menu
All posts in Resources

Getting a Critique: When to Listen, When to Move On

Since it’s back to school time for many of us, I thought I’d focus on an old-school aspect of the illustrator’s journey: the critique. We all get them (if we’re smart) but how do we know what to listen to? I know seasoned illustrators who still ask this question. Over the years I’ve queried various illustrators about when they know how to listen and I’ve gotten many of the same answers.

Here’s when you tune in with all ears… and more than a grain of salt:

• When it’s someone in the position to move your career up a notch and you respect their opinion. That seems like a no brainer but notice I said AND. We often listen to one or the other. If it’s someone you respect but they don’t understand the particular industry you are approaching, then they may not be in the best position to offer advice. Likewise for someone who buys art… you may change your piece to fit their expectations but what if your long term goal is illustrating in a different field?

• When more than one person has mentioned the exact same problem, especially if it’s someone you trust, then it’s worth listening to.

• When the critique mentions a problem you already suspected was there in your heart of hearts….. you should listen, you were probably correct when you worried about it the first time.

• When it points out a way to get more story into the illustration, and it’s the story  – the intent of the piece – you are trying to tell, then listen.

Here’s when you consider smiling and saying, “thanks, I’ll think about it.”

• When the advice seems in conflict with the story you are trying to tell. Like my last bullet, this is also a toughie and demands that you be completely objective about your own work. Are you sure of the story?

• When the critique seems more like a commentary on someone else’s taste. Just because a very respected and highly competent art buyer likes blue doesn’t mean you have to add it to the image IF it goes against the story you were trying to tell.

• When the critique comes from someone outside your particular illustration industry, even if you respect them. This is also a toughie because it’s possible they have sound advice. But before you listen make sure you are educated about the standards in your field. It’s possible that you can bend their advice to work for you.  If, like myself, you are both an illustrator and a writer then that goes double. Some of the best critiques I’ve heard actually came from writers who were adept at thinking visually.

To paraphrase a comment from agent Michael Bourret about writers and editors: “sometimes the worst mistake is to do exactly what the editor asked for… instead of looking for the real problem.” And when it comes to critiques from buyers you are trying to impress but who have rejected the work,  Jane Yolen said it very well in her interview on 12 x 12 earlier this year: “Just because someone offers you a free critique on work they ultimately don’t want, they aren’t taking it! Sometimes it’s just better to forget those.” While it can be hard to get good constructive critiques and equally hard to listen to the criticism, the only way to become good at it is to seek them out regularly. Similar to learning perspective or how to draw the figure, practice is what develops the artists’ ability to receive – and to give – great critiques.

About the author

  • Mary Reaves UhlesMARY REAVES UHLESContributor

    Mary Reaves Uhles has created award winning illustrations in books and magazines for clients such as Cricket Magazine Group, McGraw Hill, Magic Wagon, and Thomas Nelson. Before beginning her career as a freelance illustrator, Mary worked as an animator on projects for Warner Brothers and Fisher-Price Interactive. A PAL member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Mary calls Nashville home and spends her free time behind the wheel of the family mini van.

Going Digital

When I talk with other artists, one thing people seem interested in is my experience transitioning from being a traditional artist to working digitally, and any tips I might have for other who also want to make the switch.  The most important thing to remember for artists who want to go digital is that you are switching your medium, and just like if you were to decide to transition from watercolor to sculpted clay, there is going to be a learning curve.  This post covers the basics that traditional artists who are considering transitioning to a digital medium should know.

Why Go Digital?

Attracting new clients.  There are some clients who specifically want artwork layered.  This is only possible in digital programs.

Evolving your style.  As with any new medium, going digital opens up the opportunity to use new techniques and tools to create a new style and take your artwork in a new direction.

Changing your work process.  When I painted with watercolors, it was important that colors be applied in a certain way at a certain time, and so I needed a large block of time in which to work.  When I became a working mother with a baby, I hardly ever had a few hours straight to paint.  Going digital allowed me to work in smaller blocks of time – 10 minutes, 30 minutes….whatever the baby would give me.  I could work, save the file, and then come back to the piece at the next available opportunity.  There is also something to be said for not having to use up valuable time stretching paper or color-correcting scanned artwork.

The Tools

TabletsPick your pen & paper.  While it is possible to illustrate with a mouse or trackball, the majority of digital artists prefer to use a tablet and stylus.  There are two general varieties.   Tablets like the Wacom Intuos are like a mousepad that sits in your lap.  As you move the stylus across the pressure-sensitive pad, the cursor will draw corresponding marks on your main monitor.  This is an affordable option for those who want to try their hand at digital art to see if the medium is a good fit for their art.  These types of tablets are also nice for artist who may want to work primarily traditionally, but want to make edits/touch ups to their artwork digitally before sending to a client.  There are also tablets that allow the artist to draw directly  on the monitor/screen.  Ipads and similar tablets can be used in this way, but the most elite option for this type of tablet is the Wacom Cintiq.  This tablet, though expensive, is a highly pressure-sensitive monitor that sits in your lap or on the desk, allowing the artist to paint directly onto the screen in a very natural manner.  For those who want a more mobile option, Wacom released it’s Companion model last year, which is a combination Cintiq-laptop.

Pick your program.  There are lots of programs out there to use for digital art, but the most popular are Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Corel Painter.  Illustrator specializes in creating vecctor artwork, which is typically flat or gradated color, very graphic looking, and capable of being up or down dramatically without affecting image clarity.  Painter is a tool for those who want to create realistic painterly illustrations that mimic oil paints, chalk, pastels and other traditional media.  Photoshop allows for painting with a variety of brushes for different effects as well as image/photo editing capabilities.

Time to Learn

Traditional artists, particularly those not accustomed to scanning their own artwork, may find that they need to brush up on some technical knowledge.   For example, digital artists must know what file format the final images should be delivered in.  It is common for clients to want CMYK (color profile) 300 DPI (resolution) Tiff (file format) files.  However, some clients may have other preferences, and the digital artist should know how to set up their image to reflect these preferences before they start painting.  Digital artists also know that the colors on their monitor may not be trustworthy for print-correct-colors.  It is helpful to preview your artwork on a variety of monitors to look for any colors or values that are not reading correctly, or to compare the colors on your monitor to a Pantone color swatch book.  The digital artist must also understand file size, and be able to store and deliver large files in a way that is not inconvenient to the client.  It is not uncommon for a layered working Photoshop file to be over 300 MB in size.  Most email inbox can only take up to 100 MB total, so email is not a good way to deliver many 300 MB files to a client.  Luckily, there are lots of online file sharing services, such as Dropbox, that can help the digital artist get his/her artwork to the client.  Some of these services are free, and some are not.  Other artists have personal FTP sites related to their personal websites to deliver files to a client. Before promising digital art to a client, it is important to understand file formats and specifications, and to have a reliable method for artwork delivery.

Time to Explore

As with any new medium, an artist cannot master it overnight.  Some techniques that worked for the artist traditionally will carry over to the computer environment easily, and some will not.  And just like every oil painter works differently to create the style that he/she wants, the same is true for digital artist.  Every digital art program has brushes and settings that can be used to achieve different looks, and it will take time for the new digital artist to find the tools and techniques that are right for his/her own artistic method.  After talking to a variety of artists who made the switch, you can expect about 6 months of practice and exploration before finding your digital style and being proficient enough at it to execute an illustration project on a deadline.  Youtube has lots of great videos of artists working digitally and sharing their work method.  These resources can be great sources of inspiration for those who need a little help learning the many techniques available for constructing  digital art.

Time to Change?

While many new digital artists try to identify techniques and tools that will allow them to duplicate their traditional style on the computer screen, it can be an unexpected pleasure to find that changing mediums can also change and evolve your illustration style.   For me  experimentation has been the best part of working digitally. With watercolor, I was always playing it safe, particularly with colors, because one wrong brush stroke could ruin hours of work. However, in Photoshop, I am able to try out colors, lighting and textures on separate layers without risking losing hours of work. By having the freedom to explore, I have been able to diversify my colors, create more engaging compositions, and add scanned textures and patterns.  I also found myself eventually gravitating towards more textured brushes, giving some areas of my artwork the look of chalk pastels rather than paint.  This enabled me to achieve color layering and depth that I was unable to achieve through traditional means.  Once I let go and stopped trying to get my new medium to behave like watercolor, I became open to using new color application techniques that eventually took my artwork to a more satisfying place.  The image below shows one of my last watercolor images, my first successful digital illustration, and my current digital style.

DigitalArtProgressionI hope all artists who are thinking about making the switch to digital enjoy the process of learning a new medium and seeing where it takes their artwork!  Happy illustrating!

About the author

  • Jennifer ZivoinJENNIFER ZIVOINContributor

    Jennifer Zivoin has always loved art and storytelling, so becoming a children's book illustrator was a natural career path. Most of her illustrations are painted digitally, though she draws inspiration from traditional media. In addition to artwork, Jennifer enjoys reading, cooking, and ballroom dancing - especially tango! She lives in Indiana with her husband and daughter.

Book Signing Success

Congrats!  You have been published!  Your book is being carried in bookstores, and your local store has agreed to host a book signing event for you!  Every author and illustrator has their unique way of presenting at events, but here are some tips, tricks and ideas to help make your next book signing a success for you and the kids…..so that hopefully the bookstores will want you back!

Publicize Your Event

Get the word out!  Nothing feels worse than having a poor turn-out for your event.  Make fliers to distribute to local schools’ a week or so in advance so that kids can bring the information home to their parents.  It might help to provide schools a copy of your book along with that big stack of fliers.  Contact your local newspaper at least a month ahead of time to see if they can do an article to feature your book and to promote your event.  Make a Facebook sticker/image to promote your signing, post it on your timeline, and ask your family and friends to share it on their own pages.  Make sure all of your friends and their kids know about the signing, and encourage them to come.  Crowds draw crowds!

Bring Props

Is your book about pirates?  Where a pirate hat!  Does your book take place at the beach?  Wear a Hawaiian shirt, sun hat and pass out cheap sunglasses to the first 20 kids!  Creating a little atmosphere can generate excitement about your book.  At a recent book signing for “The Summer Fairy”, the author Elizabeth Gillihan brought a vase of flowers (she let the kids be “helpers” and put the flowers in the vase), balloons and sat on a stool decorated like a toadstool while she read the story to the children.  She also passed out pixie sticks to all of the children who attended the story-time portion of the signing.

BookSigningKristi Valiant, author and illustrator of “Penguin Cha Cha”, had these fun cardboard cut-outs made for her book signings.

PenguinChaChaEngage For Every Age

There will probably be a wide age range at your event, from parents to preschoolers.  Remember, bored children are unhappy, restless, disruptive children.  If you are doing an illustration demo, be aware that not ever child may be old enough or able to follow along, and not every kid likes to draw.  Having coloring pages available can help those children be engaged even if they don’t feel up to drawing along with the group.  An easy way to do this is to print out the sketches of pages from your book, pass them out and have a basket of crayons available.  Also, encourage your audience to participate by asking them questions that you know will receive positive answers.  If your book is about summer, ask the kids “Who going camping this summer?” or “Who likes swimming?!”  Use questions as ways to help your audience connect to some aspect of your book.

Continue reading

Illustration Biz Best Practices: Dealing With Difficult Clients

While all freelance creatives have the unique benefit of being paid to do what we would do for free anyway, along with that benefit comes the responsibility to run our businesses wisely. There are several posts on Once Upon A Sketch about dealing with spec work, managing studio expenses and getting work. But what if you’ve done your homework; gotten what looks like a good, non-amateur client that’s paying a decent commission and the project still goes south? There is an old proverb that says “a learning experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” For the last few weeks I’ve been getting a learning experience dealing with quite possibly the most challenging client of my career. We’re not at a finished point yet but I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve learned so far:

 1) Don’t ignore orange flags. I take vetting a client very seriously. I don’t show my work in places where wannabe, McClient types would seek to get work for cheap or free. I understand my rights and make sure I understand the scope of the project and the contract. But let’s just say something innocuous, like the trim size, doesn’t seem right. In my example, I questioned the dimensions presented as they didn’t include a bleed and the single and spread sizes didn’t match. I was assured the dimensions were correct. When I started finals, I double checked the contract, surely they wouldn’t make a mistake there. Yep, the contract had the same strange sizes I was given. So I proceeded… but decided to add my own bleed area just to listen to my intuition. Three weeks later after a series of stops and starts from the designer’s side I was given the “actual” dimensions and they were quite a bit different. Fortunately my self added bleed helped some but not enough. The strange size wasn’t a big red flag, it wasn’t a terrible manuscript or teeny tiny budget. It wasn’t being asked to work in someone else’s style. In my opinion these are all reasons to bolt from a project. But looking back, that one wrinkle set up the entire trajectory of the project. Next time I will press and question, even to the point of saying “I want to confirm this doesn’t change after sketch approval”…. and if the answer’s not good enough, I might consider that a reason to bolt.

2) Once you see an orange flag, get explicit approval for EVERYTHING. I’d finished sketches, finished revisions for those sketches, the designer had said “everything looks great!” At that point the deadline was a comfortable three week margin away. Everything was rosy. I did what every responsible illustrator would do – I started the finals. Because when the client says “everything looks great” that’s what you should do right? Maybe not, looking back I wish I’d pressed them again and point blank asked “Can I start finals?” Because 10 days later, after half the project was complete, I hear there’s a new approval process… and my sketches “may not really be approved.” When I pointed out the earlier communication of everything being great, the client questioned whether they had ever approved anything. Fortunately I was able to lay out email correspondence showing the timeline of sketches, requested revisions, and how everything looked great before they ever mentioned a new approval process.

3) Communicate entirely in writing. It was tempting to pick up the phone and sort everything out with a single half-hour chat. That’s what I would have done with any of my long time clients. But as their changes, approvals, and deadlines got more and more tangled I realized that the person I was working with was only caught in the middle. Talking would leave me with no proof of what we decided and possibly start a “he said/she said” scenario. By communicating exclusively over email I was able to lay out my understanding of the project and have a record of it. Be as professional and enthusiastic as possible, but be ready to defend your side reasonably in writing.

4) Know when to say when. Once the process has started to tilt toward endless revisions beyond the deadline and beyond the budget it’s time for the illustrator to consider whether or not they will continue the project. At that point you can say “this is my last series of changes unless you increase the budget” or “unless this is approved without changes I can’t do any more on this project.” You can fight about a kill fee or just walk away. But the main thing is you have to know at what point you should move from helping the client to protecting your business. In the long run, a difficult client will drag your business down no matter how much money the contract says they will pay you. Finishing this project is on my to-do list but I grind my teeth when I think about it. I have other really exciting books to work on at the moment plus, my own projects which are close to my heart. This difficult client is sucking out my inspiration for those. Just like any relationship, once you reach this tipping point, spend time with the “good projects” and get the difficult ones out of your studio as quickly as you can.

As the process got more out of whack with this client I began researching them online to see if any other illustrators had had problems. I recommend doing this at the start of a new client project anyway. I didn’t find anything substantial but I did find a few other interesting tips for freelancers in this same position. I hope my fellow illustrators never have reason to need it, but in case they do I add this advice to mine:

Dealing With Difficult Clients

Three Questions To Ask Your Illustration Clients

The Bad Client Diet

 

100 Days of Personal Work

I have been an advocate for illustrators to work on self-directed work for some time now. The problem is that making the time for personal work can be difficult when clients come calling and your belly is rumbling. Those are the times when a lot of us put our own comics, children’s books, and dreams back on the shelf to collect dust until our client work has been cleared off our plates. This can create another problem… It may take more time to build up the steam we had, on our personal projects, if we only work on them in the spaces between commissioned gigs. In my experience, this usually means the self-directed projects never get done and I remain a contractor that only works on the dreams of others.

I recently became inspired by a website called Giveit100. The big idea, presented by this site, is that if you practice something for 100 days you will gradually learn whatever it is you want to do, whether that be dancing, cooking, or playing a musical instrument for example. People who sign up at this site are asked to make a short video everyday for 100 days to track their progress and as a way to stay motivated to stay on course while being held publicly accountable.

I slightly altered the goal of Giveit100 to fit what I want to do, which is to consistently work on my personal projects despite the amount of client work I am often saddled with. In my case, I’m trying to finish my own books while working on books I’ve been hired to do for publishers. Right now I am trying to finish a 4 issue comic book story and am devoting, at very least, 30 minutes a day to it. That doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but as of this writing, I’ve finished over two whole working days worth of time on this project that I wouldn’t have had completed had I not decided to do this. The benefit I’m getting is that my motivation to finish my personal project increases everyday. I jones to work on it and feel satisfied keeping the ball rolling. Additionally, its becoming a habit already just 17 days in.

I want to encourage you to try something similar. All of us working professionals are making money for other people and making their dreams a reality. Its our job, but I’d like to see more of us take the initiative to get our own personal vision out into the public sphere. In a world of decreasing advances with no promise of retirement, where quality art is made mediocre through design-by-committee, I think we owe it to ourselves to live our dreams and give the public better alternatives.

If you’d like to follow my progress as I work on a comic book for 100 days in a row, you can do so here.

Good luck!
Kevin Cross

How FREE can help you and your illustration business

Free: The Future of a Radical Price is a book written by Chris Anderson that examines the pricing models of free and how companies can make money by giving things away. We see it all the time from Google giving away services like email, Google Docs, and music groups giving away their music in hopes that you will buy a ticket to their concert. Often the strategy is to attract users and up-sell some to a premium level. This model has become widely referred to as “freemium”. Anderson makes the case that some businesses can make money by giving products and services away rather then charging a premium price. Chris explains how this radical pricing model can be used for the benefit of consumers and businesses alike.

How does this apply to running an illustration business? Well there is a chance you’re doing it already. Maybe you’re writing a blog, giving away coloring sheets on your website, or just putting your work on the web for all to see. Things that cost you very little to produce, but can possibly give you a big return if seen by the right people.

Of course this model is not for everyone and not everyone will agree with what Chris has to say but he has made the barrier to entry very small because Chris walks the walk by giving away his book in  digital form. Of course the printed version costs, but if this book sounds interesting to you its free to try. I personally see this model as a way we illustrators can use to promote our selves. No matter what you think about Free hopefully you’ll find an idea in this book that will be helpful to your career. Oh and did I mention it’s free.

The Book is available for free at:
Chris Anderson’s blog
iTunes
Audible.com

About the author

  • Norm GrockNORM GROCKContributor, Founder

    Having grown up on the shores of Maui, Hawaii, Norm has always had a love for drawing. Since leaving the Islands’ beautiful beaches and landing in Oregon he went to college and received a degree in graphic design. Now living in Beaverton, Oregon, Norm has been working as a full-time graphic designer and illustrator for the last 12 years. He has spent countless hours perfecting his craft as a freelance illustrator working on several children’s books, a few video games and creating numerous educational products. His ability to draw has given him the chance to do the thing he truly loves — Create.

Illustrator and Author Name pronunciations at Teachingbook.net

In the process of getting ready to interview varied artists within the Children’s Market I realized that many of you have some interesting names! Names that I sadly have no idea how to pronounce! I’m sure this is a problem that is common in a market that represents artists and writers from varied rich backgrounds and cultures all across the globe.

The last thing I wanted to do was get a chance to meet and speak with someone I respected and admired and get their name completely wrong when I spoke it. Luckily I found a solution that many of you will find useful, informative and fun.

TeachingBooks.Net has compiled a wonderful resource intended for teachers, but it can be used by fans and interested parties as well.

Continue reading

Indiana SCBWI Spring Conference

A few weeks ago I was able to attend a wonderful SCBWI, which had some very enriching sessions for illustrators, leaving me feeling inspired and excited to create new pieces and to apply what I learned to clients’ work!  If you are not involved with your local chapter of SCBWI or other professional organization, I encourage you to do so.  Attending national conferences, while obviously very great opportunities, can be difficult to attend, depending on your financial, traveling and other personal needs/situations.  Local conferences can be a great alternative, and can offer a more intimate experience for the attendees. For example, in addition to participating in the sessions for illustrators, I was also able to volunteer as a reader for a picture book manuscript critique session, which was a fun additional way to connect with the staff and members and be more involved with the weekend experience.  Here are some highlights from my favorite sessions.

Keynote Speaker LeUyen Pham

LeUyen Pham is an award winning illustrator and author who works in many diverse styles.  If you haven’t seen “Big Sister, Little Sister”, you should check it out.  My own daughter loves this book, written an illustrated by Pham.  In addition to talking with us about her history and journey into the publishing world,  she spoke about strategies she has used to stay fresh and relevant in the constantly evolving world of children’s book publishing throughout her career.  Pham style is constantly in a state of evolution, and she likes to very her technique and look, sometimes drastically, from book to book.  She encouraged illustrators to take on projects with which they feel a connection, to create samples that reflect the types of projects they would like to work on that year, and to send those samples to a small targeted group of art directors.  Most of all, Pham spoke about the importance of making personal connections with clients, and allowing clients to see you as a multidimensional person rather than just a work source.  IN noe of her breakout sessions, Pham talked about how she goes about constructing a picture book.  We looks at the development of visual hierarchy to facilitate storytelling in each individual scene, as well as how that hierarchy fits into the overall scope of the book, creating a natural flow between page turns.   She was such an inspiring and engaging speaker, and this particular session on picture book construction was so enriching!

BigSisterLIttleSister BoyLovedMath VampirinaBallerina

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maria Middleton, Associate Art Director

Two of my other favorite sessions were offered by ABRAMS Kids Books associate art director Maria Middleton.  The first few illustrators who signed up for the conference had the opportunity to work with Middleton on a “homework project” in which we had to create character and place them in a situation where they will encounter conflict, great or small.  We got to send her our sketches, which she reviewed ahead of time, and then created final art to be reviewed during a session at the conference.  This was so much fun!  I love seeing everyone’s interpretation of the theme, and the evolution for sketch to final.  Here is my artwork that I created for the assignment.

SCBWIBeaverDam

In a separate session, Maria talked about the makings of great cover design.  She encouraged us to think about the spine, which is often the only part of the book that is visible on bookshelves, and giving attention to typography.  For those illustrators who feel comfortable doing so, she suggested hand-lettering the title text, so that the cover has that added touch of image-text unity and customization.  She also walked us through the many stages of some of the book covers that she art-directed, explaining how the team arrived at the final cover design for each book.  It was intriguing to see the thought process behind each revision, and to see how those changes drove the cover towards a stronger design.

Continue reading

Who Inspires You?

Who are some of the illustrators out there that inspire you? That was the question I asked my fellow contributors here at Once Upon a Sketch. Along with giving me some names, I also wanted to know why they loved their work. This is what I got:

Macky Pamintuan

James Bennett – One of my all-time favorite children’s book illustrators. From colors, to background detail and storytelling, just an overall superb illustrator. His editorial artwork is something I’ve looked up to all the way back to my art school days.

1896754_10152694908609937_2111186966_n

Peter De Seve – To me, one of the best narrative illustrators in the biz. He’s known for his character designs, and justifiably so, but his compositions and the way he delivers a story in just one image (His New Yorker covers are amazing) is also why I picked him. I also love his muddy watercolor palette and rough, free flowing sketch work that show underneath his paintings.

1897995_10152694925169937_1142167515_n

Phil Hale – All emotion and kinetic energy. His form & compositions are always inspiring. There is nothing static and boring in his work and I can always feel a dark intimidating energy from them.

10003476_10152694932539937_142782887_n

Chris Jones

Robert Williams – During my early school years he was a big inspiration and influence for me. I really admired his painting style and how he mixed it with flat compositional elements. And his mix of car culture and psychedelic and apocalyptic imagery are just plain crazy fun.

10171683_10152308064686488_935647633_n

Dan Santat – I really admire his great character designs, sense of humour and playfulness in his work, and his wonderful use of colour.

1897018_10152308065881488_1638602574_n Continue reading

Spec Work, No Thanks

A little while ago a client asked me to work on a project with them. I quoted the job and waited to hear back, but the response I got took me by surprise. The response said:

“Please move forward with the project, but we will only pay for the work if we use it. If you do not agree to this, please let me know. Just wanted to make sure we are both on the same page.”

Well to be honest the response was not what I was expecting and left me a little upset. So I kindly wrote back:

“As much as I would like to work on this project with you, I can’t in good conscience work under these terms. I’m sure I will provide a wonderful service and you will love the work I create, but with this stipulation being in place it becomes too arbitrary to determine whether I will get paid for my ideas or not. If you’re willing to waive this stipulation I would love to work with you on this project.”

So I thought that was that and continued on with my day. Lo and behold within a few hours I heard back from this client and they were willing to waive their stipulation and send me a signed version of my contract as well as the first half of the payment for me to begin the project. I was completely surprised and caught off guard. I couldn’t believe that somebody a few hours ago had just asked me to work for free and just as quickly change their mind to get me to work with them. I guess the moral of the story is people will see what they can get away with and if they really want you to work for free they’re not worth working with.

There’s a term in the creative community for someone asking people to work for free, it’s called spec work. Basically, “spec” work, short for speculative work, is any work done for a client, completed or not, in the hopes that you will be paid for your ideas and time. So what are the risks of participating in spec work. Personally, I feel it devalues the work that you do. It says that you’ll do it for free and if you like it you can possibly pay for the work. Creative people are at risk being taken advantage of all the time. People who normally look for free work say things like “this is a great opportunity for you” or “this could make a great portfolio piece.” These days more and more spec work is wrapped inside a contest. “Illustrate this poster for us and we’ll use it for blank project.” People may see this as a way to get free ideas for their project and not have to pay for them. There’s nothing to stop somebody from taking your ideas to somebody else who will work for less and then have someone create it for them. Some Artistes may say that this is a lesser version of your idea if someone else creates it, but either way you’re not getting any value for your ideas. Please remember that your ideas are half of the process and that your ideas have value. It diminishes the true value of other people’s work as well. If these people continue to get away with getting free ideas then the value of the other Artistes work goes down too.

Not all “free” work is spec work. You can volunteer your time for a good cause or do an internship. These are different types of work that you don’t get paid for but you can get some type of credit for, which helps you out in other ways. For instance, an internship you get on-the-job training or if you’re doing some type of Pro Bono job normally you can negotiate some sort of credit line that will be added to the piece which in turn gets you a little bit of marketing. I personally suggest doing this for nonprofits or say a school district, somewhere that is not planning on monetizing your ideas. Just last year I created an illustration for a project that I thought was worth working on for free. A few artists were putting together a art book for another artist who has cancer. All the proceeds go to this particular artist to help take care of the medical costs associated with the illness. To me, this is a good reason to work for free. I will get credit in the book and I have become part of this community of artists but helping someone else in need is payment enough.

I know there’s been a lot of other articles written about spec work but my personal favorite is the position that the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) takes on this subject. This article also includes a good sample letter to send to someone that is asking you to do spec work. If you’re still interested after reading this article just search “spec work” on your favorite search engine and you will find plenty of information.

My message to you after having this experience would be please choose your “Free” projects wisely.

About the author

  • Norm GrockNORM GROCKContributor, Founder

    Having grown up on the shores of Maui, Hawaii, Norm has always had a love for drawing. Since leaving the Islands’ beautiful beaches and landing in Oregon he went to college and received a degree in graphic design. Now living in Beaverton, Oregon, Norm has been working as a full-time graphic designer and illustrator for the last 12 years. He has spent countless hours perfecting his craft as a freelance illustrator working on several children’s books, a few video games and creating numerous educational products. His ability to draw has given him the chance to do the thing he truly loves — Create.

previous page | next page