Sunday Mailbag

August 25th, 2013 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: What was the worst freelance job you ever had to do?

A: I’m not sure what you mean by “worst”. It could be one where the deadline was so short it almost killed me, or where the pay ended up being far less than the job’s worth ended up being, or where I had a hard time getting paid for the work. I’m going to take it to mean biggest nightmare to complete… a job that went south and kept going until it hit the Antarctic. There have really not been many of these in the grand scheme of things. After a while you develop a sort of sixth sense about that kind of thing, and jobs that don’t pass the “sniff test” I avoid. Still, sometimes things do go bad, and there have been a couple of those. Just recently I did a mock movie poster for a company who ended up making be do horrible “portrait-catures” of everybody, which were so boring and awful-looking I required them to not credit me for the work. That was not even close to the worst, however.

The worst freelance job I ever did was for a product label design done for a U.S. based design firm on behalf of a South American food packaging company. The product was packaged “chunks” of some kind of fish and the label was to incorporate an illustration of the company president or some person of importance named Pedro. “Pedro’s Fish Chunks” or some such was the name of the product (can’t remember for sure, this was a few years ago). I was told to draw Pedro standing holding a plate of the fish fillets. Here is the finished image:


Seems pretty easy and straight forward, right? You can’t tell by the art, but it took over TWENTY revised sketches to make them happy. Twenty two, if I remember correctly. The changes they asked for had little to do with the caricature… I had that right with only one revision. It was all about them just “trying out” different things and having me draw and draw and draw. I had him smiling, then licking his lips, then in a chef’s outfit with hat, then in a fisherman’s garb, then holding a spatula, then with the “thumbs up” then… well you get the idea. It got way out of hand. Finally I went to the design company and said I was doing “conceptual work and branding” that I was not being compensated for. I was hired to draw a guy holding a plate of fish, not brainstorm a corporate product identity. I was given some extra money and eventually we finished up the project. I have no idea if the art ever was used on a package or not.

That’s just an example of how art directors or clients who do not have a clue of what they want might expect the illustrator to fish about (pun intended) until they happen to catch something they like. That’s a bad way to approach a project. That is not an illustration job but a conceptual design and branding job, which is more work and more money.

When working with a new client I make sure this does not happen by asking a lot of questions about what it is they want before I agree, quote a fee or prepare a contract. If I get some bad vibes that they want to do a lot of visual brainstorming I up the fee and separate “conceptual work” from the final illustration work in the pricing. In other contracts I will just include the phrase “reasonable revisions” as being included in the scope of the job. That doesn’t really mean anything, but if I feel at any time the revisions are becoming “unreasonable” I can point out we are reaching that point and it’s amazing how quickly a client will suddenly decide we’ve got it and to go ahead to the final when they are faced with the prospect of having to pay more for further revisions.

The bottom line is that in any new client/freelancer endeavor there is always an element of the unknown and some basic faith you must have that both parties are professionals and will act accordingly. Sometimes you get burned, but sometimes the other party got burned in the past by someone else and is also gunshy. My philosophy has always been once you agree to a job you follow through to the end (don’t burn your client), and your best recourse in the event you get the short end of the stick is to simply never work with that client again.

Thanks to Bob Fitzsimmons for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Had one of those recently. Did a few roughs and got no direction except, “No, not what I am thinking of” Told him finally it would be best if he found someone else.

  2. Good advice with the “reasonable amount of revisions”. I don’t do a lot of freelance and I think it’s this kind of vagary in client expectations that keeps me away from it…


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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