Kali Ciesemier

@kalidraws / kalidraws.tumblr.com



In the past, I’ve gotten some questions about the business of illustration & about how taxes work. Filing taxes is a bummer, but it sucks even more when you have no idea what you’re doing. After progressing from Completely Clueless to Somewhat Experienced* during the past 5 years of doing my own taxes, I thought i’d write (& illustrate!) a generalized rundown. Here’s hoping it might provide some insight for the curious!

*This info is from my own experience and I am by NO means a tax professional! I’m simplifying a lot of the info here, so please don’t take my word as law—check out the specifics on the IRS website instead.

First, the basics: If you earn an income, you have to pay income taxes, and Uncle Sam has a “pay as you go” system. If you want to avoid a pricey penalty, you are expected to pay taxes throughout the year as you earn income, not all at once when you file your income tax return. There are 2 ways this happens:

1. For people who receive regular paychecks from an employer, your employer will withhold a certain amount from your paycheck to pay for federal (and state) income taxes—you fill out a W-4 form when you’re hired, which determines how much they withhold for you. Easy-peasy!

2. If you’re a freelancer, you don’t have a regular paycheck or a regular employer to withhold your taxes for you, so you have to pay quarterly Estimated Taxes yourself. Estimated taxes cover your income tax and self employment tax*, for both the federal gov’t and your state gov’t (if applicable).

*Yes—as a freelancer, you not only have to pay income tax, but you also pay self employment tax! (basically, a tax that goes to Social Security/Medicare)

I’m just going to focus on federal estimated taxes first:

If you’re a freelancer, the trick is to make sure you pay enough in estimated taxes throughout the year to avoid the underpayment penalty. You will avoid the penalty if you:

Owe less than $1000 in taxes after subtracting withholding and credits OR (A)Have paid at least 90% of the tax amount owed for the current year, or (B) have paid at least 100% of the tax shown on last year’s return — whichever is smaller.

So let’s break down these scenarios a bit: If you’re a student just graduating from school and you haven’t done many freelance jobs (i.e. probably making less than $8,000 in taxable income from freelance), it’s likely that you don’t have to pay estimated taxes, because you’ll probably owe less than $1000 in federal taxes from your freelance work. So don’t sweat it!

If it does look like you will owe $1000 or more in taxes, you have 2 choices for calculating how much to pay in estimated taxes—the aforementioned (A) or (B). (A) Make sure you pay at least 90% of the tax amount that will be owed for the current year. OR (B) Make sure you pay at least 100% of the tax shown on last year’s return.

There’s an estimated tax worksheet that you can use to help figure out either one.

Since my freelance income fluctuates and I’m lazy enough that I don’t like trying to predict how much tax I will owe for the upcoming year (and adjust quarterly payments if needed), I prefer to just use option (B).

That means that I can just pay an equal amount each quarter, and make sure all 4 estimated tax payments add up to the tax amount I paid for last year’s return (or more). So, for instance, if I owed $7000 total in federal taxes for 2012, I won’t be penalized for underpayment if I pay at least $1750 each quarter ($7000 total) for my 2013 federal estimated taxes—regardless of whether I owe more taxes in 2013 or not. If I earned a higher income in 2013 than in 2012 and didn’t pay enough estimated taxes to cover it all, I’d still have to pay the difference at tax time, but at least I wouldn’t have to pay the underpayment penalty! Not too difficult, so long as you have enough in your bank account, but tricky to figure out at first!

All of this information also generally applies to state estimated tax payments, though the specific numbers and percentages can change and a few states don’t charge income tax at all. In most states, you have to pay a state income tax as well as a federal income tax, so I pay quarterly estimated tax payments to the federal government, as well as quarterly estimated tax payments to Maryland, my state of residence.

Federal estimated taxes are handled on Federal Form 1040-ES, but you can fill out the form and schedule your payments online for free at https://www.eftps.gov/eftps/

Your state will also likely have a free online tax system you can use.

Some tax filing methods: -Just use a tax professional! Seriously, especially if this is new to you and you don’t have any outside help. I know plenty of professional illustrators that use one. Better than messing things up and getting in trouble with the IRS.

-Use online tax software that helps to walk you through the tax experience and will do all the calculations for you, like TurboTax, TaxAct, etc. (I use TaxAct) They usually have a free version for your federal returns well as pay options, (which may include your state return as well). They will also let you schedule your federal estimated taxes, which I take advantage of. I recommend having a tax-savvy friend or relative you can call if you get stuck! I owe huge debts of gratitude to my own tax-savvy relatives that patiently answered questions & put me on the right track.


-Print out all the pertinent tax forms and worksheets, start to fill them out by hand, alone in your paper-strewn room, and then jump out the window in wild frustration when you can’t figure out all the jargon and your math skills aren’t as good as they used to be.

(not recommended)

“Happy” taxing, everyone!


'tis the season! I thought I'd reblog this again, seeing as how I'm doing my taxes this week (I think I'm gonna try out TurboTax this year to compare!) I already spent a couple hours inputting info that I think I now have to delete and re-do again...so it goes. Best of luck with your taxes! (or congrats if you already did them!)

An illustration I did for this weekend's New York Times Sunday Review. The essay it accompanies, Jane Austen's Guide to Alzheimers by Carol J. Adams, is an interesting reflection on Adams’ struggle with being a caregiver for her elderly mother with Alzheimers, and how she found unexpected insight & encouragement from the book Emma by Jane Austen.

A good read, and a pleasant excuse to rewatch Emma and a few other Austen movies/series while working. 

Thanks to my AD, Nathan Huang!

A summer cover illustration for The Progressive, about Wisconsin farms, including the sketches I initially sent. Admittedly I may have drawn it slightly steeper than the typical Wisconsin farm...Though as a native flatlander from Illinois, ANY hill is a mountain to me, and I have fond memories of driving around Wisconsin's lush green fields. If you ever find yourself in Wisconsin, buy yourself some cheese, beer, and a kringle, you’ll be set to go. A pleasure to work on, thanks to my AD Kersten Diehn.

Whoops, I forgot about this one! Made in February for Endless Vacation, about exercising while traveling. I’ve been trying to shift my style a bit in some different directions this past year and I was pleased to rediscover this little exploration. Plus, you gotta love chartreuse and lavender.

Thanks to my art director, Ash Oat.

This was a color sketch drew for the Wall Street Journal that didn't make it to print. It was fun to work on, and I’m halfway considering finishing it...I don't usually go this far in sketches, but hey, it's Star Wars :) Thanks to my AD, Dave Bamundo, for fighting for me. (I also started rewatching the series in Machete order!)

The 7th (and last!) Parenting Magazine illustration from last year, about a woman whose sister-in-law constantly brags about how advanced her baby is. This was my favorite to draw. Thanks again to Mia Song and Emily Furlani!


“The Shadow”

Happy Halloween! This piece is for Daniel Krall’s Seance 3 show at MICA, up through November 24th, and filled with spooky B&W pieces from MICA students/faculty/alumni.

This past year I’ve worked on a series of long projects and haven’t had enough chances to do personal work, so I decided to take a night for myself and see what I could come up with. I’m pretty into Brutalist architecture and have been looking for an excuse to draw some myself. Working on this was a breath of fresh (spooky) air!


Reblogging this post-halloween!

"The Shadow" Happy Halloween! This piece is for Daniel Krall's Seance 3 show at MICA, up through November 24th, and filled with spooky B&W pieces from MICA students/faculty/alumni. This past year I've worked on a series of long projects and haven't had enough chances to do personal work, so I decided to take a night for myself and see what I could come up with. I'm pretty into Brutalist architecture and have been looking for an excuse to draw some myself. Working on this was a breath of fresh (spooky) air!

A recent assignment of retirement spots for Time Magazine, which was quite timely because it came on the heels of my Roth IRA post! Thanks to my AD, Martin Gee!


Hey, how often do you think about being an old person? As someone with a deep, persistent fear of dying alone and penniless, I think about this a lot. I can solve the “alone” part with a lot of cats, but the “penniless” part is a little trickier. I can’t count on the fact that I’ll be able to work forever, and as a freelancer I don’t have a pension or an employer’s 401k plan to sustain me. I’m CERTAINLY not counting on Social Security to bail me out, and neither should you.

This is where Individual Retirement Savings (IRAs) come in! I haven’t seen much advice about this geared towards artists, so I thought I’d write a post about it. You can start saving at any age for your future comfort and happiness, and there’s no blood sacrifice or mystic knowledge required! What is required is a basic understanding of how IRAs work, and the willingness to sign up for one and start saving. If you are earning money, don’t have a retirement savings account, and can spare a chunk of cash each year, start now!

So, the basics:

There are few different kinds of IRA, but for simplicity’s sake I’m mostly focusing on Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. Each IRA has the same goal, to allow you to save money for retirement, and to let your money to grow tax-free in the time in-between. You can set one up for yourself so long as you (or your spouse) have earned income.

What makes IRAs different from a regular savings account? IRAs can generate a lot more earnings over time because you don’t pay taxes every year!

IRAs are typically composed of investments (in mutual funds, stocks, bonds, etc.) so your gains will fluctuate year to year depending on the financial landscape and the kind of investments made–but you can expect to earn around 7% over the long-run, which is way better than the average savings account interest rate of 0.06%. That’s not to say that a savings account is bad. If you have a savings account, THAT’S GREAT. If you have extra savings and you’re willing to wait 30 or so years to take it out, open an IRA to take advantage of the higher growth potential!

You can open an IRA through most large financial institutions–banks, mutual fund companies, and brokerage firms, any of which can offer a variety of investment options. The fees and fee structure for each institution can vary however, so it’s good to compare. (You can start by searching on google for “where to open a Roth IRA” or “where to open a Traditional IRA”)


Who can contribute to an IRA?

In a Traditional IRA, anyone with earned income of any amount can contribute, but you must be younger than 70 ½. In a Roth IRA, you can be any age, but you must have a modified adjusted gross income of less than $131,000 if you’re single, or a modified adjusted gross income of less than $193,000 if you’re married filing jointly.

How much can you contribute per year?

In both plans, you can contribute up to $5,500 each year, or up to $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older. You don’t have to contribute the max amount, and you don’t have to contribute every year. The max amount is increased every so often so it’s a good idea to check into the current maximum contributions allowed (just google “maximum IRA contribution”)

What’s the deal with taxes??

The big difference between Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs is when your money gets taxed. With a Traditional IRA, when you CONTRIBUTE money you don’t have to pay taxes on it, but when you WITHDRAW money you have to pay income tax on it at that time.

In a Roth IRA it’s the opposite–when you CONTRIBUTE your money you pay taxes on it, and when you WITHDRAW the money it is entirely tax-free.

Simplistically, this means that if you are currently in a high tax bracket and think you will be in a lower tax bracket by the time you retire, a Traditional IRA may save you more money. If you are in a low tax bracket right now and anticipate that by the time you retire your income taxes will be higher, the Roth IRA will be a better fit. You can also have retirement savings in both kinds of accounts (though your total contribution per year still maxes out at $5,500/$6,500), and/or roll over one kind of account into another down the line.

One big tax caveat: If you or your spouse have the ability to contribute to an employer sponsored retirement plan (i.e. 401k) you can still contribute to a Traditional IRA, but depending on your income level you may not get the tax deduction. This is referred to as a “non-deductible IRA contribution”, and it affects “pre-tax” IRA accounts, like Traditional IRAs. Employer sponsored retirement plans have no effect on your contributions to a Roth IRA account though!!

There’s a 10% penalty if you withdraw money from your IRA account at the wrong time. So WHEN can you withdraw your money without penalty?

In a Traditional IRA, you can start withdrawing your money at the age of 59 ½, and MUST start taking minimum withdrawals at age 70 ½. (I don’t know why the half-numbers are important, but them’s the facts!)

In a Roth IRA, there are no mandatory withdrawals, and you can start withdrawing your money at the age of 59 ½ – if your withdrawal is at least 5 years after your first contribution was made. (So, if you start contributing to a Roth IRA at age 56, you wouldn’t be able to withdraw your earnings without a penalty before the age of 61. This isn’t an issue if you start earlier!)

Roth IRA BONUS: Roths allow you to withdraw your previous contributions at ANY TIME without penalty, provided you don’t take out the interest your contributions earned. (So if you contribute $10,000 over time and your Roth IRA earns an additional $8,000 in interest for a total of $18,000 in your account, you can still withdraw that original $10,000 at any time, no matter when or what age you are)


It means that young freelancers are in an ideal situation to start contributing to a Roth IRA account. If you are just starting working, it’s likely that you are in a lower tax bracket right now than you will be later, so Roth IRAs can be very beneficial. The longer you have your money in a retirement savings account, the more time it has to grow–$5,500 a year may sound like a lot to contribute at first, but you don’t have to contribute the full amount and you don’t have to contribute every year. If you can only contribute $1,000 a year, contributing ANYTHING is better than nothing, as long as you start sooner rather than later. Also, because Roth accounts let you withdraw your original contributions at any time, if you find you need to use some of that money for an unexpected expense you can always take it out without penalty.


There is MONETARY RISK involved in contributing to any IRA. Since all IRAs are investments and investments can fluctuate, there may be some years where your account experiences losses instead of gains. Sometimes there may be less money in the account than what you contributed. This is to be expected, and the longer you are able to let your account grow the greater your overall gain will be, despite any fluctuations along the road. This is another reason why starting as soon as possible is best.

Other situations to consider: If you already have a 401k account from an employer, you can also open your own IRA in addition. If your employer matches your 401k contributions, do that first–that’s free money! If you max out your employer contributions and want to contribute more, you can put the rest in your own IRA (but it may be considered a “non-deductible/after-tax contribution”. See “One big tax caveat” above)

If you are self-employed (or a small business owner) and you would like to contribute more than $5,500 each year to an IRA, consider the SEP IRA. The SEP IRA functions very similarly to a Traditional IRA, but you can make higher yearly contributions–up to $53,000 per year! There are other rules that govern this, though.


Artists, if your cost of living can support it, start a retirement savings account now if you don’t have one already. It’s the best thing you can do for your future-self.

Full disclosure: I’m an artist, not a “wealth management professional” and if you have any questions about retirement savings accounts you should talk to qualified persons. I’m just scratching the surface here–I speak only from my own experience & simplified understanding. I’m happy to have a Roth IRA account with Morgan Stanley/Smith Barney and have been contributing since college, my uncle works there and is my financial adviser. I wrote this because I have seen very little income-allocation advice geared towards artists, and I feel fortunate to have benefited from my parents’ and uncle’s experience. Contributing a little bit to your future security is easier than you may think.

SPX! I'll be there!!! With my cool pals!! I'm at tables F6-7 with Sam Bosma, Andrea Kalfas, and Jimmy Giegerich! I will have: Postcard pack of my 9 Iceland food illustrations - $10 All My Anime Boyfriends zines (get there early if you want one! I only have 30 left) - $2 Giclee Print assortment - $20-$30 Free Postcards! - Free! I was hoping to have a new zine this year, but fate intervened with a children's book project that's due right after SPX. Gah! Next year! I will also be on a panel on Sunday with Sam, Philippa Rice, and Luke Pearson 2-3pm White Oak Room. See you there!!

one thing that i love and find consistent about MICA alumni is their use of color. whenever i find an illustrator who just uses color in the most amazing ways (such as yourself!), they've usually gone to MICA. i'm wondering: was there a class that you can recall that really challenged you to use color in the ways that you do now? a professor who made it click for you? do you have a way you pick a color palette that is pleasing to you? thanks!


When I attended MICA, one of my professors was Daniel Krall (danielkrall.tumblr.com) whose fun shapes and colors were really inspiring to me as a student. (I later taught at MICA for 4 years. They’re a great bunch!) :) I have always loved using color in my work, but learning about color theory and complementary colors provided a solid basis for decision making. The majority of the pieces I draw use one or more sets of complementary colors (or, less-commonly, other color theory schemes--analogous, tertiary, etc.) but I think my colors started getting a lot better when I realized the importance of varying tone and saturation within a general scheme. If EVERYTHING or NOTHING is saturated, nothing has impact, and if there isn’t a nice range of lights & darks then colors don’t have much depth & visibility. That’s why I started doing grayscale tonal sketches, to make sure I have good contrast before moving on to the coloring stage. The more you look around at what’s possible and get comfortable trying different things yourself, the easier it gets (just like anything else!)

3 more illustrations I drew last year for Parenting Magazine’s Q&A section. “Facebook Favoritism”, “Gifting Gone Too Far” and “Caught in the Act”. These were all fun! Pretty happy to have drawn a phallic lamp for a parenting magazine. Thanks again to Mia Song.


Luke Pearson: luke-pearson​

Philippa Rice: cardboardlife​

Sam Bosma: sbosma​

Kali Ciesemier: kalidraws​


Sunday, 9/20, 1-2pm, White Oak Room

Join this dream team of creatives for a discussion of the various ways they make their art, whether it’s comic books, illustrations, animation, or graphic novels, these talented creators have done it all!

For more information, go here: http://www.spxpo.com/spx-2015-programming


So many talented creators will be exhibiting and participating in programming at SPX 2015!  My heart can’t take it.


Yooooooo Sam and I will be at SPX this weekend with a bunch of amazing folks! We are on this panel sunday afternoon with the amazing Luke Pearson and Philippa Rice. Come on by!

Last year I did a series of monthly illustrations (7 total) for Parenting magazine's Q&A section! These were the first 3 -- "Dreading the Doorbell", "Drop-off Playdate Dangers?", and "Where'd My Hero Go?"

Part of the fun of working on all these was getting to stare at interior design blogs and clothing sites for inspiration! :) Many thanks to Mia Song & Emily Furlani.

I recently did this piece for Uncovered Classics, a great site edited by Amy Collier that puts up reviews of some of the best classic books written by women, with the goal of bringing more attention to all the talented but often forgotten female authors. Each review also includes a new cover interpretation as illustrated by a female artist. Including me!

This is my cover for Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor--not the famous actress. It was a book that was both quite funny (the heroine is a fantastically arrogant, perfectly serious liar) and heartbreakingly sad for me. I recommend that you read Amy's review on the site!

These past couple years I've made a concerted effort to read more books by women. I mostly read sci-fi/fantasy, which often seems to be dominated by men, though some of the most enjoyable books I've read in the genre have been written by ladies (Hild, Ancillary Justice, Wizard of Earthsea). Because it can be so easy to lapse into a male-dominated booklist (almost all of my assigned books in highschool/college were written by men) I think it’s important to seek out and consume books by women in order to support their voices as well.