-By Lauren Panepinto

Ok guys, I think this post needs very little introduction. I asked for questions, and I got em! Thanks to everyone who thought up really great questions. I’m going to reply to each of them in one of three ways (a few repeats will be combined) – either an answer, a link to one of my previous articles on Muddy Colors, or a short answer plus a promise of turning the topic into a full blog post soon.

Also, I’d like to stress that these are my answers, I don’t speak for every Art Director. But we do all gossip a hell of a lot when you guys aren’t around…

So let’s get started! I’m going to group these together by topic. My answers are in green. Because green is my favorite color. Consider that a bonus answer.

——- EMAIL ——–

I’ve heard a few AD’s say they prefer portfolio submissions via email. My last question is what is your preferred method of us sending images in these emails? Do you prefer one image only as a JPG or my entire portfolio of 10 or so images in a PDF? Multiple JPGS, or other method perhaps? 

Not every AD prefers email – many still like printed promos, but I do keep my files digitally, and email is the best way to contact me. Only 3-5 jpegs tops. You should tailor the jpeg choices to your target, or just use your best work. No pdfs, I’m only keeping the images I like, and filing them to pass on to editors/authors later. Breaking up a pdf is too much work. Bonus: Actually title the jpeg with some version of your name is great so if it loses it’s folder, I can still figure out whose it is.

——- WEBSITES ——–

I’ve been hoping for a post on what art directors want to see in an artist’s website. I think I’ve read previously you want to be able to right click on images and no contact forms. I would love to read more pet peeves and common mistakes. It would also be helpful on what you what appeals to you on an about/contact page or even what catches an art directors eye on a home page.

Contact forms are ok, if you’re pointing your droves of fans to contact you that way. But you need your actual email on there too, even if it says “for Art Directors Only”. And make sure it’s one you check often. I want to hear back from you in 24-48hrs max. After that I’ve probably moved on to someone else.

Your images must be downloadable. I don’t care if they’re watermarked (actually, a small watermark is preferred so I never forget whose art it is) but if I have to do the work of making screen shots and reformatting and naming and saving, you’ve probably lost me. I’ll think I’m going to remember, but I’m probably not going to make a file on you, and you really really want to make it as easy as possible for me to start a file on you. I know everyone is afraid of people ripping them off on the internet, but anyone who wants to is going to screen shot you anyway. The downloadable images don’t have to be hi-res, just 72dpi at maybe 800px is fine for printing if I have to. But usually I’m emailing them around to editors/authors. And no, I’m not just sending them to your website. I am curating what I show them, because I am picking things in your portfolio that speak specifically to the job at hand. Editors have no imagination.

My question: What are the most annoying things – or your pet peeves – an AD comes across when looking at portfolios online?

Not being able to find an email address. Not being able to save images. Thumbnails that are a cropped piece of an image instead of a small version of the entire work. Music that auto-plays. Comic sans or Papyrus. Brightly colored backgrounds around your art (black, white, or gray, please).


J. Jarvis has said “the function of your portfolio is to instil confidence in the AD” List 5-10 things that compromise your confidence in an artist when looking at a portfolio.

1) Poor presentation (either crappy prints or online work too low-res to actually see). 2) Lack of consistency in skill. 3) Too much work (unless it’s all the same quality, get rid of your worst pieces as soon as you do better ones – it makes me think you have a problem judging your own work). 4) Really awkward anatomy. 5) Glitter. (it happens)  6) Boring poses. 7) No contrast (in color, value, etc.) 8) No flow to the portfolio itself. 9) Hard to find contact info. 10) Really unrealistic boobs (personal pet peeve – boobs are not muscles!)

Something I struggle with is with the unification of my work. I enjoy working in many mediums.. and while I keep the mood/subject matter pretty much the same (I like dark, ominous, serious, etc) – I feel like using different mediums make my work feel scatterbrained/not committed. I, personally, feel that everything flows together, theme wise, – but if you look at my portfolio, one piece is in ink, another is acrylic, another may be oil – etc. If I wanted to work for a company like Orbit, would you be put off by that? I’m worried about consistency. I feel like the overall mood is consistent, it’s just the mediums that aren’t. How do you show unification & consistency if style is constantly evolving?

Honestly, yes, it would be a red flag. I’m not saying it’s not insurmountable, but before I can hire someone I need to know that they can reproduce what I see in their portfolio on demand, adapted to my commission. So I will need to see that consistency in the medium I want to hire you for, no matter what it is. Ultimately you’re giving yourself 5x more work until I consider you “hireable”. It might make you an amazing artist in the long run, but you have to willingly accept it’s going to take you longer to get work. I say master one thing, then expand, master that, then expand again.

Is it obvious when an artist is hiding behind a “style” to cover any gaps in their knowledge of fundamentals. Have you ever been tricked before (in either way)? Take a name like Raymond Swanland. I love his work and it is obvious that even with the angular comps/brushstrokes and intense contrast he knows what he is doing. But lets imagine a time when he was a young duckling working on that style that is uniquely his. Would you pass over something like that saying he doesn’t understand lighting, or he is cleverly hiding a lack of knowledge of anatomy by blowing out details. Can you think of any cases where you hired someone you suspected might be hiding gaps in their knowledge with a “style”, because the style worked for what the project called for?

A) You’re not fooling anyone. We’re professionals. B) I hire what I see. If someone’s portfolio is all one style that is really flat and graphic I’m going to hire them when I need something flat and graphic. I’m not going to sit there wondering if they can do gradations. If you don’t have horses in your portfolio, I’m not hiring you to do a horse. In the case of an artist who’s well-established and I’ve worked with them before, I might pitch them a job outside of their comfort zone, but it’ll be a conversation first.

When talking shop with some colleagues, I heard of more than an instance in which an illustrator feels ‘constrained’, since s/he starts getting more and more assignments within a rather narrow range (only objects, for instance, or just old guys, or just goblinoid monsters). I realize, of course, than an AD assigns what is needed to the artists that, according to the AD’s judgment, are best suited for it. The fact remains that if one’s range of pieces starts narrowing it isn’t that good a thing and, given that time is limited, painting enough personal pieces to counterbalance an heavily slanted portfolio isn’t easy. Do you have any suggestion to make easier for an illustrator not to get pigeonholed into too tight a range of subjects? 

As I said above, I hire what’s in your portfolio. If your portfolio is all gorgeous elf-ladies, then I am not hiring you to do a horror piece. If you want to do a horror piece, you have to put it in your portfolio. Time IS limited, I completely sympathize, but if you want to do something different, you have to find the time. I’ve been there in my own career. It pays off. But honestly, this is the illustrator’s version of a first world problem. Turn down a few elf-lady commissions if you have to and do some horror pieces for yourself.

——- MONEY and PRICING ——–

For your publishing house, when you contact a new artist for doing an assignment in the first time, do you tell him/her about your budget for the project OR you ask him/her how much it will be charged?

I pitch the job, with deadlines, and ask the artist what their rate is first. If it’s way high, I say, well, we only have X budget, what do you think. If it’s way low, I tend to bring it up to our budget (shh don’t tell my editors.)

What is a rough estimation for the charging of a book jacket illustration for one of the larger publishing houses.

It depends on the book first – each book has it’s own separate budget that it has to earn past before it makes money. This involves all the cost of a book, not just art – printing, effects, author advance, etc. Obviously a book we expect to be a best-seller pulls a lot more budget than a debut author. Different genres sell differently. After that, then it’s about medium, artist experience, and time. If I need something on a rush schedule I will bump up the budget if I can. Rough estimates are 1-2k for design, 1-2k for photos, 1.5-3.5k for digital illustrations, 3.5-5 for traditional medium. But there’s a ton of wiggle room in there. 

Do you pay on a half now, half on completion. Or is it payment on invoice 30 days from the finished product?

I have no problem with 50% up front, but accounting is slow and if an artist has to have money in hand before they’ll work with me I usually can’t wait that long. I submit an invoice (and associated paperwork) within 2 weeks of when I receive it from the artist. Ideally the payment goes through accounting in 2-3 weeks after that. But things go horribly wrong all the time, and fall into an accounting black hole. I won’t know an artist wasn’t paid until the artist tells me and I go chasing accounting to see where it stalled. Really frustrating. But I have never not paid an artist. Eventually.

More on invoicing/payments here: GETTING YOU PAID PT.1: WHAT GOES WRONG

What is the average kill fee, and what do you see as a reasonable amount to pay extra for revisions. Do you expect a certain number of revisions to be provided before you expect to pay?

Kill fee can be 25% if we kill at thumbnail stage to 50% if we kill further along in the process. It also depends why the piece is killed. I don’t like to give a kill fee if it was a change on the publishing end that suddenly decided to go in a different direction – that’s not the artist’s fault. But if we just couldn’t get an artist to achieve what we felt they could achieve, given their portfolio, then we do sometimes have to kill it. (NOTE: some company’s do not give kill fees, and this is their right, whether you like it or not. If you do not want to take the risk, do not work for them when you see the contract.)

So talking about revisions…if I am trying to save a piece from getting killed I will say so, and I really hope you keep revising it until it’s working. In general, revisions really do depend on the project. I show my editors and authors many stages of the process, so there are no surprises, so I am course-correcting while the artist is working. If an artist just hits me with something close to final, and it’s not right, however, then there might be a lot of revisions. I have infinite sympathy for revisions I think my editors are unfairly insisting on, but I have less sympathy for revisions that have to happen because an artist didn’t do what was asked for in my brief. That’s on you guys. If I feel an artist is going above and beyond the call of duty on revisions, and/or the revisions pop up way after the piece was thought to be final, I will add revision fees. But that’s at my discretion. 

The revision issue comes up a lot more frequently, I think, with uneducated clients and small companies. If you put a revision statement in your standard contract (I know, I know, I owe you guys a standard contract post, I’m working on it, I swear) that says something like, 3 rounds of revisions included, after that a fee, then that’s not a terrible idea. But if you’re dealing with an AD they generally are trying to minimize corrections for you.

Note: When dealing with licensed properties, expect 5x the revisions. If you want to cut that down then you do it with strict research and adherence to the style guide of the property. If you don’t draw an X-wing like an X-wing should look, that revision is not the AD’s fault, they can’t show it to Lucasfilm until it’s fixed. If you want complete artistic freedom, don’t work on licensed properties.

Actually if you want complete artistic freedom, get into gallery work. (And a legion of gallery-experienced artists laugh at the idea that they have complete freedom either.)

My biggest bugaboo is about pricing. I never know if I’m charging a price commiserate with my skill level and the difficulty of the project. Then, figure in rights (like the various marketing options—card art used for the packaging, cover art used for banners and such), and I have no idea if I’m being unreasonable or getting taken!

Aside from selling originals, (which is a crazy mix of a gut decision, comparison pricing, and divination from a slaughtered dove’s entrails) budget windows are generally set by the company and the industry. Pricing is half the actual work, and half the rights to use it. All I can say is ask around fellow artists. You can also always ask an AD something like “this is a new market for me, what do you usually budget for this kind of work” and at least you’ll know their ballpark. Assuming the ADs are moral…but most are. The budgets are the budgets, they’re not out to get you to work cheaper than everyone else, it’s not coming out of their pocket. ADs generally want to give everyone more money, and will when it’s warranted, and when it’s possible.

My question is about the invoice. After the assignment finished and the client paid full everything, should I send an invoice that indicated everything is done to the client? Besides, should the client sign any kind of document or give me any tax form? 

You don’t have to send a completion invoice, most people don’t expect them. You can always pop the client an email saying you received the payment, thanks, looking forward to working with you again. A large company will have a contract they give to you to sign. If not you should give them your standard contract (don’t have a standard contract? I’m working on one now for a post soon). As for tax forms, in the US you should get a 1099 form for each client that paid you more than $600, because you have to report that to the IRS.

My question is about negotiating prices for illustrations. Since I graduated last May, I’ve had the mindset to work on whatever I can get my hands on. I’ve dealt with a handful of clients with different resources. Ranging from self published authors to established companies. My business skills are still very young and in the end I’m never satisfied with the price we agree on, and, I often end up working for less if the client can’t pay as much. As an art director who has worked with the best, what advice do you have for young artists when it comes to negotiating a price? More directly, how can I ask for more money with out scaring a client away? 

Again this really depends on the client. Some companies have set rates that their ADs do not have the freedom to deviate from. At the beginning of a career, it is true that it is kind of expected that you work your way up a ladder from lower-paying jobs up to higher-paying ones. The lower-paying companies are paying you in experience as well as money. That said, you should never feel cheated. If you are “never satisfied” with the price you agree on, then that says to me either you’re not asking for enough, or your work isn’t as high up on the ladder as you think it might be. Either way, it usually doesn’t hurt to ask for more money. You might be turned down, but at least you tried. Just be polite about it.

As far as dealing with the uneducated, usually small or individual, client, you have to educate them. When I take freelance I usually say, do you want to pay me hourly, or do you want to set a price for the project? Then say, for what you want, I’m estimating it’ll take me X amount of hours with Y amount more for standard revisions. I work for $Z an hour. So give them an hourly price and a project price. Then it’s about the psychology of the client, which they pick, but they feel they are more in control, when actually you are controlling them thru sneaky client education.

MOST clients are not trying to rip you off, they just honestly don’t have any idea what goes into artwork, how long it takes, what licensing even means, etc. If you educate them a bit, they’ll be much more understanding and want to make a deal that’s as close to fair for both parties as they can. Of course, this IS extra work on your part, so it’s helpful to develop a sixth sense about which clients are serious and which aren’t, but that takes some time.


I’m unemployed and so I can’t get to any conventions or anything to meet anyone in the business. I also have no agent (or even think any live anywhere near me). What is the best way to submit artwork to a company trying to get hired? 

First of all, agents have nothing to do with where you live, it’s about your work. You submit to an agent the same way you submit to a company – a short but informative email saying a small amount about you and your work, what you are looking to do, and 3-5 low-res jpegs of your best work. The more specific research you can do about your target and tailor into the email, the better. For example, look at a publisher’s books before you pitch them. Study an agent’s roster before you try to get them to look at your work. Do you fit in? Do you add something unique but still in the same ballpark? So many artists don’t even bother to do any research on what I do before they email me asking for work, if someone emails me not even bothering to know I mostly do SFF work, then I kind of immediately mentally dismiss them. 

How should I prepare a portfolio to get work from a specify client or art director? Do you think it’s better to make a selection of specific illustrations (based in some books) or just send my finished work?

I will never ask an artist to do work on spec (like trial book covers for free), that’s not moral to me. I will look at what an artist has in their portfolio and judge by that. But if you really really want to do, say, book covers, then putting book covers in your portfolio is a good idea – whether they’re personal projects or not, they still count.

I’m a young artist just about to leave a relatively small and young college in the middle of New Hampshire. With a small student population its been easy to get noticed by my teachers and fellow students. However I fear that as soon as a graduate that I won’t be able to create enough momentum to get noticed at all. How dose a nobody like me get noticed by art directors like you?

Do amazing work that you love. Show it to the right people. Repeat. Cream rises to the top. If you are putting great work out there, it is my job to find you. Your love of your work will shine through. Spend a little time putting together a dream list of ADs and clients to email, put things out on social media, but spend more time on the work than promoting it. maybe 75/25 work/network?

When an artist sends in work samples and perhaps the work just isn’t quite technically proficient enough yet, does that leave a bad impression if you see the artist’s name come in on new work again, or do the less skilled works not even leave enough of an impression so that you don’t even really remember the artist’s work if they improve and submit again?

I remember your work. But I am also super happy to see improvement. I have greater faith in an artist I have seen struggle and grow over time. I’ve been portfolio reviewing a while. There’s some artists I work with all the time now who had completely awful portfolios when I first met them.

What is the most effective way to promote to an Art director? SInce these days getting face time is almost impossible and e-mails get lost in the shuffle, what is your favorite way to receive and is the promotion you most respond to.

(see “Email” question section above)

What’s your go to method for finding new freelance talent and why? I’m sure you search many places, what are a couple of your favorites?

Pinterest! Facebook. Recommendations from other ADs. Conventions. Getting accosted at cocktail parties at the Society of Illustrators (you know who you are).

What kind of work is there and how can I find it?

Look around you. Anything in your world that has art on it, it was made by someone. Do some research on the magical internet and find out who made it. Research them. Send them a polite email. Repeat until you find something you really want to do.

So, what does it take to get the Art Director’s notice (or fancy) for some larger project (card game, or a book collection, or something like that), compared to other applicants? Do the most reliable artists get the job (the ones who don’t break the deadlines)? The best ones? The most experienced ones?

To be in the top 5% of artists working, the ones who never have to look for work, you have to be GOOD, NICE, and ON TIME. See here: ART BY VENN DIAGRAM and Listen here: Neil Gaiman’s Speech

We all know that publishing is a fast changing industry, and that there are a myriad number of illustrators competing for a limited number of commissions. Every year there is a new edition of the “illustrators and writers market” book. If I am correct in assuming that most of the larger publishers are in that book, it seems that most only commission a small amount of titles every year, and that it’s a fairly incestuous industry in that the big name illustrators like Weber, Giancola, Martiniere, Dos Santos, Manchess, McGrath, etc, are filling the majority of those commissions. So rather than asking how I’m supposed to compete with the Dos Santos’ and the Manchess’, my question is…are there enough smaller publishing companies out there (who maybe can’t afford the top tier artists) that can sustain the careers of talented but lesser-known artists? And if so, how do I find these publishers?

That is a FANTASTIC question, and one I have been pondering incessantly lately. For now, haunt the internet and bookstores, but I am writing a post on this soon, I promise.

I always get a lot of inquiries for book covers I can’t do, or artist recommendations for authors and small publishers. I unofficially match these guys with artists, because there are so many artists who aren’t at the Orbit/Tor level but are totally ready to work on covers. Sometimes there are artists I love who I just can’t match to an Orbit project, but meanwhile I will recommend them to a bunch of other ADs. My brain is like a super art rolodex. 


When working on a cover for a publication house such as Orbit or any of the bigger publishing houses, what sort of time scale are we talking about for getting a commission completed, from initial contact right up to that dreaded deadline?

Ideally 6 weeks. Usually 4 weeks. Occasionally (and stressfully) 2 weeks. But I’m only going to pull a rush on someone I know can take it. I used to say I wouldn’t pull a killer rush on someone who I’d never worked with before, but I have done it a few times lately, and have some new favorite @$$-saving artists as a result. You also know who you are (I <3 U).

What do you tell an artist who is unwilling to do corrections because doing it is against/outside his/her art style?

I’m only hiring people for the style they do in their portfolio, so I’ve never encountered this problem. But if something completely out of left field comes out of editorial or the author, I expect the artist to try their best. If they’re having trouble, I expect them to talk to me about it. I’ll try to help them thru it.

But also, don’t be a damn diva. Do the best you can with any tough situation. If you take a job, you do the best you can on it, even if you regret taking it halfway through. 

What is the best way to receive contructive critics?

Listen politely, walk away, let the advice sit for a few days, and then either incorporate it, or ignore it. Not all advice is good. But a lot of good advice is hard to take. The key is to never waste your time arguing with advice freely given. Just nod and smile and say thank you.

Can you explain the process of deciding what illustrator you will use for a project, and (besides quality work) rate the top 3 most important things you look for when considering an artist that you have not worked with before?

It really depends on the projects I get. Matching an artist to a book depends on the genre (fantasy, urban fantasy, sci-fi, etc) and what trends are happening in that genre. Then we either go with the trend, push it, or go against it. Then it’s really just my gut feeling and personal taste. I will pick 2-3 artists and pitch the choices to the editors and publisher. We narrow it down, pass the choice past the author, and then we have our artist (and hope they’re available).

I choose a new artist by (besides style/skill): 1) Another AD recommending them.  2) Meeting them at a con, or having good email or social media communication with them.  3) seeing how professionally they act online.

In other creative Fields such as Video Game, Art Directors are almost always individuals with years of related Art experience themselves. Art directors in publishing however are more likely to be graphic designers or have no art experience at all it seems. How does not being an artist help and/or hurt an ADs ability to do their job or portions of it effectively?

Ouch. So being a designer doesn’t count as an “artist” huh? Them’s fighting words! Honestly I don’t know a single “real” AD* in any field who has no art experience. Maybe they weren’t illustrators, but they studied art in some capacity, or had many years of art experience before they took the job. 

That said, I don’t think being able to illustrate is the key to being a good AD of illustration. An AD is foremost a trained eye, an empath, a diplomat, a translator, a peacemaker, and a psychiatrist. While it’s true the more experienced you are at producing creative work the more you can empathize with the difficulties in being creative on command, and the pitfalls your freelancers fall into, it’s by no means a prerequisite. For example, I believe my design training makes me a much better AD for book covers than if I had been a trained illustrator. The distance helps me to judge more clearly the successfulness of a cover as a whole, not just be awed by technique.

*It seems that there’s some small companies who have guys assuming the title of AD just because there’s 3 people in the company, and they have no experience whatsoever. I’m not saying don’t work with them, but protect yourselves the same way you would an uneducated client. Make sure there’s a contract, and be prepared to educate them through the process.

Does an artist’s religous morals as to what they do or don’t paint, change they get work? I understand that if there is a uncomfortable situation you, as the artist, suggest solutions rather than quitting the job. However, I’d like to find out what an AD thinks about keeping personal morals and working in the industry. 

Honestly, I’ve never run into this issue – I imagine it comes up more in gaming, with violence issues and scantily-clad-unrealistically-endowed-heroine-syndrome. I would say the instances should be slim enough that you could turn down those jobs that felt wrong to you without it harming your career overall…but just like any other conflict, it’s best to be polite and honest with your AD as soon as a red flag comes up, and see if you can work through it. If not, then part ways amicably. Maybe suggest a friend artist. Don’t leave the AD in a lurch and there shouldn’t be any hard feelings.

As far as my personal morals, it comes into play mostly in the Urban Fantasy genre. I have zero problem with sexy ladies, but I do have some rules. Urban Fantasy is about wish-fulfillment for the (mostly female) audience, not about objectification. Everyone’s line is different, but here’s some of my heroine guidelines:

—No stiletto heels
—Boots rather than shoes
—I try to use fitness models instead of fashion models (no underfed waifs)
—Hold that sword like a weapon, not a baseball bat
—I’ve been learning firearm discipline from author friend Myke Cole – that’ll be a future post too.
—And last but not least, a gut-instinct judgement I call Sexy You Want to Be, Not Sexy You Want to F$©K. That’s the one that’s the most personal. In PG terms, it’s the Badass Heroine Rule.

How do I work with an Art Director that refuses to view thumbnails/roughs/comps before proceeding to final? I sometimes encounter this situation when submitting work to a group of managers acting as “art director.” Usually they don’t come from art or graphic design backgrounds.

Well, that’s horrible. And wrong. And calling yourself an “art director” sadly doesn’t actually make you one. I had an author once who told me he could design his own covers because he was also a Creative Director. Bad sign. Run away? (See answer about protecting yourself with a contract above.)

What is really expected of an Illustrator?


How is an Art Director’s role supported by others in the organization? In other words, when it comes to making decisions on the direction of creative, is it the case that the AD’s word is final? Are there times when the decision is superseded by others, and if so, how is this communicated to the rest of the organization so the AD’s role isn’t “muddied”?

As I said above, my artist choices and all my art and covers need to be approved by the editor, the publisher, and the author. And we have to not freak out sales or the big accounts who buy the books. It’s shockingly hard to get all those people to agree on anything. Sometimes I get my pure vision through, and it’s the best feeling. Sometimes things get changed by the input, and they’re better for it. That’s the best kind of collaboration with the rest of my company. Sometimes it all gets compromised into a book cover equivalent of mud. That’s heartbreaking, and frustrating, and generally the days I am a cranky bitch in the office…but you get up and try again on the next cover.

But to answer the question about “last word” – an AD never has the last word. We’re always waiting for either Publisher, CEO, or License approval.


For someone who can’t do all the conventions (international, budget, family obligations, etc), which one would you consider THE convention to do?

lf you plan on selling original art as a large part of your career, then Illuxcon. For everyone else (and the traditionalists too) Spectrum.

My wife and I are planing on attending Spectrum this year. This will be our first con in eight years. Between us we work in about seven different styles including a collaborative style. When we put together our portfolios for reviews at Spectrum, how should we organize our varying styles of work? Should we show each art director all of our best work, even if as a whole they do not look very similar stylistically? Or should we create one portfolio for each style and only show the works to art directors who represent an interest in that portfolio’s specific style? Should we try to present ourselves as a team that also does work separately? Or should we present ourselves as individuals who sometimes collaborate?

I think you should each make portfolios that have that person’s individual styles plus the collaborative style, and then do portfolio reviews separately. Cover as much ground as you can and compare notes. Without seeing your work it’s hard to judge, but in my experience, the more styles you’re trying to do simultaneously the harder it is to get hired (although that seems counterintuitive, I know), so I would really only show the styles that you are best at, that you love the most, and that you can show some consistency in. Also, Spectrum is a very friendly place, maybe it’s worth posing that question to the ADs you see.

I am self-taught, and beginning to transition from spending most of my time, studying, learning and building my portfolio to actually “selling” it. I got into Spectrum Live with a table in the artist section. At these type of events, what kind of display do you expect to see from a beginning illustrator looking to make the jump into professional work?

Consistency. Students tend to be all over the place. I need to see a cohesive vision to hire you to apply that vision to a project I have. If you’re all over the map it’s nearly impossible to hire you, because I’m not sure what I’m going to get, and part of my job is minimizing risk. 

That said, Spectrum is super friendly and you’ll get a ton of feedback no matter what you show. Ask for honest reviews from the ADs and advice from other artists, and you’ll go home with a ton of positive work to do.

While a lot of folks are looking for ways to get noticed without going to conventions due to the expense, I feel that might be the easiest, and most fun way to try to get folks to look at my work. I was wondering if you would be willing to make a list of all the major conventions that are frequented by art directors, especially by ones in the gaming industry? 

Good idea, and a great idea for an expanded post, because I have to poll some ADs from other industries. For me, the musts are Illuxcon and Spectrum for any SFF artist. There’s other cons for comic work and editorial and mainstream publishing, but those are the two best cons I look forward to all year.

I have been preparing to get an exhibit at a convention and was considering Spectrum. Am I biting off more than I can chew by jumping in at this level? Are there other conventions that you would recommend I start off with before I try Spectrum? Also, as a first-time exhibitor, what should I prepare for my booth? Do I need a booth all to myself, or should I try to share one with a friend?

Spectrum is amazingly welcoming and friendly. It’s good for entry level and pros. If you’re really concerned that you’re not ready, why don’t you just go as an attendee? You get all the fun of networking without the stress of having to make up the exhibiting cost in sales.


How difficult/rare is it for siblings to publish together (assuming that both are skilled) me, doing the cover art and my sister doing the manuscript? I know the publisher’s primary concern is selling, and I believe the two of us could slam dunk that, I just don’t know how willing a big company would be to give us that freedom/opportunity.

It’s pretty rare, and it can be a great selling point, but it’s not going to beat someone without the gimmick who has better work. The publishers ONLY concern is selling, not “primary” – they are not a charity, and are not in the business of giving anyone an opportunity out of the goodness of their hearts. If you do a fabulous book that they think will sell, then they will lot the added bonus of a sister backstory that helps the book sell, helps you promote it to blogs, magazine interviews, etc.

You have to do a strong proposal for your project, which is a solid cover letter talking about yourself and back story, a good chunk of sample pages, and an idea of where the unfinished parts are going. You’re probably going to have to get an agent if you want to get picked up by a big publisher – the easiest way to do that is to find books very close to what you’re trying to do, and look in the acknowledgements or online and find out who the agent was and submit to them directly.

The best proposals do the work FOR the agent – it should sell itself. The very best proposals do the work of not only the agent selling to the editor but also the work of the editor selling it to their publisher. Hold that mindset when you’re working on a proposal and you’ll be off to a great start.

Honestly, not to be mean, just honest, your “we can slam-dunk selling” comment makes me laugh and immediately not take you seriously. Whole industries of people way more experienced than you spend their careers trying to figure that out. If you’re going to make claims like that, you’d better have one hell of a proposal explaining exactly how. Confidence is great, but don’t get cocky, kid.

How often do publisher’s take on books written and illustrated by the artist?

Quite often. Some publishers more than others. Same advice as above. Find books that are similar to what you’re trying to do and research the publishers and agents.


I am about to graduate in May. I feel like I’ve got a shot to get into the industry, all I need is time to build and network and paint, but what am i supposed to do until i break in?! I plan on sending out postcards, self-advertising, the works, but until then can you think of anything i should be doing? should I apply for residency? Check out grad school? Start writing grants? Get a job? Where should I start while i’m doing the footwork? I’d love to hear from other artists too…

This is also a great subject for a longer post, so I’ll get back to you on that soon…but in the short term, it all depends on how critical your financial needs are, and your personality type. If you live somewhere where the cost of living is high and you have student loans looming and you need some peace of mind to be creative, then by all means, get a job. There is NO shame in that. Work part time at Starbucks if you have to, whatever pays the bills. However if your cost of living is low (also no shame in living with the parents for a while if you can, just ask Noah Bradley), and you can get by starting to get local art work (murals, small commissions, cat portraits), and you’re also someone who would rather eat ramen than be a barista, and you will thrive on the pressure of needing to make it, then maybe put off the day job and push the art thing for a while.

People will yell at me for saying this, but I feel like a graduate degree in art is for: people who weren’t good enough to get work as an artist after their undergrad degree OR foreign students who need to keep their visas OR rich lazy kids. (Of course there’s some exceptions, and some fabulous focused grad degrees too.) 

If you are good at working the system, then by all means aim for some residencies and grants, but you’d better thrive on competition or you’ll get discouraged quick. Again, I don’t know where you live, but maybe there’s some minimally-paying internships at creative companies nearby that you could apply for. Or maybe there are creative companies that you’d love to work for that don’t have interns and maybe you can pitch them on the idea. Get creative.


Hello! I’m a college student striving toward some creative career when I graduate. For some time now I’ve been snooping on this site ( and many others ) for opportunities to contact many of the poster-ers in regards to internships. I am eager to learn directly from artists who hold careers in their hands and art in their hearts. How would you advise someone like me to get into a process like that? I don’t know where else to go other than emails, but I also don’t like to harass people too much. Do you think internships are good learning experiences for college students (V.S. finishing out a degree)?

Big companies have Human Resource departments that handle internship programs. Make a wish list of companies you want to intern for and research the $hit out of them. (Get moving, most companies are already filling in their summer internship programs.) As I said to the question directly above, maybe even create your own internship. Internships should also not stop you from finishing a degree – either they happen during school or after graduation. 

Also, there’s a world of difference between emailing someone a polite inquiry and harassing them. If you’re scared to talk to people you’re not going to get anywhere. Be Polite but Determined.

Also I’ve been hearing interesting things about Intern Sushi. For publishing & media internships and entry-level jobs, Mediabistro is a great place to start. But if you want to get the first jump on jobs, you’ll hunt the company websites individually.

I am a graduate illustration student looking for a summer internship as a studio assistant or intern at a book publishing firm. My aim would be see the business of illustration put into practice and get in contact with professionals in the field. Do you know of any specific studios, individuals, or book publishing firms that offer such a position? Do you have advice for approaching individual artists (especially those that might get frequent inquiries) about studio assistants in a way that respects their time, but also catches their eye?

As for big publishers, they all take interns. Most big studios do too. Slave labor is terribly useful, you know. Go to their website and find the link specifically talking about internships or find the Human Resource contact and send them an email. As far as individual artists taking interns, it’s really individual to the artist. You have to just send a (polite but determined) email and see if they’re interested. The thing that most “catches the eye” is showing you’ve done your research. Do you know what they do? What can you bring to the table that they would want? Prove that you’ve thought about it in depth. Research is the KEY, people!

How can I find a worthwhile mentor with real experience to help me without spending a ton of money for a class?

What’s in it for them? I’m not being a jerk, I’m serious. Why would someone take the time away from their work for you if you’re not going to pay them? Will you “pay” them in work? WIll you be their studio assistant? Will you prime their canvases and run to the post office 5 times a day? Will you provide a steady supply of freshly-baked pies? Artists and ADs in this community already do a ton of charity work and community building (like me being up at 1am writing this), but a mentorship or class is just too much work time lost for there not to be some kind of compensation.

Also, a word about classes…classes are expensive because they are not only taking the artist away from paying commissions, they’re also a $hit-ton of work (I know from personal experience, trust me). Now there are definitely rip-off classes out there, but IMC and smART School are worth twice as much, if not three times as much as they cost, so you could start there and know you’re still getting a steal.


As a graphic designer in a small but expanding community, I often find it difficult to be creative with the jobs I take. Both my boss and clients want things done fast and cheap. I’ve long since lost my desire to excel and push my skills further but this is only hurting my career and livelihood. How do you manage to turn out work you are happy with putting your name on when you are forced to do so much that you are unhappy with? How do you find the motivation to do things on your own when you’re already burnt out with doing crap all day and you lack the confidence needed to do your own work that you would be proud to tell people you did? I don’t know if you’ve ever dealt with this problem or not but hopefully you can shed some light on this for me.

There’s no artist living who is happy with all of their work. If you are unhappy with the creativity of the work you get paid for, then make personal work that IS what you want to do, that you love, and fill your portfolio with it. It is incredibly hard to do that when you are exhausted by mindless day job work, but you need to squirrel away the time and positivity to do it. Instead of hating what you are paid to do, look at it as a means to an end. It will pay your bills while you better your portfolio and find different work that you love.

This is the hardest thing you will do in your art career. But it is the thing that separates ok artists making a living from superstars with dream careers.

Have I ever dealt with this problem? Welcome to my life — honestly every creative’s life. I love my job and I STILL face creative burnout all the time, but I’m up right now at 1am writing this post because I love to be involved with this community, because it recharges my batteries. It makes me feel good to know people read these posts and are helped by them. And I’ve also got a ton of personal projects in the pipe all the time. Some of which will be revealed right here on muddy colors over the next few months…you have to do the things you love to stay alive inside. Even if it means late nights, less sleep, a sorry excuse for a social life, etc. 

Anyway, I digress. Start doing something you love, something just for you, something that recharges your batteries – do it not to show anyone, just to make you feel better, and that will revive you, boost your self confidence, and you’ll start making time to do more personal work. And eventually you’ll start building a portfolio of what YOU want to do. And then people will hire you to do that thing. People smell love in your work, and it makes them want to own a little piece of it.


How important is it to always dress the part? When you have an artistic career, you have a lot more creative license when presenting yourself. Colorful hair, piercings, tattoos, fun clothing… these are things we are used to seeing (especially if you live in a major city) but how acceptable is it REALLY? Some times you walk into a meeting and you don’t know who is on the other side – maybe it’s not the time to let your freak flag fly? But then you over dumb-it-down and look unremarkable, feeling like you’ve left behind your armour and didn’t even make a blip on their radar. Asking yourself “did I represent my personal brand?” and “will they remember me at all?” Yes our art speaks for itself but sometimes we have to speak too… so when is it okay to look fabulous and creative? When is it time to pull out the ho-hum pant suit? Can physical appearance affect our chances of being hired/taken seriously/distinguished from the pack? When are the times we should look remarkable and when should we tone it down?

You’re talking to a girl with green hair, lots of tattoos, and really loud leggings…so I might be prejudiced, of course, but I always say err on the creative. This is a hard line sometimes to walk for a woman, so you have to watch the sexy factor and not overdue sexy AND creative at once. I think there’s an expectation for an artist to look the part, and a little “weirdness” is forgiven (if not outright applauded) by the conservative types that are hiring you. The more conservative the business, I’d say the more conservative your sexiness level, but definitely play it up with creative accessories.

Honestly, like a lot of other things, it’s all about self confidence. If you feel confident about what you’re wearing (also helpful to not be tugging at the hemline of a too-short skirt) then you own it, and no one will question. Check out this research on power poses.


Where would you recommend living, in the US, to best be in the mix and help find work and why? I am potentially getting the chance to move to San Francisco but could possibly go anywhere right now.

Different cities are hubs for different industries. Check out this article on Artists and Location.


Is it even realistic for an artist outside the US to try to break into the US cover market, given that they can’t really just fly over to a meeting or something like that? Realistically speaking, how many of your artists aren’t actually located in the US?

It makes no difference to me where an artist lives. I have a ton of artists in Canada, the UK, France…honestly I have a few artists that I can’t even recall where they live. Language can be a barrier sometimes, but location certainly isn’t. Artists are never asked to come to meetings…and if I need to talk to someone in person, that’s what Skype is for.

I’m an illustrator living in Barbados. I studied in NYC, but after returning home I’ve been finding it challenging to get my work out there. My question is, as an illustrator overseas, what is the best way to get an Art Director to view my portfolio? As mailing promotional cards can get expensive when living so far away.

Email and Social Media. See this article on Artists and Location.

Foreign Publishers: it seems they always reuse the UK/US art or do a quickie photoshop job, what’s the deal?

A foreign publisher often has a much smaller market that the US and UK to sell to, and thus have a smaller budget. It’s often easier and cheaper to drop a small reuse fee to the original artist to relicense the art than it is to develop new art. When they can’t even afford the minimal reuse fee, that’s when you get the bad photoshop hack covers.

That said, there’s a lot of fabulous foreign language book covers happening. Epica Prima springs to mind, and they do a ton of Orbit covers for foreign markets. I actually liked some of them so much I started hiring him to do covers for me.


This came up in some responses people posted to some of the questions. There’s a lot of controversy over sites like fiverr, logo tree, 99designs, and all the spec companies. I’m going to be doing a more developed post on that soon, but for now read this: Spec, Exposure, and Competitions

——- PERSONAL ——–

Favorite X-Man?

Jean Grey. (Sans Cyclops, preferably. He was a jerk.)

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Mint Chocolate Chip (duh, it’s GREEN. Also, chocolate chips!)

Are all ADs that gorgeous and if so, where can I get one?

l’m the most gorgeous when I’m drinking the blood of sassy illustrators for breakfast. Consider yourself warned.

——- THE FUTURE ——–
What do you see for the future in the field you work at. Do you see things changing? How are publishers shifting their business, and how, as an art director, is your work is evolving? I know that print books will never disappear (much like radio was called dead, and still going strong!), but it’s unmissable how big e-books are becoming, in both sales and piracy.

Also a great topic for a further post. In short, I have long believed (and I’m slowly being proven right) that the advent of digital publishing is making more, not less, opportunities for artists. Not only do ebooks and apps offer a lot more opportunities for including art and extras, but the print book has become an item of greater collectibility. Now that you don’t HAVE to read a printed book, it means print books have to really offer something unique to justify a higher price. And thus the rise in popularity of Penguin Classics series, Folio Society, Centipede Press, real collectible books. Swoon. 

Also, print books have become so fetishized that they’re literally fashion now. And designer purses!

Our culture in general is in a huge period of lauding (and paying for) craft, the story behind a brand, workmanship, care, time. Hipsters can be annoying, but I greatly prefer a foodie/mixology/heritage-brand wearing hipster scene over the 1990s bottle-service eurotrash club scene. 

Rich people need things to spend money on, and currently the trend is to do so on craft. I mean, have you taken a look at the limited-run hi-production value poster scene lately?! Artists, this is your moment! Milk it! Google “artist as entrepreneur” and MAKE ALL THE THINGS.

About evolving reader technology… How do you see the expanding use of kindles etc changing the composition of the classic book cover? The classic top 1/3 of the page being used for title / credits / etc isn’t necessarily… er, necessary anymore. Do you feel that is going to lead to diversity in what sort of art direction will be provided for upcoming book cover art?
And also: while developing my own portfolio of work, is there a particular canvas dimension ratio you recommend for pieces to be added into the portfolio that reflect the potential change in composition demands?

Type legibility has become even more important – everything needs to be judged as a thumbnail. However, since the metadata always travels with an ebook, we can more frequently leave off teeny quotes and excessive reading lines.

Images also need to be interesting at thumbnail size – you don’t have to see exactly what’s going on at thumbnail size, but the general shapes the image makes should be interesting. Frequently look at your piece shrunken down to thumbnail size. Is it interesting, or is it mud?

As far as worrying about your portfolio, we’re going to be keeping the vertical format to signify “book” for a long time, so don’t stress about that. Books are vertical, Gaming is horizontal (in general).


What are your top 10 “must read” books/articles/blog posts for creative people of all types. 

I’m too exhausted to compile this right now, so I’ll just cheat and make a list of all my past MC posts and promise to make my top 10 from other people another long post.

Also, go read every single Greg Manchess “10 Things” series post. Right Now.

P.S. There’s also a question or two I had to refer to other ADs better suited to answer, so I’ll get back to you if I haven’t answered you in this post…