by Arnie Fenner

As part of a response to one of my posts last month Will Kelly said, “Since you did a post on what to do to prepare for exhibiting at a con, I have been wanting to ask you if you could consider doing another post, but this time on how an Illustrator who is not yet established should prepare for a convention. This will be my first year to attend SFAL, and I really don’t want the time to be wasted. I will enjoy it of course, but I would love to hear some insight from you on what a con-goer should be prepared for to be able to make connections and get the most out of the whole experience.”

Hmmm. Maybe a better title for this piece might be “Attending a Show,” but if you’re going with the idea of making contacts or getting critiques or going to panels, the “working” description still applies.

So…I guess about the best way to prepare for a convention is to…go.

You have to jump in and start somewhere. My first convention was in 1971 when I was 16—and I was gobsmacked. I didn’t know anything or anyone. I just…went. And had a good time (though still wish that I had bought that copy of Thun’da #1 a dealer had for $75—but you know, $75 in 1971 was huge money, particularly to a kid working for $1.75 an hour in the stockroom of Sears during the summer). No one is born knowing how everything works. No one knows everybody. No one sees or hears or reacts to the same things the same precise ways. You only learn through doing.

Anyway, Spectrum Fantastic Art Live isn’t a huge sprawling affair: there are plenty of artists and plenty of things to see and do, but it’s not Comic Con. It’s calm, it’s focussed, and it’s friendly. There will be a buzz in the hall, not a roar. You’ll be able to find artists and programming easily without having to fight crowds looking for TV stars or free movie studio swag.

Since you’re a young illustrator, be prepared to show your portfolio to people and don’t be embarrassed; don’t apologize for being new to the game. Don’t dismiss your own work when talking about it (but don’t describe yourself as the next da Vinci, either). But do ask if you can show this art director or that artist your book—and if they do take a look, thank them for giving you the time. If they don’t, thank them for their time. Everybody was at the same point sometime in their careers. Look upon your first show—or, hell, your first ten shows—as learning opportunities. Which means that you take in as much as you can. You talk to as many people as you can, fans and exhibitors alike. If you don’t know someone, don’t be shy: introduce yourself. It can be awkward at first, but with a little time (and usually a drink or two), the conversation starts to flow and new friendships can develop. You are all at the same event for the same reason: because of the art.

Take advantage of any panels or workshops that you can find the time to go to (check out the event guide and see what sounds good: you can’t attend everything, but you can get a lot out of what you do). Definitely attend any after-hour social gatherings: they’re usually not a secret, but if you haven’t heard about anything going on, ask. Again, you never know where they might lead (yes, the smart aleck answer is “It leads to the bar” but from there, who knows?).

We had asked for feedback last year following the first Spectrum Live (we knew we didn’t do everything “right”: no convention does) and one person said that “you need more art directors because there were only the same three I see at every convention and none of them stopped by my booth to see my work.”


The fact of the matter was that there were nine art directors at the show officially doing portfolio reviews and dozens more wandering the floor scouting for talent. They were all at the after hours bar confabs, all at the awards ceremony, and all were available to talk to at any time. But the person giving the feedback didn’t reach out and didn’t talk to others to know who was there; they had locked themselves into a narrow perception and didn’t pay attention to (much less take advantage of) the opportunities that were available to them. The early part of my career was entirely spent approaching art directors, not expecting them to approach me. Showing up for the race isn’t enough: you have to actually run it if you want to win.

Anyway, I guess when you’re first starting out the basics are:
  • Have business cards
  • Promote the event you’re attending through every resource available to you: the more people you may know that might join you, the more comfortable (and fun) it will be
  • Wear comfortable shoes
  • Be sure to eat and stay hydrated
  • Read the information provided to you by the convention organizers (you’d be surprised at how many don’t)
  • Introduce yourself to the artists you admire: show respect but don’t be star-struck (again, you’d be surprised at how many people get shy when given the chance to talk to the artists that have influenced them and…don’t, then regret not taking advantage of the opportunity)
  • Be flexible: assume that not everything will go off as planned at the times they’re supposed to and work with things as they happen. Getting pissed off usually makes things worse, not better
  • Be polite—to everyone
  • Be friendly—to everyone
  • Talk to people—as many as you can (you’re trying to build a network)
  • Try to get the most out of the experience—and that starts with a positive outlook
Ideally, attending a convention—or working a show—should be fun, hopefully exciting, maybe inspiring…because of the things you see and the people you meet and the experiences you have.

It’s really a matter of diving into the pool, moving your arms and kicking your legs, and starting to swim. If you feel yourself begin to flounder during SFAL2, look for this banner: you’ll find friends nearby.