Thank you, Claire Kirsch, for your fine reportage on my recent visit to Penns Manor Elementary and my collaboration with the students to create the horrible & dreadful Baby Pandasaurus Rex! Read all about it here.
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.
Another discussion about how much to charge for creative work here.
Keep in mind that your day- or hourly- rate is your minimum—it’s what you need to make in order to survive. What you charge may exceed your rate. It’s not how much your overhead costs, it’s what you can negotiate.
For more info on what graphic artists are charging, take a look at the Graphic Artists’ Guild’s Pricing & Ethical Guidelines.
Best of luck!
Step Four. Promote.
Once you’ve got your portfolio together, you want people to see it—specifically people who can hire you.
Let’s make this an assault on multiple fronts. You young illustrators have many media available for self-promotion.
The world-wide web. Get yourself a website. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just a place to put up some samples of your work and your contact information. Nowadays everybody expects to be able to find you on the web, so make sure you’re there. Because we live in an age of technological marvels, you can build a website yourself, for free: http://www.moogo.com/. Here’s a review.
Print media. Even though I have a web presence, I rely on print media to let potential clients know I’m there. I strongly recommend that you consider a postcard mailing campaign. This will cost you a few skins, but I’ve found the return on investment to be worthwhile. I go to Modern Postcard to print my postcards. They’re in California and all they do is print postcards. A batch of 500 will set you back around $120.00. Once you go to their website, they really take care of you. There are downloadable templates so you may design your postcard to fit US postal requirements. You may submit everything to them electronically. They’ll turn your job around in less than 2 weeks.
Put a show-stopping four-color image on the front of your postcard, and tell everyone how to find you on the back. If you can afford it, consider sending a series of postcards that tell a story. I did this and I got a great response from art directors—and a couple of jobs. I told a story in four images, and mailed my postcards every Monday for 4 weeks. By the time the fourth postcard was mailed, the ADs were waiting for it.
You’ll need a mailing list of people who might hire you. When I began, I wanted to break into children’s publishing, so I needed a list of art directors who work for children’s magazine and book publishers. I transcribed my list from Children’s Artists’ & Writers’ Market. If kids’ illustration isn’t your bag, a more general list can be gleaned from the 2009 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market Of course you can buy mailing lists, but I prefer to build and maintain my own. Don’t forget to send a postcard to every member of your family and everyone you’ve ever met. You never know who may turn out to be an important contact.
Creative directories. These are catalogues of illustrators—you buy a page, put your images on it and the directory is sent out to zillions of art directors. This can get pricey. I stick with Picture Book only. I’ve tried some of the others, and I’d never been able to establish that I got a return on my investment; that is, the page didn’t generate more fees than I paid for it. Picture Book is a small slice of the illustration market—children’s only—which is the more effective way for me to promote myself.
Competitions. Don’t necessarily generate sales.
All your promotion should be run at a profit. If you spend a dollar on promotion and don’t get more than a dollar back, stop doing that kind of promotion and try something else.
Get this book and read it: Your Marketing Sucks.
DON’T e-mail art directors with unsolicited samples.
Okay. You have a day job, you’ve begun the process of organizing your business—now let’s move on to
Step Three. Build a portfolio.
Who is your market? Figure out who your potential customers are. Take a hard look at the work you like to do and honestly determine where it would fit—editorial, children’s publishing, game animation, corporate, advertising, greeting card (just naming these off the top of my head).
The Society of Illustrators publishes a catalogue of their annual competition. It’s divided into sections: advertising, corporate, publishing, editorial. Looking at the different styles of work in those categories may help you choose your market.
Do the research. For instance, if you want to do kids’ books, go to a bookstore and see how compatible your illustrations are with what you find in the kids’ section.
Now comes the tough love. If you want to sell illustration you’ll need to stick with one style and market that style exclusively. Don’t make your portfolio a mixed bag of styles. It’s really difficult to sell a portfolio like that, simply because an art director wouldn’t be sure what you’d deliver if he gave you an assignment. You may have to choose between two favorite styles—and say good-bye to one of them.
Put together a portfolio of 6—8 samples of your very best work. They don’t need to have been published. Get your samples scanned.
Invest in a professional-looking portfolio case. Put into it prints of your work—not originals! They should be in poly sleeves, or get them laminated. Every sample should have your contact information on it somewhere. Get extras printed as leave-behinds. On the handle, put one of those name-tag thingies with your business card—because sometimes art directors ask that you drop off your portfolio.
I was tempted to suggest burning a cd of your samples, but I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of making your images as accessible as clip art. And even in this digital age, ADs like to see printed samples they can hold. When I visit clients I take a portfolio with printed samples because often the meeting is in a conference room with no computer handy.
All this is just one guy’s opinion; these suggestions have worked for me. I’d be interested to hear if any ADs or illustrators want to weigh in.
Step Two. Organize your business.
The very idea of organizing a business bores the pants off us creatives.
But, illustration is a business. We create something people want to buy, and sell it at a profit. That seems fairly straightforward, but let me tell you that many illustrators sell their work at a loss—and don’t realize it. How can that be?
Those illustrators haven’t taken the time to calculate their expenses, or overhead. They don’t know how much it costs them on a daily basis to run an illustration business. They don’t know how to calculate a price for their work based on the cost of doing business. They haven’t gotten themselves organized.
Even if you’re running a bare-bones illustration business off of your kitchen table, you’ll need to spend money on equipment and supplies. If you work traditionally, you’ll need art supplies: paint, board, brushes, &c. If you work digitally, you’ll need software. Either way you’ll need a computer, printer, scanner, bookkeeping software (more on that in a moment), office supplies: stationery, packing materials. You’ll need a filing system and storage. Add onto that a phone and internet access. Also figure rent and electricity.
Those are your operating costs.
Here’s the formula. Add up all your business expenses for a year. For your big ticket items like a computer, add up your credit card payments for a year.
Add your salary onto that.
Divide that total by 230 working business days per year (52 weeks minus 6 weeks vacation, sick time, and holidays). Even if you’re illustrating part-time, use 230 days.
Add a 10-15% profit margin.
That’s your day rate. That’s how much you charge if an illustration takes you one day to do.
Now, how do you keep track of all that information? I recommend QuickBooks Pro. This is software that allows you to set up your books, write checks, create estimates and send invoices. I use it to keep track of and categorize all my expenses. It has a feature where you can record the time you’ve spent on a project. Of course, you can do all that by hand, but if you’re as bookkeeping-averse as me, this really helps. It also has fun charts and graphs to tell you if you’re making any money.
The other bookkeeping software I find indispensable is Now and Up To Date. Basically it’s calendar for your computer. There are other calendar programs that probably work just as well, I happen to use this one. It allows me to plan my time for projects and keeps me on track with deadlines. Also I can see how much time past projects have taken, so that I can estimate time needed for future ones. As with QuickBooks, it’s visually fun, making me more inclined to use it.
Once you’re ready to keep track of your business you can start going after illustration projects. Let’s be honest, because you’re just starting out you’re going to accept work that won’t make you any money. But at least now you know how much you should be charging.
By the way, I look like a genius when I talk about this stuff because I own a copy of the Graphic Artists’ Guild’s Handbook of Pricing & Ethical Guidelines. If you join the Guild they’ll shoot you a copy for free.
I received an e-mail from Jim, who recently graduated with a bachelor of visual arts from Boise State University in Boise, Idaho. He asks: how does one go about becoming a professional illustrator?
That’s an excellent question. I’ve been asked that question by more than one art school grad newly saddled with five-digit debt and no indication from his professors about how to make money with his skills. Art schools: would it kill you to include a couple of business courses in your curriculum?
So anyway, since there may be others asking Jim’s question, I thought my response would make excellent blog fodder. I’ll respond in several posts. Illustrators/Designers: please comment if you have additional thoughts. I’m just one guy; I can’t know everything.
Step One. Get a job.
Being a professional illustrator means you’re a freelancer, you work for yourself, you own your own business. There are very few staff jobs for illustrators. If you can find one, fantastic, you’ve hit the jackpot. The vast majority of illustrators are self-employed.
In order to be self-employed you need to have a clientele, a calendar full of jobs, a portfolio full of samples, a business checking account, a studio, studio furniture, computer, printer, scanner, phone, art supplies, office supplies and a coffee maker. When I graduated from art school I had none of those things. Moreover, I had no clue how to conduct an interview, so I was no good at prospecting for work.
Don’t fret—if you’re serious about being an illustrator, you will acquire all these things. But that’s going to take time, and all the while you’ll need to buy groceries and pay rent.
Get yourself hired on staff somewhere. Ideally, you’ll find an entry-level position with some connection to graphic design—a printer, newspaper, Kinko’s, quick sign shop, whatever. Getting an entry-level graphic design position would be ideal because that job will bring you into contact with other working designers, who may become part of your client roster. Since illustration is a graphic design discipline, you’ll be learning skills that will help you to illustrate. But if you can’t, just get a job. Rent and bills come along every month, and you need a paycheck that comes along just as regularly. If BSU has recently thrust a new batch of grads onto the unsuspecting businesses of Boise, you may find more opportunities if you relocate.
The main thing is, once you’ve secured a job and have a regular paycheck, you can get started building your business after hours. This is called moonlighting. Illustrators see a lot of moonlight—while their friends are partying or asleep.
John Manders Illustration
Caricatures, Comic Strips
School Assembly Visits