If you’re an illustrator or art student anywhere near western Pennsylvania you want to sign up for the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators’ first annual illustration conference.  I’ll be conducting a workshop on children’s book illustration and then joining Mark Brewer (humorous), John Blumen (fantasy), Phil Wilson (advertising and nature), and Ilene Winn-Lederer (editorial and book) for a Q&A panel discussion.

You don’t need to be a member of Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators, and they’re even giving non-members 15 bucks off for signing up before September 8.

Why pay more?

Here is a glimpse into the heart of an unscrupulous art buyer.

I don’t use the word ‘unscrupulous’ lightly.  He may defend himself by saying he merely pays what these artists ask, and in a free market parties may enter into contractual agreements and it’s no one else’s business—but a buyer who treats his suppliers with such disrespect is in the market for the short-term while leaving behind long-term damage for the rest of us.  It’s difficult for a working illustrator to demand reality-based prices when there’s always someone who’ll do the same job for next-to-nothing.  And it’s difficult for ethical art buyers not to be tarred by this guy’s brush.

Artists! please, please join the Graphic Artists Guild or at least get a copy of their Pricing & Ethical Guidelines handbook.  If you don’t know how to calculate how much your time is worth, or how to estimate a project, you’ll inevitably fall prey to people like this guy.

Parents: the main linked article can be read by kids, but there may be language issues in the comments section.

Should I major in art or in business?

Ashley writes:

I need some college Major advice I want to be a freelance illustrator, and I’m going into college this Fall. I was talking to a friend of mine about another mutual friend who graduated college with an Art Degree, and had a 4.0, but had no work because she didn’t know how to market. You had told me earlier that marketing and business classes were really important. Do you think it’d be more helpful for me to major in either of those and minor in Art or just take some art classes or major in Art? Any advice you have on the subject would be appreciated Thanks!

John replies:

I think you should major in art (illustration and design) if that’s going to be your career, but definitely take whatever business/marketing courses your college offers.

Hardly any recent grad knows how to market; not getting work right away is normal, especially in this economy.  I recommend you get a staff job as a designer when you graduate and build your illustration business after hours.

Getting a design job won’t be easy, either.  The idea is to have a regular paycheck while you launch your illustration career.

I feel compelled to add: if there’s something besides illustration—another career that makes you happy—by all means pursue that instead.  Trying to make money from illustration is a heartbreaking business, especially with college loans to pay back.

What if friends want free work?

A former student of mine wrote:

I am having an issue with people thinking just because they know me I should paint portraits of their kids and do graphic design work for them for nothing—or next to it. I have gotten five demands this week (worse yet, 3 of those were rather rude).

I politely sent back a note explaining that I freelance—accompanying a cost sheet for the work, hours involved in the job requested. And a link to my site, also thanking them for being interested. This has not won me upbeat feedback. Or just sheer astonishment that I would ask $300.00 down to begin a medium-sized oil portrait.

What are some suggestions you may have so that I could further appear more professional? I wish I had limitless time and a money tree in the back yard to just make work and give it away to people who love what I do. Unfortunately this is not the case. Any advice would be appreciated.

I wrote back:

Sounds like you’re doing it the right way—professional-looking estimates remind people that you’re in business and can’t afford to give away free samples. I doubt your friends would consider giving up a paycheck for whatever work they do. Moreover, it’s fatal to cultivate the perception that your work isn’t worth anything.

I’ve done the occasional freebie for friends who’ve been kind to me and I wanted to reciprocate—but that’s my decision. Because I’m established, these friends understand and appreciate what they’re being given (if you’re one of those friends reading this right now, I want to underscore that I enjoyed sharing my talent with you). It’s harder for a young artist starting out.

Stick to your guns. The friends who are astonished that you charge for your skills or are outright rude will either come around to respect your talent or they’ll drift away.

June PSInside hits the newsstands

Click here.

Fixing up the new studio

Here is the main staircase of the National Transit Building, leading up to the art studios.

Painting over the gothic purple walls with ‘custard yellow,’ a Martha Stewart paint color.

In Transit

Yippee!  I’ve been approved; signed the paperwork and forked over my rent & security deposit.  I’ll begin renting a studio space in Oil City’s Transit Building on May Day—the maddest, merriest day of all the glad new year.  In the meantime, those funereal purple walls definitely need a cheerier coat of paint.  Dig those fabulous cast-iron radiators on their marble plinthses (or plinthae?).  I hadn’t fully appreciated the handsome window molding last visit, either.

So, my stuff needs to be packed, I have to call the telephone/internet people, rent a truck, paint the walls, and probably a bunch of other items that I’ve forgotten about.  It will all get done.

PSI newsletter

The April 2010 Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators’ newsletter, PSInside, is here!

There’ll be some changes made

Okay, right now it doesn’t look like much.  Add a filing cabinet and it becomes an Edward Hopper painting.  But if I’m approved, this is the studio space I’ll be occupying beginning next month.  I need to move out of the dining room and into something different—a place where I can possibly train another younger artist to help me to illustrate picture books. This space is in the Transit Building, Oil City, Pennsylvania.  Used to belong to Rockefeller.  Now it’s an arts center. I’d be surrounded by a variety of other artists.  I really hope this happens!

A martini for Harriet

I’m going to deviate from my standard practice of avoiding adult topics in this blog—usually I keep it kid-friendly.  Today, however, I mention the name of an adult beverage.

That’s because today is different.  The proprieties must be observed.  Today seven years ago my beautiful, clever, witty, passionate, fun, inspiring agent—Harriet Kasak—lost her battle with cancer.

She was the iconic urbane sophisticate, living and working in Manhattan, the capital of Western Civilization.  It was our practice whenever we met, once the business aspect of the meeting was finished, to have a martini.  I like mine with gin, extremely dry (only enough vermouth to coat the glass) and 3 olives–served cold enough to freeze your lips.  And so I’m enjoying one now as I write this post.

In the mid 1990’s, early in my illustration career, Harriet took my edgy, trying-too-hard-to-be-post-modern style and showed me how to make it accessible.  She taught me how to draw little girls, which was/is difficult for me (yes, she showed me by drawing them herself).  For one of my early titles—a history of eating utensils—she accompanied me to the Metropolitan Museum where I drew sketches of various species of forks, knives and spoons from ancient cultures.  She found joy in the business of promoting her artists.

Every Autumn Harriet hosted a meet-and-greet party for her illustrators and clients.  In the early years they were held in her apartment/office, later as her business grew she chose lively venues to accommodate the growing crowd.  These parties were dazzling for their locations, food, and gathering of creative personalities.

One year she organized a field trip to the artists’ community of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where a bunch of us trekked to be instructed by no less than Jim McMullan.  Class in the morning, eating, shopping, sightseeing in the afternoon and evening.

Once while Harriet was jetting around the country tending to business, she arranged an afternoon layover in Pittsburgh so she could visit me.  Naturally I was nervous about entertaining Harriet, who had once entertained Andy Warhol in her home.  I made reservations atop the Steel Building, hoping to impress her with views of the ‘Burgh while we luncheoned in quiet elegance.  Luckily I had the wit to also lay in some groceries against the event she’d rather eat at my house.  Which proved fortunate—since Harriet had spent the week gallivanting about the country dining in restaurants, what she craved was home-cooking.  And so we retired to my kitchen where together we assembled a glorious lunch from recipes found in Martha Stewart’s magazine.

About that history of eating utensils: I was still an untried children’s book illustrator at that stage of my career, and Simon & Schuster had some trepidation about how I would go about illustrating a book dealing with specific historical facts.  They were afraid I would simply make stuff up, without bothering to do the research.  A meeting was called; Harriet and I were summoned, along with Patricia Lauber (the author), editor and art director.  It was a long meeting, lasting several hours, with lunch ordered in, while my sketches for the book were painstakingly examined for historical accuracy.  Was I taking too many liberties with history?  Finally, late in the afternoon, I cited a source for my decision to show a particular mediæval dining room setup—which Patricia recognized as the same she had used for writing that paragraph about mediæval dining.  The room’s mood warmed up; author, editor & art director saw they could trust me—and so could Harriet.  After the meeting finally broke up Harriet & I piled into one of those charming little bars that abound in Manhattan—this one sporting a wraparound ersatz Renaissance mural—so we might repair the damages sustained in the heat of action.  We congratulated ourselves on coming through the trial with our honor intact, and celebrated by having a couple of martinis.

Of course, Harriet could have sent me into that meeting all by myself.  But she didn’t—that wouldn’t be her style.  She was there to support me during the crisis, no matter how it turned out.

Sure I loved her.  Anybody’d be crazy not to.

Cheers, Harriet!  I miss you.