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What to Expect from an Illustrator 

Congratulations! Your book is finished, near finished, or off to a good start. It’s time to think about art. You’re a great writer, but few writers have ever hired an illustrator. Where do you find an artist? How do you find the right artist and how do you go about hiring one?

Finding an artist is much like finding a doctor, lawyer or any other professional service provider. You’ll want someone who meets your professional standards, serves you in a way that builds up your trust, and treats you with respect. Ultimately, you (and your book) will be best served by contracting a professional artist who is a collaborator.

A collaborator is an artist who accepts your project with enthusiasm and a sincere belief in your book. An artist that is excited about your work will always produce his or her best work.

Finding an artist is easy enough, given the internet and the thousands of online portfolios to peruse. You may find a link to an artist on the CSPA website, or do a search specific to your need, for example: children’s illustrator, traditional painter, "calligrapher," animal artist, etc. But hiring and working with a professional artist is likely new territory for you.

A professional is someone who meets deadlines, stays on budget, and delivers print or web quality art. Quality is subjective and there are broad ranges of styles to consider. A sketchy, loose style is every bit as professional as a highly polished oil painting; it simply depends on your preference and your book’s genre.

What exactly should you expect when hiring an illustrator? First, you should share your ideas with the artist and find out if you are a good team. You will want to work with someone with whom you are comfortable (e.g., a collaborator). Next, you should discuss concept and style (realistic, cutesy, nostalgic, edgy, etc.). You’ll need to discuss ownership of art and rates. Artists usually prefer to retain all copyrights to their art (just as you would prefer for the text). If the artist agrees to do the art work-for-hire (WFH), wherein the writer (or publisher) buys the art, then you should expect to pay a premium for those rights. In any case, you should not expect the artist to work on speculation or 100% royalties. The artist needs to be paid upon delivery of the work, just as your doctor, lawyer, grocer is paid upon delivery of their services or goods. If the project is long running, a pay schedule should be arranged. Some artists receive partial payment for sketches and a balance due upon delivery of the final art.

Prices vary, but you will get as good an artist as you are willing, or able, to pay. Some artists will abide by The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines (which are based on New York publishing industry rates), others charge less. You should expect to pay professional rates, the same as you expect when hiring a lawyer, doctor or building contractor. In turn, you will rightly expect the artist to provide nothing less than his or her highest quality of art (within an agreeable and reasonable budget, as well as time frame).

Now for the real work of finding, and working with, an artist. Youve likely already decided on “the look”. Let’s use an example of a young reader novel, intended for 12 to 15-year-old girls. It features a horse, a 13-year-old girl and her grandmother in a Kentucky bluegrass setting. You want a beautiful cover showing the girl and her horse. The interior art might be a half dozen, one color (grayscale) pencil drawings, in a realistic, but soft style. You can do an online search for artists, using keywords like horse illustration, book illustrators, etc. You will be treated to a full range of artists, perhaps many right in your home town. When you find some you like, simply call or email to get the conversation going.

Be clear about your needs! If you need a cover, specify whether it is only the front, or if it should wrap around the spine and back. Will the artist be responsible for type? If so, the artist is not responsible for spelling or proof-reading, no matter how simple the words. Be clear about the quantity. If you hire an artist to do six illustrations, they will budget and quote for six. Anything more than six will incur extra fees. Discuss the rights purchased, and expect the artist to write a contract defining those rights, along with rates, deadlines, etc.

Expect the artist to provide preliminary sketches. These are rough, but legible, pencil sketches that should give a very good idea of what the final art will look like. They should not be scribbles or thumbnails. Faces should be sketched, not just blank ovals, animals and scenery should be fleshed out. In other words, do not accept stick figures, as you will want to have a clear vision of the finished art. For highly detailed covers, a color comp (sketch with color) could be provided.

After reviewing the sketch, give the artist approval to proceed to final art. This is your call, you must be satisfied with this sketch and it’s the artist’s job to please you. In turn, you should be prepared to pay for excessive changes that were not directed in the original concept. If you discussed one girl with a horse standing beside a white fence, but then you add elements after the sketch arrives, you should pay for those added complexities. Some changes are expected: such as, make the girl’s hair shorter, the horse’s mane longer. These are “included”in the original rate. But if you add more girls and horses, a truck and trailer, and a picket-fenced, frame house in the background, you are asking for options that cost.

When the final art arrives, make sure it meets your expectations, and also remember the original agreement and budget. If you agreed to, and budgeted for, a loose, pastel watercolor scene for the cover, that is what you should get. This is where hiring a professional should minimize risk at the final art stage. If your professional has a long track record, an impressive client list, and an online portfolio of high-quality pieces, you should be fine.

If the artist provided a traditional illustration, that is, an actual painting or drawing, and you contracted to pay for first publishing rights, then the art should be returned, at your expense, to the artist. If you paid for work-for-hire, it is your property and the artist has agreed to transfer all rights to you. Sometimes work-for-hire art is returned to the artist, but the artist cannot use, or sell it, without your permission. The artist should, however, be free to use it for self-promotion on a website, or mailings. This is standard and the artist should never be prohibited from using the art for self-promotion. Again, be aware that a Work for Hire Agreement should involve a premium, given the significant loss to the artist when giving up rights. Ideally, no artist should transfer his or her rights in a self-publishing contract, simply because self-publishers are almost always more limited in their budgets. Contracts should be another topic, for another day, as they can be quite involved. But the copyright issue should be thought through right from the start.

Also, be sure to cite the artist either on the cover, the back cover, or the copyright information page. If the artist retains the rights, the copyright should read like this:

Cover and Interior Illustrations ©2013 Jane Doe

Working with an artist is a professional, contractual relationship, but it need not be cold and only business. It should be the beginning of a trusting, healthy working relationship. If you find an artist who is in sync with you, your work and your vision, then you will find a fellow creative who will go many extra miles to make your work shine.

The following points summarize the process of hiring an artist:

  • Review online portfolios
  • Contact the artist
  • Clarify your needs
  • Agree on the terms (rate, rights, and deadlines)
  • Review sketches
  • Okay the final art
  • Receive beautiful, production-ready art
  • Pay promptly upon acceptance


Written by Ed Koehler

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