Freelance illustrator and cartoonist Richard Deverell knew when he was still at school that he wanted to be a commercial artist, even though he demonstrated great talent as a painter. The writer Graham Greene has been attributed with saying, "Students make art. Artists make money." The art businessman Alan Bamberger states,
"Some art schools dismiss the art business altogether, by intimating that making art is pure, while making money is not. Making art is a calling, while other professions are not. (Oh really!) That selling art is not only irrelevant but it debases the experience of being an artist. One fact that the schools seem to conveniently overlook, however, is that if you can't make money making art, you have to stop making art. That's not something art schools have to worry about though. They already have your money!".
Strictly speaking, any artist who sells their art is a commercial artist. Part of the act of being an artist also knows how to market your art. Marketing could even be said to be another form of art. Richard Deverell would venture to forward the view that there is a direct link between the astronomical success of the artist Damien Hirst and his early days of working as a street market trader. That was where his real genius was born.
Artists, however, are usually categorised as being either fine artists or commercial artists. The fine artist creates something that stands alone as an artistic entity. The commercial artist creates art to perform a function, usually as an integral part of some entity. Hopefully, both get paid for their art but the commercial artist is paid specifically for the functionality of his art. It becomes a book jacket, an editorial illustration, a company logo, a children's illustration for a picture book, diagrams for the assembly of a flat pack furniture item, an exhibition backdrop at a trade fair or a design for a postage stamp. The list goes on. The work of the commercial artist is all around us. The commercial artist generally works to a client's brief. His job is to meet the needs of the client rather than setting his own agenda. So the commercial artist submits to the discipline of interpreting the client's brief, feeding back, and then creating the images within a schedule and to the client's satisfaction.
The commercial artist may work in an in-house studio for a company or as a solo freelance artist. One big difference here is that the salaried in-house artist has no claim to copyright on the artwork produced. In most cases the copyright will remain the property of the freelance artist. This difference is highlighted in the case of Harry Beck who designed the London Underground tube map, now imitated by metro companies throughout the world.
At the time he was working as an employee for London Transport and although he created the work in his own time he was paid just five guineas (£5.25) flat fee for the very complex topological map. It was published in 1933 and is still in full service today guiding millions through the complexities of the London Underground. Had he been a freelance artist he would have retained the copyright for this design classic. As a freelance artist he could have negotiated a royalty payment for each printing of the map.
Ah well, some you win, some you lose.