Working with Artists

I recently read an interesting blog post by Jim Hines talking about the process of the cover art design for his novel Snow Queen, and I was struck by how similar it seemed to be to the process I went through to get my website art, so I thought a post about that might be of interest to readers.

I started thinking about trying to get some cool website art when I saw the art my friend Juliette Wade got for her site. Since I’d started having a website, I’d relied mostly on creative commons artwork and photography to decorate it and make it look pretty, but I was never quite satisfied with it. After asking Juliette how much she’s spent for her artwork, I spent some time browsing artist over at Deviant Art (which was where she’d found her artist). I did find quite a few artists that I thought probably could have produced beautiful artwork, but I was stymied by the fact that many of them were overseas and some of them had no English on their DA pages. Some of the artists I seriously considered though were Mauricio Herrera, Carolina Eade, Terese Nielsen, and Rudolph Herczog.

But what I was really looking for though was artwork that reminded me of the illustration that Kurt Huggins and Zelda Devon had done for my Realms of Fantasy story. Eventually I got the crazy idea that maybe they would be interested in doing it, so I sent Zelda an email. I didn’t think they’d actually have the time to take on the project, for they looked very busy with client work on their website, posting up new illustrations almost every other day, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. Besides, I’d exchanged some emails with Zelda a year earlier when I was getting a print of my story’s illustration and so knew I’d at least get a polite note back.

So I was actually quite surprised when Zelda wrote back to tell me that they could take on the project. We exchanged a couple emails discussing pricing and what exactly I was looking for, and though I won’t go into detail about this part, I do want to give a suggestion to anyone looking to commission art, particularly from professional artists: ask them up front how much they would charge for what you have in mind. It’s embarrassing to drastically underbid something. Instead, tell them your idea and get their pricing, and if it’s too much, ask them what they can do for you in the price point you’re looking to spend. And be realistic about what an artist’s time and effort is worth. Also, avoid commissioning from artists that insist on paying the full amount upfront. You should get final say on the final product before you completely pay for it (I commissioned a sculpture from an artist that I paid in full upfront and I ended up not getting to see the final product before she shipped it to me. I was all right with what she’d done, but I could have been out of luck if the artwork hadn’t been up to my satisfaction. Paying half up front and the rest on delivery protects both artist and client.)

Once we’d settled on the scope of the project, Zelda then had me send her detailed descriptions of the characters and a few well-chosen paragraphs from the novel. For the character descriptions, I didn’t go very much into physical characteristics but rather talked about their personalities and background, but for a couple characters I did lay out some stuff that I didn’t want to see done with them; like with Topiltzin, I wanted him to have darker complexion, to avoid the whole Quetzalcoatl as bearded-white-guy interpretation of the myths. I also wanted go with strictly human portrayals of Mayahuel and Topiltzin while I wanted animal characteristics integrated into Smoking Mirror and Mextli. I also really wanted to avoid over-sexualizing Mayahuel, since every piece of art I’ve seen of her has her partially naked, if not fully. I wanted sensuality, not porn, and I passed over considering some really good artists I saw on Deviant Art because their women were ultra-sexualized. I also provided Zelda with some scans of Aztec clothing, which they made really good use of, and I specified that I’d really like a pyramid in the header. I had an image in my head of what I wanted all of this to look like, but decided not give too many specific directions to try to get it to match that. I have some art background, but I haven’t drawn or painted in 15 years now, so I didn’t want to get in their way very much. They’re professional artists and everything I’ve seen of their work shows that they know what they’re doing. And one of the reasons I chose them was that they seem to “get” my work.

sketch_123010With everything turned in, we settled on a deadline of December 31st for completion. (Make sure you do this. Don’t leave the completion date open-ended, for then you might be waiting way too long for your piece. I didn’t set a deadline for the sculpture and so the artist just forgot about it until I poked her about four months later to ask for a status report on it. Yeah, this is the same person who I’d already paid in full….) Kurt and Zelda started some sketching right away (I assume this was the very first sketch they made right after taking the job) but it wasn’t until a couple months later that I received the initial sketch for approval:

I loved it immediately and was really amazed by how well they captured all the characters. I’m not kidding when I say it looked to me like they’d plucked them directly from my brain and drew them on paper; they all look exactly how I picture them. I had some doubts about the lack of pupils in Mextli’s eyes, but decided at that point to let that slide, to see how they’d deal with that in the final painting.

About a week later, Zelda sent me the finish painting for my approval. There was a ton to love about it, but there was also a major color issue. I hemmed and hawed about this for a couple hours, wondering if I should mention it or just accept it as is, because it would be a significant change requiring repainting of three of the characters. And I’m naturally a non-confrontational person, so approaching people to talk about problems is sometimes difficult for me. I think too my previous experience with the sculptor made me hesitate. I’d asked for a change on the piece after seeing the initial pictures and though she agreed to do it, she didn’t send me any follow up pictures to make sure she’d done it right. There was a whole attitude of “I’m done with you now” to the whole thing. But eventually I put on my big-girl panties and decided I had to ask Kurt and Zelda for the change because I just couldn’t live with the flaw. I also took that opportunity to ask them to add pupils to Mextli’s eyes because he just looked vacant without them.

entire illustrationKurt and Zelda were very professional about doing the changes, asking for extra time to get them done and sending follow up scans once they’d finished, and this time everything was spot-on. The final piece has a bit more on it than what you see on the blog.

I put the seal of approval on this one without hesitation and I’m immensely happy with what I got.

And so that’s pretty much it. It was an interesting learning experience for me. If you’re looking to commission some artwork, some tips to consider:

  • Make sure you’re not paying in full upfront, and make sure you get to sign off on the final project before you pay the balance.
  • Set a deadline for delivery, but be reasonably flexible as it approaches.
  • Be specific about things you do and don’t want to see in the art, but also give the artists room to breathe.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for changes.
  • Professionals will keep you informed of progress and delays.

3 Responses

  1. NewGuyDave

    Wow. Beautiful site. I’ll definitely be looking back here in a few months when I need to remember what you did.

    Any tips on domain names and hosting. I’m just about to put my author’s web page together and have nooooo idea where to go or what to do. A few people I know said, to use godaddy because of the wordpress templates, I think.??

    Anyway, great site. Lovely artwork. Wow.


  2. TL Morganfield

    I have my domain and hosting through GoDaddy. If you’re planning on using Word Press for your site, you definitely want to go with a hosting company that supports databases and Apache. A lot of cable internet providers offer free webspace to subscribers, but they often don’t support Apache (I hosted my old website through Comcast for years but had to buy hosting service once I decided to upgrade to WordPress). So research around before you settle on one. Customer service with GoDaddy is all right, but not stellar.

  3. Austin Briggs

    The site is excellent, I like coming back to it. When I see its thumbnail in my “top sites”, I feel like returning. The imagery is so powerful.

    Thanks for sharing how you went about it. It’s making me think hard about going this route for my own site, or even for the future book covers. Good stuff!