Sooooooo, you’ve got a great idea.
You want to make the next big smartphone app, or a jingle for your small business, or like me, a comic book. You’ve got all the best-laid plans… But then you remember… “Oh yeah! I have no practice or discipline whatsoever in [insert required skill set here].” Sure, you might be an expert carpenter, but you never learned or practiced illustration. Or you’re a doctor, but you can’t sing a lick. You get the idea. We’ve all spent a good portion of our life learning one skill or another, but there are surely areas where we might need some help.
Personally, I wanted to make a comic book. Professionally, I am an optician. I have a wealth of knowledge about eyeballs, glasses, and contact lenses, but my illustration skills are shite. While years of practice and study at drawing sounded enticing (and is something I still do as a hobby), I realized very quickly that if I wanted to make a professional looking comic book before I started turning grey, I was going to need to hire an artist. So it was with stories and scripts in hand I headed out into the great wide world to find my artist.
Y’all… I was. not. ready.
That was 5 years ago. Since then, I’ve learned many great lessons from working with artists to make comics. I think there are some really important things to know about working with and/or hiring someone for their artistic talents. I’d like to share some major points of what I’ve learned with you here in hopes of making your creative endeavors more successful for you and the artists in your life.
RELATIONSHIPS ARE KEY.
Artists are not vending machines. This is not a fast casual restaurant. When you set out to spend your money on a piece of art, you are essentially hiring a person. Just because someone has the talent that you require to make your project come to life, and you have the money to pay them for said services, that does not mean you will work well together. These situations are first and foremost relationships. And, like all relationships, some are going to go much smoother than others. Art as a commercial endeavor is going to be highly influenced by the personalities involved. This is true in so many different ways. If you take special care to focus on the dynamic between yourself and your artistic partner going into the project, you’re going to have a much better time once you get into the thick of things.
GIVE YOURSELF OPTIONS.
Don’t hire the first person that comes along. That’s not to say that this person couldn’t be the perfect fit, but be sure to keep your mind open and give yourself more than one option. For me, this was a huge lesson to learn. I had to work with dozens of artists on small projects before I found people who, not only had the talent and the vision for the project, but also had similar work ethic and communication styles, as me. I can’t stress enough the importance of simply being able to get along with your talent. As an artist looking for work, this idea often doesn’t apply. Even if an artist doesn’t like you or your project, if they are really looking for work, they will do what it takes to make ends meet. But, as a person looking to hire an artist, you shouldn’t base that decision solely on economics. Sometimes, personality differences are enough to wreck the project. I believe when you hire an artist, you have a responsibility to foster a thriving work environment. The best way to do that is to play the field and get to know some of the artists you’d like to work with. How does one do that,
When approaching an artist for your project, don’t throw all your eggs in one basket. Figure out some small stuff you can do to test the waters first. For me, a few test pages of a comic or a character profile were great, low-impact projects that allowed me to see how the process actually played out. Think of four or five tiny, baby versions of your project, and hire a few different folks to work on each of them. Yes, you will probably throw away a bit of money for test projects, but it will pay off in the end. I’ve had many experiences where I worked with artists in which I LOVED their art and they were very easy to work with as we became acquainted and got all the details of the project together. Then, once the work began, I saw numerous problems like lack of communication, over-communication, inability to deliver on time, differences in our visions for the project, etc. All of these things were problems that I never would have experienced until we were actually working on a project together. Starting small allowed me to find the people who I wanted to invest lots of time and money with and avoid those long term nightmares. Now, I have a small rolodex of people I KNOW I want to work with and we continue to make stuff together to this day on a very regular basis.
(Do any of you still have rolodexes?)
DON’T QUIT. TAKE BREAKS.
Don’t let a bad experience with someone derail you. In fact, go ahead and set up a quota for at least 5 bad experiences. Once you’ve had those 5, then you have a nice, solid foundation for continuing your work with people that will hopefully be a better fit. But, if not, keep going. And up your quota to 10 or 15. Trust me, they are out there, but this is a numbers game. You’re most likely not going to find the perfect person to work with right away. Some of the situations that can arise when working on a creative endeavor will be very frustrating. When you get really bushed (because if you’re really trying you will get really bushed) and you’re ready to quit, DON’T QUIT.
Just take a break.
I can’t count the number of times I was totally ready to quit. In fact, some days I still want to say “F*CK IT!” When that happens, I just take a good long break and come back with a fresh mindset. This is really important, because you’re going to need to invest some time if you want to pull off your dreams. Give yourself some room to breath.
KEEP IT TO YOURSELF.
Because you are not the person creating the art, you need be realistic about what you expect from someone else’s efforts. Life is rarely a best case scenario and you need to consider the worst case scenarios before you start publicizing anything. It’s good to have some hype around your project, but you should wait until you have finished the work to start shouting from the mountain top. This gives you at least two major advantages over piecemealing things out.
First, you’re going to be able to keep a consistent stream of content coming out for your fans if you wait until EVERYTHING is done. Then you can build a schedule and share all of this over months or even years. If you do it right, it will look like you’re revealing your work step-by-step as it’s created, but you will have the control to keep things consistent. Consistency is really important in this fast-paced, ADHD world. You may need to get your project in front of someone’s eyes several times before they really start to pay attention. You want to be able to provide a consistent stream of content. Keeping things to yourself until it’s truly ready will give
you that power.
Second, you can avoid those big pitfalls becoming public. You don’t want to get halfway into your project and, after sharing and promoting numerous pieces, have to back paddle and say “Oh sh*t, this happened and now we’re on hold indefinitely until I figure it out.” That not only looks unprofessional, but it also makes all your promotional efforts basically moot.
Beyond that, if you want to look for more partners or investors or even go to a crowdfunding platform, if you have a solid proof of concept, you’re going to have more success than if you’re simply pitching an idea.
FRIENDS DON’T ALWAYS MAKE THE BEST PROFESSIONAL PARTNERS.
Then again, maybe they do, but that hasn’t been my experience. When I first set out to make a comic, the very first thing I did is reach out to all my friends who I knew were visual artists. This was a pretty large group of people, and, out of all of them, nothing came to fruition. Some people responded, some didn’t. Some people worked on some small projects with me, but none of them really worked out great in the long term. Some people just weren’t interested, but your friends don’t always want to tell you that, because, you know, you’re friends. Sometimes people would walk all over me, because unfortunately as friends, we cut each other more slack. Your friends don’t want to hurt your feelings or damage your relationship. Those social pressures can severely impact the quality of a professional relationship and the final product. If you have a good buddy that you can work with, more power to you! But, I would say, if you’re going into this fresh, maybe keep the friendly relationships and professional relationships separate.
Once I set out through various outlets online to find new artists to work with, things started going much smoother for me. I felt like the process was far more efficient. There’s no doubt in my mind the difference was because the working relationship was predicated on nothing other than the project itself. The artists and I operated together simply for the end result of the project. After many years of working with certain artists, I feel like we have become friends, but when we get back to working, we know our priorities.
SET A BUDGET AND A DEADLINE.
and agree on these things on the front end. I can’t stress enough how important it has been for me to set a budget for my projects from the get-go. This point might be the most controversial, especially if you are an artist reading this, but budgets can help you avoid those contentious situations before they get out of hand. When I say set a budget, I don’t mean lowball your artists. You should do your research and make sure you are offering a budget that artists are going to feel is reasonable for the job. Even when you do that, there still may be artists that scoff at your budget. The best thing about setting a budget is that it gives you the power to filter out those artists who don’t want to work with you because, well, you can’t afford them. I’ve seen many arguments based simply around the price of someone’s work and in most situations, no one is wrong. But it’s a VERY, VERY important difference of opinion. Most artists know what their talent is worth. If you set a budget and make the budget part of your initial communication, your relationships are going to be much more cordial. Because, if you can’t afford an artist, most likely, you will never hear from them and they will move on. Setting a budget will also help you to make sure you can afford to support your project in the long run. If you find the perfect artist, but they charge WAY MORE than you can afford, your going to have a miserable time trying to finish something like a 24-page comic book together. I believe that the statement “Good art isn’t cheap, cheap art isn’t good” is true, but I also believe that this is not a black and white situation.
There are many shades of grey as far as the quality of work and the cost. Use a budget to navigate these choppy waters. And, if necessary, when you get feedback on your budget, make adjustments. When you decide on a budget, also set up your terms of payment on the front end. Will the artist be paid in full up front or 50% up-front and 50% upon completion. I would recommend the latter, especially when working with an artist for the first time. This goes really well with setting a deadline. Deadlines are pretty self-explanatory. When do you need the finished product? But in addition to having a deadline, I think it’s good to be proactive and check in with your artist as a deadline approaches to make sure everything is going to plan. Real life happens and you will probably miss a deadline here and there for good reasons (and sometimes for not-so-good reasons). Sometimes when life happens, communication can also fall through, so be proactive. This way, you’re not setting yourself up for false expectations. In addition to all that, be understanding. If someone falls through on a deadline, talk about it, figure out when the new deadline should be, don’t get mad, and move forward. If this becomes a regular thing with an artist, well, good thing you started small, right?
I think if you want to work with an artist in anyway, this info could be really useful. From my experience, people take artists and their talents for granted. Most people think if they have money (or sometimes even if they don’t have money), they can just throw it at an artist and the art they want is going to pop out. In some respects, that’s kinda true, but if you don’t remember first and foremost that the artist is also a person you’re probably, at the very least, going to have some bumps along the road. These are just a few of the things I’ve learned as I worked to understand the discipline of creating comics. I hope that they will serve you in your creative endeavors.
Special thanks to my friend Malik Shabazz, creator of The Sword is My Lady, who encouraged me to write an article about my experiences of working with artists.