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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.

Guest Post – How To Find Freelance Illustration Work – Part One

Unless you’re already a well-known illustrator it can be tough to find work that allows you to earn a living, even with a solid portfolio and professional attitude – in this article I’m going to assume you already have those basics covered. Promoting ourselves is something we need to learn the same way we learn to draw: with a lot of trial and error attempts because no single way works for everyone. There is no clear path to become established. There are, however, a few basic approaches that everyone can rely on.

There are two ways to get illustration jobs: Those that find and contact you (passive) and those that you find and contact (active).

In this first part I’ll talk about how potential clients can discover you. Later, I’ll publish Part Two which will be about the reverse: how you can actively seek out and contact potential clients.

How to make potential clients find and contact you

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It goes without saying that your work should be present both online in your own professional looking website or blog, as well as printed in good quality for portfolio reviews at conventions or meetings with clients.

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Since internet users have the shortest attention span of any species, it is especially important that they’re able to contact you instantly. Have your e-mail address, a link to your e-mail form, or a contact form on every page of your online portfolio. Make sure that visitors can get straight to viewing your work, ideally with less than one click, and that your online gallery is easy to leaf through, without any brain effort. Your website design should be simple, too. Look at it on different devices: old and new Windows and Mac systems, smartphones and tablets, to make sure it looks good on them all.

To make your website easier to find for the search engines, make sure it’s HTML-based (no Flash!) thus easy to read for search engine crawlers. If you’re new to this, look up SEO basics on how to optimize your site for Google and others. Ideally your template comes with a preinstalled SEO gadget that makes things even simpler.

If you’re using a predesigned theme or template, make sure the code is clean (some free WordPress templates have been discovered to have malicious code!)

Offline, get into the habit of carrying your business card with you at all times – you never know whom you’re going to meet. I keep them in my handbag in a small, lightweight business card case.

In my physical portfolio, a leatherbound A4 sized book with clear bags, I put A4 prints of my work that I order from an online photo service since they offer the best quality A4 prints at the lowest prices.

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Using Dropbox to Share Files With Clients

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Lately, I’ve been sending a lot of large files to clients. As an illustrator I get my drawings done and the files saved, compressed into a nice, neat package, but in our line of work, we end up with pretty large files that we try to send to our clients. Even if it’s over 5 MB you could still get the dreaded bounced email message. I had one client in particular that this continually happened to. No matter what I did or how big the file was it would always come back as a bounced email. The email provider did not like attachments of any size. Well last year a service called Dropbox updated their product so that anything you have saved with their service you can share a link out too. There are a few different services like this, but Dropbox is the one that I prefer and it’s really helped me out in these types of situations.

What is Dropbox? Dropbox is a free service (for the 2GB plan) that lets you save your files to the Dropbox service and access them anywhere using your computers, phones and even the Dropbox website. It’s really handy. It works great for me when I need to share files between computers or two other people. I have a folder on my computer that I save files to and they automatically get saved to Dropbox.

Like I mentioned earlier you can send people links to specific files in your Dropbox. This makes Dropbox perfect for sharing Large compressed files of illustrations to clients, or just sharing a PDF for them to proof. This means that I can share a single link with a client and if they have other stakeholders they need to show it to they can simply just send them that link and they can view it in browser or download the file. It’s pretty simple let me explain how.

1) Sign in to the Dropbox website or sign up if you don’t already have an account.

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2) Go to your list of files and folders and then navigate to the file you would like to share.

3) When you’ve located the file you’re looking to share hover your mouse over it. While hovering over it on the right-hand side a chain-link icon should appear. If you click this link it should open a new page and give you the options to either email the link or “Get link”. I normally just click “Get link” and it automatically copies it to my clipboard allowing me to paste it into an email. That’s it.

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Of course there are other ways Dropbox lets you share files but this is the simplest way I’ve found. It has saved me from getting bounced email messages in my inbox which is really frustrating. Hope you found this tip helpful.