Ventriloquist/comedian and client of mine Jeff Dunham just came out with a new game app called “Achmed’s Bombsweeper” that uses a lot of my artwork throughout, including the giant “RoboAchmed” above. It’s a variation on the old Minesweeper game where Peanut, Jose Jalepeno, Bubba J, Walter and the gang try and prevent Achmed from completing his RoboAchmed terror weapon. You can get the game for free on iOS and Android platforms, or play it on Jeff’s website.
Archive for the 'Freelancing' Category
…or “A Theme Park Caricaturist’s Long Journey Down a Freelance Path”
The following is an article I wrote for the latest issue of the International Society of Caricature Artist‘s quarterly magazine Exaggerated Features. It is one of a series they call “A Master Piece”, meaning articles written by past winners of their highest honor, “Caricaturist of the Year” aka the “Golden Nosey” (which I won in 1998 and 1999). Its focus is advice on ways a live caricaturist can branch out into a career in freelance illustration:
I’ll never forget my first summer drawing caricatures. It was 1985 and I was a new artist for Fasen Arts at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, IL. Madonna was the newest pop star, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a budding action movie hero and people would immediately recognize a sample of Grace Jones hanging on the wall. I had just turned 19, and was getting paid to draw. Paid. Real money (sort of). I spent that summer thinking, in my best stereotypical Italian cartoon voice, ‘Thees eesa da life!”
I enjoyed doing live caricature. I must have—I did it full time for over 20 years. I found it challenging in its unique dynamic which demanded a combination of speed, accuracy, and interaction with the subject, all the while in front of an audience. After a while, however, I got a little tired of watching all my work being carried away in a rolled up tube bag or a cheap frame destined for the wall of someone’s basement rec room, or on a refrigerator via a magnet shaped like an ear of corn, or some dusty junk drawer. I knew live caricature was always going to be some part of my career as an artist, but I also wanted to branch out and see if I could become an illustrator doing comics, cartoons, advertising, magazine illustration . . . wherever “humorous illustration” was needed. I wanted to be a freelance illustrator—I just needed to know where to begin.
I get a kick out of people who seem to think you get “discovered” as an illustrator and that overnight you go from doing art for your local church social to TIME magazine covers. That happens to no one. A freelance career is something you have to develop over the course of many years, slowly building a client base while tirelessly pursuing jobs. Developing that freelance career takes a combination of hard work, perseverance, determination, fearlessness in the face of failure, and a bit of luck. By the way, that last one isn’t totally out of your control—luck is something you make for yourself. Luck in freelancing is simply having your work on the desk of an art director right at a time when they are thinking they need an illustrator with your set of skills for a job. The previous four elements of building that freelance career set up that fifth one… you make the luck.
The most valuable piece of advice I ever got about freelancing came from the great caricature illustrator David Levine, and he told it to me in that timeless repository of all wisdom and great thoughts: the restroom. It was 2000 and I was then president of the NCN (the former name of ISCA) and had organized a mini-con around a panel presentation on caricature taking place in Minneapolis as part of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists convention. In addition to David, the panel also contained Philip Burke, David Cowles and Steve Brodner (I think Steve was there, although he might have not made it), moderated by Bob Staake. About 20 NCN members were in the audience thanks to a special fee that local host and editorial cartoonist Steve Sack got for us just for the panel. It was enlightening, not surprising given the talent on the stage.
After the program I was in the hotel lobby bathroom when Mr. Levine entered and came up to the urinal next to me. We were observing the male ritual of staring straight ahead into the tiles while engaging in small talk as we relieved ourselves. He told me he noticed I had asked several good questions on freelancing.
“Do you want to know the real secret to a successful career in freelance illustration?” He asked.
“Uh…. yes!” I replied.
“People,” He said. “That’s the key to making a living and being successful as a freelance illustrator. It’s all about people and building relationships with people.” He went on to say that doing good work was what got you your first few jobs, but continuing jobs was about building relationships of trust and respect with art directors, because they invariably moved on to other art director jobs and passed your name on to other ADs, who would give you jobs and then you’d build a relationship with them, eventually creating a large web of contacts and people who know you were a professional who did not only good work but who did it in the professional manner they appreciated. That was some great advice and I have built my career around it.
As we were flushing and zipping up, he commented: “Shithouse wisdom… it’s the best kind.” I agree.
Not that just “knowing people” alone will get you very far. The ability to do good, eye-catching work that has an appeal to art directors is the first order of business. Many live caricaturists are great at doing a single caricature of a subject, but their comfort level stops at the neck. Caricature is one of those skills that is “evergreen” in the world of illustration, meaning it does not go out of style. When you get right down to in, most stories, articles, books, shows and other media are about people, and caricature is a unique and entertaining way to depict people that is much more than just photography. As a result, caricatures are something that work for almost any facet of media communication at some time or another, and are always in demand. The popularity of styles come and go, but caricature as an element of illustration is here to stay. That means illustrators that can do good caricature can always find outlets for their work.
Notice I said “illustrators that can do caricature” as opposed to just “caricaturists”. That’s because when you are talking about illustration, it’s more than just from the neck up. You have to go beyond doing just a caricature of your subject’s face . . . you have to caricature the whole universe. One of the greatest humorous illustrators of all time, Jack Davis, is a prefect example of this. Jack’s caricatures and drawings of people are instantly recognizable—but so are his drawings of everything else. A Jack Davis fire hydrant is unmistakable as his work. Likewise a Jack Davis chair, or fishing boat, or telephone, or ham sandwich . . . Jack’s art shows us the universe thorough his eyes, all aspects of it. Virtually all great humorous illustrators share this talent: Mort Drucker, Arnold Roth, Jules Fieffer, Sergio Aragonés, the list goes on and on. That is one lesson I learned early on, that caricature is only a single element in an illustration, and other elements need the same amount of attention as I would give the caricature.
My freelance path reads like a textbook guide for how to start small and slowly build a career doing illustration. I started when I was still in college in the late 1980’s, doing a few small jobs for some of the professors at my school who were also art directors for ad agencies and design firms, and local art like kids menus for area restaurants. In 1990 I got work from a small comic book company called NOW Comics doing a title called “Married… with Children”, which eventually led to a mini series for Marvel called “The Coneheads” in 1994. I did my first magazine illustration for a local publication called MPLS ST. PAUL magazine in 1991, which led to my doing work for the Minnesota Twins when that art director moved over to do the Twins magazine (the Levine Principal in action). In 1993 I did some of my first advertising work when I picked up the ball from another artist who was not getting the job done on a promotional anti-drugs comic book for kids for a company called Business and Legal Reports. I ended up doing 6 more comic book projects for them that were messages about the inadvisability of smoking, drinking, bullying, etc for grade school aged kids. That work led to work for kids magazines like Scholastic, and National Geographic for Kids magazines. In 1997 I did art for a series of CD-ROM parody games for a small company called Parotty Interactive, which led to a big job doing a game for Hasbro called “Super Scattergories”. In 1999 I started doing work for Cracked Magazine, a now-defunct MAD rip-off, doing TV and movie parodies. In 2000, I was in my first issue of MAD. My work in MAD has led to many opportunities over the last 13 years. My “overnight success” took 15 years or hard work and building, and it’s still ongoing after 28 years.
I’ve been lucky, but there have been many, many more unlucky moments overcome than lucky ones taken advantage of. During that first 15 years I sent out innumerable postcards and tear sheet promos, invested in ad pages in Sourcebooks like the Directory of Illustration, and scoured the news stands looking at what kind of artwork different publications were using and which might be most interested in my style of illustration, then adding them to my mailing list. One key ingredient: I used the financial bedrock of my live caricature work to pay the bills when I was struggling to find steady freelance work. Most illustrators have to have a “day job” for a long while until they get that client base built up, I was lucky my day job was still being an artist. That gave me not only time to find and develop those client relationships that David Levine later advised me about, but to develop my skills as well and become a better illustrator. Without my live caricature work and experience, I’d not have ever made it as a freelancer.
Today’s world of publication may be shrinking, but it’s far from dead. There is plenty of work out there, especially for illustrators who are adept at caricature. So far no one has written a computer program that can create a caricature—you still need and artist to do that. While some of the larger magazines are struggling, there are still hundreds and hundreds of niche publications out there with small to medium circulations that need illustrations for their articles. It’s the dirty little secret of freelance illustrators that no one earns a living doing TIME covers. Most illustrators, even the big names like Payne, Brodner, Burke, etc. make a living doing work for magazines you’ve probably never heard of like Snow Country (winter sports), Detour (fashion/pop culture), Broadcasting and Cable (TV/cable industry), UTNE Reader (politics/opinion), Financial Planning (accounting industry) or Contingencies (actuary industry). . . I’ve worked for all those and many more you would not recognize. They pay decently and there are a lot more of them than there are TIME, People or MAD. TV/film, advertising, products and the internet aren’t going anywhere, and there are clients in those areas of media who need illustration as well, especially caricatures.
For those who want to branch out into publication illustration, tomorrow is never as good a time to do so than today. Put together a nice collection of your most appealing work, start looking around your area for companies and potential clients who might be looking for artwork, and start pounding the pavement. The children’s menu you design and illustrate for the corner family diner is the first step on a path that might lead to that fabled TIME cover. You’ll never know until you step onto the path.
Of the many interesting things that happened with respect to self-publishing my book, one of the most surprising was finding a very unexpected market for it: wood carvers.
Apparently caricature is something many wood carvers are interested in, either by actually carving caricatures out of wood or using some of the principals of exaggeration and expression found in caricature art in carving fictional characters and anthropomorphic animals. I have several woodcarver shops that buy books directly from me wholesale to sell in their shops, or at their booths at the many trade shows and conventions dedicated to this art. Last month at the Pittsburgh Cartoon Festival I had someone come up with a copy of my book to get signed, and showed me a carving he had done of a caricature of Hulk Hogan I had done. It was really well done!
One of those shops commissioned me to do a T-shirt design for them, final result above, rough sketch below.
I would never have guessed that would be a market for a caricature book, but it most definitely is!
Last week in the Sunday mailbag I promised to post about a recent job I completed that reminded me (again) of why I turn down most jobs that involve doing caricatures of the actual client, or their employees. See that post for the reasons why, but here are the gory details of the job that resulted in the final art above (I have changed the names to protect the guilty):
I get a call from a company that works in the film industry that wanted me to do a parody/homage of the classic Animal House movie poster, only with caricatures of their sixty-plus employees and bosses. It was to be used as an ad in an industry publication and as a mocked-up movie poster for their offices. Initially I turned them down for two reasons. First, I wasn’t too wild about having to ape Rick Meyerowitz‘s art style for the job… this isn’t strictly speaking a parody like I might do for MAD, which would require closely mimicking the original’s look for purposes of making fun of either it or something else in context. second, and more importantly, I don’t like doing jobs for company’s where the employees and bosses are the subjects. It almost always leads to my imitating a Glamour Shots camera.
After some talking the first point was mitigated as this was a company working in the movie business, so doing caricatures of them in a classic movie poster setting seemed more like an homage than a rip-off. Plus, I made it clear while I would try and capture the look and feel of the original I was still going to draw it more my way, especially the caricatures. The second point was of more concern, and I was promised that only the two heads of the company would be approving the caricatures, and they loved my MAD work and wanted me to do what I do.
I am such a sucker.
Naturally I had to redo many of the caricatures out of concern for the “feelings” of their employees. They seemed to mostly have a problem with noses, and many of the profiles I did had to get toned down. more than just toned down, really, they became very dry pseudo-portraits. Here are a few examples. On the left is the picture I worked from, center my caricature, right the final approved revision:
Considering these printed very small in the final (even at the actual poster size of 60 inches high… they wanted something BIG for the office) the plain and boring nature of the revised carica… uh… portriacatures, really served to kill much of the fun feel of the piece. I did start to get frustrated when I found out the bosses wife was art directing his caricature. BUT, the client is the boss so I did what they asked.
Basically every freelance project starts out being about the art and doing the best job I can do to accomplish the client’s goals. Some jobs are about that all the way through. Others degenerate into being just about finishing the project and cashing the paycheck. That’s sad but that’s also reality, and the track of any job is ultimately up to the client. It never does cease to amaze me how someone would hire a particular artist for their “expertise”, for lack of a better word, in a certain style and then proceed to direct them away from the very style they hired them for in the first place. Caricature may be uniquely vulnerable to that sort of issue. You have to divorce your personal feelings from the work when things get to the point where the client is asking you to do something you don’t think is very good anymore. That’s when it does get frustrating—not because you are asked to make changes, that happens all the time and there are many different ways to accomplish a goal in an illustration job—but because you are being asked to do something that isn’t what you do.
I did remove my signature, though… I have that right to not have my name under a piece of work I am not happy with. I’ll have to remember this job the next time I get promised there won’t be vanity revisions in a piece like this one.
I did the cover of the latest issue of the UTNE Reader, now on news stands. The folks at UTNE favor my “colored line” style, as I used is a few previous covers for them. Here’s a peek behind the scenes of this freelance project.
The job: design and illustrate a cover depicting how President Obama’s immigration reform policies are contradictory, both making easier and harder to become a legal immigrant. The editors wanted a large wall on the border with a crowd trying to get in, and Obama looking like he’s welcoming them but still has the wall. The proplem was they wanted me to simultaneously show the crowd being very confused and unhappy, yet focus on Obama. Impossible if he is set high above the crowd on the wall.
The roughs: I sent in three concepts, all based on Obama on top of this giant wall:
This was focusing more on the crowd and the wall’s impassibility. An “upshot” like this adds menace and strength to the wall, and allows me to do expressions in the crowd to get their confusion across, but I knew would probably not focus on Obama enough for them, even with his breaking the logo plane above.
This one was a balance between Obama and the crowd, but of course loses all sense of the wall’s looming barricade.
This one is using a “fish eye” sort of warped perspective to make the wall seem really big and adds drama to the scene, yet allowing some sense of the crowd’s expressions and really focusing on Obama, which they wanted.
The final pencil:
Here is the final pencil sketch. I’ll be inking only parts of the image so it was done kind of loosely, especially the wall text.
There was just enough room on the bottom right to get a few of the expressions in the crowd to look confused’ getting that across. I could not get PhotoShop to create that wall lettering in the curved yet 2 point perspective, so I hand lettered that (ugh). The only concern the editors had was that they wanted it plain that this was the border of the US and Mexico. I pointed out that, by using very strong southwest desert coloring and terrain behind the wall, no one would mistake this for the Canadian border. I resisted adding a sign that said “Mexico” or any flags in the crowd, as we already had too many signs and it made no sense that individuals looking to come to the US would be toting Mexican flags… that would look like a protest of some kind.
UTNE’s covers are always very political and have resulting challenges in getting across the point. That make them fun to work on.
Every once and awhile I pull out some artwork from an old job that might be interesting to share. These two full page illustrations were for InfoWorld magazine circa 2005. The story was about Bill Gate‘s “plan” for the future of computing. The concept was that Gates was supposed to be not just predicting where computing was going, but was supposed to be one of the chief architects of that future. We decided on making him the coach of a football team. I personally wanted to make the players into robots with computer screens for faces, etc. because it seemed to make more sense that Gates would be directing the computer world, not a bunch of big football players, but that got shot down.
This job was significant not for the job itself, but for the irony of it. I believe one of the things Gates mentioned in that article (can’t find any tear sheets of it today), was that things like magazines would eventually become computerized. About two years later InfoWorld ceased their print editions and went to an online only model. Computer magazines were one of the niche markets that got hit the hardest in the rise of Internet media consumption. That makes sense, since their target market was exactly the type of readers who would trade paper for pixels early and often. This might be the last job I ever did for a computing magazine, and I used to do work for a couple of different ones.
The image above was the cover. This was a full page interior illustration:
Well, not until Sunday but I’m betting most people will be celebrating tonight and tomorrow night. The above is an illustration I did for Warner Bros Consumer Products last summer for some T-shirts or other merchandise for this time of year. You can order one here if you are so inclined.
Anyway, Happy St. Patrick’s Day weekend!
This is going to be a killer week with a cover for the Utne reader due and trying to finish up a five page parody for MAD, plus the back cover of a trade publication that is going to be a really fun parody “homage” to a famous movie poster coming up right after that. There might not be a lot of time for blogging this week. In the meantime, here is my latest Marlin Co. workplace poster illustration. Final above, below the pencil roughs and inks.
The assignment—an illustration of a teenager multitasking on several electronic gadgets… gaming on the computer, texting, video chatting on a tablet, etc. ;ate at night. His parents are trying to tell him he has two minutes to wrap it up until they have the cable disconnected. cable guy at the ready. Weirdly they asked for a football referee to be there signalling the “two minute warning”.
The referee was not a very strong idea. First off, nobody but a real NFL nut would have any idea what the hand signal for the two minute warning is, so I had to try and get that idea across using “layman’s” body language. Doesn’t work, too ambiguous. They decided to axe the ref and make the parents more gleeful about the impending disconnect.
Pencil sketch two:
A little better. The addition of the “12:00 MIDNIGHT” on the work order does the trick, that and the alarm clock time saying 11:58.
It’s worth pointing out that ordinarily I would have had some fun with the teenager’s room and made it trashed with lots of empty soda cans, junk food wrappers, etc. I have a 16 year old son, so I know of what I speak. However knowing the client would not want anything negative about the kid as being part of the humor, I gave him an unnaturally clean and austere room.
I got a big box in the mail the other day, containing The Absolute Ultimate Gutters Omnibus Volume 3 in all its hardcover and glossy, oversized page glory. So-so cover art . . . but otherwise a handsome book.
If you are not familiar with The Gutters, and you are a fan of comic books at all, shame on you. It is a series of single page comics that parody, criticize, and sometimes utterly savage, the comic book industry, its culture and subject matter. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes vicious, but always on target. Written by Ryan Sohmer, the art is done by guest artists making the styles vary wildly and entertainingly. You can read them on The Gutters website, and order prints of the ones you want to hang up on the wall. You can also order this volume and/or the previous two. You can even order the cover artwork as a print!
I was quite flattered when Ryan called me this summer and asked me if I’d do the cover art for Volume 3. It was a really fun project. The cover wraps around and is embossed in areas for a really cool look.
Despite the mediocre cover, I heartily recommend both the book and the comic.
De-BLAH Vu Dept.
It’s finally happened… after almost seven years of writing Tom’s MAD Blog, I keep running up against the following problem:
- I get an idea about something I’d like to write about
- I do a quick search of my blog to see if I have written about it already
- I have
The solution? Reblogging! Let’s face it, you readers don’t comb through the 6 plus years and 2,500 posts I’ve done looking for interesting topics. My mom doesn’t even do that. So, if I think up with a topic that I was planning on writing about, and thus still relevant in the world of illustration, cartooning, etc. only to find I have already written about it, I’m just going to re-post said article. In my defense I will update it and add to it if the text needs it. Here’s one from 2007 about the evils of working on spec:
-Originally posted 4/21/07
I was thinking the other day about how much the internet has changed the dynamics of freelancing, in terms of how illustrators communicate, conduct and deliver jobs and market their work. For the most part it’s been an invaluable tool, but there is a dark side to it. The easy access and instant communication of the internet often leads to being contacted for jobs that aren’t really jobs.
I used to have the same problem when I drew at the theme parks. A few times each summer someone would approach me at the park and ask me to draw something for them that was obviously to be used for some commercial project. I’ve been asked to do everything from conceptual product design to company logos to T-Shirt designs, and they expected to pay the theme park caricature prices for this illustration work. Realtors were always the worst. They would sit down and ask to be drawn next to a house that said “Sold” on it. It was obvious they intended to use it in their advertising… for the price of a live caricature drawing! I eventually got tired of explaining that using a caricature from a theme park for that purpose was copyright infringement, and they would need to pay me considerably more for the rights to do anything with the drawing but hang it on their wall. My solution was to draw them as they requested, but make the house look like a run down shack with holes in the roof, flies buzzing and garbage all over. Sometimes I’d draw an outhouse instead. They hated that, but couldn’t complain to the park as they knew they were trying to rip me off!
At least at the park they had to look you in the eye when they asked for something like that. Via the internet you can get an e-mail asking for your participation in someone’s latest million dollar idea without ever having to keep a straight face. This type of “job” usually consists of someone who has this “great idea” that just need some art to go along with it to pitch it to somebody who will make us all rich. Almost always the art is the driving force behind the concept… the idea took ten minutes to conceive but it will take countless hours to do the art to make it work, for which we get a portion of the profits. No money up front, of course, but sure riches just around the corner. In other words, working on spec.
The term “Working on Spec” (short for working on speculation) means to do something for free in hopes it will lead to future payment. It’s usually just “some artwork” to put together a pitch for the publication of a book, the development of a product or some other project to be sold to a distributor or manufacturer. Working on spec is almost never a good idea, especially with people who approach you cold without a track record of similar successful projects. Even then, most serious professionals will pay you to do the art they need, incurring some financial risk on their part to back up their big ideas. It’s amazing how many of those Big Idea people who are so ready to risk your time and talents on their sure-fire million dollar project shrink at investing a few hundred bucks in paying an illustrator a working wage to do the visual work.
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been had once or twice on some of these kinds of “jobs”. Mostly when I was young and naive, though. One I really got burned on was by a production company who wanted me to design some animated characters for a series of shorts depicting members of Major League Baseball’s 500 Club (those with 500 or more career home runs). On spec I did designs of an Ernie Banks (who owns the rights to the “500 Club”) and Sammy Sosa (pre-steroid scandal) for them, just style sheets in color. I never got a dime and as far as I know the animations were never produced. A few months after I did them, and hearing nothing from them since, they had the audacity to call and ask me to do the art for a birthday card for Ernie to be given to him at some shin-dig in Las Vegas or somewhere like that. Needless to say I didn’t oblige.
A VERY few spec jobs are legitimate and might be worth the time for the potential reward. I tried my hand recently at some greeting card ideas with a specific theme when submissions were called for by a greeting card company. They were rough sketches and jokes that were submitted like gag writers might submit basic joke ideas and fleshing out the ones that get chosen. That did not involve a ton of work and if some get picked up it might mean some royalties down the road. This is for an established greeting card company and that makes a big difference. That’s not really a spec job anyway as it’s not finished art but just a call for some roughs.
One spec job that was very disappointing was from a few years ago, when I was contacted by a writer who had done several books in the 80′s that were political satire “Paper Doll” books featuring the Reagans and other politicians. Of course as paper dolls they were in their underwear and had cut out clothes and accessories that were gags, as well as different environments to be placed in. They were quite funny and sold very well. This writer wanted me to do the art for a new paper doll series based on the Bush twins. It was on spec, but he was a literary agent in New York with a lot of books to his credit and felt he’d have a publisher for this one without a problem. He wasn’t asking for a tom of artwork, he just wanted me to work up a cover and one page for each twin, including his gags and some of mine. Here’s what we came up with:
He kept me updated but eventually he had to admit he’d struck out on publishers. So, that work went by the boards. I had really wanted to do a book at the time and that one seemed like a lot of fun so I was more disappointed about that than not getting paid. It didn’t take that long to do that little bit of art, so I was not out much.
That was the last real spec job I did. Since then I ask those wanting spec work to pay me upfront and they can keep their profits. A few actually do, and so far I have not seen something I worked on become the next hot craze and cry over any lost millions. I sort of doubt I’d ever have that problem, even if did spec work, which I don’t.