Monday, February 28, 2011

Best Worst Convention

A while back, Gen Con attempted to expand its brand and start up a convention in Southern California.  Specifically Anaheim.  At first, the convention took place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I think started off pretty well.  There was a decent art show with many of the same faces that frequented Gen Con in Indianapolis, and the convention also featured some pretty decent celebrity guests.  The crowd was pretty good, as well, and there was even a bit of money flowing.  In fact, my first time attending that convention, I sold seven paintings.  All in all, it seemed like Gen Con SoCal might actually flourish.

But then things changed.  As luck would have it, the convention was forced to move to the weekend before Thanksgiving.  Now, if there's one thing folks really aren't interested in doing on the weekend before Thanksgiving, it's travel.  They'll be doing plenty of that in just a few days.  The convention took a hit.  Attendance dropped, the damage was done, and after a few short years, the convention disappeared.

However, that first year that the convention took place on it's pre-Thanksgiving dates might have been the most fun I've ever had at any convention ever.

Under normal circumstances, during a convention, we artists don't have a lot of time to talk to one another during the day.  It's all business for the 8-10 hours that the convention hall is open to the public.  Once the doors close, the atmosphere changes, and it's all about socializing.  Rare is it that we artists can hold prolonged, meaningful conversations with one another in person, and we tend to pounce on these opportunities and exploit them until the wee hours of the morning.  It's really great time, but it's always very limited and somewhat hampered by the fact that you have to get enough sleep to be intelligible enough for anyone to want to approach your table the next day.

But, given the shift in weekends this particular GenCon SoCal had no such limitations.  You see, traffic in the art show was already limited due to lower attendance, and was made worse by the seeming lack of interest in these limited numbers.

I remember quite vividly the anticipation at the opening of the doors of the convention's main hall to the public each day.  Every artist sitting behind their respective tables, hoping for the crowds to come and maybe buy a print or two.  Then the hope dwindled to perhaps selling an artist proof or two.  Followed by the hope that someone might want something signed.  And after even that hope disappeared, the only hope left was that someone would come into the art show at all and talk to one of us.

To say that the situation was bleak is an understatement.  There were long stretches — some as long as 4 or 5 hours — where the only souls in the art show were the artists themselves.  Artists who had spent good money to be there and were beginning to think about how much this was all costing them.  We sat there, gob-smacked, bored out of our minds, teetering on depression.  It was a sad scene, to be sure.

But then, one by one, we began to emerge from behind out tables.  We began to congregate in the middle of the art show.  We joked with one another, told stories, and began to commiserate.  We began to do all the things usually reserved for the after hours during the day.  We chatted for hours on end, only breaking every so often should a random attendee wander into the art show.  Whenever this happened, we'd scatter like cockroaches, returning to the safety of our tables and sitting in anticipation of a potential sale or two.  But the sales never came, and once the attendee had left, the mingling began anew.

Over four days, I got to know a lot of folks who work in my industry better than I ever could have hoped to.  We were all stuck on a life raft together, waiting for help that never arrived, and many of us became friends in the process.  The added time we spent together, while forced upon us, was something I don't think any one of us would trade for anything.

My sales total for that convention was $0.  Few did better than that.  And though I may have lost my shirt, it was worth every penny.  Sure, the sales would have been nice, but it reinforced the main reason I go to conventions at all.  Make no mistake, the business aspect of things is vital to any given convention.  There may be many opportunities to get work and reinforce relationships with clients.  It's an excellent opportunity to get your work seen.  But it's also a chance to be among friends.  And no matter how well or poorly you do, at least there's that.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cheese Platter

• When I was a kid, we were only allowed to have one box of cereal open at a time.  Truly my parents were ruthless overlords.  It took me almost a decade of not living under their roof to break myself of this habit.  Currently I have three boxes of cereal open.  Clearly my care-free days are finally upon me.

• I've always thought of my head as a race between grayness and baldness.  It is clear that the baldness is winning.  The curious thing about this is that both of my grandfathers had full heads of hair.  My father does, as well.  My uncles, however, are hit and miss.  My hairdresser in New York agreed to tell me when it was time to go for broke and shave my head.  I have yet to make the same deal with my new hair dresser.  Still, I have more hair than Prince William.  For him, it's a race against time to get wedding pictures taken while he still has any hair at all. 

• The last advertisement for Clinique that Amy had anything to do with finally came out the other day.  It features a tiny image of a mascara dispenser that is allegedly life-size.  I guess it's mascara for people with really small eyes.  Or maybe it's for cats.  In an ad campaign that is famous for its white space, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that this ad contains the most white space in the history of the campaign.  Either way, it is weird to see the last bit of Amy's influence at Clinique pass on so.  Odd that it should be such an understated piece to close out her tenure there.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

First Born Doubt

As Greg Manchess looked at this piece at Boskone this past weekend, he admitted to me that as I painted it, he wasn't sure I would be able to pull it off.  You see, Greg saw this piece come into being at the Illustration Master Class in 2009.

Greg was probably right to worry.  It was uncharted territory for me, and glowing holograms aren't exactly a cake walk.  Add to that the fact that my initial sketches for the piece were a disaster, and you've got real concerns.

Anyway, here are my initial sketches.

Not in the face!  Actually, I kind of like the way he seems almost impaled by the holograms.  Hmmm....

This might be the worst "manipulating holograms" pose in history.  Well, my history, anyway.

The first one is a pretty simple, solemn image.  The second, a pretty awful montage-y kind of ordeal.  I can't say that either one worked as is.  While the sketches were on the wall being reviewed, I began to race through a new sketch, hoping to get it done before I was called upon.

I really didn't like either sketch overall, but I thought that the diagonals of the holographic ships in the first sketch were salvageable.  I thought it important to keep the solemnity, but I felt that you should be able to at least see the main characters hands.  Here's what I came up with:

Obviously, this sketch is what I wet with.  Much prodding went on but with the week I had at IMC, I just couldn't get it done.  So, I completed the piece at home.

I assume that Greg had seen at least the finished piece online.  But I think this past weekend was the first time he'd gotten to see it in person.  That he was worried about the overall success of the piece doesn't shock me.  Nor am I angry in his obvious lack of faith (twists the knife...).

You see, early on I learned to face difficult pieces head on.  Even if you're out of your depth, you have to try and tackle the problem.  Collect the necessary reference.  Do some research.  Build models if you have to.  Get as prepared as you can.  Then, have at it.  Shoot for the moon.  If you fail, fail spectacularly.  And remember that it's better to fail because you weren't good enough, than to fail because you didn't try.

I remember someone asking my father how he did something or other.  The lack of context doesn't help, I know.  But rest assured that whatever feat this was in reference to was noteworthy (there are many tales of my father that are).  So after being asked the hows of it all, I remember my father replying that he was able to do whatever it was that he did because he was too stupid to know he couldn't.  If I'd been on the ball during my conversation with Greg, I would have quoted my father.

After years of tackling things head on, I've stopped worrying about whether or not I can do things.  Sure, I've failed along the way.  There are pieces that no one will ever see, and pieces I wish I could take back.  But every once in a while a step forward is taken, a leap is made, a job is done well.

As a complete aside, I don't want to make it sound like Greg Manchess is some jerk.  He's a really good guy, and someone I feel lucky to have gotten to know on any level.  He's easily one of the most giving people I've ever met.  Also, it just so happens that he has an excellent post over at the Muddy Colors blog about judging shows, and specifically judging Spectrum.  Check it out.

As a completely different aside, I fully recognize that the success of the piece contained herein is fully debatable.  That fact has been made very clear to me by a few folks out there (you know who you are).  It's entirely possible that I will one day burn this piece or give it away so I don't have to look at it anymore.  But, right now, I'm still pretty happy with how it turned out.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Convention Recovery

The two biggest drawbacks to conventions are the preparation time and the recovery time.  Preparing for a con can take upwards of a full week for me, and often the prep has been going on for a week before that while I try and tie up the loose ends of my usual responsibilities.  Making a list, checking it twice, color correcting and making prints, wrapping prints and sketches, pricing things, organizing proofs, and packing everything up, all eat tons of time.  But it's time I am prepared for.  I know it's coming.

What I'm never completely prepared for is the recovery.  By the end of any given convention, I am sleep deprived, physically exhausted, and cognitively impaired.  If I attempt to get work done in the 48 hours immediately following a convention, it is always slow, sloppy, and mediocre.  I just don't have it together.  So, I try and catch up on menial tasks like mounting sketches or blocking in large fields of color.  Maybe I'll update my spreadsheets or collect reference for upcoming jobs.

I have found that even conventions held in my home city have this effect, despite allowing for sleeping in my own bed.  I still need to get up early, and unlike conventions that require hotel stays, there is an actual commute to the venue.

How long it takes to return to a level of normal functionality seems to vary.  Some cons require just an extra day.  Others I still feel the effects of a week later.  Because of this variability, planning my post-con schedule can be quite difficult.  In fact, I have gotten into the habit of planning for the worst case scenario.  Should an entire week of fumbling occur, I build that possibility into my schedule as best I can.

Last year, I attended seven different events.  Several were conventions, the rest Magic tournaments of different varieties.  All required prep time and recovery time.  On top of that, the time that the actual appearances consumed was quite substantial.  Add to that a month away from home for a work gig and a permanent relocation to a new city, and you have an artist looking for some time to breathe, and hoping for a more relaxed 2011.

Some folks really dig the travel and are energized by it.  I find it to be exhausting.  Which is why I'm seriously considering leaving my year's schedule at the three appearances I have ahead of me for the rest of the year.  Boskone is done.  I have a Magic Grand Prix in Providence, RI in the spring.  I will be going to Japan in June for a Magic Pro Tour event.  And I would ideally like to make it to IlluxCon in November.

The major player missing from that list is GenCon.  While I haven't ruled GenCon out just yet, I'm definitely leaning toward staying home.  I have not had a summer off in about 10 years.  The trip to Japan already makes this year no exception.  Due to the convention season, I end up working more nights and weekends in order to make up the lost time and maintain productivity.  This means that I have even less time to enjoy the good weather, less time to spend with my wife, and absolutely no time for personal work.

Maybe it's the lack of sleep talking.  Or maybe it's the wide-eyed hopefulness of my wife at the thought of an August to ourselves.  I can't rightly say.  But something that I certainly realized during a trip to Rick Berry's studio this past weekend was that given the choice of how to spend my time, I'd rather be painting.  And it's quite possible that this year I'll get to do more of it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Where It All Began

While getting a haircut yesterday, my barber asked me a question I've heard before but never really pondered.  After telling him what I do for a living, he asked me if there was anyone else in my family that was an artist.  Does it run in the family?  Where did it come from?

This is an interesting question that I usually have a stock answer to.  My father was a high-voltage electrician, my mother was a hairdresser.  They saw that I had some talent and a great deal of interest and supported me.  Simple as that. 

But, putting some real thought into it, I begin to see artistic veins throughout my family that I've never really considered.  I do actually remember my father drawing from time to time, but nothing I would call serious (though he might disagree).  My sister, Amy, was a professional, classically trained dancer for quite a while.  Looking beyond my immediate family, my cousin, Fred Belledin, is an architect, and my cousin, Ted Belledin, is professional musician.  Looking even further out, my second-cousin Chuck Wendig is a writer, and his aunt (my father's cousin), Dorothy Wendig McNamara, is a painter.  I'm pretty sure that there are other family members I'm overlooking, for which I'll likely get a bit of grief from my folks, but these are quick examples I'm throwing out there to help make my point.

Clearly there was potential in me as a child.  And clearly there were artistic roots.  But what was the catalyst?  What got me started?

I think it's possible that for me, it all grew out of illness.  In the true Darwinian sense of things, I should not be alive today.  I was born with severe allergies to milk, eggs, and all dairy products.  Severe enough to kill me.  In fact, I nearly died several times due to allergic reactions to milk, and my father was almost arrested for child abuse before they were able to diagnose what was wrong with me (apparently during these severe reactions I looked as though I'd been submerged in boiling water).  Fortunately, the allergies were controlled to the extent that they could be, and I learned to live with them.  Periodically, I'd eat something I shouldn't have and as time went on, my reactions to such things became more and more mild.  The last allergic reaction I had was in college, and I've been fine ever since.

As though allergies weren't enough to deal with, when I was five I was diagnosed with something called cholesteatoma, which is a tumor that grows inside the ear.  If left unchecked, cholesteatoma can destroy the bones in your ear causing deafness and permanent vertigo.  If completely uncared for, the enzymes the tumor produces will destroy the bones separating the ear from the brain.  I can only assume that that's a bad thing, and I also assume that given enough time the tumor would continue to grow and the enzymes would continue to feast, making the whole thing potentially fatal.

Diagnosing me was relatively easy as my eardrum had ruptured and I was in excruciating pain.  Add to that the distinct odor that the tumor produces, and it was a layup diagnosis for my doctor.  The good news was that the disease is treatable.  The bad news is that it was recurring.  I went through half a dozen surgeries between the ages of 5 and 12 before the tumor stopped growing back.  Despite my doctor's best efforts, I suffered severe permanent hearing loss in my left ear.  The downside to this is that stereo and surround sound is meaningless to me.  The upside is that it cemented in my brain the difference between left and right.  I can't really explain it, but suffice it to say that the left side of my head feels significantly different from my right.  I notice how the left side feels, constantly.

Throughout my childhood, all these illnesses meant that I spent a lot of time away from other kids.  I spent an awful lot of time in doctors' offices.  I also spent an awful lot of time in hospitals.  After each surgery, I spent even more time at home recuperating.  Mind you, this was in the dark ages, long before Nintendo.  We did not have cable tv, either.  Children's television programming was limited to the early morning and late afternoon.  Soap operas dominated the waking hours when I was by myself.  Aside from the homework my sisters would dutifully deliver every day, I had little to occupy myself with.  What was a boy to do?

For me, the answer was simple.  I got out a pencil, some computer paper, and I drew.  I drew a lot.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions 6

Why doesn't artist "X" work for product "Y" anymore?

This is a question that confounds me.  I might get asked this more often than other illustrators because I'm friends with a few art directors.  Or, it might be that I just have one of those all-knowing, all-seeing faces.  Or, it could be that there's something about me that screams "gossip monger."  I don't know. 

Like it or not, there are fans out there who care enough to find out why their favorite artist has gone AWOL, and will devote a fair amount of time discussing the various possible answers to the question, both in person and on the internet.  And, like it or not, this question gets asked.

Now, I could answer this question with another question, like "why do you think they're not working on that project anymore?"  I could just tell folks to ask the artist in question, themselves.  I could even tell folks that the artist stopped working on said project because of something these folks did (which is exactly what my Mom told me in the movie theater when I asked why the film broke in the middle of the Hoth assault in The Empire Strikes Back, in 1983 — a comment that caused me to seriously consider my roll in the world, any impact I might have on films running properly, and a comment which has scarred me for life).

But I digress...

In all reality, when faced with this question, I tend to admit ignorance.  Fact is, I don't have any inside information and haven't heard the latest rumors.  I don't like to speculate about anyone's career or choices.  It's frankly none of my business.  However, for the fun of it, let's explore some possibilities as to why artist "X" isn't around anymore.

1.  The artist is difficult to work with (your art direction is nice and all, but I do things my way and only my way, so you can kiss my [expletive deleted]).
2.  The artist doesn't do his paperwork (what do you mean I need to hand in a contract and invoice before I get a check?  What is this, Soviet Russia?).
3.  The artist's work has declined in quality (meh, you can see what I was getting at...we'll fix it in post).
4.  The artist's arms have fallen off rendering them unable to paint effectively (you know, I'd pick them up and put them back on, if I only had arms to do it with).
5.  The artist's strengths no longer mesh with the direction the project is headed in (there's just no room for realism now that the whole game's gone anime).
6.  The artist has broken contract or violated a non-disclosure agreement ( wanna hear about the latest Magic storyline?  Meet me behind the Stop and Shop with a stack of unmarked bills in a manilla envelope...oh, and make sure you're not followed).
7.  The artist is no longer alive (do I even need to explain this?).
8.  The artist has left the project due to personal reasons (I don't have to tell you nothin' — it's personal).
9.  The artist has decided to explore the exciting world of accountancy (yeah, I think we can write that PS3 off...).
10.  The artist got drunk and was sick all over the art director's carpet causing the art director to sever all ties to the artist (it was a rental and the damage was taken out of the art director's security deposit — who could blame them for doing this?).
11.  The art director no longer runs the project and a new art director has come in with a different stable of artists (your crane style is no match for my tiger style).
12.  The art director has found better artists to bring into the fold (this new guy really puts into perspective just how mediocre Belledin was all along, I'm really glad we were able to replace him).
13.  The art director doesn't like the artist's face (you know, your right eye is one millimeter higher than your left.  It's symmetry or nothing for me, sir).
14.  The art director's boss doesn't like your face and instructs the art director not to use the artist anymore (seriously — that extra millimeter makes all the difference).
15.  The company the art director works for has failed to pay its phone and internet bills leaving the art director no other option than to hire only those whose mailing addresses he can remember off the top of his head (what's the postal abbreviation for New York again?).

Hopefully at least one of those was vaguely entertaining, outlandish as they may be.  Still, there are bits of truth in some of them that are potential hazards which illustrators can be and have been hurt by.  And while there are many possibilities that are discussed among fans and fellow illustrators alike as to why their favorite artist just isn't around anymore, one potential reason seems to be brought up quite rarely:

16.  Maybe, just maybe, the artist has found an amazing new project that he or she wants to devote their time to that doesn't allow time for project "Y."

At the end of the day, why someone no longer works on a given project is between the artist and the art director.  Digging up the reason isn't going to change the facts.  If you still want to ask questions, I recommend this one: what is artist "X" working on now?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Framed and the Framers

I don't have a lot of my work framed.  Storing frames and framed work requires space that I did not have until recently.  Though I could store framed pieces on the wall, I find that I really don't like having large quantities of my own work hanging in my house.  I feel like I get more from other people's work and prefer to see their paintings over mine.

If a given piece is a standard size (11x14, 9x12, 8x10, 12x16, etc.) and does not require cutting a matte, I will occasionally do the framing myself.  More often than not, however, I employ a professional — especially when the piece in question is one that Amy has asked me not to sell.

The main reason that I go to professional framers is that I like their selection and the ability to physically sit a frame next to a piece and see it all come together live and in person.  I know there are online options for the purchasing of frames, but I feel a lot more like I’m shooting in the dark.  My monitor settings could possibly cause me to think I am getting a frame that is a given color, only to find that it’s color is off enough to be useless to me when it finally arrives.  In short, I really don’t care to end up with something that falls short of what I need, and I care even less to be sending things back and forth several times until I end up with a solution that fits.

Another reason I like going to professionals is that having something framed is often a business expense.  If I need something framed, I’m going to be spending money whether I do it myself or not.  I’d just as soon direct the money to someone else and help keep their shop open.

Still another reason I take pieces to a professional framer is that it never hurts to have a second opinion.  I have been extremely lucky with the framers I’ve used over the years.  Each one brought their unique experience to the table and presented some really amazing combinations that were well outside my in-the-box thinking.  A lot of folks who do this kind of work have a pretty good eye, and I really like having that eye at my disposal.

At present, I am putting together some framed work for Boskone, which takes place this weekend.  I normally don’t bother with shows that require my work to be framed for a variety of reasons, but this time I made an exception.  Right now, I happen to have several pieces framed and ready to go, leaving only three additional standard sized pieces.  The show is conveniently located, and I don’t have to ship anything.  I thought it over, and I decided to frame one professionally and two myself.

The latter two paintings were handled with relative ease as a trip to an arts and crafts store managed to yield some pretty nice frames.  The other piece would seem to be a problem given that Amy and I share only one car that she’s got during standard business hours.  Add to that the fact that we’re new to the area and are still getting our bearings and one might expect that third piece to be a real headache.  In all reality, the third piece was the easiest of the three to deal with.

It turns out that the fact that I moved is rather fortuitous.  If I were still in Jackson Heights, I would have to find a new framer as the old one I used to use has folded.  This would require me to go well out of my way.  As luck would have it, here in Auburndale, there’s a framer around the corner from my house.  It’s an easy walk and I can even pick up my coffee along the way.

Once again, I was blessed with someone that has a good eye.  He presented options, both good and bad, and shot the bad ones down before I could.  He threw oddball frames at the piece, responding not only to the piece’s palette, but also its shapes.  He swapped out frame samples as quickly and confidently as I would have, and within five minutes, we had the perfect frame.  If the convenience of his location didn’t sell me on using him, the ease with which he managed to find frame that complimented the piece certainly did.  It would seem that I have a new framer.

And now, a shameless plug: I mentioned Boskone above and encourage anyone in the greater Boston area to check it out this coming weekend.  At the very least, there will be some excellent art to look at done by people who actually know how to paint.  Greg Manchess is the artist guest and his work is worth checking out, at the very least.  So please, do come check it out if you can.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Illustrators: Know Your Fees

What is your time worth?  How much money do you need to keep food on your table and pay your rent?  What is your pricetag?
Ideally, these are questions we illustrators need to be able to answer.  If you don't have any of the answers, I suggest putting some thought into the matter.  Some folks will arrive at specific figures for specific types of jobs.  Others, will have a range of numbers in mind.  These prices don't necessarily have to be rigid.  Indeed, they can be quite situational, but at the very least you need to have a mental starting point for calculating a price when asked.

So how do you go about knowing what's worth what?  One of my first stops has always been the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines (a book I highly recommend owning if you are in the field or want to hire someone from the field).  Sometimes you'll hear this referred to as the "GAG book" or the "PEGs."  While not a complete list of the variety of jobs out there and their respective average fees, it is an excellent place to start.  At the very least, you're libel to find a job that's similar to what you're doing and can extrapolate a fair price for your specific project.

Be warned, however, it has been my experience that the prices listed inside this book are a bit higher than I typically get paid.  Such is life.  The GAG book is not a rulebook.  It states this fact in its title.  It is a series of guidelines.  So, don't be surprised should the negotiations trend lower.

The second thing I look at when coming up with a price is my own experience.  After illustrating full-time for ten years, I have some familiarity with the rates in the illustration genres I've worked in.  I have a pretty good idea what a given job in these fields pay.  Once again, there are times when some extrapolation is necessary, but the numbers from the past can help inform the numbers of the future.

"But what if I don't have that kind of experience?" you inevitably ask.  That's where the third thing comes into play: your fellow illustrators.  Chances are that if you are an illustrator, you know other illustrators.  At least one of these other illustrators will be willing to share information on prices.  It's been my experience that it'll be more than one.  Most of the illustrators I know will tell you the straight dope on what a given job paid them (depressing as it sometimes is).  Your fellow illustrators are a valuable resource.  Tap that resource.

Another way in which your network of illustrator friends and acquaintances is useful is when you're offered a job outside of your typical genre.  Oftentimes different parts of the illustration world have vastly different fees and knowing illustrators who work in those different parts of the field can be invaluable.  At the very least, it's possible that someone you know can refer you to someone else who can help you out.

Anyway, after taking those three things into account, you can start to settle on a ballpark figure.  But we're not done.  You see, there are a few more things to ask yourself.  First off, how demanding is the job being offered?  Does it require you to go well above and beyond your normal call of duty?  What are the deadlines?  How are these deadlines going to affect your personal life?  For that matter, what is your schedule to begin with?  Do you have the time for the job?  The answers to these questions (and others you'll invariably come up with on your own) will undoubtedly have an affect on what you feel is a fair price.  Consider these factors carefully.

I would hope that after pondering all of the questions and the information you've collected that you can arrive at a price.  How firm you want to be on that price is up to you.  It depends on what you're willing to live with, and how much of a hit you're willing to take.

Before I go, I want to mention one more thing: whatever price you quote, don't undersell yourself.  While there are many out there who may overcharge, I think there are just as many (if not more) who will accept less than is fair.  While there may be a variety of factors that lead to this (lack of self-esteem, financial necessity, desperation), I beg you to tread carefully.  Though it is important to be realistic about your prices (for example, I can't command the fees that Michael Whelan can), don't settle for less than you're worth, either.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Clients: Please Tell Me Your Budget

Every so often, someone will come out of the blue and contact me about doing a piece.  These emails are remarkably similar in their content.  The person contacting me will talk about an exciting image they have in mind, trying to hook me on how cool everything could be.  They'll give me specifics about the publication (if there is one) — you know, dimensions, how much room to leave for typography, etc.  Sometimes, they'll give me their credentials to sweeten the deal.  And almost without fail, there is one piece of information that is missing: the budget.

So, I reply.  And in that reply, the budget is one of the very first things I ask about — it's an important part of the business, after all.  Not uncommonly, what I get back is some variation of the following:

Well, what would you charge for that kind of thing?

Now, I understand that the original omission was intentional.  Maybe it's because you're hoping I'll come up with a lower figure than you had in mind.  Maybe it's because you're embarrassed by how little you have to offer.  Or maybe it's just a basic gimmick to get me to email you back in the first place.  I'm not sure what your motivation is, but no matter what you do, the budget is something we're going to be talking about in pretty short order, and I recommend you be prepared.

Personally, I don't know an artist that isn't at least a little irritated when the question of budget is put back to them.  In fact, instances like these often set off a flurry of emails and phone calls behind the scenes where we consult one another on the details of the job and potential fees.  We're creatives — what do we know from money?  Many of us like simple transactions:

Here is a job.  I have X dollars.  If I give you X dollars, will you do this job?

Look, I'm not going to pretend to understand people's motives (or lack thereof) for how you're dealing with the question of budget.  Frankly, your motive is none of my business.  But I can tell you this: we don't know what you, as the client, can afford.  If the job is compelling enough there's a real chance that some of us will work with you on budget, as long as it's within reason.  What we don't want to do is play 20 questions, and I'm guessing that you really don't want to either.

I think it's important to come to the table with a number prepared.  Having that figure ready allows for a faster transaction, and the faster the transaction the better for all.  It either allows for the maximum time for the artist (should they agree) to get the job done, or it allows for the maximum amount of time for you to find a different artist who can give you what you need.

However (and this is the important thing), this does not excuse the illustrator from knowing their fees.

Tomorrow - Illustrators: Know Your Fees

Monday, February 7, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions 5

Do you listen to music while you paint?  If so, what do you listen to?

That this question has been asked of me as many times as it has is kind of surprising.  No real commentary there, I'm just honestly surprised... Yeah, so I guess I'll just answer it then.

While I do sometimes listen to music while painting, more often than not I have a movie or television show playing.  I always pick something that's somehow tonally or thematically linked to the painting or paintings I happen to be working on.  The longer it is, the better.  That way I don't have to get up, as often.  Also, tv shows with a "play all" option are always preferred over the ones that don't for the same reason.

Some of you may wonder how I am not distracted by what's on the tv.  Simple: I don't get distracted because I've seen it before.  I never, ever watch something for the first time while working (barring the random sporting event that I may have tuned into).  So, it's always stuff where I know what's coming.

The biggest reason I prefer movies over music is that I like to have something that I can look away to that cleanses my mental palette.  While painting, I can end up staring at a piece for hours with few breaks.  This can sometimes cause me to lose perspective and end up with some mediocre drawing or painting that I only come to see after walking away — be it for lunch or at the end of the day.  If I have a movie on, I can watch it periodically for a minute or so at a time, allowing me to reset my brain enough to get a fresher look at my painting when my eyes finally return to it.

As for what kind of movies I watch, you'll find a lot of James Cameron, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, and Michael Mann in my collection.  Television shows include a lot of Futurama, Venture Brothers, the Simpsons, and South Park, as well as Rome, Deadwood, Band of Brothers, the Pacific, and Battlestar Gallactica.  Probably a lot of obvious and stereotypical stuff, but it gets the job done.

Regarding sporting events, despite they're being live, I don't get distracted for two main reasons.  One, I'm not really that emotionally invested in them.  Two, you can gauge well what's worth looking at by the roar of the crowd and can rest assured you'll catch anything you missed in the instant replay.  Still, I find football and baseball good background fodder — even without the emotional or tonal link as mentioned above.

Now, every once in a while, music will be more appealing to me.  I can't say whether it's linked to the tides, the day of the week, or that some glow stick in my brain has snapped and caused my feelings on the subject to shift temporarily.  So what do I listen to on these occasions?

Sometimes it's film scores.  Sometimes it's classical.  Most of the time, it's rock or alternative.  I'm a big fan of classic rock (something that now apparently includes the 80's according to my local classic rock station).  I'd say that The Who is probably my favorite band, but things like the Strawbs, Queen, and Bad Company come up a lot.  I still listen to stuff from the grunge era, and I've even gotten into some 80's pop... You know, I guess I'll listen to just about anything as long as it's not country, isn't too repetitive, too electronic, or too grating.  I'm not very big on jazz, nor am I big into the blues, but I'll even listen to them should the piece I'm working on feel like it's required.  Fact is that my musical tastes were molded in the 80's and pre-boyband 90's.  Even so, I've tried to keep up with stuff that's actually been released in the last decade, so I'm not totally out of the loop but at the same time am by no means an expert.

On any given day you can find any given thing playing in my studio.  I like to keep changing things up, much the same way that I keep changing up aspects of my process.  I guess I'm kind of fickle, and I find that I get bored pretty easily, so by staying out of any regular pattern I somehow manage to keep the boredom at bay.

If anyone reading this has a question they'd like answered in the ongoing FAQ series, by all means ask it in the comments section below.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Badass Alteration Animation

I made this for the part 5 of the Badass: Birth of a Legend story, but found it a little too distracting.  I figured it'd be a better image on its own.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Badass Movies

Behold: a promotional video for Badass: Birth Of a Legend!

While we're at it, here's the trailer for the first book:

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Many Covers of Badass, Part 5

The inclusion of Godzilla and Skeletor into the painting was the cause of most of my headaches.  This was the reason I needed the contract changed, and the reason for most of the delays.  Still, I don't often get to work with established characters, and it was a really great opportunity.  That the extra effort and frustration caused by said opportunity was for naught, was a great lesson.

Sometimes these things happen.  Sometimes simple jobs turn out to be among the most complicated.  Sometimes, you find yourself banging your head against a wall and not knowing why.  I cannot begin to understand the things that took place behind the scenes at the publisher's offices.  While the art director tried to keep me in the loop, there were many things that I was understandably not privy to.  I imagine that there were battles fought and noses bloodied, my art director wielding an emergency fire ax to chop through the line of red tape baring foes.  Or perhaps the conflict took place in a series of increasingly passive-aggressive memos.  It's even possible that the massive delays the I experienced were the result of a spontaneous outbreak of the bubonic plague that resulted in the CDC secreting away those affected and allowing no contact with the outside world until the threat was contained.  In all reality, however, it could simply have come down to folks at the publisher waiting to hear from other folks who were waiting to hear from completely different folks, causing me to wait in turn.

Alterations to pieces are part of the game.  While rarely at this scale, it's something that we illustrators must all learn to cope with.  In retrospect, I might have gotten a little precious in this case.  It might not have been so bad to have painted over Skeletor.  In fact, I'm pretty darned happy with Professor Moriarty, who currently stands as the fastest figure I've ever painted.  Still, finding a way around the problem allowed for a totally different set of lessons I might otherwise not have learned.

All the cool kids flip their collars.  You should too!

To say that I have two fully realized paintings isn't quite accurate.  I have one fully realized painting that was the original version of the cover, and a second piece that is half paint and half exposed giclee.  In my spare time, I am trying to finish off the rest of that second piece and cover the remaining surface with paint.  I'm not sure if it's worth it, but it's an interesting exercise.  While I'm not trying to recreate the first piece brushstroke for brushstroke, I'm certainly trying to make it look pretty much the same, save for improvements here or there.  When it's finished, I'll have it shot just as I did the first one, and it will likely become the master image for my records and replace the image on my site.

To be frank, I doubt that the either piece will sell.  The first Badass cover certainly hasn't, and in both cases I'll be happy no matter what should occur.  Sure it's nice to sell paintings, but it's not the end of the world to me should I get stuck with them.  After all, I destroy the really awful ones and save only what's worth saving.  Both of these are safe and one will likely be displayed.  The nice thing is that I will only need to buy one frame for both pieces and will be able to rotate the two as tastes dictate.  So I have that going for me, which is nice.

At the end of the day, I offer some advice.  First off, when dealing with copyrighted characters, always make sure you're covered legally.  If the product you're working on is a licensed product, you should be good to go.  But, sometimes you're not covered, and it's important to get that ironed out.  Many companies include clauses in their contracts that indemnify them against something the illustrator might have done, but not the other way around, so be careful what you sign.

In this case, I protected myself from the start.  I always save important emails for each job so that I can document the client's requests.  While I wouldn't necessarily have been covered without the clause I added to the contract, I would have at least had evidence in my own defense.  At the end of the day, the change in the contract was rendered moot by the final change.  So it all worked out, I guess.

A second thing I want to point out is that you should always pay attention to any part of the contract that talks about changes and alterations.  Most of the time, contracts are written so that changes resulting from the client's actions pay (often a fee to be negotiated), while changes resulting from the illustrator's actions are done at no additional cost to the client.  However, some clients I've worked with allowed themselves multiple rounds of changes in the contract — both to the sketches and finishes.  These changes paid no additional fee.  So, again, read your contract.

At the end of the day, I'm not complaining.  The author is cool, the art director is cool, the job itself is cool, it's just the situation that wasn't cool.  But every job is a gamble on some level.

Finally, a shameless plug.  The book is called Badass: The Birth of a Legend.  At least, that's what I heard it called most recently.  The author is called Ben Thompson and his website can be found here.  The paintings are called The Legend of Badass (v1) and (v2), after the book's original title.  The book is released this March 15th, and can be purchased wherever books are sold.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Many Covers of Badass, Part 4

If you've already read part 1, part 2, or part 3, you likely see where this story is headed.

After many complications and many months, I had finally completed the book cover.  The check came, it cleared, all was right with the world.  I moved on.  Then, last fall, the move to Boston became finalized, and it was clear that my world was going to be thrown into utter chaos for a time.  As I was preparing for the move, I finally got the email I'd been dreading.

As I mentioned before, the question of whether or not Skeletor and Godzilla should be on the cover came up again, and after much discussion it was decided that they should not.  Bummer.  I liked Skeletor.  Godzilla was okay, but Skeletor came out well!

I'll get you for this, He-Man!

The art director and I discussed our options.  The publisher's first instincts were to have me alter Godzilla and Skeletor's appearance enough that we couldn't possibly get sued.  This isn't an option I particularly liked.  First off, Skeletor and Godzilla are both actually in the book.  Folks reading it would look inside, see both of them, then look at the cover and think I didn't know what the heck I was doing.  Had I ever seen these guys before?  Since when is Skeletor red?  And why does Godzilla have a beak?  These are the types of questions that would invariably come up.

Second, changing those two characters to the extent needed to avoid legal action would result in me essentially painting two new figures.  I argued that if I was going to do that much work, they might as well be other characters in the book that no one will get sued for.  Fortunately, the art director agreed.

The next question became which characters should be the replacements.  Given Godzilla's size and placement in the piece, what replaced him had to be of similar scale.  Because I'd already done one for inside the book (seen here), I proposed a dragon.  They loved it.  Skeletor's replacement was up to them, as I genuinely had no idea who among the cast of characters included in the book would fit the bill.  They came back with Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty.  Cool.  I moved on to the sketch.

A major challenge with alterations on finished pieces is that they are impossible to plan for.  One hopes that all of the kinks are worked out on a given job before one goes to paint.  This doesn't always happen, but one can't exactly leave gaping holes in one's schedule in anticipation that it might.  One needs to fill one's schedule with jobs so one can eat and pay one's rent.

This is the situation I found myself in, and my schedule was full.  Further complicating matters was the minor detail that I was about to uproot my life in New York and drag it up to Boston.  Compounding those factors was that they needed the revisions done post-haste.  In fact, I had only three days to get them the sketch so that they could include it in the catalog they use to sell books to stores and distributors.  It was going to be tight, to say the least.

I went digital with the sketch again — this time opting to work directly on top of a black and white version of the painting itself.

Again, pretty straightforward stuff.  They liked it and gave me the go ahead, but there was still a big dilemma to resolve.

When repainting much of a piece like this, one can go several ways.  One can paint directly over the original.  Or, one can just paint the replacement figures separately and blend it all together digitally.  I didn't much fancy painting over the original.  The big sticking point was Skeletor.  Unlike He-Man, I didn't want to destroy him.  At the same time, I didn't want to paint the figures separately because they'd lack a certain amount of context, and I feared that I'd need to do an awful lot of digital manipulation to make them fit into the piece color and value-wise.  I talked with a few other artists and came to a third solution: I had a giclee print made of the original cover, pasted it down onto a piece of hardboard, and did the alterations on it, rather than the original painting.

This meant that I'd have all the context of the original piece including the correct palette, value structure, and composition.  It also meant that for better or worse, I'd end up with what amounted to two original paintings.  Given the increased amount of room my new home had to offer, this wasn't much of a concern.  This option was the closest thing I could think of to having my cake and eating it too, and I'm glad I went this route.  It may not have been perfect, but having the image there saved me a lot of time on the back end and time was of the essence.

To complete the job, I would have a week at most, depending on how quickly I was able to get my studio unpacked and in working order.  As it turned out, that took far longer than expected, and I had only a few days.  So, I disappeared into my studio to paint the dragon and Moriarty, scan the piece, retouch it, and hand it in.  The deadline made, I went back to my regularly scheduled job, and eventually celebrated Christmas.

Tomorrow: thoughts, warnings, details, and conclusions.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Many Covers of Badass, Part 3

Part 1 of this tale can be found here.  Part 2, here.  Here begins part three:

While admittedly not a He-Man fan, painting Skeletor certainly wasn't a problem for me.  I was pretty confident that I knew enough to make him relatively cool.  I whipped up a new version of the sketch and did what I could.  I even tried to keep all three furies in there, because I'm a completist.

Painting Skeletor was certainly a minor change.  The real issue was one of copyright.  While I was excited to get a chance to tackle Godzilla and Skeletor, I didn't fancy the idea of being sued for their use.  It seemed wise that I should cover myself legally.  So before moving ahead, I asked a few friends for advice.  Everyone came back with the same thoughts and confirmed my gut instinct: I needed to make sure I was indemnified in the contract against lawsuits brought on by the use of copyrighted characters.

Fortunately, HarperCollins was totally cool with it.  I needed to add the necessary language to the contract myself, but it otherwise wasn't going to be an issue.  I have no idea whether or not they felt the clause was entirely necessary, but it seemed only fair that I be covered as Godzilla and Skeletor were being included at their behest.  It took a while to iron everything out, but it was better to be safe than sorry.

Time moved one, and the deadline began to loom.

Their response to the sketch above was positive, but they felt that my attempts to keep all three Furies in there was pointless.  They asked me to excise the tiny one on the right that I'd added, and gave me final approval.  Official green light in hand, I tweaked the sketch a bit for my own purposes, changing the scale of a few of the figures and cementing them all in their final positions.

There's a real subtle shift here from the image above.

I took this finalized sketch and removed most of the grayscale under painting, as well as the small fury on the right.  I then printed it out and pasted it down to a piece of hardboard.  After a day's worth of prep, the piece was ready.  I gathered up my reference, shot whatever I needed in addition to that then started slapping paint down.

Because of an assignment I was working on that required me to travel, I painted most of this piece in a hotel room.  I didn't enjoy the experience, and I don't recommend it.  I was never comfortable, and so the piece took a long time to really start flowing.  It could be argued that it never really did flow.  It was a frustrating piece to paint due to a variety of extenuating circumstances, and if I'd known what would eventually happen, I would have waited until I was back in my studio to work on it.

The short story is that everything about the job kept getting pushed back.  There were delays upon delays at just about every stage of the job.  I can't even begin to understand why, but it happened.  I figure I put more time into dealing with details than I did the actual painting, and the constant waiting got pretty frustrating.  I wouldn't go as far as to say it was a nightmare, but it was certainly among the most difficult jobs I've ever dealt with.  Such is the nature of the beast...well, this beast anyway.

Now, I want to take a minute here and point out that the art director I worked with was and is awesome.  He fought the good fight on my behalf, and I know this because he carbon copied me on almost every email he sent out dealing with the many issues I faced.  As much as he could, he kept me in the loop, and I can't tell you how rare and awesome that is.  Because of this, I never once threw a fit, or burst out in rage.  He was not the cause of any of the delays or problems that I had to deal with, and so was hardly deserving of any venom I might have spewed.

And here it is — this is the piece that I labored to produce.  It has its problems (I'm not 100% happy with Godzilla), but I'm still pretty happy with the piece.  In fact, I'm really quite proud of Skeletor in particular.

At the end of the day, I made my deadline.  The piece was finished, shot, digitized and was handed over.  The author, art director, and HarperCollins as a whole seemed pretty pleased.  However, throughout the months that followed the job, I had a nagging suspicion that it wasn't over.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and drop it did.

It seems that eventually, the question of whether or not Godzilla and Skeletor should be used was raised again, and the final leg of this trip began.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Many Covers of Badass, Part 2

Part 1 of this tale appeared yesterday and can be found here.  Part 2 begins now:

I kept in touch with the author of Badass for a variety of reasons — not the least of which is that he's a super nice guy.  Only a few months after the first book had been released, he let me know that HarperCollins was talking about a second book and wanted to know if I was interested.  Silly question.  I liked doing the black and white interiors the first go around and the cover wasn't so much like icing on the cake as having a whole second cake!  I figured that even if I didn't get the cover of the second book, I'd still be pretty happy to do the work offered.

While the first Badass book centered around historical figures, this second one was to concentrate more on mythological figures, fictional characters, and urban legend types.  No matter what I ended up working on, I knew it was going to be a fun job.

At first, I was unsure of my return as the cover artist.  I wouldn't have blamed them from moving on to another artist, even given that the first cover had gotten into Spectrum.  I never look at any gig as a guarantee, as any number of variables exist within a given job that can sink it at almost any time.  I've seen jobs fall apart, imprints disappear, and whole companies do the same.  Illustration is not for the faint of heart, after all.  Nevertheless, I got an email from the art director about the job and I, of course, said yes.

This time around, in the opening stages the art director sent me an image of an old Star Wars poster that he wanted me to use as inspiration for the flavor of the cover.  The piece would have five figures total and would include the following: Thor (the mythological version, not the Marvel version), the Furies of Greek mythology (there were at least 3), and Godzilla.

Assignment in hand, I immediately set to work and produced two sketches.  One's composition was pretty much completely stolen from the Star Wars poster.  The second was somewhere in between the first sketch and the first book's cover.  I figured it would be a good idea to give him two different options.  It's a good thing I did.

Blatant rip-off, but boy do I like this one.
A sensible alternative.

As you can see, I went with digital sketches again.  Well, partially.  This time around, I did quick pencil roughs, scanned them in, then digitally painted over them, once again keeping each figure on a separate layer.  Pretty straightforward, I think.  These are exactly as I handed them in.

If I had to choose one, I like the first version.  Despite it's being ripped off of the Star Wars poster, I really dig the flow of elements in the piece.  It has a sense of movement and really takes your eye on a deliberate trip.  Plus, there's a sense of scale there that I really like.  While I don't dislike the second one, it certainly wouldn't have been my first choice.

As is always the case, they picked the sketch I wanted to do less, citing as their reason that it would read better as a cover.  They also decided to make some changes.  They asked me to flip the piece and to show more skin on the furies — two changes I was totally cool with.

The request to flip the piece was due to a design change which would require them to put text in the upper left hand corner.  It also got rid of an issue that tends to bug me at times and that is the left-handed weapon.  While there are certainly left-handed fighters out there in the world, I saw no reason that Thor should be wielding his hammer so.  In fact, I'm not entirely sure why I did it in the first place.  I guess I was just emulating what I'd already done in the first sketch.

The request to show more skin on the furies had two reasons, I guess.  One, the furies are often depicted nude which was a step too far for our purposes.  I had intended to have them in torn gowns but that was clearly a little too conservative for the likes of a Badass book.  And so, weird leather bikinis were in order.  Or something.  I figure the second reason was blatant pandering to the teen crowd. While, I'm not in marketing, it seems a reasonable enough assumption.

You know, it's funny how flipping a piece changes it.  I'm of the opinion that it really does work better this way.  But what do I know?

Anyway, this seemed like it might be the sketch that got the go ahead.  It had everything they'd requested (no matter how poorly drawn), and the art director was really stoked.  It seemed like the stars were aligning.

So, obviously it was time to put a kink in things.  One more change was requested: they asked that I replace one of the furies with Skeletor.  While the request was simple, the ripples it caused with the job were enormous and had me banging my head against the wall on several occasions.