–Greg Manchess

So you’ve decided to freelance and lo and behold, you got your first assignment. Good job! It may have been a struggle to get the commission, but now is when the work really starts, and if you’re considering doing this for, oh, I dunno…your life, then you’re going to need these points. This is how you’re going to build a good working reputation. The kind that gets you more work.

Stop looking at me like that. I may be older than you, but don’t go high-school on me and think those dang adults are so stuck in their ways even in today’s hyper-hipster advanced world. The client hired you because they want what you showed them in your book. You were hired by adults and you’ll quickly learn that they expect you to be like them. You’d better hope to heaven you can act like one.

Because every move you make from here on out will be scrutinized. If not on a macro level, then clandestinely, on some sub-quantum antimatter particulate level. Here’s where you’re gonna shine by getting this stuff into your chemistry. Especially if things get all fouled up.

And they will. Get fouled up. Sometimes so badly, you feel the actual weight of the planet leaning on your ear. But if you’ve set them up right, and you bring out The Genuine, you’ll survive. You’ll make it. And live to tell about it while you are getting more calls.

Save all the snark for the Prima Donna’s. They burn out quickly and leave smoke trails you could follow like tracer bullets back to all the enemies they create.

Don’t. Be. That. Guy.

Nail the deadline.
You need a date. A hard date. This is the first thing to inquire. This will determine whether you’ll be racing to meet it, or taking your time. (most cases: you’ll be racing to meet it.) Make a plan to meet or exceed that expectation. You will either hit the mark squarely, or you will be early. Yes, early. You read that right.

Make it your current life’s ambition to hit that deadline. Do not, repeat do not act as if this is a ‘soft’ deadline. That the client is “padding” the actual deadline to cover their butt. That it’s not the ‘real’ deadline.

They pad the deadline so they can meet their own deadline, get it? So your first thought is to stop thinking and planning their job for them. You need to focus on only one thing: the deadline they told you. That’s the actual deadline. When you hit yours, they hit theirs, and everyone goes home happy.

Nail the format.
Cover? Spot? Double-page spread? Vignette? Horizontal? Vertical? You may think this is obvious. It may be, but it’s always smart to talk it over. It’s always best to discuss how your work will fit into the space allotted. Think it’s a waste of breath? Think again.

Sometimes during these discussions a client suddenly realizes how to fix something they’ve been wrestling with while visualizing the project. And you may’ve just helped them solve it. (I once had a job that was an inside spread for a magazine. I had no problem with getting the specs down, what they needed. But I was also fired up and drew an extra thumbnail and suggested it could possibly be used for the cover. The head AD loved the idea and gave me that assignment as well. That’s how I got my first cover on TIME Magazine.)

This is the part where you listen. Let them speak. Let them explain their vision. You will be the one to bring it to light. (if you listen well and speak well, the client may start to think they’ve lucked out by finding you)

Thumbnails to start.
Start with thumbnails for you. Pick the ones you like the best and work them up into a little larger and clearer size. Hone them down to the best three or so. Only then show them to the client. On a first assignment like this, you might want to show them a bunch for discussion.

Number them. You’ve got to have a pointer to the differences in the sketches. In my online classes it is required that sketches be numbered. It makes the discussion easier. Adults like it when discussions are easier.

One trick to learn. Try not to show them any idea that you really don’t want to do. They will inevitably pick that one. You will be miserable. This adds time to the deadline. Because of all the therapy you’ll be sitting through.

Small sketch.
Work up the one or two that they want to see into a still larger sketch for approval at this stage. This is the one where you’ll work out many of the kinks. It starts to pull together at this stage. You do this so that there are no surprises for the client, and especially for you. Once they say ‘go,’ you’ll move on to gathering reference for the final sketch.

Final sketch.
This is the part where you do the sketch at actual printing size. Example, if it’s a book cover, you’ll draw the sketch at the actual size of the cover, generally 6” x 9”. This way, the client gets to see where everything is placed, where the problem spaces for type will be, and how they’ll have to solve it. Expect more tweaking at this stage. There could be big changes. That’s ok. Grit your teeth. Grin. Nod your head. Don’t speak. (Nope. Don’t you dare send that email.)

Just draw. This shows you are not only versatile, but cool-headed. This is gold.

Working with the client.
You’ve gotten the ‘go-ahead’ from your client and you’re going to paint, scratch, draw, digitize, whatever. (You might give them a color comp/sketch for them here. It’s up to you, generally. Lots of digital guys just go straight to working in color from the start.)

Follow the damn sketch you gave them. Do not deviate. If they ask you to give them what you drew but want you to feel free to ‘improvise’….don’t you believe it, Schmedly. ‘Improvise’ means render a little more here, let that edge go there, but do not change position of elements or overall concept. 

Give them what they are asking for within your style constraints. Give them what they came to you for. Give them what they need. Deviate from this at your own risk. But I swear you’ll be back in therapy before you know what hit you.

This middle part of the job is where things can fall apart and it’s best for you to keep an open mind about the process. They have higher-ups that they need to clear things with. You are working with a team, combining your efforts with theirs. All of theirs. Or didn’t you pick up on that when I mentioned “Client?” You work for them. You may feel like a hired wrist, but that’s illustration. Brilliant work comes out of restricted spaces that stretches beyond its limitations.

If you want to just ‘do what you do,’ then go show in a gallery. Illustration hasn’t got time for that. 

Sending the finish.
If you paint digitally, then this step is no big shakes for you. You send a copy of the file you’re working on. No big.

Just remember that they know that digital painting can be changed. Forever. You knew that, right? You think regular painting is never done? What were you thinking when you decided to skip the ‘traditional’ route and go semi-conductor?

If you paint in analog, then get a decent shot of the original and send the shot to the client with appropriate notes. Don’t stick it outside in the sun to shoot it with your phone camera, and don’t send the entire shot with your half-eaten sandwich and cold coffee along the background edges. Crop that junk out. Image only

They’re adults, remember? They like things pretty.

Good scan is a must.
They are thrilled. The finish looks great. The client knows it will one day hang in the Louvre and you are a certifiable hero. Now…you’re not done yet.

They need a phenomenally good scan of it. This is harder than you think. (You digital folks can ignore this because you’re generally already there by the time you finish.) Actual paint media is difficult to shoot. Gouache and pastel are the easiest as they are non-reflective and so do not bounce light back into the lens where the camera reads it as bright spots of light. These are called specular highlights, but with some Photoshop chops you should be able to touch those outta there.

What’s that, you say? “They’re gonna screw it up in printing anyway.” Well, can you imagine, genius, what they’ll do to it if you send them a mediocre shot? Yeah, self-fulfilling prophecy.

Email Etiquette 101.
I was a hotshot punk, too, when I came into the field, but I knew one thing: I made sure I didn’t sound like I was raised by wolves and recently graduated from art school. I didn’t use vernacular and I never addressed anyone as, ‘dude.’ I spoke like I was experienced, mature, had my head screwed on right, was dignified, gracious, and pleasurable. This leads people to think you are intelligent. Which leads to more work. Which is the point.

Email is not speech. Email is not electric language. Email is not immediate English transferal. It is letter writing at signal speed. It is words on paper when the paper isn’t there.

Ultimately, you must write well. Write clearly. Write authentically. Articulate your thoughts as if the folks at the other end are mostly in a hurry, but have enough time to listen to clear thinking. Not high school, and not Shakespeare.

Proofread every email to any client. Read it to yourself as if they are reading it aloud to themselves.

Write like an adult. Preferably one you admire. That would be one that maybe carries a mortgage and owns a dog. Cats are good.

I’ve been down this road and made all the mistakes for you already. This is just to get you started. Eventually, you’ll short-cut some of my suggestions and come up with better ones. We hope.

Because illustration is counting on you. All you have to do is step up…ahem, dude.

(the drawing above is the sketch for the case cover [not the jacket] for my novel, Above The Timberline, due out in October 2017)