Have you ever seen a piece of art, and just been blown away by it? It doesn’t matter if it’s a Monet (like the image above this post) or a piece of fanart on Tumblr, art has an ability to move us immediately. And while writing is an art in itself, sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. Or at least a couple hundred bucks. My post tonight is going to discuss commissioning art for your writing, how to go about finding artists, what’s a reasonable price and timeline, and what warning signs to look out for.
I have a pretty solid background in art. I have always enjoyed drawing, and my mother (who is an artist, though she spends more time with fiber art than drawing these
days) quickly enrolled me in classes in the DuPage Art League. There, I took classes in drawing, watercolor, India ink, life drawing, landscapes, and more. Honestly, I spent so much time there as a child, I don’t fully remember how many classes I took or what all the topics were. I continued to take art through middle school, and nearly enrolled in an art academy in high school, rather that pursuing traditional education. I had a dual major (Japanese Studies and Art*) in college for two years, before dropping the Art major as it would’ve meant I’d have to spend a fifth year in school. I only mention this because I want you to understand that this is advice coming from someone who’s familiar with art and the time and energy that goes into creating it. I also want to mention that this is advice for people who are self-publishing. If you’re going through a big publishing house, these kind of things will be handled as part of the marketing that goes with your book. When you’re self-publishing, you’re also handling your own marketing. That means you need to do (and pay for) this kind of work on your own.
The first step in getting any art commissioned is finding an artist. I have friends who are artists themselves or are involved in local art communities, and I was able to use this as a resource to find technically competent, professional artists. Everyone doesn’t have that at their disposal, however. There are resources available to find artists online. There are a lot of subreddits that exist for commissioning art, and if you search for “art commissions” on Google, you’ll find pages of results. You can also check out Instagram, where a lot of artists will post daily sketches, and Tumblr, another treasure trove of art. However, these should just be starting points. Once you find an artist who’s style you enjoy, you’ll want to see if they offer commissions in the first place, then reach out to them about availability and pricing. You will also want to make sure that they’re okay with their art being used for commercial purposes. Since you’re likely using this for marketing, both online and printed, you’ll need to be absolutely sure that you have full copyright of the image once it’s completed. If the artist isn’t comfortable with it, don’t commission them. As much fun as it is to have art of your characters and story, you’re doing this for marketing purposes, not just for fun. Spend your money wisely, and invest in pieces you can use in multiple places, for multiple uses.
Once the artist comes back with their availability and pricing, and assuming it fits your timeline and budget, you want to submit a proof for what you’re commissioning. You’ll want to include a description of the character, scene, or setting you want illustrated. If you have any reference images that you can provide, you’ll want to include those as well. Be as detailed as possible. For characters, include their hair and eye color, race, gender, height, weight or build, something about their personality (you want this to come out in the piece to help sell the novel), and what kind of clothing they’d likely wear. This is especially important for stories that are set in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, as the character’s dress also describes the world they live in. For scenes, get on Google Image Search and find pictures that match what’s in your imagination. You want to help your artist as much as you possibly can. The more information you get to them, the better the finished piece will match your mental image. Also let your artist know that they can come to you with any questions. If you’re really worried about them getting your vision, you can also request thumbnails before they start seriously working on the piece.
Make sure you give plenty of time for the artist to finish your piece, too. If you’re on a deadline, be up front about it. Depending on the style, the artist, and the complexity of the piece, it may take them weeks to create a finished artwork. If you rush the artist, their work may suffer for it. I always like to leave at least two months of buffer when commissioning work, even if I don’t need that much time. It makes me feel less stressed about waiting for a finished piece, and it gives the artist plenty of time to adjust if something personal gets in the way of their creative time or space. Trust me, these things do happen, and you want to make sure no one’s left in the lurch by it.
When I comes to payment, always talk to the artist about their preferred methods and timelines. My personal preference (and this is a hanger-on from when I was doing graphic design) is to pay half of the total cost up front, with the second half coming on completion. It’s what I did when I did graphic design, and it tells your artist that their time, not just the finished piece, is worth money. It also allows you to budget a bit more effectively, as you can spread the cost of a major work over a couple of weeks. Now, some artists will require payment up front. Some want it all at the end. Others may ask for a down payment to secure a slot on their commission schedule before they’ll start anything. Like I said, you want to talk to the artist first and figure out what works best for the both of you.
Please note that good art takes time and money. If you want quality pieces for your book, you should expect to pay for it. A lot of artists don’t get paid what they’re worth for artwork, and if I can teach you one thing, it’s this: you are paying an artist because, just like a doctor or an IT professional, they have expertise and training that you do not have. The art for the cover of my book – and just the art, not the graphic design – cost me just shy of $100. Now, when you pay a professional amount of money, you should expect professional interactions. Megan Tupper, the artist who did the cover as well as the scenery art for my book’s website, was extremely communicative (daily email updates), provided me with multiple thumbnails of various compositions, and allowed me a round of critiques for the final piece. It took her a week to get the cover art completed, and the scenery pieces took about twice as long (they were more complex and required more back and forth). All told, from when she took the initial commission to when the work was completed, Megan took twenty days to create five finished pieces**.
There are, of course, things that you need to watch out for. A lot of artists, especially ones who are just starting to treat art as a profession rather than a hobby, do not charge enough for their time and work. If you find an artist who isn’t charging a lot for work of a high quality, be careful. If an artist doesn’t recognize the value of their time or art, they may have to cut corners to create enough art to make a living. It doesn’t mean they’re not talented, but if someone is struggling to feed themselves, they’re going to look for ways to churn out as much stuff as possible. This could mean that they don’t have time to focus on your commission, they may not be able to give you a chance to review or edit the piece before it’s completed, or the finish may not be as professional as you’d like. For some, it may mean that they’re tracing or copying poses, though this is not always the case and I’m hesitant to even bring it up in this discussion. However, I want to make sure that you recognize that sometimes a low price is too good to be true, and should be seen as a red flag.
You also want to make sure that the artist is responding in a professional tone during your communications. If you want a change to a piece during the sketch phase of things, you shouldn’t get push-back from the artist as long as you’re being reasonable about your request (if you started out asking for a portrait of your character lounging on a couch, then change your mind and decide you want them sky-diving, the artist should be giving you a hard time about it). People who make art professionally treat their interactions with their clients (that’s you) professionally. If at any point in time the artist starts acting in a non-professional manner, it’s a warning that things might turn south.
Finally, if at any point in time you want to cancel the commission, that should still be an option. If it turns out that the artist’s style isn’t a good fit for your story, or you’re not liking how the piece is going and don’t believe it can be salvaged, then you should be able to stop working with the artist. Make sure you’re professional in your tone and writing when you want to end the commission, and understand that stopping a project after work has been done means you may not get your money back (especially worth noting when you’re paying for everything up-front). This is another reason why I pay half up-front whenever possible. I don’t really expect to get that money back if I don’t like how things are going, but I want whoever I’m working with to understand that I value their time and effort, even if things don’t work out.
The best thing about getting a piece commissioned, especially one that’s well done and matches your vision, is having something you can point to and say “this is my story.” The image to the left is of the main character of the Affinity Series, Kim Phillips. Besides being well drawn and rendered, this image captures Kim’s personality and style perfectly. It’s literally the background image on my phone at the moment, and replaced one of my daughter from Christmas (I’m a monster, I know). Still, there’s nothing more exciting to me than pulling out my cell and waving that picture in my friends’ and family’s faces***.
Good art is well worth the monetary investment. I’ve commissioned around fourteen individual pieces, plus paying someone to do the graphic design on my cover. Total costs should end up well over a grand spend on art alone, and I’m more than happy with that. I’ll be able (and have already started) to use these images in promotions, ads, and on my website. I’ll be able to use them on flyers, bookmarks, signs and displays, and many other printed items for when I’m going to conventions. I’m also including a lot of the art in the book itself, both in digital and print formats. Honestly, all of the art will more than pay for itself in terms of drawing attention to the book. And, most of all, it’s super fun.
I’ll see you guys again on Wednesday. Have a great night!
* I know, I have a weird educational background. I will, maybe, one day talk about it, depending on people’s level of interest.
** It’s really worth noting that Megan is amazingly quick. I’ve worked with a lot of gifted artists while getting Burner‘s promotional materials ready, and I have been extremely happy with the work that everyone has done. Megan Tupper is a unicorn, though, when it comes to her turnaround time.
*** They do not appreciate it as much as I do.