I occasionally get e-mails from art students asking for advice. Caleb Kelley from the Art Institute of Atlanta recently asked me some good questions. I’d like to share his questions and my answers with any young artists (as well a a few of you old timers) out there who might need this kind of advice.
How long have you been Illustrating?
I have been supporting myself from my art since 1968. I was still in art school (The Chouinard Art Institute/ California Institute of the Arts) at that time. The Illustration Department had a wonderful policy: if you got any real work on the outside you could turn it in in lieu of your homework. Everything I was turning in my last year at school was real jobs, so it made my transition from the school world to the real world seamless.
Which artists or illustrators have influenced you the most?
At first, it was the DC comics work of Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino and their talented inker Murphy Anderson. I was about 14 when I started copying their work. Then I got hit hard by Frank Frazetta. Jean “Moebius” Giraud affected me in a big way, too. Investigating the influences and origins of Frazetta’s work led me to to my most lasting influences, the painters of the late 19th century and the illustrators of the early 20th century. My comics work and visual storytelling style have also been very informed by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner and Alex Toth. I learned a lot working as an apprentice/assistant to Russ Manning, Harvey Kurtzman and Willy Elder.
Do you self-promote and if so how?
Yes, I do a lot of self promotion — but almost nothing in the trade books that ask for a lot of dough to publish your images. I appear at lots of conventions (over 12 this year, but that’s unusually high for me). I think it’s important to meet the people who like your work and make a personal connection. I self-publish sketchbook collections of my work every year (it’s always important to have new product). I don’t hesitate to do interviews, especially TV interviews. Fame does not tend itself; the public has a very short memory (I’m astounded how often I have to explain who Frazetta is). I always enter the Spectrum competition each year. I occasionally send out press releases (I should do more of that).
Do you have an agent?
I never use a rep or an agent; I have yet to meet one that can get me more than I can get for myself. I’ve found most (but not all) of them to be incredibly dishonest (anyone can become a rep, agent or gallery owner; no test, degree or license is required for the job). Unless you’re a complete social idiot, it’s always best to meet your clients in person to establish a personal relationship with them (dress well). I also prefer to negotiate my own deals and write my own contracts. Artists need to stand up for their rights. It helps to be your own biggest fan.
Can you offer any advice for an aspiring illustrator who is just starting out?
Continuing from the last question…Be aware of the value of your rights and fight for them with each contract. Each successive contract you write should get you a little bit more for yourself. It doesn’t necessarily have to be money. It can be a prime parking spot, free samples of your published work, stacks of tear sheets, First Class travel (if travel is required), samples of the products you’re promoting (I did a beer poster and had the beer company throw in a case of their beer as part of the deal), etc.
Hang on to your copyrights. 20% of my annual income comes from licensing images from my back catalog of work.
Never sign “work for hire” contracts.
Always keep a paper trail and don’t start a job until you’ve got a P.O. (Purchase Order) number. That will protect you if you have to go to Small Claims Court to collect your fee. I usually don’t start a job without an agreement (short contract), either. Run from any client who says you two don’t need contracts. Contracts spell out your obligations to each other and protect the both of you. Why wouldn’t anyone who’s not a thief want that?
Learn to negotiate. Pick up books on the subject and read them. If you work with an attorney ask him about every line he puts in your contracts and why. The goal is for you to eventually be able to write your own contracts instead of paying someone $400 per hour to do it for you.
Always be able to walk away from a negotiation. If you can’t walk away, there is no negotiation.
Never be arrogant in your negotiations. Be firm but polite and understanding of their side.
Young illustrators say this is all easy for me to do because I’m famous within our field. Not true. I’ve maintained this healthy business attitude from the very beginning, even when I was a complete unknown.
After the negotiation is over, always do your best work. Give 100% on every job. You’ll never have to look back in shame on anything, knowing you could have done better. And your clients will be very, very happy.