Occasionally I’ve been asked how much does a tarot deck cost. We’re not talking about what it costs when we purchase on Amazon, or scout out some great deck at Barnes and Noble. Instead we’re focusing on the cost of what exactly goes into producing 78 illustrations.
Hiring a Freelance Artist
I generally charge around $70 for a Tarot card illustration, although it depends on how detailed the cards are to be. It also depends on the amount of time it takes to research the particular topic (especially if the client is unsure or has no detailed instructions. I estimate that it takes about 20 hours total to complete a card, from pencils, inks, then colors, and sizing the finished piece into card templates, but again, it varies depending on the instructions of the client and it really depends on the detail required. We can attach an extra 4 hours for edits, which includes back and forth emails. Rarely have I worked on a card that has not needed edits on afterthought. If you’re doing the math, I think that works out to around $2.80 per hour for an artist to create Tarot cards. Some may charge more, some charge less. For most people in the western world, working for less than 5 dollars an hour seems paltry, but you have to keep in mind that different rates apply to big businesses compared to private individuals who want to see their book or deck; their ideas in print. With that in mind, even council projects and committees I’ve worked with tell me that they chose artists based on price, without obviously compromising on the quality of the work.
That’s Not Very Much, Is It?
I always find it best not to think in terms of hours spent on the artwork, but the overall price itself, and while we do need to pay utilities, groceries and rent, part of the payment from being an illustrator is the enjoyment that others get from your work. That sounds cliche, but it’s true. Until someone like Hasbro or Disney contacts you to strike a deal with your art, (ok so you generally have to chase them, but you get the idea), creating artwork can never be about the money.
I imagine that most people with an idea for a deck will not be affluent enough to afford to set aside five and a half thousand dollars to pay for an artist to draw their entire deck of Tarot cards; not when public domain works by the likes of Arthur Rackham and Da Vinci can be cut and pasted onto Tarot cards with a little knowledge of Photoshop. This is not a criticism. It’s just a reality. clip art and photo montage is probably a far more profitable option, and when we look at Kickstarter projects, photo montage and public domain art work actually seems to do better at getting funded than hand drawn original works of art (sometimes funded into the tens of thousands) despite often looking quite similar to the many other photo montage decks out there. To my knowledge, however, it can be difficult getting these decks “officially” published by mainstream deck publishers because they need to be certain that you are using photos and art which you have the rights to.
In terms of cost, this really depends on how much you value your time. I’ve heard one Tarot creator claim it takes him about 200 hours to produce a photo montage Tarot deck. That’s a little over a month, if we take the typical 40 hour work week. Others seem to take even less time than that. It also depends if you plan on actually blending in the photo montage work to make it appear as one complete picture. Some choose not to, and so that will lesson the work load. Adding depth, shading etc will take a little extra time. As you get started into your project, you will very soon learn, roughly, how long it takes you to work. Some choose to produce their artwork on the weekends, keeping their day job (highly recommended, especially if you enjoy your job! lol)
What Is Your Art Worth?
A great question. On Facebook I quoted Vincent Van Gogh. Here it is…
“I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.” – Vincent van Gogh
everyone who has ever felt undervalued just has to read that quote, but more importantly, see who said it, to feel a little bit better. Van Gogh died penniless, yet his work now fetches millions of dollars. Who said life was fair?
Just this evening I walked past an art gallery window and saw a print of an original painting for about £60. Yet, our 94 prints (since that is what they are) for King’s Journey Tarot was once considered overpriced, and I can assure you it was much less than the £60, shipping included. Yet, I am often told that this deck has brought many great readings. In fact there is one guy, David Hopkins, who ONLY uses King’s Journey, and one other deck, for his readings. That is quite a compliment. What price can you put on great readings? Value is in the eye of the beholder I guess.
The Plight of the Self Published Artist
And then after all is said and done, someone claims you are a “greedy” artist because you can’t match the price of big publishers…(and of course the irony with that, was that I didn’t receive payment for King’s Journey during its first run). Many do not take into account that big publishers have the capital to buy in bulk, distribute in bulk, and don’t have to pay their creators any money for their hard work (oops, did I actually say that out loud?) More on that in a minute). Not hard to see why a self published author might appear “greedy” when you compare it to a “published” deck where the artist receives no payment for their work.
Let’s break it down though. Currently King’s Journey is about 55 dollars, including shipping. With 94 cards in total, if my maths is correct, each “print” is working out at 58 cents each. When you keep in mind that we’ve probably only sold a few hundred copies on certain decks in our store (because our commercial online presence is currently only limited to a few of you who are happy to share our work) we’re not really making that much from the decks.
My brother, who now lives in Malaysia, keeps telling me that I am not valuing my work; that I should be charging more. I tend to agree, but the perception of art and illustration would have to change too throughout the entire art industry. The romantic view of “impoverished artist” or “starving artist” has to be wiped out. There’s nothing romantic about counting pennies at the convenience store and hoping you have enough, just because you can’t compete with publishers who can only thrive through short-changing their creators. These “starving artists” don’t actually like being impoverished. Published authors and artists are the last to be paid in the creative industry. What message does that send out to aspiring creatives?
I am not so sure that art is valued properly, but it is not really the consumer’s fault. I tend to think that the fault lies at the feet of the publishers. To my knowledge (based on my own experience), artists and authors do not really get paid. They receive a small token, called a royalty, to technically suggest payment but most of the time you’re getting anywhere from 20 cents, on a good day, to 9 cents per deck of cards if the deck sells outside of the U.S. (based on my own experience only) For all intents and purposes, “officially” published decks should be treated a little like business cards. They certainly do get you noticed, but they do not pay your bills.
For those who enjoy collecting “tarot awards” (a great many people have to own the deck, so it more or less needs to be officially published, to want to give it an award, think about it!) or having their work shared around much more, I recommend being “officially” published, but do not depend on it for an actual viable option for payment.
I remember writing to the Author Barbara Moore a few years ago to ask her if it was possible to make a living as a published author. She suggested that deck and book sales themselves would not pay the bills. Rather, one should seek out speaking at conferences and that the book sales were really just to get your name out there (I’m paraphrasing though) I became disenchanted with the idea of being “officially published” because I was not seeking “fame” in any particular area. I just enjoyed drawing and being paid for it, to the best of my ability.
My advice to anyone thinking they can create decks as a “get rich quick” type of thing is to set down the pencil or pen and choose a different career path. Unless you have the capital to put behind a fairly sized print run, like 500 or 1000 decks, forget about it. That’s why you turn to Kickstarter. Then you’re looking at at least £5000 , or around $7,000. Your deck of cards does not have to be amazing, just your outreach! (just look at some of the decks making upwards of $30,000). Do not do what I did and make controversial art, or voice controversial opinions. Do not make enemies. This is ok for a shock jock, but it’s not ok……you know, I really do need to write a book about how I really feel about things.
So, to sum all of this madness up. Make art and do what you love, but be aware that until you can break away from the Print on Demand cycle, you’re probably always going to be breaking even. A good strategy would be to create a few good creator owned decks, get “officially” published, and use your “official” products as “business cards” which can lead people back to your self published work (the products you can make a living from). Better yet, get those self published decks ordered in bulk through Kickstarter so that when your official deck launches, you will be able to trade a little better with your self published decks when more demand shows up.
P.S if you have any insider knowledge about publishing, including royalty rates etc for other publishers, be sure to let me know. Like I say, I can only go on my own experience but if I’m wrong on certain things, I am happy to be corrected. Write to me @ firstname.lastname@example.org