Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Secret Life of a Freelance Illustrator

I find it interesting that most people don't know much about freelance illustration. I think most people assume you have to be crazy to be a freelancer - they're probably right. Interestingly enough back when I had my highest earning years back in the late 90's my wife would get comments from women at the park like: "Has your husband found a job yet?" or "It must be hard being married to an artist". My wife would say, "you have no idea!" I think she enjoyed messing with them.

Back then being a freelancer was a much easier feat than it is today. I've talked at length about the current state of freelance illustration on some of my youtube videos- you can watch them here. Today the freelance markets are fractured and constantly evolving. I know illustrators who are now bankers. I know editors who are teaching school among other jobs. I know editors who are trying to become illustrators. I know illustrators who are now graphic designers. I even know art directors who have been laid off and re-hired by the same companies to freelance graphic design. I know art directors and editors who have lost their jobs to down sizing and are still looking for their next job.

The world has probably changed more in the past 10 years than it ever has. That probably sounds naive and over-reaching but can you imagine any other technology that has changed the world in such a short time as the internet? Remember the last time your internet when out and you sat in fetal position sucking your thumb waiting for the horror to end? We can't do anything without it!

But I digress. Let me divulge some of my secret activities! Sometimes I don't get dressed until the afternoon. I've skyped without pants- maybe with you! - but I promise, not with your daughter. I go shopping on weekdays while the world is at work. I work longer and harder than most people with a job. I can't remember the last week that I put in less than 70 hours sometimes over 90 - BUT - they were the funnest hours I could imagine putting in. Most days I wake up pinching myself that I get to do this. It wasn't always like this however. It took me about 15 years to learn that my life is so much better off when I say no to bad freelance jobs. What are bad freelance jobs? The kind that have you cringing when you wake up. I can't tell you what they are because your bad jobs will be different than mine.

I've wished I could stand around the water cooler and catch up on the latest chatter. I used to get really lonely painting all day and got hooked on General Hospital for about a year back in 1993. I've called other illustrators randomly from the old directories just to strike up conversations. I worked on Christmas day once because the client had to have it two days after or they were going to go with someone else. I was paid $13,000 for that Sprint job. It took me about a week to complete. I could do it now digitally in a few days and enjoy Christmas with my family. And I once earned $20,000 for a phone call (remind me to go into detail on this one on another blog post).

I've learned to spend less than I make. This is probably one of the most important skills you can learn. Stress is a really...STRESS WILL KILL YOU. I've had about 3 really stressful times.

1) Back when I was stupid I got down to about $800 in my account for the entire month and I didn't have any assignments! I was so nervous I made a few calls to art directors I had worked for in the past. A few of them gave me work and then of course I got a deluge of assignments the week after.

2) Back when I was really really stupid - we were spending more than we were making because we were making lots of money. It was right after a year where I turned down over $70,000 worth of freelance work because my plate was already too full in 1998.Yep - we spent all the money in our account and couldn't get paid from any of my outstanding accounts for about 3 weeks. (Please don't think I'm seeking any sympathy - in fact you should leave a comment with your best synonym for dumb ass)...Luckily I had been saving quarters, nickels, and dimes in a jar. I got that puppy down off the shelf and counted out $90. Later that day I had my car filled up and groceries in the fridge. I Kept checking the mailbox but each day there were NO checks. We stopped driving unless it was absolutely necessary. Did I mention that our two credit cards were maxed? The following week when the fridge was empty I went for the back up plan - the penny jar! SHOOWEE - $20 later and I was back with groceries again - amazing how far you can stretch your last $20 bucks. Eventually we got paid - crazy thing was that I was owed about $28,000 in outstanding checks but this is the lesson: Don't spend it until it's in your account and even then - DON"T SPEND IT!

3) Back when I was Ultra Mega Stupid - we got in over our heads again. (notice a pattern here? some of us have to learn the same lessons over and over) I had about a year when we were going through a really really dry spell for freelance - this was also a transitionary time -it's a long story - but basically I had to learn all over again how important it is to save money. We survived! We downsized. We learned what we needed to have to be happy and what we could live without.

The good news is that in the past 5 years I've had more money than I did when I was earning much more. We wasted so much money back then. Now I keep enough money in the bank to pay all of our bills for about 9 months. This is enough time to really make drastic changes if things aren't working out.

So there you go - the secret life of a freelancer isn't so secret anymore - it's the best job I've NEVER had.

I painted the image above a few months back for National Geographic Learning. It was one of about 8 paintings I completed for an educational project they had for ESL students. I was given the assignment from Cynthia Currie - an art director I hadn't heard from in about a decade. It was really neat to get a job from her again - I hope she reads my blog so she can see how exciting it was - hint hint! :)

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Response: Where Are People of Color in Children's Books?

Last week the New york Times posted an article entitled: "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?" Walter Dean Myers, the author shared his experience growing up reading books that he didn't relate to because he was black and most of the books he read were about white kids. It's a very thoughtful article that provokes many questions.

I thought I would share some of my experiences as an illustrator relating to ethnicity in children's books. I grew up in a white suburban neighborhood just north of our nations capital in Maryland. I always identified myself as white even though my grandmother on my mother's side has native indian blood in her ancestry and my mom is suspected of having an african american father. It wasn't until I was in college that my mom felt comfortable sharing that as a child she wasn't able to attend the white schools because she couldn't "pass" - a term meaning you were classified as having a mixed-race heritage.

Even though I have color in my heritage I always identified myself as white. I did identify with the books I was presented with so I really can not relate to what Walter experienced at an early age. I do believe however that the reason we don't see more color in children's books is quite simply that more white children have been privileged to go to college in the past decades. I would think most children's book illustrators are white and illustrate from their own experiences. It's more natural for me to illustrate white children because that's how I grew up and what I'm most familiar with. I would also probably be a last choice for a book about a specifically black family. I don't think it's a coincidence that Kadir Nelson and Don Tate are given these assignments regularly. I know they bring a sensibility to the art that I'm sure neither I nor other white illustrators could match.

At the beginning of my illustration career I was unfamiliar with the various cultural differences when asked to illustrate children and adults of color. This is not to say that I didn't want to include them in my illustrations - just that it felt like I was entering unfamiliar territory. The problem for me wasn't being asked to include asian, hispanic, and african ethnicities in my illustrations - it was what roles to give each character. I continually ran into problems in many of my assignments where one character was perhaps nefarious, laboring, or doing something less heroic. In trying to cast the illustration I knew it would be a problem to give a character of color one of these lesser roles - it would have to be a white person as to avoid offending the art director, editor, and ultimately the readers. But this in itself created a problem - why did my race always have to be the one on the bottom? That didn't feel right either. Keep in mind I write this at the risk of being labeled a racist.

 I once worked on an assignment for a prominent magazine that shall remain nameless. The assignment was to show "teamwork". I was asked to illustrate 4 people lifting boxes and stacking them with a manager directing traffic. Each person had to be a different ethnicity: black, white, hispanic, and asian. My goal was to come up with a pleasing arrangement that communicated "teamwork" while giving each person a good role. I placed a white person handing a box to an asian person handing the boxes to a hispanic person at the top stacking them and a black person pointing and showing where the boxes were to go.

 I had a conference call scheduled with the art director, creative director, editor, and a few other people. When they saw my sketch they began to argue some saying that the black person looked lazy since he wasn't helping lift. I offered that I had purposely put him in a position of management. They resumed their argument that he still looked lazy - some defending my decision and others thinking we needed to make a change. They then suggested that I switch the black person with the asian person so that the black person wouldn't look lazy.

 Now you can hate me for this next part but if you know me you know I'm a kidder and that I like to stir things up a bit. So knowing exactly what I was doing I decided to have a little fun with their new solution. I said, "Ok, but won't this new set up look like the asian is smarter than everyone and that the black person is just a laborer? I wish I could have recorded the rest of the turmoil - entertaining to say the least. They finally went with my original sketch.

The truth in my opinion is that when you try to make things fair in this way you end up far from fair. It's not any fairer to put the white guy on the bottom as it is to put the black guy on the bottom. The truth is that in some stories you have children in situations that put some in a better light than others. If you try to cherry pick the races to avoid offending certain groups you'll just offend another group.

For many stories that are NOT specific to ethnicity you can simply substitute animal characters. Animals are void of race and gender depending on how you draw them. It makes life so much easier and you can create characters and meaningful stories that children can relate to without the burden of race and gender.  I do understand however that some stories might be specific to historical, racial, gender and other specific details that can't be replaced with animal characters.

This is the reason that my story apps have animal characters - I don't have to play the race game. I'm sure there will be certain groups of animals that will have a bone to pick with me someday but I'll take my chances.

A pull out from Walter's article states: "Too often today's books are blind to the reality of thousands of children." I disagree with this assessment. I see it as a reflection of the number of illustrators who like authors, feel compelled (and are taught) to illustrate from experience. I suppose we could also venture into the breakdown of the numbers of white/black/asian/hispanic buyers of children's books as well - which I would suspect mainly come from white America.

The publishing world is fueled by the dollar. The analysts at the large publishing houses know their markets inside and out and are constantly second guessing every decision based on money. So I would suspect that another reason we don't see more ethnic childrens books is because they don't think they can sell as many of them as they can books with white child characters.

I appreciate the problem Walter experienced but I don't agree that publishing is blind to ethnicity - Lee & Low books have targeted this market focusing on diversity. I'm sure that if they grow disproportionately the other publishers will follow suit.

I'd love to know what you think...

Monday, March 17, 2014

How Should I Protect My Artwork From Theft?

One of my friends on facebook - Amanda asked me how she should protect her artwork online since she'll soon be publishing her portfolio. My answers may or may not surprise you but I've compiled my thoughts based on the examples of my illustration and animation friends. There seems to be a shift from the way things used to be done.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Are You Respected For Your Artistic Ability?

What do doctors, lawyers, and CPA's have in common aside from all that schooling? Probably the respect they get for their profession. Sure people often get a second opinion but they don't go to the plumber - they go to another doctor, lawyer, or accountant. 

I've wanted to write about this for a while because it irks me that in our profession we're often not treated as the experts we've worked so hard to become. Let me begin by pretty much eliminating most of the children's picture book editors from my upcoming rant. I've never been treated more like a professional than by my picture book editors. I'm talking about the clients we've had who don't respect our schooling and work experience in freelance illustration. Ever feel trapped by your work? Hopefully this post will help you re-evaluate the people you choose to work for.

I find it really troublesome that we are often asked to make arbitrary, superfluous, unnecessary, and downright stupid changes that ruin compositions by clients that have no art training. It's the equivalent of me telling my surgeon where and how to cut - my attorney what motions to file and my CPA what strategies he should use to save me money. Don't get me wrong - I'm not talking about back and forth conversations about art direction and options to consider before beginning sketches - and I'm not talking about good feedback on sketches or final art. I'm talking about bone headed decisions like eliminating colors that the art director happens to personally dislike. I'm talking about cluttering up good design with extra elements that don't enhance the story or eliminating elements that are important to visual literacy. I'm talking about making content changes based on fear and most importantly the all too familiar "design by committee approach". 

What is "design by committee" you ask? It's when companies (often educational text book or software companies) have multiple team and management members that have to "sign off" on all stages of the artwork before it can be approved and the illustrator allowed to proceed. For instance, the illustrator receives the assignment and emails sketches to his/her art director. The art director isn't respected or trusted to make decisions and approvals either! - the sketches must pass by each team members desk. This sets up a dicey situation for each team member as well. If a particular person in this chain likes everything he or she sees - he or she might feel that he or she isn't doing his or her job by sending it through without changes. Since nobody in this donkey conga line wants to appear lazy they conjure up changes they often don't believe in and punt to the next drone. Sometimes I find myself stifling the laughter listening to the poor art director trying to justify conflicting moronic changes that even he/she doesn't believe in. 

The result is a bunch of sketches sent back to the illustrator marked up like a failing high school research paper. I've gotten them back looking like college football play charts. It's interesting to me that this hasn't been my experience in the picture book world - and picture books cost tens of thousands of dollars more to produce than a few pages in a text book. With my picture book projects I get very thoughtful comments and requests that are sensitive to my intentions and desires. We work back and forth to find solutions that address concerns but it's not dictatorial by nature and there certainly aren't the sheer quantity of rage conjuring idiotic arbitrary "one for the gipper" comments. 

What is it with art? Why aren't our skills appreciated and trusted? Why do people think they can direct a painting when they don't know how to design, draw, or paint? Why do people think they can publish without hiring skilled graphic designers? Graphic design is a science unto itself yet for some reason it seems to be a skill that is greatly underappreciated. I mean am I missing something? Do we hire college soccer coaches who have never played soccer? Do we hire conductors who have never studied music? Do customers go into the kitchen to tell the head chef how to cook the dish?

The answer can most likely be traced back to our schooling. Since it was never taught as a serious subject to all of us beginning in elementary school it is a discipline that is grossly misunderstood by the masses. "But Will, medicine, law, and accounting weren't taught broadly either. Yes, but each of them have a level of mystery that are inherent to each discipline. Art on the other hand is very accessible. We see it for what it is. We can own it, touch it, commission it, clip it, steal it, share it, print it, etc. But does access devalue it's creative process? Apparently so to some.

Lately I have been listening to my client incompetence radar and turning down assignments that smell of the aforementioned disrespect. I love working on a good project with a great art director, editor, creative director, etc. - but life is too short to spend bitter and angry working with people who don't value what I bring to the table.

If you're serious about this business you can do a few things to help yourself and your fellow illustrators. If you find yourself in a situation like I've mentioned you can be respectful but politely challenge decisions if they are contrary to your artistic sensibilities. Don't challenge for the sake of the challenge but if you do - be solution oriented. Try to get what you want by offering another option that achieves what your art director wants while giving you more of a change you can live with. Agree to making some changes that you don't agree with to help you win a few of the the more important battles. The better we are at communication - the better clients we'll ultimately share.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

How Much Money Can You Make Illustrating Children's Books?

I was asked by a fellow artist in Australia this question last week. It's a great question that I'm sure many people have pondered and in this video I attempt to put hard numbers down so you will have a better understanding of what to expect. Illustrating children's books is a life long pursuit and usually not a career that pays off overnight. There are many factors that can influence your earning potential working for publishers. After you watch the video I'd love to know what you think?