Q: What was your very first professional freelance job?
A: I guess that depends on what you mean by “professional”. If that means the first time I ever got paid for doing artwork. That was back in high school when I did a giant painting for a fellow student as a commission. I don’t count that one. I also don’t count my summer job doing caricatures at a theme park as professional freelancing. My definition would have to be a job for a legitimate client, destined for publication or for advertising in the real world, and obtained by being contacted directly as a professional illustrator.
Arguably my first professional freelance job was also one of the biggest nightmare jobs I ever did.
During my third year of college at the then named “School of Associated Arts” in St. Paul, MN., I was approached by the head of the design department about doing a “little job’ for him. It was fairly well known throughout the small school (my graduating class: 40 students) that I did caricatures during the summer break, and he had a client that needed some caricature work done. Almost all the teachers at the school were professionals in their field first, and teachers second. The professor owned a design firm in the Twin Cities, and he had a radio station from Ohio (I think… this was 20 years ago) as a client. Their morning show personalities wanted a new logo designed that incorporated caricatures of themselves in it. I had to draw the three hosts of the show, which he was going to work into the logo design. I was thrilled! This would likely end up on billboards and advertising materials, T-Shirts and other merchandise. Published portfolio pieces were worth their weight in gold. I accepted of course and was eager to get to work on it. I got the photo reference a week or so later, studio head shots. Ugh. Glamour shots are the worst things to work from. Regardless, I worked hard on the pencils and gave them to him in short order. I thought I’d done a decent job on it… I was even kind of nice to them. He sent the drawings to the client for approval.
A few days later he went over the feedback. The client didn’t think the likenesses were right on. No comments beyond that. No specifics like “you made his chin too big” or “he has more hair than that”. As a caricaturist, you draw a person they way you think they look. In other words, it looks like them to you when you are done. Did this guy think I just banged these drawing out without thinking I’d gotten a likeness, and now that he’d pointed it out to me I’d just go ahead and draw them so it looked like them? Working from pictures is tough as you have only a two dimensional image to use, and these people are three dimensional and seen every day in that way by the people who were reviewing this. If I’d been smart at this point I’d have asked for more reference, but I wasn’t smart… I was twenty. Okay, I did a new round and tried a more portrait-like approach. Off they went to the client for review again. I received essentially the same comments back. Another round, and off for review. They came back again… still no real direction, just ambiguous comments. Now I was getting frustrated. I then did a flat out portrait using an art-o-gragh to project the pictures and just traced the faces. According to the client it still didn’t look like them. Finally they sent a promo piece that they were previously using to give me an idea of what they wanted. In this example, the hosts of the show weren’t drawn as caricatures at all but as cartoons with big, white blocks for mouths and barely any resemblance to the actual people. Well, know I knew what they wanted so I did something similar. These looked nothing like the people whatsoever. Bingo! The client liked it and we proceeded to final. I redrew them on illustration board, inked and added values for the final art. Off they went, and I patted myself on the back for persevering. My first job complete!
A week or two later the design teacher took me aside and told me there was a problem with the caricatures. He explained that the original sketches I had sent in were shown to the hosts, who thought they looked fine. Some PR person at the radio station took it upon himself to “tweak” the artwork until HE was satisfied. The hosts didn’t see anything more until they were presented with the final logo, to which they objected asking “what happened to the first caricatures that LOOKED like us?” That’s right, I had to redo the artwork using the first sketches I submitted as the art.
Being young and stupid, I did not get compensated properly for the enormous amount of work that went into this. The design professor did not offer me any more money but did do a number of T-Shirts for me in trade (he had a silk screening business as well) because he felt bad about the headaches. I wish I had copies of the artwork, although in all fairness it was probably pretty rough and I doubt I did all that terrific a job on any of those sketches. I never did find out if they ever used the logo, and if so where it was used.
To be honest, I don’t count that as my first professional job either, because I didn’t get it being represented as a working illustrator, but rather through a college professor, and I didn’t get paid a professional fee.
I suppose my first real, professional freelance job was the comic book work I did for NOW Comics. I’ve posted about that before, so if anyone is interested they can read that story here. That gig I obtained by sending my artwork to them without having any insider connections, got offered the work based solely on the merits of my portfolio, had the work published, and got paid (occasionally).
Thanks to Grant Jonen for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!
745 My cover art for the next issue of MAD, exclusive sneak peek from @entertainmentweekly website
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