Don’t Take It Personally

July 28th, 2007 | Posted in Freelancing

Back when I was going to college at a small school in St. Paul, Minnesota called the School of Associated Arts (now the College of Visual Arts), there were three distinct groups of students… the illustrators, the fine artists and the designers. To say the three groups were mutually exclusive would be unfair, as most of us got along just fine, but it would be fair to say that among each group there was often an attitude about the validity of other groups. The fine artists were sometimes heard to call the illustrators “wrists” as we were considered by some creativeless machines that churned out images based on other people’s direction. The illustrators sometimes referred to the fine artists as “framers” or “kinkoes”, referring to the notion that most of them would never earn a living as an artist and end up working at a frame shop, copy center or some other peripherally creative job rather than selling their art. I imagine the designers thought both the illustrators and fine artists to be idiotic children, while the other groups thought the design major was what you studied in art school when you “couldn’t draw to save your life”. Ah, the stupidity of youth. Personally I never thought that way about any of my fellow classmates… well, maybe a little about the fine artists.

The whole “wrists” stereotype is something I think about occasionally when I run into difficulty with art direction. The fact is that those fine artists were very, very wrong. Illustrators are artists first, and as such it is impossible not to have some emotional investment in the work you do. Even though we do what we do on demand and follow the direction of our clients, we still create art… and that process is tied to ourselves in fundamental and sometimes deep ways. The problem with that is ultimately we really ARE art machines that need to serve the needs of the client, and that sometimes leads to fighting emotional reactions to art direction.

Let’s say you are assigned a job creating a caricature of a company CEO for a feature article in a business magazine. You do some roughs and work from various references and happen to do on sketch that really catches your eye. The other sketches are okay but this one really sings. You work it up nice and tight, and are enthusiastic about how it’s turning out. You’re already thinking about how you are going to handle the finishes. You submit the sketch to the client…

… they don’t like it. Too this or too that. It doesn’t look like the subject. They like one of the other sketches that you thought was flat and not nearly as dynamic.

It’s natural have feelings of rejection and annoyance when something you really thought was going somewhere gets shot down, especially if what the client asks you to do instead is lame in your opinion. Your natural reaction is to argue, or even get angry… how stupid can that art director be? This drawing is much better than that one!! It can be very difficult to detach yourself emotionally from your work and accept the direction of the client. If you want to be considered a professional, that’s exactly what you must do. You have to put aside any attachment you have to the work and move on to satisfy the client. It’s that simple. To do otherwise is to be unprofessional and eventually garner a reputation for such, which is not a good thing is the freelance world.

A few years ago I did a seminar about freelance caricature illustration at a caricaturist convention, which featured a prominent caricature illustrator (who shall remain nameless) as the main guest speaker. My seminar consisted of telling a group of live caricaturists that wanted to get into freelance illustration how to be professional, and one of my main points was that satisfying the client is job one… all personal feelings or needs must be secondary. My esteemed colleague then got up and proceeded to deliver a message exactly the opposite… that you must be true to “your art” and that fighting the good fight is the only way to go through life. Easy for him to say, as he is one of maybe a handful of illustrators who are well known enough to dictate creatively to the client. Those elite illustrators are sought out specifically for their unique style, and seldom get art directed at all as their style is what the art director was after in the first place, if that makes sense. I thought that was reckless advice to give a room full of artists that would have a better chance at being successful as one of the many hard working professional grunts than as a one in a million big time illustrator. After a few pointed questions the main speaker had to admit he sometimes did actually bow to the whims of an art director and occasionally completed a job just to finish it and make the client happy as opposed to being true to his art.

I don’t know how he sleeps at night.

Everybody wants to be proud of what they do, and it’s hard to accept that kind of art direction sometimes. But being a professional means doing your job to the best of your skills and having a happy client that will call you again and will recommend you to others. Sometimes that means just doing what the client wants even if you believe it’s not as good or effective as it could have been. If you have a good relationship with your art director you could have a ‘discussion’ about the effectiveness of the illustration and what it is meant to achieve, but unless it’s explaining some aspect of the illustration the art director is misunderstanding that is usually pointless. In a way, my years of doing live caricatures prepared me well for dealing with this kind of situation best. When doing live caricatures all day, there are some drawings you know you have to do a cutsie-pie, nice guy job on and just go for a good likeness to make the customer happy. Then there are those moments when you get a “live one”. You can tell they will really enjoy a good, exaggerated caricature and you let them have it with both barrels. You do the tame ones for the money with a smile but you do the wild ones for the fun and for the artistic expression and satisfaction… the fact that you also get paid for that one as well is a bonus. You tolerate the one and live for and enjoy the other when it happens. It’s the same with freelance illustration. I always start out going for the artistic satisfaction in a piece, but if the art direction makes that impossible I go into auto mode and just to my best on the job to please the client and get my paycheck. I write that one off in the “artistic satisfaction” department, figure it won’t be one for the portfolio and look forward to the next one.

That all sounds terrible, like most of what I end up doing I hate and have no fun doing it. In truth I can count on one hand how many jobs end up like that each year. Most of the time, even if the art director has a lot of changes and direction I still come up with something I can be proud of. It’s entirely possible to satisfy the client AND satisfy yourself artistically.. in fact it’s usually possible. My point is that if it is impossible and you must choose between the two, the client’s satisfaction must always be the choice. Even when I do those cutsie-pie caricature I can still get some artistic satisfaction from it. I just focus on my linework and likeness, instead of my exaggeration.

I’ve brooked this subject at least twice on the blog, and when I do I always use Jack Davis as the best example of emotional detachment from the work. Jack has no problem crumpling up what he calls his “doodles” and starting from scratch on any job he’s working on. I used to think that, if you’re Jack Davis, every drawing you do is incedible anyway so you can just move on to the next bit of brilliance. However I now believe that, if you’re Jack Davis, you probably still differentiate between drawings you think tuned out really good and ones you didn’t. We mere mortals see it all as genius, but the genius sees the differences. No doubt even Jack has had those moments. From all I’ve heard of the man, you will never find an art director that hired Jack Davis for a job tell you he was difficult to work with. He is the consummate professional.

I was going to close with a gag about bringing some drawings into Kinkos for one of my former classmates to copy for me, but that wouldn’t be fair to either my former classmates or the good people who work at Kinkos… so I refrain.


  1. quikdraw4 says:

    Tom great blog entry. I agree with you and have those same encounters with clients. As an artist you really have to learn to check your artistic pride/ ego at the door with a client on a project. You need that check to pay your bills and to put your art on the street. Until you hit the lottery or have the legendary status of an elite illustrator you can’t afford to lose to many jobs because of artistic indifference.
    Your comments about fine artists and designers was funny.
    Tom would you agree with this statement:
    Its easier for a cartoonist to draw portraits than it is for a portait artist to draw cartoons?
    My opinion is this-A cartoonist should have basic understanding of features and bodies (thus easier to draw portraits) whereas its much harder for a fine/technical artist to draw looser and exaggerate.

  2. Tom says:

    Thanks for the comment!

    I can see your thinking but have to disagree in most cases. There are lots of different kinds of cartoonists. While some draw very well and can probably pull off a good portrait or realistic drawing, many cannot. Cartooning is often a marriage of writing and drawing, and the drawing part is a kind of shorthand view of life through the artist’s eye. Those cartoons can be drawn very effectively without needing strong drawing skills. Strip, gag and editorial cartoons are sometimes good examples of this. Don’t get me wrong, there are many cartoonists who can draw incredibly well and are fantastic artists by any definition.

    On the flip side of that, some realistic/fine artists can’t draw cartoons very well while some are excellent cartoonists. It’s just a function of their individual styles and views. Realistic art like painting is usually based on values and color as opposed to line, which is the basis for cartoons. It’s hard for someone who is trained to build their art with values, light and shadow to switch gears and simplify into line, and vice versa.

    I’ve always thought as far as caricatures go, the best caricaturists are those who can draw an excellent portrait when they want to. That command of the face is necessary if you want to depart from the real and convincingly exaggerate while maintaining a likeness. I have a blog post in the works about that…. maybe next week.

  3. Being a designer currently in college, I hear you on the sterotypes. I’ve heard many studio art majors bashing designers.

    I agree with the comments on client-artist relationship. What are your thoughts on the feedback clients give? Is it better for them to say for example “I want the colors to be…” or to say “These colors don’t work for me, trying something brighter/darker/happier etc”

    I’d be interested in hearing you thoughts on this. I recently wrote about this idea on my blog (

  4. Philbert says:

    Again, Tom, great post. Boy, can I relate. Several years ago I had a client, a nice middle-aged lady who stood all of about 4’2″ who wanted her likeness in a series of ads and in a brochure for her sewing machine dealership. I took source photos and merrily went to work. She was a great subject and her “cartoon character” was really cute. A little matronly, but with a lot of spirit and real “zip.” Fun to draw and a perfect icon for her type of business.
    When I finished the roughs I thought, “Touchdown!” This turned out great! Needless to say, when she got a load of her caricature she was dumbfounded. Didn’t look like her at all, please re-do it. So I started with the revisions, making some changes she had requested. 10 versions later, she was finally happy as I gave up and just drew her as a statuesque, buxom beauty queen. She was thrilled, her check didn’t bounce and I learned a valuable lesson.
    So it goes.

  5. Mark Hill says:

    Interesting blog post and discussion, Tom. You touched on the issue of professionalism a couple weeks ago and your foray back into it is terrific and quite relevant to anyone self-employed. The situations you described are familiar, particularly the notion of dealing with art direction that you feel may be off kilter somehow. But again, I agree with your advice that the client is always right. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t attempt to politely explain his or her thinking to help sell a sketch in some cases…but if the client remains unconvinced or even uncertain, it is time to put one’s emotions aside and cater to the client’s idea of perfection. (Funny that the unnamed caricaturist didn’t have the perspective to realize his stature allowed for his relative autonomy with clients.)

    As for the school memories, I saw much of what you encountered — from a different point of view. (I studied Biology at the University of Illinois and took oil painting courses in the art school). I saw those dynamics between fine artists and designers, etc., but as a ‘non-major’, I was largely looked down upon as someone who didn’t take art seriously. (Or so they thought.)

    To help pay for school, l held a position at the daily newspaper as the graphics editor. I first encountered the necessity to ‘switch gears’ as you put it, between realistic art and simplified line work for use in cartoons or illustrations. I agree that being able to do so is a matter of personal style and mindset, as well as training. (Of course, some folks never consider treading upon the neighboring ground at all.)

    Those insights about Jack Davis are inspirational. It often seems that the most accomplished cartoonists and illustrators are the ones who work the hardest and also remain humble enough to listen to their clients. To hear that a legend did it that way — and still does — imparts a great deal.

  6. giangia says:

    I totally agree with you, Tom. I run a small studio where we work for a lot of children book illustration editorials and some personal works for MAD in Germany. It’s so hard finding artists that want their creativity in the hands of an editor, acceot the client comments, and sometimes my own comments.
    And I tell you, living in a small contry (Argentina) with almost no commercial art companies (movies studios, editorials, etc) you must see how the government spends lots of money paying some supposed “fine artists” just to make some movies nobody in the whole world wants to see, or paint some really strange things that obviously nobody buys.
    I work a lot for Disney and Warner, someday one of those artists told me, hey you work for Disney, and begin a long chating of how frustating must be for an artist working for those companies. He really left me wordless, because I’m not frustated at all, and in some cases working for some really exigent editors (as the Disney ones) made me a better artist.
    Also agree about Jack Davis, I remember as a kid, it was impossible here finding MAD, I got just one issue (#176), there were a Mort Druker parody (Airport) and five Jack Davis pages that I’ll happily remember forever as my first drawing lessons.

  7. Tom says:

    Thanks for the personal perspective, everybody.


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