Doing Licensed Property Art

January 25th, 2008 | Posted in General

Fellow caricaturist Mike Giblin posted a query on the NCN Forum the other day asking about how one goes about working on licensed property art… like Disney or Looney Tunes or similar. I wrote a long response based on my limited personal experience and what I’ve heard of that side of cartooning from some experienced artists. I thought I’d share it here:

About licensed property artwork:

The only licensed property work I ever did was when I drew “Married with Children” and “The Coneheads” comics way back in the day, and that was different than your traditional licensing for merchandise. However I do know an artist named David Mowder who recently spoke at an NCS event I attended. He works in the licensing section for Hallmark, which does a ton of licensed work in their “keepsakes” division… ornaments, mini-sculptures, plush dolls and of course greeting cards from licensed properties like Disney, WB, Simpsons, etc. His talk was very interesting and informative, and I paid attention. I also have ome friends who used to work for a company who did sticker books and other merchandise from licensed properties. So I am a bit familiar with the process.

Let’s start with the basics. What is licensed property art? Licensing is an agreement between two parties, one the owner of copyrighted characters and the other a manufacturer of some kind of product that wants to use the licensed characters on their wares. Just for sake of ease, let’s use Disney as an example. Disney owns Mickey Mouse, et al. Acme Calendar Co. wants to make a Mickey Mouse and friends calendar. They contact Disney’s licensing people an make an agreement whereby Disney grants them permission to use their copyrighted characters on their calendar. The financial terms could be an upfront fee plus a percentage of gross revenues, or whatever they agree to. Licensing deals expire after a certain amount of time, and/or could be capped by a limit on number of sold or manufactured products, or any number of other arrangements. They can vary greatly.

Most companies are not very interested in licensing out their characters to Joe Blow with a million dollar idea. Licensing is big money and some of these properties are so expensive to use that only big time volume in merchandise can possibly cover the costs of licensing. Disney knows full well that it’s their characters that sell the products they are depicted on, and not the product concept. Therefore a great deal of any profit goes into the licensor’s coffers on most agreements. Calling to try and produce your own products using licensed characters will likely prove impossible.

Licensing agreements are made with many different companies for the same characters, so there is usually no central place to apply for work. Disney probably has hundreds of licensing agreements out there making every conceivable type of product. If you are interested in doing licensed work, the best place to start is in your local store, looking at products that you think you’d be adapt at doing work for… be it comics, coloring books, greeting cards, toy design, etc. Look at the name of the company producing the product and contact them directly. Contacting the property owner will usually do no good, they have nothing to do with hiring the artists who work on the manufacturing end. They do, however, have the final approval of all images and products before they go into production, so indirectly you are working for them as well as the licensee.

I say there is “usually no central place” to go for doing licensed work, but with some major properties where licensing is a central focus the copyright holder may have their own licensing division where they produce a lot (or all) of the art that is used by licensees… at the very least this licensing department acts as an art director for the licensees and reviews all art and images on all licensed products. Charles Schulz‘s estate has an entire building with staff artists and designers that produce every single Peanuts image you see on any product. They trust no one to draw any Peanuts characters for any reason. In fact, 100% of the Peanuts images you see on products were drawn by Sparky himself, taken from their library of 50 years of his Peanut‘s strips and worked on by their artists to modify if needed for the intended purpose. Disney probably has a similar division, as do many big time licensors.

The pros with licensed work is that it’s usually with very reputable companies with lots of money behind them, so the work is generally very professional and payment prompt and guaranteed. It’s also probably kind of fun drawing characters like Mickey or Bugs Bunny (at least at first). That might be it for the pros.

The cons: You are severely limited artistically. Often, you work with a ‘style guide’ provided by the company for each character which contains official images of the character and you are forced to either use these images exactly or modify them only slightly for the purpose of your product. Even then the art needs final approval from the licensor, and because they are fiercely protective of their “branding” they are usually incredible picky. All characters must be perfectly “on model”, leaving zero room for your own artistic interpretation. While the licensed comic book work I did was different, we still had to appease Columbia Television (Married with Children) and “The Coneheads” people. With MWC, Columbia approved all images and they didn’t like my caricatures of Peg or Kelly at first, so I had to dumb them down a bit and it was several issues before I figured out a compromise that got some form of likeness and was still a caricature. In fact, they had a second artist come in and redraw Peg’s nose in every panel of my first issue… and it look like he inked it in with a Q-Tip. With “Coneheads”, the actors themselves had to give permission and approval of their images. Dan Ackroyd was incredibly cool and loved his caricatures, and most of the other actors gave their approval as well. Jason Alexander apparently refused to give his permission to use his likeness, so I had to draw a generic character that kind of resembled him instead. I think I had to do that with one of the other characters as well… can’t remember exactly. Anyway the point is that the licensor has complete control and has nothing but the protection of the character’s images in mind. Licensing artists have to be seriously good draftsmen and designers as well as excellent artists.

Almost all licensing work is work for hire, and you never get any credit for your efforts in the art. The exception to this is licensed comic book work, where the artists get proper credit as a byline. David Mowder said that was a particularly tough thing to take sometimes, as he would work hard and be proud of something but his name would never be officially associated with it. Everything just has “(c) Walt Disney Co.” or some such. You own nothing and have no rights to the art. It’s usually permissible to use the art in your portfolio but in the case of an online portfolio the licensor could make a case against your being able to use it. Most won’t of course, but they could if they wanted to. I think ultimately the artist would be able to prove they had the right to demonstrate their skills at drawing licensed properties, but nobody like going to court.

So, the bottom line is your best bet in finding work with licensed properties is to contact companies that either produce licensed products or licensors that might have in-house licensing divisions. Send them samples of your work. Don’t bother sending anything except drawings and art with their characters or other licensed characters in them, as they don’t care about anything else. They want to see art that exactly represents their official character designs, with no individual interpretation. Perfect drawings of Mickey, in other words. That is what they value the most, and being able to keep “on model” with characters while drawing them doing various things.


  1. giangia says:

    Hey, Tom, as most of my proffessional work had been with licensed characters story books and comics, I think it’s great working for most of those companies. I think the fact with Disney is that is for very few artists, and I don’t like it a lot, because of the lack of artistic freedom, but one thing for sure, Disney editors are so tough, they really turns you into a lot more proffessional artist.
    On the other hand, I enjoy a lot working with Warner (Looney Tunes comics) and Hannah Barbera (Scooby Doo story books), specially Looney Tunes gives the artist almost total freedom, of course you must keep the model sheets on your drawing table, and editors always keeps an eye, and sometimes the “OFF MODEL” appears in the comments.
    For the artists out there, I really recommend taking a look at this kind of job, and be sure that drawing with model sheets, gives the artist a total new way of looking at art, you begin seeing mistakes that before were like hidden. I know it sounds weird, but believe me it’s a great eye training.
    Regards, Tom.

  2. Tom says:

    I hope that I did not give the impression that artists who do licensed work are not terrific artists or that the work is not challenging. In fact, its far more challenging to work under strict guidelines and to live up to exacting standards than it is to do less constrained work. Licensing artists need to be terrific artists, draftsmen and designers. I have a boatload of respect for them.

  3. giangia says:

    Hope I did not get the wrong idea with my comment, Tom (I’m from Argentina, my English is not really good, and perhaps something I wrote gives the wrong impression).
    I never felt in your comment that you don’t have respect for licesing artists, on the other hand, being a constant reader of your blog, I think you’re really an openminded artist.
    I don’t know why, but yes, there are artists that unrespect the licensed art, I’ll challenge any of them to get a right picture of Mickey, that mouse seems the easiest draw in the whole world, but when you submit it to an editor, you began to see a thousend mistakes.
    Anyway, thanks for showing your respect, it’s always great to hear that from a truly talented artist.


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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