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5 Things I Would Change About Illustration

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

We are raising today's children in sterile, risk-averse and highly structured environments. In so doing, we are failing to cultivate artists, pioneers and entrepreneurs, and instead cultivating a generation of children who can follow the rules in organized sports games, sit for hours in front of screens and mark bubbles on standardized tests.

— Darell Hammond

Wave A Magic Wand

If I could wave a magic wand and change anything about my beloved field of art and illustration, the first thing I would change would be the mistaken attitude that art should be free to everyone. It seems the average person forgets that art for the artist is more than a passion and a whim, but a way of life and something we labor over. There often is literally blood, sweat and tears poured into our work, along with many late night sleepless nights to meet deadlines and heartaches over work that is passed over or rejected.

I think it always feels riskier and scarier to go after something you really love and want because the rejection and failure hurts more.

— Emily Giffin


Unless you are an artist you probably don’t know that ours is possibly the only profession where we pay people to reject us. We pay a fee to enter juried art shows where many awesome pieces of art are rejected because of one, two, or three judges’ personal preference and lack of space. The work was great, just not what they were looking for. Sometimes I will get a commission to create a piece for a certain price and when I send them the preliminary sketches or even a semi-final color composition, I find they decided to “go a different direction,” and cancel the commission. This hurts my feelings and my wallet. I simply lose out on the time spent. Once I agreed to create some work for a friend for a set price, only to later find out she was publishing the work and selling it to her students at a profit. When I told her I should be getting royalties for each sale she makes using my work, she reminded me I agreed on the one-time price upfront. Because she used to be a friend, I didn’t take it any further but I felt more than cheated. I had been defrauded. She hadn’t revealed that the ultimate goal was to republish my work. If I could wave a magic wand over the art industry, I would make it an industry where people treat us and our work like a real profession and not just some hobby. If I asked a doctor or lawyer to do a job for me and maybe I would pay them if I liked the finished product they would laugh at me. Why should that be okay for an artist and not for anyone else?

Dinosaur ride

Dinosaur ride

Working for Free

Then there are the times when we are talked into working on spec for a company who could afford to pay but is too cheap to offer what the artist is worth. I often get asked to do 20 to 40-hour pieces for free for a non-profit organization for the “exposure” which is minimal if that. Most of these are not worth my time. Unless I really believe in the organization or the cause, I won’t take “exposure” gigs anymore. My time is more valuable than that. If I could wave a magic wand over the illustration industry, I would make the public realize that artists have bills and rent and like to eat like everyone else.

Read a book and let it carry you away.

Read a book and let it carry you away.

The biggest hurdle is rejection. Any business you start, be ready for it. The difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is the successful people do all the things the unsuccessful people don't want to do. When 10 doors are slammed in your face, go to door number 11 enthusiastically, with a smile on your face.

— John Paul DeJoria

Lifetime of Experience

I can’t begin to number the times where someone has asked to have a piece of my art for little or nothing. They loved the work but didn’t want to pay for my time and effort. In one art show (where I paid to enter) I heard people scoffing over my listed prices. Doesn’t the average person realize that I had to pay a framer to frame the art (anywhere from $75 to $220) and then pay to enter the venue where it is hanging? If my price reflects more than the frame cost people scoff like I’m trying to rob them. I love to remember the famous court case between James McNeil Whistler and the critic John Ruskin who accused Whistler of robbing the public for charging too much money for “throwing paint on the canvas.” The defense attorney asked Whistler how much he charged for the piece in question. He answered 200 pounds (British). The attorney then asked how long the painting took to paint and Whistler answered 2 days. Thinking he had him, the attorney said then that Whistler had the nerve to charge the British public 200 pounds for two days work, and Whistler rebuffed him with a curt “NO”. Then he said, “I charge the British public 200 pounds for a lifetime of experience in art!” That is the best answer I ever heard of. I wish I had the fortitude to say the same to the scoffers. I was charging that much from my lifetime of experience in art and if they didn’t want to pay that, I’d love to see them create the same work for themselves without the benefit of my experience and passion. If I could wave a magic wand over my profession, I would instantly give the public the insight on the time and value of art.

Mad Mushroom Fairy

Mad Mushroom Fairy

In Touch With The Public

In the field of children’s book illustration, it must be a case of knowing someone who knows someone to get published, or pure luck. The publishers do not always recognize good work that the public often goes wild over. Beatrix Potter had to publish her little Peter Rabbit book herself before being offered a real publishing contract. Twenty-seven publishers rejected Dr. Seuss’s first book before one publisher took a chance on him. There are so many cases of famous and hugely popular children’s books that were rejected because the publishers are not always in tune with what the public wants or likes. They only look at what they think will make them money. If I could wave a magic wand and change the industry, I would give publishers better insight into the future popularity and success of certain authors and illustrators. Although I say this I still recognize that rejection sometimes makes us stronger and more determined as artists. Like a butterfly that must struggle to emerge from a cocoon or a chick that has to peck and fight her way out of the eggshell, we artists hate rejection but emerge resilient and unwavering to succeed more than ever before. With the availability of self-publishing, many of my books don’t have to wait for a publisher to discover their popularity or my potential. Like Beatrix Potter, I’m publishing them myself.


It has been said that creativity and the arts are what make life worth living. When you wake in the morning your room probably has color; your wardrobe has been designed and dreamed up in the heart of some artist; the décor on your walls were once just an image in the mind of some painter; the house you live in was conceived and drafted by an architect; the car you get into the drive to work used to be on some designers drafting board; the music you play while navigating the freeway was once a tune in the heart of a musician; the packaged food you buy had a graphic designer create the packaging to get your attention enough to open your wallet; and the list goes on and on. Imagine a world with no music, no literature, no painting, no sculpture, no poetry, no movies, no television, no photography. It would be a drab, colorless, depressing black and white world. Yet the very things that make waking up a joy are the very things so taken for granted that artists are overlooked and underpaid. If I could wave a magic wand over the world I would make artists valued and revered. I would make them all rock stars, adored and honored by the general public and paid in like.

Dinosaur Tattoo Artist

Dinosaur Tattoo Artist

Your Magic Wand

Now if you had a magic wand and could change something about your chosen field of labor, what would it be and why? If you have nothing you would change, you are either retired or are the blessed human on the planet.


Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 27, 2021:


I remember someone saying that to me once. "Just don't make mistakes." But to live in this world is to make mistakes from time to time, to have accidents, to trip once or twice. There is no way around it and be alive. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 21, 2020:

Peggy Woods,

I can laugh about it because I don't do this for the money or recognition. I do it for the sheer joy of doing art. I recently got a gig painting some botanical birds and flowers for a lady in watercolor. I quoted her a price and she emailed back that my quote was too low. She said she knew what went into the work and she doubled my price. I was speechless, to say the least. I hardly ever get that kind of response. Now, that's a customer I want to work for! Thanks for commenting.



Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 21, 2020:

What you have written is so true! Most people do not realize the hours of time that go into the creation of an art piece, whether it is a graphic design, a painting, a quilt, a carving, or something else.

That was a funny piece about the "Artist's Bad News." Haha! Sadly, that too, is often the case. A few artists are recognized and make money when alive, but often their works are more valued after they are no longer alive.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on June 04, 2019:

Marie Flint,

Congratulations. I wish you all the best with your book. I'd love to know the title and where you are publishing it. And don't let your first book be your only book. You probably have volumes within you. Thanks for commenting.



Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on June 04, 2019:

There's so much truth to this article.

Today, for the first time, I am publishing an original children's picture e-book. It's taken me all my life to develop some motivation and confidence to get to this point.

Ultimately, I sometimes wish money would just go away, but it probably won't, so I have to change my attitude about it.

I love your artwork, so fanciful and beautiful! I wish you every good and perfect gift. Blessings!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 31, 2019:

Dora Weithers,

You are so right about the ignorance and insensitivity toward the craft. Most have it and few try to learn more about it. I know I've taken months on some pieces of art and sell it for $200 or less. Which means I am not making a living wage. It's sad. Thanks for commenting.



Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 30, 2019:

You have taught us to respect the artist and the art. Some of the frivolous attitudes may be due to ignorance and insensitivity towards the value of the craft.

sanea on May 29, 2019:

Well we should don't remember our past life mistakes we should prepare our present life and do not take any mistake

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 28, 2019:

Red Fernan,

I'm glad this resonates with you. We need to hold up a different standard to a public that just doesn't understand. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 28, 2019:

Linda Lum,

You gave some really good points there. The quilt is a great example. I remember when I made some lap quilts for each of my children. As a teenager my youngest daughter used her lap quilt as a drape to cover the cage of her parrot for the night. When she sold the parrot for about $50 she was ready to throw in the lap quilt in the deal until I jumped in and "NO". For some reason even my own child did not see the value of a handcrafted quilt. She looked at me surprised and said the immortal words, "It's only a quilt." which in her mind was the same as saying it's only scraps or something like that. I'm not sure that my diatribe will change many minds but hopefully people will begin to think differently if they read enough of this kind of thing from the artistic community. Thanks for commenting.



Red Fernan from Philippines on May 28, 2019:

As a graphic artist myself, this hits close to home. I am glad I am not alone.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on May 28, 2019:

Denise, I understand exactly where you are coming from on this. I design church banners and quilts. I made a wall-hanging quilt for the entryway of my home (2-story vaulted ceiling) and was showing it to a friend in the church basement. A woman who barely knows me barged into the conversation, looked at the finished piece, and said "maybe you could make one of those for my daughter. What would it cost?" I told her it was a one-of-a-kind and that I had spent more than 800 hours in the assembly and quilting alone. She rolled her eyes and walked away.

Sure quilts are less than $40 at Target and you can buy art prints at Michaels for nearly nothing, but it's not the same as something personally designed and hand-crafted and people just don't get that. They don't understand why they should pay so much.

Thank you for a very well written, thought-provoking article. I hope others take it to heart.

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