How to commission artwork

Ex Nihilo, Felicitas!

There are times when a writer has to acknowledge the limits of his ability, and reach out for help. In my case, the inability to draw even an anatomically correct stick figure, and still the desire to have an eye catching title page for my new book. Luckily, there are many talented people out there on the World Wide Web with the skills I need. In my case, my first choice is Lindsey Batdorf, who I met many years ago in the sadly departed wow_fanart community on LiveJournal. Having commissioned a handfull of pictures from her, I thought I’d describe how to get the art you want. Not just from her, I hasten to add. This is pretty much how it works for any artist.
My front pages are about as complex as they get (one or more characters, scenery, interesting lighting effects), so I can give you a full tour of the art commissioning process. So. You have decided that you need a piece of art. What do you need to make this happen?

The first thing you need is a budget. Artists are a sadly undervalued group of people who live only to bring beauty into this world. Still, they have mouths to feed, bills to pay (professional colour pencils do not come cheap). They are not just doing this for fun. They are doing this for the money. Some artists will do you a picture for the price of a burrito, some will need at least ten burritos. For the kind of picture you see gracing the front of my novels, we are talking three digits in dollars. Artists will helpfully list their prices. Don’t haggle. If it’s too expensive, find a cheaper artist. Art pieces tend to get more expensive the more complicated they are, from a pencil sketch of someone’s face to a full colour painting of your hero performing feats of daring. Ultimately, you are paying artists for their time. Multiply time by talent and by reputation, and you arrive at a price. Lindsey has been drawing pictures for a long time, and that experience comes at a price.

The second thing is a clear and well-thought out idea of what you want. Most artists work on what we call a fixed-price contract. That means: “You give me $X, and I will draw this picture for you.” In that order. Cash up front. Fixed price contracts are used when you have a well-defined job where the artist knows in advance how much time it will take. Changing your mind in the middle of a job costs time, and time is money. So decision time comes before even emailing the artist. You do not need a thousand words just yet, that comes later. For instance:

Two characters. One is Philip Tennant. Alexandra’s dad. He is lying on his back on an altar to Huitzilopochtli, an Aztec warrior god. Standing behind the altar is an Aztec priestess named Itzel, holding up an obsidian knife above her head in two hands, preparing to cut Philip’s heart out. Dark background, with perhaps a flaming torch or two, for some interesting lighting effects. The upraised hands are the element that will go in front of the title.

You can see the result if you read “The fall of Eldorado“. Once you have: a budget, an artist who will do what you want for the price, and a good idea of what should be in the picture, then you can open negotiations. The artist will assess how difficult this is going to be, and come back to you with a price. If it’s in budget, pay it. It’s worth it. If it’s a little over your budget, try to compromise on something a little less complex perhaps. Remember. Time x talent x reputation = money. Discounts are for the artist to give, not for you to ask.

Once your agreed price has cleared PayPal, it’s on. Depending on how detailed you’ve been, the artist may have questions for you. Skin colour, clothes, pose, does the character miss any limbs (sorry Yang), lighting. I tend to give a lot of background information on my characters, what they are doing at the time, how they are feeling about it. The more information you give your artist, the better they can include that information in their art. Tense situations give a different kind of body language than relaxed ones.

Once that’s done, the next thing that comes back will be a rough sketch. This is so you can have an idea what the artist is planning to do, and it’s your invitation to make any changes to the shapes and sizes. Arm a little higher, boobs a little bigger, skirt a little longer, more hair, eye patch on his right, not his left, that kind of thing. There’s a reason why the artist is asking this now: Once the next steps have started, it is a lot more difficult to make changes like that. For instance, in the front page to “The Mysterious Ore”, the airship had to go lower and lower to allow for the title. That costs time, and time is… Right. Once you are happy with the look of things, you give the OK, and the next stage begins.

Your artist will now turn the sketch into a clearly inked picture, usually with all the details in. This is when you want to look at things like the character’s facial expression, how many buttons they have on their shirt, what their belt buckle looks like, whether they have their eyes open or closed and how far. Small details. The big picture should already have been taken care of. Of course, there can be “oh crap” moments. Asking for big changes in the composition at this point costs time, and since we’re on a fixed price, it costs the artist. So they will love you that little bit less if you do.

Right. All the details are now as they should be, your character looks as adorable as

The fall of Eldorado

The fall of Eldorado

she needs to. Next comes colour. Colouring in the picture is one of the most time consuming processes in the drawing. It is more skilled than you think. For instance, in the picture of “The fall of Eldorado”, look at Itzel’s dress. Look how the shading makes her look more three-dimensional. Look at how the back of Philip’s hand is darker than the side. The folds of bits of cloth. That’s where the artist’s skill comes in, and that’s why she gets the big bucks. Once the artist has finished colouring in, the picture is more or less finished and ready to be put on the Web.

There’s a few other things that you need to keep in mind, and the more experienced artists will happily remind you. (Not all experiences are good experiences…)

  • Except in very rare cases, an artist will have several projects going on at the same time. This is healthy and expected and avoids fatigue. One of those other projects may well be a full day job. Don’t expect instant replies, and give the artist some time. Remember, this is a difficult job. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
  • In your negotiations, tell the artist what you plan to do with the image. I am going to use my next piece as a titleĀ page for my new novel “Fire from the gods”, scheduled to come out some time this century. Now if I were going to make serious money out of it, which I’m not, then Lindsey might want a modest percentage of the take. If I were going to print out a lot of copies of my new picture, then frame them and sell them, Lindsey might reasonably expect a significant cut of the take.
  • Your artist may want to include the picture in her portfolio, so she can show the world what she can do. If you don’t want her to do that, say so early.
  • Normally, if you pay an artist for a piece of art, you become the copyright holder of that piece, so you don’t have to ask the artist every time you use it (as long as you stick to any royalty deals). But this has to be in your agreement. Leaving things fuzzy leads to spats and bickering and bad feelings.
  • If you are happy with your piece of art, say so! Say so loudly, enthusiastically and in many places. This may get your artist more jobs. A common misconception is that you have to be starving to produce good art. Artists work best when properly fed, warm, dry, and happy. I warmly recommend Lindsey wherever I go, she links back to my little stories, we both benefit.
  • Do not under any circumstance try to get money off, or even a free work, because this piece will give the artist “exposure”. Unless you are in a position to instantly make your artist rich and famous, no fucks will be given about your poxy exposure. Your artist is well capable of sticking her own pictures online thankyouverymuch.
  • Not all artists will take all, um, subjects. Lindsey has a “Safe for work” policy. If you’re looking for something special, do check on the artist’s website. I can think of several scenes in my book that I wouldn’t ask Lindsey to draw.

Finally, be nice. Be reasonable. Don’t be an arsehole. You know, the normal stuff.

I hope this has given you a good idea of what’s involved in commissioning artwork. Artists want lots of commissions. They are a friendly bunch, always ready to help. It’s wonderful to have a picture of the people you’ve written, and it can really be a big invitation for people to pick up your book. So, if you see an artist whose work you like, hit them up for commissions!