Q: Do you do personal commissions? I’d really like to get a caricature done of my wife for a Christmas present. If you do, what does it entail and how much does it cost?
A: Many years ago I stopped doing personal commissions for a number of reasons. First, I didn’t have the time. I am usually swamped with publication work and it’s hard to squeeze in personal commission jobs around the edges. If I were to take them on, it would be at the expense of publication jobs.
The second reason is that I’d have to charge an outrageous fee to do personal commissions. This is because of the previously mentioned reason of having to sacrifice professional jobs in order to get the personal commissions in. I’d have to charge the same sort of rates I’d charge for the publication stuff, and to be honest I’m embarrassed to do that. My average rate for a full-page magazine illustration is about $1200, and a personal commission is comparable to that in time spent. Asking $1200 for a personal commission is, to me, ridiculous. I could name several dozen professional caricaturists who could do just as good a job as I could (or better) for far less than that.
Thirdly, personal commissions are often a real pain in the posterior. Invariably, it’s always a battle with the client over the caricature itself. Usually I am being commissioned to do caricatures of people the client is very close to, often a relative, friend or co-worker. These are people they are in constant contact with and with whom they have the kind of close dynamic I would never be able to duplicate working from a few photos. As a result, there is a often great deal of “this doesn’t quite capture them” or “don’t make them so heavy” that becomes frustrating. I am far from a “mean guy” caricaturist, but I am working cold drawing a person I have never met from a series of sometime lousy photos, trying to capture a person the client knows intimately. The bottom line is I am trying to capture from a bunch or two-dimensional pictures not the way the subject looks but the way the client thinks the subject looks, and that leads to difficulties.
The last real personal commission I had was the one that broke the camel’s back for me. It was probably ten years ago, and I was contacted by a wealthy family from the Hamptons who owned some fancy restaurant in that area, and wanted a family group caricature done for their eatery. After several revisions it became obvious to me these people thought they looked like Bo Derek when they looked a lot more like Bo Diddley. I was even being overly kind to them, and they still demanded some ideal they did not match. I killed the job and have not done another since, with the exception of the occasional one for special occasions, like this one:
I did this as a present for outgoing NCS president Jeff Keane
That said, I am seriously considering changing my policy on this. I might do something like Mort Drucker did when my wife commissioned him to do a caricature of me (something he also rarely, if ever, does). Mort agreed to do a simple pencil rough of me first, and then send it to Anna for approval. If she liked it, he’d do the commission piece as agreed. If she did not, then it would simply end there and he suggested she could look at some MAD originals instead. In other words, no revisions or art direction. That might work for me to do a similar with for an advance on the commission price. If the client likes it, the advance goes toward the final cost and we proceed. If they do not, I keep the advance for my time and they are not obligated further. Might work… I’d be more inclined to consider commission work if I could eliminated the frustration of reason number three above. Something to think about.
Thanks to Bill Johnson 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!