is there a proliferation of stock but now it’s “microstock” which sells for a fraction of the price of traditional stock. A lot of the images that you will find available on stock sites are not as well conceptually thought out as traditional commissioned illustration and many of the pieces you find at some of these sites such as and are on the level of spot illos or clipart. They fill in a certain niche where illustrated imagery is part of, but not the entire design solution.
    There will likely be some ersosion of the traditional illustration market by these sources but not much. In the earlier days of stock photography, many cursed stock photo agencies as the great evil that would bring the industry crashing down. This simply has not happened.

    It’s tempting in a challenging field like illustration to fear change that looks threatening, but, fact of the matter is, that stock is quickly becoming one of the biggest new markets for illustrators to sell their work. Many of these agencies also feature varied levels of licensing for works. The idea is that something you create once can sell hundreds or thousands of times. There’s only a select few fields where you get this open ended kind of profit model and can sell your work again and again.

    The Luddites were a group of folks who smashed up factory equipment because they thought it was going to steal their manual labor jobs from them, and that didn’t stop the industrial revolution from happening. Like it or not, the web is here to stay and with it, things like stock agencies. Better to figure out how to make money doing this type of work than get left behind fighting a losing battle. I don’t think you will ever see a stock illustration on the cover of the New Yorker, but you might see one in your local newspaper. Oh yes, and you will now be competing with illustrators from all over the world, some of whom are very good and who think getting a dollar for an image is a lot of money.

    No one promised us that we’d all make a living doing what we love. THere’s a lot of illustrators out there, but as was once said of politicians and actors “There’s always room for one more good one.”

  10. Here are a couple of links I had bookmarked regarding stock illustration.

    This is an article by Brad Holland giving some brief pratical advice on stock art:

    This is a campaign led by some big names in the industry trying to promote commissioned illustration over stock art.

  11. frederikjurk said

    I do have a style that I can churn out very quickly – if I wanted to, I could do maybe four or five pretty random illos on one day (not with any brilliant concepts, though, but that has always been a problem for me – I just want to make pretty lines), and if someone bought one for ten or twenty bucks, that would be fine with me.

    What about submitting your past unpublished work, that is basically just sitting on its shelf, as stock art?

  12. horrified illustrator said

    the original question and even a lot of the responses are VERY VERY scary. Using stockhouses that use discount rates is like digging your own grave along with your art school chums’. If you make your work avalable for $5, they will never pay more for your work. Say goodbye to your illustration career. You are lessening the value of your own work.

    Im an illustrator and I sell my OWN stock on folioplanet. This is an artist run site- you pay a yearly fee, join their stock database and then you set your prices and keep all the profits. Other illustrators use ispot or have their stock available on their own site.

    First of all, Its a LIE that artists are making $500/month on istockphoto. Its not possible. If as you say, the illo sells for $5, then the artist would have to sell 100 illos a month- more than 3 a day, every day. Also, do you really think stockhouses will give you the ENTIRE $5?!!!!!!! So if the stockhouse just takes half, then to make $500, you have to sell 6-7 illos a day, every day for a month. Wake up people. Its not happening.

    So I guarantee that these young’uns are lying about what they are making on istockphoto. It occurred to me that the original post may even be bait from istock to get more suckers to join.

  13. meg said

    i agree with you about it being nigh-impossible (or at least really hard) to make that much in a month at a place like that. or if you could even do that for a month, it wouldn’t stay steady i bet.

    but the original post isn’t ‘bait’ as you say– not from me or from jamie, who asked me that question. i mean, his view of it’s very negative! if he were aligned with istockphoto, he’d be at least more ambivalent-to-positive about the issue. he wrote me because he too appears horrified at the situation, and so i wanted to provide him his public voice and find out what others feel about it.

    needless to say, i think we’re all in agreement that these stockhouses aren’t doing you any good– but i guess if i were planning to do something like they’re doing, i’d make up a whole style, plus a whole nom de plume, just in case it might dig my illustrator grave to be lumped in with them.

  14. Geoff said

    You know not of which you speak.
    Listen, I sell plenty of stuff on stock illustration sites. The longest I’ve ever spent on a piece that I sell there was about 1 hour. So these are not exaclty the kind of labor intensive works you might imagine. I agree that it would be crazy for many illustrators who have a long intensive process to post their works on these sites, but have you gone and looked at the kind of “illustrations” that sell there. They include backgrounds, textures, silhouttes, line art, and swirly patterns made in illustrator. The people who buy these “illustrations” are often looking for design elements to complete something they are working on. Most of the things on these sites don’t really stand on their own as full editorial illustrations. So for my 1/2 hour illustration or even for things I sketched up for Illustration Friday I earn .25 cents. Once it sells 200x I’ve made 50 bucks for it. Not bad for half an hours work I think. As for downloads? 20 a day is not uncommon (all images not just one). It’s a great way to recoup a little money while banging out sketches that and experimental designs that help me hone my skills. I assure you that people are indeed making as much as $500 a month off this type of work. It’s a bit hypocritical for you to sell your work as stock in one place and then criticize others for selling their work as stock in others. Why shouldn’t I make a few bucks for things that would have otherwise earned me nothing. It’s a Free Market – If folks want to commit so called “career suicide” then let them do it – it will be less competition for you. Let’s keep our FEAR in check here. The stock industry is a different animal than what you are thinking. Most of these agencies have Limitations on Use and extra fees (which the artists recieve) for extended licensing (not unlike ispot – hmmmm). Accomplished editorial illustrations and the stuff that sells on stock websites are hardly on the same level. It’s really clipart and sketches vs. labor intensive lovingly executed work. Each has it’s own share of the marketplace – believe it or not.
    Sheath thy sabre O’ fearful one.
    The reports of the death of illustration due to stock agencies is highly exaggerated methinks.

  15. horrified illustrator said

    you do make a good point here:

    “Accomplished editorial illustrations and the stuff that sells on stock websites are hardly on the same level. It’s really clipart and sketches vs. labor intensive lovingly executed work. Each has it’s own share of the marketplace – believe it or not.”

    If that’s what you’re interested in Geoff, then more power to ya. I dont know a single illustrator who answers the phone for $50, let alone allows an image to be re-used by 200 different clients for that price. I dont care if the client calls it “clip-art” or not.

    THE POINT: Selling your own stock is different than handing it to a stockhouse that will own your copyright. this issue is Illustration 101. Maintain your copyrights. Myself and many other illustrators use, keep the copyrights, set our own rates and earn more than $500 a month. Ispot rocks as well.

    Please read the message board (specifically the “stock exchange” board). this issue has been covered my everyone in the industry.

  16. horrified illustrator said

    one more thing…did you really mean to say 25 cents? i think that says it all.

  17. Geoff said

    Your points are well taken. Stock has given me a way to start drawing again and earn a some cash while developing my skills. The other venues for selling certainly make more sense for an established illustrator. It doesn’t seem to have killed the photography industry, and I know that many professional photographers use it as part of their work scheme and do so quite successfully. It’s really passive income as images sell multiple times over without limit. Perhaps illustration is different in this area, time will tell I’m sure. I have just found a useful way to make money from small non labor intensive works that would not have otherwise been earning me anything.

  18. I don’t know how my letter could have been taken as bait. I thought I was pretty clear about being against it. I guess I shouldn’t have mentioned the name of the site.
    I was over at my friends place on a Sunday. He had around 25 downloads that day which he said is unusal for a Sunday. I don’t know the pay structure but I think they average 1 dollar an illos or something stupid like that… do the math.

    Even though I don’t condone what they’re doing. I’ve decided not to pass judgement on them anymore or argue about it. but it just felt weird finding them all signing up for this place. Especially after having the fact that these places are crap drilled into our heads from our professors for 3 years.
    It’s like watching your friends smoke crack…heh, at the end of the day its their decision.

  19. Mark said

    smoking crack? Maybe a little, I do get a big rush when I get a sale. I don’t know what you are talking about stock being a bad deal. I just got a contract with an agency and my first submission of 37 images went live with them a couple weeks ago. Right off the bat I got a 295.00 sale of which I get about $190, then last week I got another one for the same price, then just today I got another one that netted me $52.00. So, lets see, two weeks, net $420.00, 37 images, PASSIVE income where I don’t have to deal with anyone? Yep, it is a horrible deal, stay away, you don’t want to get addicted, or rich or anything. Maybe those sales were a fluke, but I am hoping not. Time will tell. But really, stay away, listen to your professors and don’t go into stock, it is a horrible deal and you won’t make any money, and it will kill your career.

  20. Richard said

    I know I’m way late the conversation on this one but I thought this was a great post. I’ve been thinking about trying my luck at creating some stock art series. I personally don’t see the harm in trying to mass sell simple art. My favorite illustrations are personal projects that I tend to put around 20-30 hours in each. However, I was recently working on a web site project for a prominent food company in which I needed some stock art. I quickly realized that in the time I was spending searching for the art, I could create what I needed. It took around 30 minutes. It actually looked better than any of the other art I could find in the $1-$5 range. I don’t see the harm in selling something you spent 30 minutes on if you can sell it over and over again for a $1 for as long as it’s a useful illustration.

  21. Mary said

    When you sell illos via a microstock site you keep your copyrights. Also, many illustrators get requests for custom work from people visiting their portfolios. Consider a portfolio of images on a microstock site as passive income and promotional pieces. With the type of exposure your images get, you’re getting free advertising. Maybe an image makes $50 in the long run, but if an art director sees it and then calls to request a custom illustration, that’s very profitable advertising.

  22. Wayne said

    People in this discussion don’t seem to be making a distinction between microstock, royalty free stock, and rights-managed stock.

    microstock is peanuts, royalty free at places like Veer or Stock Illustration source, much better, and rights-managed at these places is MUCH better, real money. My studio makes $15,000 a month off 200 RM images, VS 700 royalty free images that make only $5000 a month. High quality high prices makes you much much more money for your energy and effort. We don’t bother with microstock places, I agree with naysayers on that. Microstock is crap compared to making the image good enough for rights-managed and big bucks at a fair sale price.

  23. bobby said

    I started out 30 years ago in Illustration using gouache in an airbrush and am now producing 3D animation for medical and industrial companies. The business has changed so much it’s amazing. I never dreamed I would be doing what I am right now. The creative spark of it is still there for me and I realize after all these years I am and always have been a well paid mechanic.

    That being said, it is immensely satisfying. I have had to constantly learn new ways of doing the work more efficiently and quickly, yet my work has that same fingerprint it had 30 year ago. The art of illustration, creating an image, has remained a constant in my life. I could not think of any better training than drawing and painting for any discipline in this business. The kids starting out today who are prepared to work very hard and hustle will always find well paying work. It might not be what you hoped for, but you will have a satisfying career if you are prepared to see it though…

  24. An interesting discussion is worth comment.

    I do believe that you should write more on this subject, it might not be a taboo subject but typically
    people do not speak about these topics. To the next!
    Kind regards!!

  25. Steve said

    I’ve earning my living as an illustrator for over 20 years. Some years are better than others. All of what I’ve earned has (so far) come from custom work. I don’t have a problem with stock illustration because it is a separate market from custom work. I will even repurpose some elements of my custom work for sale as stock. HOWEVER:

    The problem I do see is a grossly unbalanced relationship between the stock website and the creator. Corporations selling stock in whatever form have made no investment in the commodity they are selling. Creators are literally gifting their work to fill out a stock company’s collection. Artists aren’t even recognized as creators, instead they are called “contributors”. I can’t think of any retail business where the seller gets their inventory for free. Try opening an online clothing shop and expecting clothing suppliers to eagerly become “contributors”. Even on a consignment basis, the seller has to return any unsold inventory (essentially giving up any future opportunity to sell it). For stock companies there is no investment, no expiration, no limit to “shelf space”. So the situation is, with such a bloated inventory of free and never expiring product, the stock company has no reason NOT to sell images for dollars apiece. Yes, they offer a commission to the contributor but this is hardly meaningful when the company’s business model is based on selling high volume at low price.

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