How much does illustration cost? How does it work? These are questions I get often get asked when approached from clients considering new artwork. In this article I talk about the process I use when given a commissioned illustration project. It’s about art style and content, but moreover it’s about meeting expectations and getting clarity in order to deliver good work.
I’ve worked on illustration projects ranging in cost from a few hundred pounds to thousands. There are a few considerations to weigh up depending on the nature of the request. Aside from the monetary value an artist puts on there own work, or the value the buyer sees in it, clarifying what’s wanted and more importantly whats not wanted is the first step.
Bullet points for buyers;
- Be as clear as you can be about what you want. A jobbing illustrator shouldn’t be offended if you show them some samples of images you like the style of.
- It can be tempting to use hourly rate website like people per hour, but this kind of approach can quickly turn your commission into speed dating. With ample choice and illustrators eager to show you their work you might find your time is eaten up explaining your requirements over and over again.
- Best practice from the illustrator includes preliminary sketch ideas. Regardless of your budget there should be room for feedback and revision before receiving the final work
Having an open dialogue as early as possible helps get a clear idea of what the client or buyer wants. If it’s more than a single image, I create a written brief describing in detail what I’ll provide, and in what format. It’s rare that I receive a brief from every client and it’s something we work on together. In my experience it’s the bigger clients issuing purchase orders or procurement supply their own detailed brief, and they’re usually quite technical.
A well written brief shouldn’t crush creativity or cramp style. It should work as a set of clear guidelines, providing simple constraints to help guide the creative process in the right direction from the beginning. I always check for jargon and use of language, understanding and adopting any unfamiliar terminology. I also put in the brief the format of how the final piece will be delivered*. This might sound a little dry for a creative endeavour, however having a clean clear brief I can qualify and quantify the time it will take to get the work done.
*This is helpful for social media where basics like ‘portrait or landscape’ don’t apply, and also when new formats are requested after delivery.
Where do the ideas come from?
I am my own worst boss. If I’m sitting perfectly still staring out of the window, out for a morning run or taking the scenic route along the river to my ‘second office’ at the Salford Museum and Art Gallery…I am not working. Nothing is getting done, is it? However in two of these three activities, this is where the magic happens. The thinking process. The good ideas.
As a creative, the thinking space is where most of the heavy lifting happens. Finding light bulbs. Being original. Thinking versus doing. I’m sure other more established creatives would argue it’s greater than thirty percent of the overall process. Coming up with very good ideas is the aspect of the work that will put you you ahead of your competitors. Not process. Quality in execution equally as important, though in my view it’s often undervalued in favour of ‘just getting on with it’. However…
“You don’t need big ideas, you need cheap experiments” – Micheal Schrage
One of my favourite quotes by Michael Schrage. I try not to be precious about the ideas process, and this is where quick sketches are ideal. Roughing out a handful of proposal ideas. Nothing too time consuming, no colouring or finishing. Have enough ideas to bin a couple and present the best ones to the buyer as sketches.
Back in art college I was a terrible show off. I loved the ‘Ta Da‘, big reveal moment of showing off a finished piece of work. Back then the idea of showing early sketches of ‘how it might look’ to anyone kind of stole the thunder. Even today, now and then it can be tempting to overwork a concept peace in order to elicit a wow moment from the buyer. Pure art and commercial illustration share the same space in terms of appreciation of the final work, but the process of getting there is different and needs to be structured. An art commission is about the vision of the artist, a commercial illustration commission is about collaboration, understanding a shared vision of the final work.
Here’s a great short extract from the Netflix series ‘Abstract’ where Paula Scher from agency Pentagram explains the ‘Reasonable level of Expectation’, and how first impressions and feedback influence the ‘wow’ moment on a project.
Seth Godin’s wonderful podcast ‘Akimbo‘ has a great episode discussing that since the birth of the internet there the are very fewer reasons for big reveal ‘Ta Da’ moments.
How long will it take?
Avoiding a big reveal helps to avoid re-doing work and wasting effort and time. Even a small commission needs room for feedback to eliminate any small of doubts that might creep in about the style or direction the work is headed. I get feedback verbally as often as it practical, or even face to face, as there’s far more information in a tone voice or facial expression than you’d ever get in an email.
Format and composition
With illustration work the composition of the image is dependent on how the final where the final peace is going. Editorial illustrations often have a single point of focus and are not too busy as to detract from the article they illustrate. With design illustration for posters flyers and print open spaces need to be included – space at the top or bottom where text will be overlaid onto the artwork. It’s the sign of a really good piece of illustration when you can take off the text and the composition still looks good.
I like to use characters where possible in my illustration work. I find drawing people to be a very engaging way of getting a message across particularly when I use facial expressions.
Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics, he introduces the concept of the picture plane. Showing how the human face is part of a universal pictorial vocabulary that we all have. The human face can communicate complex messages without words, and with the advantage of illustration, it’s a tried and tested technique that those expressions can be exaggerated to great effect.
Another sign of good illustration is background context. With a tight deadline it’s understandable to see images with a quick colour wash in the back. Given time and budget a solid piece of illustration will have a background which is stronger, providing context to the story it tells… and all illustrations tell a story.
Bullet points for the illustrator
- Be honest about the time it will take to complete the work. I often refer to illustrations as ‘complex’ or ‘simple’ . A Where’s Wally book and a Beano strip are two very different things.
- Watch out for moving Goalposts. If a buyer changes their mind halfway through a project, refer them back to the brief.
- Factor in ideas time and preliminary sketches.
- Research shorthand ways of illustrating complex items, structures or environments.
How much does an illustration cost?
An example of a recent video production I worked on involved around forty illustrations to tell the narrative. These were broken down into ‘key images’ and ‘incidental’ ones. It took months. After that I worked on a podcast cover, less than a day.
Illustrators work by project cost or hourly rate. The best way is to find an illustrator you like via website, Instagram Pinterest or an external agency, then ask.