Tips on Caring for & Communicating with Your Artist

Every group of people has their own frustrations and pet peeves. The things that bother a banker, or an athlete, or a retiree, or a brand new mother are all different (and there are plenty of blogs to prove it.) Artists have their beefs, too. Your artist friend, family member, employee, or potential contractor has probably come across the occasional person who has either no respect for artistic skill or no understanding of artistic skill (maybe just this afternoon, which could explain their grumpy-pants attitude).

Tone is hard to convey in writing so please keep this in mind as you read: this post is not intended to sound condescending or make artists sound like a bunch of cranky malcontents. I hope you find it entertaining, informative, and a helpful in the understanding of your artist!

No artist wants to hear the following statements. Sometimes they come from well-meaning friends or family, sometimes they come from potential clients, and sometime they come from know-it-all strangers (who don't really know it all). I haven't personally heard all of these, but I've heard variations of most of them.

--"Hey, you like to draw. Why don't you draw a portrait (or caricature) of my kid (or car, or pet, etc.)?"

I don't like to draw, I love to draw. I love to draw so much that I have lists and lists of things that I want to draw. I will never have enough time to get to even a small fraction of these things and it makes me kind of sad. So yes, I love to draw MY STUFF. Pay me to draw your stuff.

--"How fun! You get to draw whimsical little drawings all day!"

No, we don't. A successful artist / illustrator (especially a freelance artist/ illustrator) must be a salesperson, a promoter, an accountant, a researcher, and a bookkeeper. We must manage inventory and supplies, build a strong network, and constantly educate ourselves on current tools and technology. Then, with any luck, we find a few clients who will actually pay us to make some artwork (which is rarely "fun" or "whimsical".) Then, the majority of us wake up and head to our day job.

--"Hey, I have this great idea for a story. I'll let you illustrate it. If I can get any money for it, I'll give you some."

Dude, write a professional contract and pay me for the work that I do. If you want to let me in on some of that sweet success down the road, put it in the contract. I'm willing to compromise, especially if I like your idea. If I'm going to work for nothing, I have dozens of my own stories that I'd rather invest my time in.

--"You're good at drawing. Can you draw me a logo for my new company, quick? Don't spend a lot of time on it or anything."

You just want to pay for a 1/2 hour's worth of work. Concepting, researching, and sketching, often takes as much or more time than the actual creation of a final piece. If "quick" was an option, don't you think we'd always use it? I've had ideas stew in my head for years before I've ever put them down on paper.

There's this great saying:

  • You can have it fast.

  • You can have it good.

  • You can have it cheap.
Pick two.

--"You could totally get a booth at such & such "starving artist" expo."

When I hear commercials use the cutesy term "starving artist" it makes me a little angry. How would you like to get paid $39.99 for fifteen hours of work? Add to that the cost of supplies. Add to that paying for the booth you "get" to set up at. I don't understand why any artists support these expos. I'll take my chances at a legitimate convention, art fair or gallery where a piece of art is actually considered valuable. People think that a $39.99 painting is worth $39.99. People think a $300 or $3000 or $30,000 painting is an investment.

That being said, I personally have very few pieces that I would price over $100.

--"All you did was Photoshop that."

Photoshop is not magical. Neither is Illustrator, Painter, or any of the other (expensive) programs that an illustrator is expected to own and know how to use. They are incredibly complex and can be quite frustrating. There isn't an "awesome" button. Also, you need to come up with ideas and have the ability to translate those ideas to suit each specific project. Computer programs are tools and there are skills required to make them work.

--"You should enter this contest I saw online. The winner gets $150!"

These "contests" are a way for cheap companies to take advantage of naive artists. They get dozens or hundreds of pieces created to their specifications and only have to pay for one. This is called SPEC WORK and it devalues every hard working illustrator who is trying to provide for him/herself and his/her family. Imagine going to a restaurant and ordering 20 or 30 items off the menu but only paying for the one item you liked best. It's ridiculous. Artists should not be expected to work for nothing. Here is a website with more information: no-spec.com

--"You'll never make a ton of money with this stuff."

You are right. The thing is, I'm not really interested in new fancy cars, or an electronics-filled "man cave"(possibly the most annoying term ever created), or other expensive junk. I want my wife and kids to be comfortable and happy. If that means I need to have a day job, so be it. A lot of artists have the same goal: make enough money on each project to pay for the time spent working on the next one. I'll be happy with that. Anything beyond that is just icing on my cake.

--"Wait, you watch cartoons and read kids books even without your kids?"

Yes, and at the risk of sounding pretentious, I understand them on a deeper level than most other adults. I am totally fascinated by the processes and people behind the production of great stories and artwork. This is what I want to do. A musician digs a little deeper into music, an athlete notices a great play as it develops, a politician sees a situation he/she can take advantage of (ha ha), etc., etc. An artist notices details and ponders how and why these specific elements work in a scene or on a page.

--"OK, draw up some sketches (or comps, or drafts, or layouts, or whatever term this potential client uses) so I can decide if I want to use you on the project."

This is often the most time consuming and mentally challenging part of any project. No other profession exists where a worker is expected to start the job before he/she is hired. Artists have portfolios, resumes, and samples of their work for a reason. Did you see something in my portfolio that you liked? Do you think my style will work on this particular project? If the answer is yes, then hire me. There will be plenty of opportunities written into the contract for alterations and (if you must) your creative input.

--"Can you fool around with some ideas for this project in your spare time?

No. I don't have spare time. I have a full-time family and a full-time job. Your project is not a hobby for me. I am serious about producing quality work for paying clients and building a reputation that allows me to eventually freelance full-time. If I had spare time, I'd have no problem filling it with my own to-do lists.

So there you have it. I know this is a long post but it feels good to get this stuff out there. If you made it all the way here, thanks for reading! I assume you know exactly what I'm talking about, or you care enough about an artist in your life to try to understand him/her. If you find the information useful or relevant, please pass it around. The more people that understand where an artist is coming from, the more colorful and creative our world will become!

One more thing I want to add: There are many situations where artists should and do donate their time and skills. Helping out a friend or family member or donating to a specific cause or charity is a valuable use of artistic talent. It's good for everyone involved and as a bonus, the artist may get a nice piece for his/her portfolio.

-Denver Wagner Feb.2010


Carl said...

You've hit the nail on the head, bang on!
I have #3 and #10 being offered to me right now; just starting out, but should really be more of a hardass...

gina said...

Gotta write down that saying of "pick 2" Its SOOO true! I can completely sympathize with every point of this -especially the I have so many ideas I'll never get them all done of my own drawings! Excellent points made Denver!!!!

Denver Wagner said...

Carl-there are some people who will try to get "something for nothing". Something I think I should have said somewhere in this post, however, is - a dream job is obviously worth fighting for. For example: I would put in tons of extra effort to land a job where I get to draw monsters for a couple months. :) I wouldn't put that extra effort into drawing kitchen utensils or something. The amount of bull I'm willing to take is relative to how interesting I think the project is.

Gina-I really appreciate you staying in touch. I can't wait for you to get your own blog going! I wish I had a name to attribute that "pick two" idea to. Th first place I heard it was on Big Illustration Party Time, and it kind of blew my mind. Like you said "SOOO true"!