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Pros and Cons.

“There’s a mark born every minute, and one to trim ’em and one to knock ’em.”

According to Wikipedia, “The earliest known appearance of the above phrase in print is in Opie Read‘s 1898 novel A Yankee from the West,” even though the more common, ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ is often wrongly attributed to P.T. Barnum.

Freelance artists, in my experience, can be a naive bunch, and there are plenty of people out there willing to take advantage of them. I’ve been guilty of falling for a few empty promises on more than one occasion in my career and even though somebody can warn you of giving in to temptation, you most often learn the best lessons from experience.

Many of us just want our names and our work out there, to repeatedly have those Sally Field moments when you can stand on stage and say, “You like me, you REALLY like me,” when in fact, those moments are few and far between if you allow yourself to be taken advantage of. There are plenty of con artists out there willing to promise the world, and it’s easy to let the dollar signs in your eyes blind you to the fact that you’re selling your work (and often your soul) for bargain basement prices.

I’ve recently had a couple of life lessons handed my way in that area, and I’m grateful for them, primarily for the fact that I was able to learn from them, without any great financial cost or significant loss of time.

Without going into great detail of one of the situations, I’ll simply say that I ignored a gut feeling. I’d said that I’d required a written contract, but still began work without one. Then when push came to shove, and I insisted on it, I was told that the contract for this sort of arrangement would come at a later point, that this is how things were done ‘in the real business world,’ and that I was a rank amateur if I didn’t know that.

The worst part of it was that, for a very short time, I almost believed it. The situation went south fast, the deal fell apart, and ultimately, I was threatened with a lawsuit (later recanted, sort of). After consulting a lawyer, I was told not to give it a second thought as nothing was ever put into writing.

There were a number of things I could have done better in this bad arrangement, but in the end, I wouldn’t have changed anything, because I won’t fall for the same trap again. Having done more research after the fact, talked to other illustrators with more experience than I have with this sort of arrangement, I’ve confirmed that I really was setting myself up for a very big fall. While a contract can always be revised, I shouldn’t have put one pencil stroke on paper without at least a written understanding of the agreement, signed by both parties.

Too often, artists will ignore their own instincts in order to prevent the boat from rocking. Concessions are made that should never even be considered, in an effort to be ‘a nice guy.’

After you agree on a price, get a deposit of half of the money up front. If somebody gets angry when the subject of money enters into the conversation, then they don’t have any. You wouldn’t have gotten paid, anyway, so you’re no worse off.

If they get angry or try to avoid the question of a written agreement, then you’re better off parting company because you weren’t likely to get what you thought you were, anyway. Once again, you have nothing to lose (and everything to gain) by walking away.

In retrospect, the experience was very unpleasant, but it could have turned out worse. I learned from it, and am moving on, better prepared for the next offer that sounds too good to be true.

Some suggested reading for freelancers, to better protect yourself.
Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines

Photographers’s Survival Manual: A Legal Guide for Artists in the Digital Age

Licensing Art 101

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Suck it up, Princess.

My wife, Shonna is a wonderful woman who has encouraged me in all of this cartoon and illustration stuff from day one. But supporting both of us on one income was never a realistic consideration, especially in a town like Canmore. So about six years ago, after a number of years of my working long evenings and weekends building my business, I had come to a point where my business could not grow anymore unless I quit my full-time job. But I still had to be able to pay my half of the bills and mortgage.

Looking back, it was easily the most frightened I have ever been in my life.

While it hasn’t always been a smooth ride, it is the best decision (aside from asking Shonna to marry me) that I have ever made, since every year of self-employment has been better than the one before.

I realized something this morning, though. What was once very exciting and frightening has, in the past couple of years, become routine. Day to day editorial cartoons, regular illustration gigs, a few projects here and there, but all within an acceptable margin of safety. While I’ve been busy and making a good living, I haven’t really taken any new risks. All that has changed recently.

The past month has been a whirlwind of activity, some of it brought on by winning the two Guru Awards at Photoshop World, other stuff that had been in the works already, but it’s all coming at once and I’ve been freaking out a little. OK, more than a little.

All of a sudden, I’m working on a training DVD to teach people how to do cartoon illustration for a very well known mover and shaker in the world of Photoshop. Somehow, I’m now good enough to teach? When the hell did that happen? I’ve had to buy new recording software, learn to use it, and figure out how to narrate drawing and painting techniques that I consider instinctual.

In the course of less than a year, I’ve gone from painting one funny little grizzly bear to having bought an inventory of many canvas prints of 6 more animal paintings to supply three galleries, and have been shocked that people are actually starting to buy these things. Thankful for that last part, because the financial output has not been insignificant. I’ve started muttering a new mantra over and over again as I gnaw on my fingernails, “you have to spend money to make money.”

I’ve now got writing assignments for two companies that I’ve long admired, and one of them may become a regular gig. Add to that pending character sketches for another possible dream opportunity, an overdue website redesign for a client and myself, the illustration gigs I’m barely managing to keep up with and 7 editorial cartoons each week, and it’s a full slate.

We’ve all heard the phrase, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. I haven’t been this nervous of all of the things I’ve committed to since those first months working from home full-time. While I may be a complete stress case at the moment, I realized this morning that it’s the best thing that could have happened to me, because I am no longer in a routine.

Personal growth involves risk and fear, and often the more the better. While the challenges will be different for everyone, the scenario is the same. If you just put a little on the line, then you get just a little back. If, however, you try to fly farther and faster than you’ve ever gone, it’s true that you could end up in a spectacular fireball of failure that people will see for miles, but with a little faith and luck, you just might push envelopes and break barriers.

Either way, it should scare the hell out of you.

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My Best Work

Quite often, I’ll hear somebody say something like, “I wish I could draw,” or “I can’t even draw a stick man.”

Obviously the latter is an exaggeration. I’ve yet to meet ANYONE who can’t draw a stick man. But the statement about wanting to draw is usually made by somebody who hasn’t tried. I don’t mean, playing a game of Pictionary and not being able to get their idea across, I mean REALLY tried.

I’m still on the fence regarding the ‘talent’ vs. ‘skill’ debate. A lot of people will fall back on the crutch that they don’t have talent when most of the time, I’ve found that it’s just that they don’t have the interest. There’s nothing wrong with that, either.

My wife is an excellent cook. She enjoys trying new recipes, experimenting with ingredients. I don’t cook well at all. I can BBQ a steak, make a pot of Kraft Dinner or throw something in the oven. Sure, it’d be nice to be able to cook, but I just have no interest in it. Who knows, I could become good at it, but I’m just unwilling to put in the time.

I never went to art school, and I used to be a very poor artist. I would draw from time to time, but I wasn’t good at it. It wasn’t until an opportunity showed up a little over 10 years ago that I figured I had nothing to lose by putting in a little more effort, and it became a fun hobby.

One thing led to another and I found myself becoming quite passionate about wanting to become a better artist. I read magazines, watched instructional videos, took a couple of online courses, studied the work of other artists, and worked very hard to improve my skills. In the meantime, I was building my business, getting more newspapers and clients, and about 5 years ago, I was able to quit my job, work full-time at home, and make a nice living at it. Not bad, for somebody who, for most of my life, wasn’t good at drawing.

In the interest of proving this point, here are some pieces of work that I did a relatively short while ago. At the time, each of these was my best work. I look at them now, and I honestly do not want to show them and find it hard to believe that anyone every hired me. But it’s important to see that all it takes to become better is time and effort. I was proud of each of these pieces when I created them. I spent HOURS on them.

Click on any of these to see them a bit larger.

I often wonder what I’d be missing out on if I had never pursued this course, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities that led me here. Often I’ll run into somebody who hasn’t seen me in 20 years and when they hear what I do for a living, their response is, “I didn’t know you could draw.”

That’s because at the time, I couldn’t.

There is no magic formula to being an artist. It’s a simple matter of working at it. It’s a cliche, but as in all things, you get out of it what you put into it.

It will take time to become good at anything, and whether you do it or not, that time will pass anyway. Who do you want to be on the other side of it? If you want to draw, paint, sculpt, play music, dance, sing, or follow any other passion, it’s a simple matter of starting and following through, especially when it isn’t going well.

There are a few simple truths that anyone wanting to be an artist has to learn to make peace with, whether it’s a hobby or a profession.

1) There will always be somebody better than you are. Get comfortable with that or you won’t find any joy in it. The only person you are REALLY competing against is yourself. Seek out the work of better artists to inspire you, but don’t waste your time comparing yourself to them. Everyone has different circumstances, so nobody’s work should look the same.

2) If your work from this year is no better than your work from last year, than you are being lazy. Try harder.

3) Your best work should always be work you haven’t done yet.

For the record, the following two pieces are what I would call my best work of THIS year. I shudder to think what my impression will be of them five years from now, and am a little excited to speculate what my best work will look like then.

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Freelancer, Heal Thyself.

Went for a nice afternoon hike up to Grassi Lakes today on the south side of the valley. Canmore is a wonderful place to live. A few minutes in any direction and you’re out in the wilderness. The Grassi Lakes hike is a short one, and even with a break at the top, it’s only about an hour round trip, less if you’re really moving.

It’s no secret that I’m a workaholic. Many freelancers can tell you about the early days of their career when the bills kept coming, but the work didn’t. The phone wasn’t ringing, there was nothing in the email in-box, and sleepless nights led to frustrating days.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to worry about that for a few years, now. These days, I’m grateful that not only does the work keep coming, but I’m able to politely decline the less than creative jobs, those same jobs that at one time paid the mortgage.

But old habits die hard and it’s still difficult to say No. As a result, I have once again accepted far too much work and I’ve got deadlines that stretch into the Fall. As my friend, Carol, said on Facebook today, “Typical story of the self-employed. Not sure when the next drought’s coming so gorge at the feast.”

As I’ve gotten older, it would seem that mental stress takes a much more physical toll on me than it used to. For the past couple of months, I’ve been dealing with fairly constant lower back pain, and I’ve realized that it is likely 80 percent mental. Since I’m very well aware that most of my stress is self-inflicted, I’ve taken steps to change that.

Walking an hour or more a day four times a week seems to do the trick for the most part, both mentally and physically. My wife, Shonna, finally got me to go to yoga once a week, as well, and I really am enjoying it. I highly recommend it if you can find a good studio.

Thankfully, my back pain has retreated. While I know it could return at any time if I’m not careful, I’ve been almost pain free for the past two weeks, and I’ve no desire to go through that again. That’s why, even when the work load is at it’s heaviest, I’m making that hour or two walk just as much a priority as the deadlines I’m working on.

Of course, while I was up there, I took some photos of the locals, a variation of ground squirrel called the Golden Mantle. You can tell these little critters get fed WAY too often by the tourists, because they are not shy. It wasn’t hard to get some great photos, because this little guy kept coming back and posing (yes, I said POSING), hoping to be rewarded with a treat, no doubt. I did not oblige.

This is just one of the photos I got, nice and close, great detail. As I was taking these photos, I started planning the painting I will likely do of this little guy. Which means, of course, that I was thinking about work. 🙂

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Yeah, but did you learn anything?

Over the past five weeks, I’ve done three digital painting demos at three different galleries. The first at Editions Gallery in Banff, the second at Editions Gallery in Red Deer, and the third at Two Wolves here in Canmore. All three currently have my paintings for sale.

I’m pretty comfortable with my regular cartooning and illustration gigs, as I’ve been doing them for a number of years, but the animal paintings, the canvas prints and the whole gallery experience is still pretty new. I’ve had the benefit of help and advice from a few generous artists who’ve shared their experience and saved me time and money. The gallery owners and managers have been top notch at all three locations. But, there are just some lessons that have to be learned through experience.

The first thing I learned…Demos and artist appearances usually generate more sales from what I’ve been told, so I had high expectations. But in these cases, sales were incredibly slow, or non-existent. Thankfully, I’ve been told by those in the know that I shouldn’t take this personally and not to see it is a reflection on the quality of the paintings. Art is in a slow period right now, and I’ve heard this from a number of artists who are used to selling a lot more than they have in the past couple of years. We are in a down economy and art is a luxury. While the purchase of the canvases was a significant outlay of money on my part, I’m fortunate that my other syndicated and commission work provides me with a good living, so I can afford to be patient.

The second thing I learned…people don’t want to be indoors when it’s hot and sunny. Truth be told, I think I already knew this one. We’ve had a very rainy May and June here in Alberta, and as luck would have it, the painting demo in Red Deer fell on one of the nicest sunny Saturdays of this year, a two day break from the dreary weather. Nobody wanted to be in the mall, and who could blame them?

It was a repeat of that weather phenomenon this weekend in Canmore. With a lot of ArtsPeak events being held outdoors and the weather being absolutely perfect (after a previous week of rain), I barely saw anybody today at Two Wolves.

Third and probably the most important thing I learned from these digital painting demos…hope for the best, but be ready for the worst. There was nothing I could have done differently to improve the situation at any of these events. I did my part and in my opinion, so did the gallery staff in all three locations. No matter how well you take care of the details, sometimes the dice just don’t roll the way you want them to.

If nothing else, I met people who had never seen digital painting before and were fascinated at what can be created without actually using ‘real’ paint. Two people in Banff, one person in Red Deer, and one in Canmore have bought Wacom tablets since seeing the demo. I know, because they emailed me and told me, and two of those tablets were for children. I think that’s pretty damn cool, because it meant that something I showed them inspired them in some small way to believe in their own possibilities. You can’t buy that kind of validation.

All three galleries anticipate things will pick up over the summer, and all want to give this another try in November when the holiday season gets under way. I think it’s worth another shot in the Fall, so I’ll look forward to that, but I’ll know not to put so much pressure on myself next time.

As for slow sales, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little discouraging, but I’ll keep working on these paintings, simply because I believe in their potential, and they’re just so much fun to create. I find myself thinking of something that Randy Pausch said in his famous Last Lecture at Carnegie Melon University. He said, “Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things.”

If you haven’t seen this, MAKE the time. This embedded video is the short version. If you’d like, the actual last lecture is over an hour long and can be seen at this link.

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Weighed, Measured and Found Wanting.

Many of us have met or heard of those artists that feel it is beneath them to treat their art as a business, that it pollutes their creative energy and that to work for money would interfere with the voice of their muse. This type of artist is easy to spot. They’re usually living off of government grants paid for by those of us who work for a living or they are still in art school, protected from the real world.

Make no mistake about it, I do this work because I love it and I have a lot of fun, but I’m also in it for the money. This is a job. Like everybody else, I’ve got bills to pay and while I know my wife loves me, she’s expecting me to pony up half of that mortgage payment every month.

That being said, this doesn’t mean I take any gig that comes through the door. Just because something is offered, does not mean it should be accepted.

A potential client sent me an email yesterday, after being referred to me by an artist colleague for whom I have a lot of respect. He didn’t take the work that was offered, and I never asked why, but he sent the client my way because he thought I could do the work well and might even enjoy it.

Basically, the client runs a small reputable company with an established track record over a number of years. They supply seasonal holiday images for different products for some minor and major department stores in the United States and Canada. So that I don’t violate any implied nondisclosure agreement, that’s all I’ll say on the company specifics.

The gist of the gig was that they would supply me with a few images to establish ‘the look’ that I was supposed to achieve, and I would have to produce three images that matched that look very closely. The illustration style was digital painting of good quality, nicely detailed, but in a style I have no doubt I could replicate. They have other artists that they work with that receive the same instructions and the whole catalog of images is supposed to end up looking like the same artist worked on it.

The money that was offered was good, there was even an advance on acceptance of each illustration. The deadline was also reasonable. But of course, there was a catch.

When the images were completed, nothing about them would be mine. I would receive no credit, in print or otherwise. Additionally, I would not even be able to show the images in my portfolio or claim that I had created them. They would own all of the images and all rights attached to them. This includes their being able to resell the images at a future date without any further compensation to me.

Let me be clear about this. This is NOT an illegal or unethical practice. This is a contract called ‘Work For Hire,’ and while it is often an undesirable arrangement, it is one that many corporations insist on, although it isn’t always this strict.

Keep in mind, if a magazine hires an artist to create an image, there may be no credit on the image itself, but after the initial printing, the copyright on that image still belongs to the artist. There may be publication guidelines, such as not being able to show the image until 30 days after publication, or something like that, but the image is still only licensed to the magazine, not sold.

In a work for hire situation, the artist no longer has any rights to the image.

On the pro side, it was good money, I would still be illustrating and painting, and it appeared that this would be an ongoing gig, with repeat work. On the con side, however, I would be illustrating in a style that was not my own, producing formula work, and there would be nothing creative in it at all. There would be no enjoyment in it.

As a freelance artist, whether it’s illustration, photography, cartooning, painting or any other art form you may want to practice, you’ll need to establish your own guidelines about what work you will and won’t take. In the beginning, you may have to accept a number of the more undesirable jobs just to pay the bills. I detest creating business logos, unless there’s a cartoon element to it, but I took those jobs early on because I couldn’t afford to turn them down. Sooner or later, though, your decisions will end up being based more on your vision for the future of your business, rather than just cash in hand. Eventually, money just isn’t enough of a reason to take any job that comes in.

I once did a bunch of work for Cracked Magazine, in one of it’s recent incarnations. At first, it seemed like a really sweet gig. The money was OK, it was more photo manipulation than cartooning, but there was enough illustration in it to justify my doing it. I think I did about three or four different spreads for them, and I hated it. The work I was tasked to do was crass. It wasn’t that it was morally wrong or involved nudity, it was just base toilet humour, the kind of stuff I’d be embarrassed to show to anyone. While I handed in work that was technically good and my best effort at the time, there was no pride in it, no sense of accomplishment. In fact, I felt like I needed a shower after it was done.

It was after that job, that I knew I couldn’t take anymore work that I wouldn’t want to put my name on. When you work hard to build your reputation as an artist, your name becomes your brand, and you want to protect it. And once you do that, you’ll get so that you won’t let anyone strip you of it, either.

(For a more detailed look at Work For Hire, check out Tom Richmond’s excellent blog entry on the subject.)