Spring is the season when many young and new artists are graduating and hitting the freelance marketplace. Although it has been a couple of decades since I last was in those shoes, the clarity and intensity of that time remain forever sharp in my mind and an integral part of my artistic development. I moved to New York City, began work at the Society of Illustrators as a staff helper checking the coats of artists and art directors, and all the while worked on samples for my new portfolio in the evenings and on weekends.
One of the critical motivators for all of this was my introduction to an artist representative/agent, Sal Barracca. Sal had seen my work at a portfolio review Syracuse University hosted for its graduating artists and expressed interest in working with me. Although he liked the work he saw in my portfolio, it was not fully appropriate for the book cover industry for which he represented artists within.
Sal was willing to guide me on building appropriate samples for the book cover marketplace, replacing my entire body of work, but all on my own time and dime. This was a very small crack being offered in the door as entry to a chance of work as an paid, professional artist. Should I take it?
Basically all that art I created and organized for my graduating portfolio was unsuitable for this new artistic path. All out the window. Now useless.
Anyone asking you to generate a group of highly detailed and complex images on speculation before they hire you would seem out of this world crazy…Go take a hike!!…but create those samples is exactly what I did.
Actually, there was no guarantee on how many samples I would have needed, or was willing, to create- two? three? six, eight, ten? When I was ready was when Sal would start considering me for professional commissions, no earlier. This was my first real opportunity as an artist, and I was going to pry that door open!
Immediately after meeting Sal in his offices in New York City a week after graduation (I wasted no time), I returned to Vermont and began work on the first sample. Within five weeks, I had the painting finished and drove to New York to meet again with Sal. What I thought of as a good painting was far below the standards Sal expected me to deliver. He beat me up critically, but not cruelly. Brow beaten, but motivated, I returned to Vermont and began the next sample, sending Sal sketch ideas, and integrating his critiques.
From then on, I kept showing up on Sal’s doorstep like clockwork month after month with a new sample painting and drawing- asking for his professional input, absorbing those comments, implementing the changes, and moving onto the next work. These sample images were critical in introducing Sal to my working methods, commitment to professionalism, and were all targeted towards the fantasy and science fiction book cover industry.
My layouts took in considerations for type design, appropriate figure content, and knowledge of the current marketing trends. Yet these first images were not strong enough for Sal to put his reputation on the line to represent me. I had to prove to him I was capable and consistent enough to deliver professional quality jobs, time and time again, before he could accept a professional level commission for me.
This awareness that it was not my reputation which was at stake, but rather his, changed my whole impression of how I deal with clients. When an art director hires you, yes, your name will be on the art, but it is the art director who must answer to everyone else in their place of business if a project stumbles, a deadline is blown , a budget exceeded or, heaven forbid, just plain bad art is turned in. They may have far more to loose than the artist does, an issue I had not really thought of until I worked with Sal, and one I keep in the forefront of my mind as I work on every new project even to this day.
Illustration is a collaborative process.
This post shares those first six samples. I moved to New York City in August of 1992, three months after graduating from art school, and have stayed here ever since.
The final and sixth sample is unfinished and remains in that state to this day. The last time I worked upon it was the day Sal called with my first professional commissions.