Jack of All Trades?

October 15th, 2007 | Posted in Freelancing

Over the years I’ve picked up a lot of tips and advice from artists I greatly respect about the best way to make a living freelancing. While there are differing opinions about a few concepts and approaches, most of the successful freelancers I’ve talked to tend to agree about the fundamentals like developing strong relationships and communication with clients, creating a reputation as a reliable, hard worker who meets deadlines and fulfills promises and doing solid work.

One concept that does see a fair amount of debate is whether or not a freelance illustrator should stick to a single style and/or specialty or develop several styles and areas of subject matter to become a kind of “Jack of All Trades”. I’ve gotten advice from both sides of that argument at times from illustrators I admire. Each side has some compelling arguments, and I think it all depends on where one wants to go with their freelance careers as to which one makes the most sense for a given illustrator.

The first professional cartoonist I ever met emphatically supported the “multiple styles” approach. I was a college student in 1987 at what is now the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, MN. Our illustration class took a field trip to visit a local “illustration studio”. Illustration studios are scarce if not completely a thing of the past these days, but they used to be a kind of collective of illustrators in a single space of offices that operated like an advertising agency. The studio had a rep or several reps that would run down work for it’s stable of artists, and they would have a selection of different styles and techniques among their group of artists to make them a kind of “one stop shop” for the art needs of clients. Sometimes the artists were paid by the job and sometimes they were salaried, but it was more of a social community and office environment. Today individual reps have stables of artists but it works on commission and the artists are spread out all over the place, working on their own. Most studios had a resident cartoonist, and this studio had a cartoonist named George Karn.

Karn was a big bear of a man sitting behind and enormous drafting table with jars, glasses, mugs, coffee cans and all manner of containers surrounding him stuffed with every conceivable pen or marker known to man with no discernible method of organization. You might not be familiar with his name, but I can almost guarantee you’ve seen his work. Karn was a commercial illustrator/cartoonist for decades and did thousands of pieces for ads, products and publications everyone has seen. He was the the artist who created the characters for Trix and Count Chocula cereals for General Mills, and I think he also designed the Exxon Tiger character for the oil company’s ads. He passed away a few years ago.

With the entire class squeezed into his work area, Karn answered a number of questions, one of which was the old “If you had one piece of advice to give…”. His answer was not to get pigeonholed into a single style, look or subject matter lest you greatly restrict the work you would be considered for. He showed us a promo piece he had done that had a dozen samples of different cartooning styles from comic bookish figures to animation-like characters to caricatures. He explained that, since he could do it all, he was up for consideration for a lot more work than if he just did one thing. He also said it kept him from being tied to a style that might become dated or fall out of favor with art directors. Meeting Karn was very interesting… here was a guy who made a living doing humorous illustration… exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve heard that same philosophy from a few other artists, especially the part about a style becoming dated. That’s a little bit of a different animal from the active peddling of multiple styles simultaneously, however. Artists who have long enough careers will almost always have to allow their styles to evolve either a little or a lot to accommodate the changing times and tastes.

While the multiple styles approach is occasionally supported, I’ve found it’s more common for the opposite concept to be recommended by pro illustrators. Artists like Jack Davis, C.F. Payne, and others have told me to establish an identity, both visual and professional, and stick to it. I got that same advice from one artist I greatly admire, and who has been a great mentor for me over the years… longtime MAD artist and current art director Sam Viviano. Sam has told me repeatedly that it is far better to be have that solid, recognizable identity than to try and be too many things at once. He told me that art directors need to know what to expect from an illustrator, and that is best accomplished by presenting an identifiable style as opposed to the confusion of multiple personalities/styles. Art directors don’t like surprises, and if they hire an illustrator they need to have a pretty good idea of what they are getting before the make the call. I can tell a quick story to illustrate that. I had an artist working for me at Valleyfair many years ago, and he took his portfolio to a local publisher to try and get publication work. He had all manner of styles in is book, from park-like caricatures to some David Levine-ish crosshatch caricatures. These latter they liked, and he got a call to work up a caricature of then Minnesota Viking’s coach Dennis Green. He worked hard on the piece, and then brought it to me to show before turning it in. What he showed me was a park style airbrush caricature, not the crosshatch style. I told him they would not like it, and that he should have done it in the style they responded best to. He disagreed. The piece was rejected and he got a kill fee, plus he never got another call from that publisher.

Another issue with presenting multiple styles is the “jack of all trades, master of none” theory. Maybe the diverse illustrator does a good job with all the different types of art they present, but that doesn’t mean an art director will give them a call. If an AD wants a caricature of president Bush for an article, is he/she likely to call and artist who has a few caricatures among several radically different styles on their promo sheets, or an illustrator that does nothing but caricatures? The same could be said with sports illustrations, funny animal cartoons, etc. Maybe the multiple personality thing would get an illustrator considered for more work, but actually getting the work is another thing. Some ADs like to work with just a few illustrators, but many are not afraid to search for the style they are looking for outside their regular contacts. Specializing results in work within that specialty… the trick is not to specialize in something so obscure or seldom needed as to limit your potential jobs. Caricatures, for example, are used widely for entertainment, editorial, political and sports related features… a very good thing to be known for. Drawing really good sloths? Not so much.

Finally, I’ve been told trying to be a do-it-all go-to illustrator will limit how far you go in the world of illustration. Maybe most of us will never become regulars in Time, Sports Illustrated or Entertainment Weekly, but those who do reach that level are never “jack of all trade” types. The C.F. Paynes, Steve Brodners, John Kaschts and other heavy hitters have that instantly recognizable style that is unmistakable. We’d all like to think that level is attainable, and it’s hard to argue with success. George Karn may have done a lot of work we’ve all seen, but he was not in the same league as guys like Payne and Brodner. In all honesty, I was a little put off by Karn’s promo sheet, as I felt it did not jut present multiple styles, but other artist’s styles. He could see blatant ripoffs of artist like Davis, Jeff MacNelly an several more. That’s a little different than having several of your own styles to present.

Personally I believe that it’s better to have that recognizable identity than being a multi-personalty do it all. Maybe it means I won’t get any jobs drawing lawn mowers one day and cute little bunnies the next, but as long as I keep fairly busy doing what I do best it’s all good. I know some may disagree, and if that works for them then more power to ’em.


  1. Matt. says:

    This was a good read. I found this interesting when you have mentioned it briefly in other blog posts, but not as in depth.

    On a side a note, are you thinking of adding anymore pieces to your studio store? I know you did not too long ago, but it seems like quite a few got boughten up.


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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