Visual Artist Salaries in the US

artist salaries

The field of visual arts is a difficult industry to break into, and competition is tough. Because there are so many talented artists vying for each role it would be easy to undercut your worth just to land your dream job, or for studio bosses to take advantage of your eagerness and underpay you. Freelancers move from project to project and have no job security because of this; it’s like being on one long constant probation period. As such, complaints from contractors about unfair working conditions and unpaid overtime aren’t easy to make for fear of word getting out that they’re ‘difficult’.

There have been high profile cases of this happening more than once in recent years, which has shone a spotlight on the shortcomings in the possible mistreatment of visual artists when it comes to fair pay.

Visual arts salaries in the news

In 2016, Sausage Party made a splash in movie theatres around the globe, and viewers flocked to see grocery store products being vulgar. For a relatively small production budget of $19 million, the makers should’ve been celebrating their success when opening weekend sales topped $34 million, but instead, they found themselves at the center of a media storm amidst anonymous online complaints that the movie’s creators were essentially forced into unpaid overtime.

Staff at Vancouver-based Nitrogen Studios said that they felt intimidated into staying on the job for fear of being blacklisted in the tight-knit visual arts industry. Members of the team behind the Sony-distributed animation described a hostile workplace and said that they were expected to work overtime with no pay. If an animator tried to leave the studio on time, they were allegedly threatened with reprisals and told that they wouldn’t be credited on the project.

Nicole Stinn, president, and owner of Nitrogen Studios denied the claims in a statement that, "Nitrogen Studios followed all employment regulations, so the claims being made against us are unfounded…Nitrogen also fulfilled all of its contractual obligations with its employees.”

But despite Stinn’s comments, it seems that for some those threats of discrediting were a reality: of the 83 animators listed on IMDB as having been part of the Sausage Party team, only 47 have on-screen credit.

Non-unionized workers made their complaint filed by Unifor Local 2000, and Jennifer Moreau, vice-president of Unifor Local 2000 has said that these working conditions aren’t uncommon in animation, video game, and visual effects industries, and stated that Canadian studios are sadly following the trend: "Vancouver has almost become like a sweatshop for these animation companies," Moreau said. "They're shipping all the work up here because we get the tax credits, but the workers are paying the price."

Annapurna, the co-producers and co-financers of the production ruled that the complaints were unfounded, and that artists were paid and fed when overtime was required.

Animators may not have succeeded with their complaint against Nitrogen Studios, but a group of artists did win a claim against some of the biggest names in the industry last year. Disney, Pixar, and Lucasfilm agreed to pay $100 million in a wage-theft lawsuit, closing a class action lawsuit claiming that studios are artificially keeping labor costs low.

The three Walt Disney company-owned studios were said to have prevented a free market by setting salary limits and avoiding the hiring of artists from other studios. The scheme highlighted the fact that visual artists are often making less than they should be able to with their talents and skills, thanks to underhand practices in the industry.

Artists that worked at the studios involved between 2004-2010 qualified for compensation, and it’s estimated that the final number of individuals involved in the settlement ran into the thousands.

According to the agreement, “Within 10 days of preliminary approval, the Disney Defendants will wire (or cause to be wired) $100,000 to the Class escrow agent, and within 20 days of final approval of the Settlement Agreement, the Disney Defendants will wire (or cause to be wired) $99,900,000 to the Disney escrow agent.”

Cases like this highlight the very real and widespread issue of unfair working conditions and pay in the visual arts industry, but do you know what your worth is in the first place? Whether you’re looking to get into the industry or are already an established artist, this article gives guidance on what you really should be getting paid in your chosen field.


animation salaries


Animation can take on many different forms, from 2D and 3D digital, to hand drawn and stop motion. Animators are required to have a strong creative flair but they must also be technically minded due to the heavy reliance on computer software, which is why salaries in this field tend to be on higher end of the visual arts spectrum.

According to, the average salary for an animator is $75,983. A lead animator at Sony Pictures Entertainment can expect to be paid up to $223,000, and a supervising animator will rake in at least $198,000 annually. The average is brought down by smaller companies, as they, unsurprisingly, pay smaller salaries; and the average drops down to $59,878 for agencies with less than 50 employees.

Animators are paid at the highest level in California, due to the higher concentration of top studios. It’s possible to earn an average of $76,010, compared to averages of $62,150 in New York and $64,840 in Washington. In less media-centric states such as Kansas, animators will experience a significant salary drop to an average of around $34,170.

3D modeler

A 3D modeler creates characters and environments in the film, TV and gaming industry, and will often work hand in hand with the animation team as it’ll be their job to bring the modeler’s work to life. The work of a modeler is highly technical and requires a strong grasp of advanced computer software.

The average salary of a 3D modeler is a respectable $64,644, which is due in part to the high demand for this fairly niche skills set. The average doesn’t drop too much in smaller companies, and modelers can still expect to receive $53,309. Those at the top of their game will make much more though, of course: Blue Sky Studios is said to pay $92,809 for their top modelers.

In terms of where you need to be to make the most money, New York is a good bet with an average of $70,810, and California matches the national average. Pennsylvania is 8% below the national average at $59,559, which is likely due to a lower concentration of those high-paying big studios.



An illustrator combines hand-drawings and paintings with digital media to create content for digital platforms and print publications. Illustrators require strong aesthetic and conceptual skills and must be skilled with CAD (computer-aided design) and image editing software.

Glassdoor lists the average salary of an illustrator in the United States is $53,624. As is the case with many visual arts jobs, the size and status of the company you work for will have a lot of impact on your earnings. An illustrator at Google or Nike can expect to be paid around the $100,000 mark, and freelancers with experience should be looking for hourly rates of around $45.

New York is the best place to be based for high income, with the average salary reported as being $74,150. Head slightly south to Florida and your earning potential will drop to $44,980, which is a significant reduction but nowhere near as extreme as Arkansas’ average of $22,850.

Production Designer

Production designers are responsible for developing the visual framework of a production, meaning that films and TV shows look the way they do because of them. As well as dealing with props and other physical aspects of a production, they’ll also work closely with editors, modelers, and animators, and will work under a director and sometimes an art director depending on the size of the production.

Production designers don’t make a huge amount of money compared to other professionals in the visual arts industry, and the national average is thought by to be $46,242. The upper end of the scale is closer to $70,000, but some larger companies like Apple are said to pay $80,000 for their in-house talent or $30 for contractors.

Production Designers can make a slightly better than average $47,505 in NYC, thanks to big-budget Broadway productions. California is the second best place to do this job and has an average hourly rate of around $29.50, but if this is your area of expertise you might want to go for an art director role as your salary could easily jump to $120,000 if you land one.

Video editor

Video editing is a huge market in the United States and there are currently an estimated 34,200 film and video editors working. This is expected to grow by 17.0% between 2016 and 2026 as the demand for video advertising increases, so it’s a great specialty to have in the visual arts industry.

Saying that, when you look at averages salaries they are lower than other roles at studios and production houses. An experienced editor will receive a salary of around $46,274, and that doesn’t change much depending on the size of the company that you work for (there will be exceptions to this rule, of course).

Video editors might see their salary increase up to around $118,000 at the top studios, so there’s definitely lots of money to be made for editors that make the cut, and you’d be wise to move to California if you want to make more money: editors there make an average of $71,990 which is a significant jump from the national average. When you compare that to the neighboring state of Oregon’s $41,880 average, it’s clear to see why so many video professional flock to Cali.

video editor salaries



Location is extremely important and there’s a good reason for the best talent being drawn to the biggest companies: they have way more earning potential there. Whenever you’re applying for new roles or pitching for freelance projects, be sure to check that your salary expectations are correct to avoid driving down the market or being underpaid for your skills and talents.

Do you work in the visual arts industry? Let us know your experiences in the comments.

About the author

John Thatch

John Thatcher is a computer science educated artist. He uses technology to solve artist problems. His friends don't like it when he speaks of himself in the third person. But John does it anyway, because he's a rebel.

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