Friday 20 November 2009

Illustration By Committee

I'm going to stick my neck out a bit today and say a silent prayer that certain interested parties are not visiting this little blog of mine. I'm sure they're not as they're probably already in one of those things called "a meeting". However yesterday's running of the artwork of the guy leaping from the rooftop did bring to mind a somewhat painful experience that befell me whilst creating some of the artworks that helped land me the job with the New York Ad Agency in the first place.

I remember many years ago an illustrator of some experience and note giving a talk to a bunch of students about the travailles of working for advertising agencies, it was something along the lines of "the money is great but they're so picky and the work is always a stress". Not word for word but that was the essential import of her message. Her preferred outlet was the world of publishing, where she could enjoy the relative creative freedom that such clients offered her.

In contrast I've always found the world of advertising to be simple and straightforward, you work from an art director's rough and they tell you exactly what they want. In essence they're paying for your style and your professionalism i.e. they know you will deliver the goods and meet all those important delivery times. Couldn't be simpler and the pay is usually pretty good too.

Which brings me to the painful experience which concerned a couple of books I illustrated some years ago for a publisher's educational division. I should point out here that educational publishing is one of the most demanding and committee driven areas of illustration conceivable, it is for many illustrators a lifeline but it can also be the graveyard of any creative ambitions they once might have nurtured. Case in point being the two books I illustrated for said (and for obvious reasons un-named) publisher. Ostensibly it was a nice job with the hint of more to follow. Black and white illustrations for adaptations of two James Bond stories; "Dr No" and "Goldfinger". The manuscripts eventually arrived along with mounds of layouts, editors directions on what should appear in each artwork, references and delivery dates for roughs and final artwork. There were various stipulations one of which did concern me as it asked wherever possible to avoid using large areas of black.

This was destined to be the source of much grief later on. So I did all the roughs and shot them over in batches to the team, I also queried the not too much black as for me, some of the scenes by defintion were going to be pretty dark and the style I was adopting was very much in that gritty, graphic mode where solid blacks just add to the appeal of the whole thing. So I worked up a couple of the finished artworks and sent those over so they would at least be able to see where the thing was going.

And then I waited ... and waited ... and waited ... for comments to come back whilst nothing happened and the final immovable delivery date loomed ever closer . Eventually I did get comments back, loads and loads of them some involving major changes of viewpoint, others more straightforward but a lot of comments by diverse hands to be filtered through. Anyway juggling around with the usual other jobs I just piled into the artworks as quickly as possible and started batting them back to the art editor, who seemed to genuinely like what I was doing. However after a point a lot of the now "finished" artworks came back from the editor for further amendations and again changes of viewpoint in addition to those already requested. As time was now rapidly running out I will admit I dug my heels in and started to question the rationale behind some of the latest changes. The final trump was when late in the day the editor (as opposed to art editor) then requested that I leech out all the solid blacks from my drawings. Upon my enquiring why I was then informed that it was because the paper they were printing the books on was so thin it would create legiblity problems for the readers when viewing the reverse sides of the pages my artworks were to appear on.

The upshot of all this was that I was blacklisted by said publisher.

Advertising work in contrast is a breeze.


  1. Hi Peter,

    This is so commonplace amongst all of us working in the fields of illustration.

    The "design by committee" style of finished job, can only ever be a watered down version of an earlier concept and this long extended wait, whilst the committee decide to make the changes, followed by much continuous amending (most often without reason except to brush someone's ego) is sheer hell!

    Quite often it takes these folks far longer to approve artwork, than they give you to work on the job.

    Also a deadline given may seem quite manageable until, like you say, they begin to eat in your time by sitting on the work for extended periods and then expecting you to produce quality artwork, in less time than it took them to look at it.

    The worst guys you can work with though are those who think they can design and have never undertaken any study in that area in their life - otherwise known as the "would-be-designer."

    Quite often though, early on in the conversations with the client, one can sense when this is one of those kinds of client.

    I have found myself, when in this position in the past, quoting far over the odds, with the reasoning being, if they don't ask me to work on the job, then the impending heartache of working with them is alleviated and if they do then the extra money involved softens the horrors of working with them in this way.

    Some of the amendments I have been asked to do by clients have been laughable, including the one where I was asked to change the colour of a cape on a character.

    I then wondered why the colour change was being asked for and figured it may impact of something else further down the line. Thus trying to pre-empt that from happening unexpectedly I asked why the changes were being asked for.

    The answer beggared belief...

    "Oh, it's my wife's favourite colour!"

    I cannot think of anyone that has worked as an illustrator, who has not had first-hand experience of this.


  2. Ahhh Tim, yup we've all been there haven't we?

    I do think however that it's all got a lot worse over the last ten years or so, particularly with digital artworks being more alterable than their organic predecessors.

    I also think that it's become almost de rigeur throughout the creative industries. There was an interesting discussion a while ago about the reasons why UK TV drama nowadays sucks on ice when compared to U.S. TV series such as The Wire, The Shield, Generation Kill or France's The Spiral.

    With a lot of those series and definitely with HBO series the TV company buy into the pilot episode and then let the creative team go off and work up the series, on the basis that they've proven themselves with that pilot and no further faffing around by HBO is required.

    Compare and contrast with the kind of sales driven interference that creators have to endure from the BBC. The evidence is all too plain to see. In the case of Jed Mercurio who was responsible for the utterly gripping and compelling series "Bodies" set in an Obstetrics and Gynaecology ward and was to my mind the last great drama series screened by auntie Beeb before they screwed that one up, the interference and ultimate sabotage of that series led him to concentrate his efforts towards the U.S.

  3. Makes me glad I only do it for fun! Really love the top and bottom panels.

  4. Thanks James, really good to hear from you and loving the work you're putting up on your blog.

  5. ...And that's exactly why I bailed out of Soho, ten years ago. Just got so fed up with the interference, and mind-numbing folks with no vision sticking their oar in. Headed north and got a life, instead of chasing dreams that kept turning into nightmares!

    But what a turnaround. Now, in this self-publishing digital age, you can create as you please, in your own time, going where ever you so desire with a project. And you don't need to be in Soho, or any other real world hub any more (like the kids in Cloud 109, in fact). Sure, it's a whole lot harder to generate a proper income, but creatively-speaking, the world is most definitely your oyster... or cyber lounge... or whatever you want it to be...

  6. Amen to that!

    P.S. Still think that fabulous Cosmic Jellyfish you've currently got up on your Blips and Pieces blog would make a great T-Shirt.

    ... and poster - definitely want one of those too.