Sunday Mailbag

November 14th, 2010 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Can you take us through your process for a typical illustration job, from start to finish?

A: Fortuitous timing on that question, as the editor of an article in School Library Journal that I did an accompanying illustration for recently wrote a blog post describing some of the process. You can read her article here, but I will elaborate a bit more from my perspective using this recent job as an example of a typical project’s process.

The basic anatomy of an illustration job:

  1. Initial communication with client & agreement
  2. Discussion of the project details with the Art Director
  3. Research
  4. Initial concept sketches
  5. Review and direction by client
  6. Revised rough sketch (if necessary) and subsequent review
  7. Final pencil sketch
  8. Review and direction/approval by client
  9. Execution of finished illustration
  10. Delivery and invoicing

1. Initial communication with client & agreement

Every job starts with the initial contact. The client may have found you in many different ways (exactly how, BTW, is important to find out for marketing purposes) but in the end they have contacted you with a proposed job. This stage simply involves your reviewing what it is the client wants and deciding on if it is something you feel you can deliver to the client’s satisfaction (sometimes you get a call to do something so outside your area of expertise it’s not wise to accept the job). Important issues are the terms of the copyright use, time frame needed for delivery of final work and of course the amount of money you’ll be getting paid. The dry, boring but important stuff.

In my example here I received a call from art director of School Library Journal Mark Tuchman with whom I have done work before, looking for an illustration to accompany an article. They wanted a caricature illustration of the subject of the article, delivery in about a week and their budget was adequate for what I typically charge for a full page illustration. The only problem on my end was time, as I was currently slammed with a big MAD parody job, work on an episode of the Cartoon Network MAD show and another poster illustration. However the deadline was far enough away that I could squeeze it in by working on it while awaiting approvals and such for my other projects.

2. Discussion of the project details with the Art Director

The next step is all about communication. You need to carefully understand what it is the client is looking for, and what needs need to be fulfilled with the illustration. Most art directors will describe the job in detail and what they are looking for, but some are less specific leaving either more for the artist to work with creatively or more to guess at. I always ask for a copy of the article I will be illustrating and if possible the basic layout as it will appear in the magazine. I also ask a lot of questions to get as strong a grasp as I can on what it is they are looking for in the illustration.

In our example, Mark wanted a full page illustration with bleed depicting college professor and gaming expert Kurt Squire, who is associated with games like Madden Football and is the subject of a Q & A style article about his career and involvement in gaming. In our conversation we discussed several possible concepts including incorporating some Madden-style images and playing up the “computer nerd” aspect of Kurt against the macho football player dynamic. Mark is a great AD to work with because he gives me the essential elements of what they need for the illustration but allows me a lot of creative freedom to come up with my own solutions.

3. Research

In most cases this just involves actually reading the article to be illustrated. That sounds like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised how many illustrators don’t bother to do that and just do a drawing based on the description of the AD. Big mistake. There are almost always subtle or important points/themes that the article will suggest that should or could be incorporated into the illustration. At the very least you might avoid doing something with the image that doesn’t belong based on the text it accompanies. Other research might involve finding references for various objects or environments that will be part of the illustration.

In our sample project, I was provided several pictures of Kurt for the caricature but did a Google search on him anyway and found a couple of other references that helped out. I also looked up details like what an xBox and controller looks like, etc.

4. Initial concept sketches

I always try and provide three different solutions to the illustration “problem” for the client to review… and I try to make them as diverse as I can. It’s easy to come up with a single solution and just go with it, but by forcing yourself to brainstorm other ideas you sometimes find a better idea emerges, or at least elements of a different idea that can be incorporated into your first one to strengthen it. It sometimes seems like a waste of time trying to come up with other ideas when your first one was working well, but it’s a good practice as it gets the AD and client involved in the decision making and again can lead to a better illustration. 4 out of 5 times they go with your initial idea anyway because it often is the strongest one, but again sometimes another concept pops up and is better than the first one or elements of others become incorporated into your main idea.

These sketches are loose and not meant to represent any form of finished drawing. They are concepts only and the client should understand this.

Here are the three rough sketch ideas I submitted for this project. I often accompany each sketch with a written description of the important elements and my thinking behind them, in case that is not readily apparent in the sketches:

Comments to AD: “This basically shows an image “inside” the game with Kurt as a QB surrounded by falling game DVDs and an XBOX and Playstation with requisite controllers. In the background I though we could do a cascading pattern of “1”s and “0”s aka programming code ala “The Matrix”. We can play up the “nerd” part with accessories like tape on the glasses and a pocket protector with pens, possibly adding some books on computer science amid the gaming equipment.”

Comments to AD: “This has both a nerdy Kurt playing the game, possibly with lots of books piled up around him, with the light coming from the screen showing his digital self tossing a football. We could play up the nerdy vs. the jock by making him buff as the QB…. This is again a sort of play on “The Matrix”.

Comments to AD: “This is a straight action shot of Kurt bursting from the TV screen, with light rays and glass about him vaulting over a gaming console. We again could play up the “nerd” aspects of Kurt with the tape-repaired glasses, making him skinny with big hands and feet, and with a pocket protector and/or slide-rule.”

5. Review and direction by client

After submitting the roughs I wait to hear back from the client with direction. This could range from a quick approval of one of the sketches “as is” to approval of one of them with some changes to wanting more concept sketches. A lot depends on if one of the ideas is an obvious home run or if there are too many questions about the messages and the effectiveness of any of the sketches to deliver it.

In our sample project, Mark and the clients liked the third sketch best (my initial idea, BTW… 4 out of 5 strikes again) but with some changes. First, they decided to downplay the “nerd” references, and figured my making him a skinny guy in the football gear and in caricature would be enough. Second, they wanted to incorporate some elements that spoke of his college professor persona and location. We discussed and settled on adding a textbook and coffee cup with the logo of his college, the University of Wisconsin- Madison, on it.

6. Revised rough sketch (if necessary) and subsequent review

This stage is usually only needed if you have not worked with an art director before or the initial sketches were a long way from what they were looking for. Rather than waste time working on a final pencil that may end up being changed drastically or scrapped, you would instead do another round of roughs based on whatever direction you had received from the first round’s review.

In the case of our illustration here, the third sketch was close enough to what they wanted and the changes were minimal enough that a second rough was unnecessary. Plus having worked with Mark several times before, he and I knew what to expect from each other.

7. Final pencil sketch

This stage represents a tight pencil drawing of the final image. Nothing should be left to the imagination here… except for the finished painting/rendering techniques the complete illustration and all elements therein should be present and well drawn out.

8. Review and direction/approval by client

You should still be prepared for some changes at this stage. That’s the purpose of the final pencil. However if the first stages were done thoroughly the changes should be nothing more than tweaks. Still, the client needs to see and approve the illustration at this stage, because any changes after the art is completed will be a lot tougher to do. The client should understand this as well… this is their opportunity to make any fundamental changes.

In this case no changes at all… on to the final.

9. Execution of finished illustration

Here’s the final art:

Click for a closer look…

I used my colored line style on this piece, which was what they were looking for as a finishing technique.

10. Delivery and invoicing

Finally, you deliver the final in whatever manner the client requests. In this case I placed the image in my client FTP folder and supplied Mark with a user name and password to retrieve it. Of course the important thing is that the final is delivered on time and on deadline.

I then submit an invoice to the client for payment. Job over.

This is just a very basic example of a typical illustration job, and there can be a lot of different circumstances and departures from what is described here. For example, with a new client I may require a partial payment after the approval of the rough or even an advance prior to starting work at all. There may be (and often is) an actual contractual agreement that needs signing at the start f the project, which details the copyrights involved. There may also be multiple rounds of roughs that might require additional payment or be expected in advance due to the nature of the job. Every project is a little different.

This illustration should be in the next issue of School Library Journal. after which not doubt Kurt Squire will be wondering what he ever did to me to deserve what I did to him in the caricature.

Thanks to Brent Lemke for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar,¬¨‚Će-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Outstanding. Even though I’ve been through this process many times, your thoroughness and excellent drawing samples were very insightful and inspiring. My heart still sinks when the client picks the concept I’m least attached to though. Great work.

  2. Thanks, Tom. Great post. The article and above illustration are posted here:
    Haven’t heard any feedback from Kurt Squire, but I’m sure he’s pleased with the art, I know we are.

  3. gerardooroz says:

    i love your artwork tom. i am learn a lot of with your tutorials and your work in general. thank you very much for all. a hug

  4. Chip Olson says:

    Great insight Tom. Have been a fan of your artwork and blog for a long time. Thanks for taking time from your busy schedule to share your work and knowledge.

  5. a.t says:

    hi tom
    Black lines which I paint. Delicate loses himself. What should I do?
    How should I paint the black lines?


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