From the Freelancing Nightmare Files…

January 16th, 2007 | Posted in Freelancing

Way back in August I wrote about my very first freelance job and how it went horribly awry. I promised more nightmare stories in the future, but honestly there aren’t that many of them. Most jobs have a few challenges mixed in, and as a professional I have to roll with the punches at times to get the job done. Few have the hallmarks of a nightmare job. Most of the real problems that might arise result from the very beginning… meaning the art director of a project made the wrong choice in choosing a certain artist for their job. That doesn’t mean they got a bad artist, it just means they chose the WRONG artist.

Choosing an artist that does the kind of art and style an art director is looking for is one of the most important decisions for a smooth running project. Trying to jam a square peg into a round hole is asking for a lot of problems. If you are a caterer and looking for a chef to prepare the food for an event, you don’t hire an Italian chef and ask them to cook Chinese food. Smart and savvy ADs find an artist who’s work they know fits with their idea of the finished job, and don’t need to ask their artist to do something he or she doesn’t usually do.

Over the years I’ve developed a spider-sense about these kinds of mismatched jobs. If an AD starts mentioning they want something more “portraity” or “more serious”, or begins to describe something that I can see is not what they would see in my portfolio, the red alert sounds from Star Trek start wailing in my head. I just turn those jobs down these days. I like doing humorous work and I get enough of it, so I don’t feel the need to bang my head against a wall trying to guess what someone else wants. Those kinds of jobs always turn into exercises in frustration.

However, not all of the jobs that go bad have to do with not being on the same page as your AD. This episode from the Freelance Nightmare Files is an extreme example of how the complexity of the reproduction of artwork can lead to disaster. As always, the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

11 years ago or so I got a job through a design firm to do a cover illustration for the “Rolaids Relief Man Award Media Guide“, a 4 “x 9” booklet with the current year’s Major League Baseball relief pitchers statistics, put out by Rolaids in conjunction with their sponsorship of the MLB “Relief Man Award”. The cover usually featured caricatures of prominent relief pitchers and/or past award winners. The design firm angle was typical of smaller specialty publications, especially for sports teams or sponsors. They often hired a design firm to do the design and layout of the publication, and then the client would provide the content and a printing house would publish the results.

In this particular case I ended up doing two covers, which was nobody’s fault and not the nightmare part of the equation. Originally they had me do this illustration of three pitchers “knocking on the door” of the “300 Saves Clubhouse”:


They liked the final results but we ran into trouble when it was discovered that MLB had to give the approval for any image that included more than two professional players together at once. Rolaids did not want to go through that process, so we did this second cover with only two pitchers:


They liked that one just fine also. I did get paid for both, by the way. We agreed to a kill fee on the first one but it was not much less than the full payment. The job went well up to this point, and it looked like I might have this gig for a few years as this was an annual publication.

The problems with this job arose with the pre-press and printing. This was back in 1995 when I didn’t do any computer coloring. Most of my line art/color illustrations were done via a film pos and overlay technique that was still a staple of the comic book industry in those pre-digital coloring days. The way it works is the artist inks their work in black and white. Registration marks are added for later use. The inked line work is shot on a photostat machine, and two stats are made… one is a straight stat of the art, but on a piece of clear acetate rather than white paper. The other is a negative of the artwork, also on clear acetate. This is called a “film pos“. The film pos is placed in a dark room over a piece of illustration board treated with a special chemical. Then it is exposed to light. When the lights go out the film pos is removed and the board rinsed off. The result is an image on the board of your inked art in light blue lines. The blue lines correspond exactly to the black lines on the acetate photostat, and using the registration marks you can line it up so the black lines on the stat, or “overlay“, cover the blue ones on the board below exactly. You then watercolor the board, so when you overlay the final colored board with the inked art stat you have the finished illustration. I learned about this common technique when I worked with NOW Comics back in the day.

The benefit of doing it this way, as opposed to just painting your inked art, is that the lines remain pure black and don’t get mucked up by the color. The real trick is in the color separations. All color art is separated into four color plates for printing: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, or CMYK. With the film pos/overlay process, the colored board is scanned on it’s own (sans the line overlay), and separated into the four plates. Then, using a process called “stripping”, the pure black likes are added directly to the black plate. By doing this, they retain their crispness and original pure color.

I had done a number of illustrations using this technique over the years. Many non-comic book printers were not familiar with it but after explaining the process they got it, and it all turned out well. Not this time. After all that explaining some bonehead production guy just drum-scanned the peeled color board and the overlay at the same time. Because of the lateness of the job with the redone cover they just went to press with the results, which were horrible. The lines were not registered exactly with the colored board, resulting in a ‘ghost’ image along some edges. Worst of all, the shiny reflective surface of the acetate overlay screwed with the scan and the entire thing printed with a very purple cast. It was horrible. I’d scan in one of the printed ones for readers to see if I hadn’t destroyed my copies in frustration. The worst part is that boneheaded production guy blamed me for the bad image, and that was the first and last time I did a job for Rolaids.

You can’t win them all. I’d like to think that production guy is selling vacuums door to door today, but he’s probably a CEO or something… and this is just another story for the Freelance Nightmare Files.


  1. opsman says:

    A funny suggestion: Could you add the cryptmaster holding the lamp saying ‘Good evening’ at the beginning of your posts with the ‘nightmare’ subjects?

  2. opsman says:

    And as I think about it: These drawings are very Torres-esque and awesome at the same time!

  3. Tom says:

    I like the Cryptkeeper idea….


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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