Sunday Mailbag: Time on Concepts?

December 29th, 2013 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Just curious how long you spend on the concept stage of an illustration. I am thinking about the piece you did “Abysmal House” for MAD. would think the conceiving of who will go where and what they will be doing has got to take a huge amount of time for something like that. Are there “super roughs” we don’t see that work out design, body position, etc. and then submitted for approval before proceeding or do you go right to what we are privileged to see as a sketch? Can you describe your process of conceptualizing an illustration? And somewhat related, any tips on how to tackle pricing when it comes to¬¨‚Ćconceptualizing of an illustration? This stage can get out of hand when clients don’t really know what they want which can make for a lot of roughs you may not get paid for.

A: Every job is different. Sometimes the conceptual stage takes a long time, sometimes it goes quick. That “Abysmal House” job for MAD you cite started out with a specific concept and layout already (The original Animal House poster), and all I did was replace key elements with ones that fit the concept, and then added stuff in around the edges. That still took a lot of time, because there were so many elements to squeeze in. I did post the first rough on the blog:

Abysmal House rough
Clicky to embiggen…

That is my first rough drawing… there are no pre-drawings or earlier, looser versions. This is a SKETCH, though, which means I sketch about and erase, change things up, etc. until I get a drawing I like. You can’t see every line I drew here. As you can see at this stage it has some loose caricatures but mostly just circles for heads and names written in…just for the MAD guys to get a sense of who went where and how it would work together. MAD actually sent me a collage of the original poster with pictures pasted in of who they wanted to be the “main” people (i.e. replacing the specific film stars like Belushi, Sutherland, etc.), and I took it from there.

Other jobs depend on factors like how detailed the direction is, and how many times I have worked with the client. In regards to the former, in some cases the art directors of a job have a very specific idea of what they want, and I will just do a single sketch for them to review. Other times I am asked to come up with ideas to convey whatever message they want the image to communicate, so I will then do a number of thumbnail concepts for them to review.

With regards to the latter factor, how many times I have worked for the client also matters. With new clients I need to be more detailed with my sketches, because they will not have a feel for what to expect in the finishing of a rougher sketch. With long-time clients, I can get away with looser sketches as they know what to expect from me with the finishes.

When it comes to charging for roughs, I factor that in to my base fee. However, if I have not worked for a client before, I usually require a limit to the sketch phase for that base fee. I might limit it to two or three rounds of revisions before I start charging extra for additional rounds. You’d be surprised how suddenly an art director will decide the latest sketch is exactly what they wanted when they know the next sketch will cost them something extra. I want to make the client happy and to give them what they are looking for, but looming deadlines and/or additional cost is sometimes the only thing that will get an art director to stop spinning their wheels and make a decision.

Thanks to Sean Platt 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!


  1. Isaiah Shipp says:

    Thanks for the insight Tom. This is extremely helpfull. Until now I had not known how to price my freelance work because of all the concept sketches that I do for the customer. My first freelance job I did way more work then I ever ended up getting paid for. So (hopefully) now that won’t happen again!

  2. Lee Fortuna says:


  3. Adam says:

    Excellent mailbag indeed! I was very impressed when I saw that in the most recent issue!


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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