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Advice for Young (and some of you old) Artists

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.

6 thoughts on “Advice for Young (and some of you old) Artists

  1. Very insightful as usual Bill. Hopefully some of these guys actual listen to what your saying and use your advice. Alot of artists won’t take the time out from there busy schedule to help out the younger up and comers. I know for a fact your schedule is VERY busy.

  2. This is all very important, real world, business advice. I hope all artists print this out for reference.
    And…how does it feel to be an embassador and a gateway artist for Frank Frazetta. Hopefully upon looking at Franks work for the first time they get that same WOW we got from a seminal influence discovery.

  3. Thanks for the insight William.
    It’s a tough old world out there and sometimes being an artist or designer can be seriously undervalued.

  4. Dear Bill,

    I again commend you for giving a lot of artists a dose of reality. However, not to disagree with you, but there are many artists out there, (myself included )who, while we have a body of work that we are putting together, do not have much time in our lives to get out into the public as much as we should. Our time in
    the studio is the most important thing, and there are often many other things vie for it. In many cases it is our SURVIVAL in this economic, well lets be honest- Depression- that is the most important thing.

    There is a bumper sticker I ‘ve seen which says it all-

    “Real Artists Have Day Jobs!”

    And often the requirements of thsaid day job compete with everything else in our lives, but nevertheless we still have to pay the bills and keep a roof over our head. And we can only carve out as much time as we can do to put our pieces out. I myself have helped with this problem by simply throwing out my TV.
    You’ll have lots of time

    Further, there are many artists who, like myself have disabilities which often hinder us with the business/ social side of art. In my own case mine came from 8 years of military service, and its been a hindrence to me. In this case, I feel having someone to help one in the business side of one’s art career is the best thing. If I recall, our late departed Frank Frazetta had his wife Ellie handling the business side of his art. Its all about finding the right person to help, I think.
    But finding the right one can indeed be a godsend.

    Thank you again for your words of genuine honesty.

  5. Hi Jim,
    I’m always happy to promote Frank and his work. My jaw drops when I encounter artists who are not aware of Frazetta yet are obviously influenced by him, albeit secondhand, through the artists Frank influenced.

    Hi John,
    First of all, thank you for your service to our country. Despite the hindrance you allude to, I hope that the discipline you learned in the military is working for you.

    You raise some Real World issues here. Juggling studio time and appearance time can be difficult. I got myself into a time/deadline jam recently work-wise because of my recent heavier-than-usual appearance schedule. My travel/appearance time was almost completely devouring my available work time and my deadlines began backing up….

    Part of survival as a freelancer involves having several back-up projects when some of your potential jobs don’t pan out. You never want to be caught in the situation of sitting at home (or in your studio) with nothing to do. You can always do something, even if it’s just convention sketches or drawings to sell on Ebay.

    “Real Artists Have Day Jobs!” also applies to a lot of musicians, actors and dancers I know. The problem with having a non-art (or non-creative) day job is that day jobs can be tremendously draining, emotionally and physically, so much so that you don’t have the energy to do your art when you get home no matter how much the desire or intent.

    I sure could use an “Ellie” in my life (well, the more positive aspects of Ellie Frazetta) but that’s just not the way my wife is wired. The tough part occurs mid-career, when you really could use that extra help with sales, orders, shipping, cleaning, framing, varnishing and business-related organization to free up some time at the drawing board but you aren’t quite making enough dough to hire someone to fulfill that function. In my case, that meant longer work hours, so I could do all of the above myself. It’s not easy and I salute those who pull it off.

  6. Dear Bill,

    Thank you for your pleasantly unexpected reply, and this former Marine says “You’re Welcome” to your remark about my years of service.

    And yes, that discipline does help me when it comes to managing my time and the nuts and bolts of the business side of art. ( Cataloging, framing, inventory, preparation, shipping, pricing, and the like. ) While I prefer not to go into the details of my own disability I have found that the social side of art is something that I myself am not very good at. Rest assured that I’m in no way delibertely impolite to people, and make pains to present myself well. But nevertheless, this negotiating, schmoozing, and politicking is something that I have found myself to be not very good at.

    However, all is not lost. I have taken to your advice when we last met at Wondercon earlier this year and found people who can help me.
    In this case it is my partner, who originally hails from Switzerland, along
    with a member of my immediate family who has always had a head for business. I will also be seeing a professional art consultant later this month
    for additional career advice.

    Thank you again for taking the time out of your busy career to give artists the the advice they so sorely need.

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