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Category: Illustration

Embarrassing Moment as an Illustrator

After several years out of the commercial art market, I was called, out of the blue, to bring my portfolio to a design studio 125 miles away. They had three large illustrations to assign, and it looked like a fair amount of work.

I was going to bid $1200 each, or $3600 for the trio. But when the art director asked me how much it would cost them, I asked in return what the budget was.

My usual tactic.

I was prepared for her to tell me something as low as $2500 which I would then try to squeeze up a bit before agreeing. I have never been good at guessing these things.

She told me “We have another illustrator whose work we like who has already bid twelve, but I really like your work, so it has to be in that ballpark.”

Trying not to sound huffy, I calmly ask, “Each? Or for the whole job?”

“No, twelve for all three.”

I paused. “These are worth at least nine, each,” I argued humbly… trying to get the work, but still retain my dignity and let her know I know this business.

Her eyebrows shot up. “Nine thousand each?!”

It was at that moment I realized I had just undersold myself to the point of glaring incompetence, and I said, “I really suck at negotiations.”

There was no recovering. I picked up my portfolio and left.

I drove 125 miles north, to my home, with a red face and my tail between my legs.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Bain De SoleilI sat down and watched a movie last night that really touched me in many ways. The Pursuit of Happyness, with Will Smith is a must-see for anyone over 12 in America. It embodies the American Dream like nothing I have seen

But this is not a review of the movie, even though it does stir up a lot of my old forgotten emotions from the time period in which it was set, 1981, when I was just beginning my career as an illustrator. One of the things that impressed me was the movie sets, with authentic period decor… starting with the Ban de Soleil tanning lotion ad in the picture above.

Ban de Soileil was the tanning lotion of choice for snobs — or at least I thought so, sitting there on the beach with my bottle of baby oil and iodine.

PSA Taxi Card - 1981I knew they had done their research when this scene flashed by. Will’s character gets into a taxi with a Dean Whitter exec, and the ad card on the roof was a pristine PSA Airlines ad.

PSA was “out of business” by 1988 when acquired by USAir, but for the seven years they used that particular airplane illustration that had been incorporated into their logo, I seethed.

See, I was a new illustrator on the San Diego scene. After a nine-month stint as an in-house illustrator with General Dynamics, Covair Division in Kearny Mesa, I got washed out in a 400-employee downsizing, and found myself treading the scary waters of the unemployment pond. Rather than stand in line for government assistance, I hit the streets with my college portfolio, first meeting with San Diego Illustrator Darrel Millsap — who became a friend, and a mentor of sorts — and then to design groups and ad agencies, always asking for more referrals.

This all brought me to the little design team of Clem and Bonnie Schwartz who hired me, that day, to do an illustration of a PSA plane flying up and over to the viewer’s right. They were preparing a 2-page, black and white spread in a newspaper campaign, and wanted to dress it up with an illustration of the plane with the signature “smile” on the front.

I took the job. It paid $750, and I needed to pay my rent.

I went down to Lindbergh Field, stood outside the fence and shot pictures of departing PSA flights with a zoom lens on my film camera, prepared an under-drawing for my final illustration, got it approved, and then received a phone call from the Schwartzes. They wanted me to “paint it in color, just in case at the last minute PSA decides to run the spread with color.” I figured that wasn’t that big of a deal, so I complied.

PSA Airlines Artwork

I painted this in 1981 for a one-time newspaper ad.
It was then used as the company logo, with no additional compensation.

They loved my finished illustration… …so much so that they took advantage of me [read: royally screwed] and told me after a month or so that they could not release my payment to me without my signing-over copyright and ownership of the original art.

Now, even though I was a little green, I knew that there were at least 3 valuable assets attached to any original work for which an illustrator should be compensated:

  1. time in creating the work of art and the associated, pre-planned usage rights for which the commission is therefore engaged,
  2. ownership of the original artwork, and
  3. copyright to the work.

Whomever owns copyright — inherently with the artist unless transferred or sold in writing — can do with it whatever they please.

But, like I said, I had rent to pay.

They told me this was just a formality, and that I had nothing to be concerned about [except that signing it was the only way to get my check], so, trusting them (did I mention green behind the ears?) I signed the agreement [which gave them copyright] and my check came a few days later.

Within a month, the illustration had been incorporated into their previously barren PSA logo, and was used in virtually all print and media advertising until their merger with USAir in 1988.

I never saw the original art again, and I never received a penny more in compensation.

Movie note: The guy at Dean Whitter that keeps asking Gardner (Will’s character) to get him some coffee is none other than Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson.

My First Sketchbook, Part 1

When I began attending Art Center College of Design (ACCD) in 1977, I was 19 years old. I was one of the youngest students in the school. Younger than me, as I recall, were Frank Ordaz, Emmanuel Amit, Tia [Wallace] Kratter and one or two others.

I was scared. Seemed everyone was 23 or older. They had been to college already.

There were requirements that were daunting. Only a few years earlier the administration had stopped requiring male students to wear white shirts and ties to class. It was still a strict environment—many of the teachers were at the new facility in Pasadena, but had come from tenure at the “old school on Third Avenue.” They brought with them the old ways.

I, for one, thought that was a good idea. I wanted to learn Illustration the old way. I wanted to learn to draw and paint from teachers who were working and succeeding during the Illustration Heydays; the 1930s–1950s.

We were required to keep a sketchbook with us at all times. At least one teacher would make this a demand, pretty much covering for the rest of the teachers who would make the same requirement.

The sketchbook, above left, is a 29-year old sketchbook. (Click it to see a large scan of it). The very one I carried with me everywhere. I decorated it with an ancient religious symbol signifying my membership in the Fraternal Order of Norman Rockwell. Actually I just lied. It was a totally random shape cut from the remains of the holographic mylar sticker-tape my buddy Brock and I used to make a SUNBUG logo for his beige VW Beetle in 1978. Having narrowly escaped participating in the 60s due to our youth, yet still influenced by the psychedelic artwork of that era, we chose Arnold Boecklin for the font.

No one told me that All Caps in a display face is just bad typography.

In that sketchbook I would keep my class notes, my required “daily drawings” (I never did them daily) and my ideas. Along with all that were my “A.D.D. Compensations.” These little artworks were — as crazy as this may sound to someone who does not sport ADD — my way of focusing on the lectures.

There is nothing more painful to a 19-year-old art student influenced by ADD and nearly entirely visually driven, than having to listen to a lecture about visual things.

So I drew.

I usually sketched cartoons or caricatures of my teachers while they talked.

One course I had was Color Theory, taught by a chain-smoking, salty and weathered, mid-fourties, old-schooler named Judy Crook.

She droned on and on about color theory in the most absolute terms, finishing each paragraphical statement with “It’s all relative…”

Now when you’re ADD enhanced—as I like to call it—your mind picks up on repetitive sounds and patterns. They are just rhythms and sounds. Not words. And so, like a catchy beat in a song, like the piano and drums intro in Rikki Don’t Lose That Number the pattern gets absorbed and memorized, only later to be studied and analyzed for content.

I thought it was odd that I was being taught a basics course that was all theory, reduced further by its mere relativity.

It would be decades before I would come to understand the enormous value of everything I was taught by Judy Crook in my second term at ACCD. She had a way of burning-in the meaning and correct naming in the terminology of color: hue, saturation, value, tint, shade, intensity… but what would baffle me for years was the concept of the relativity of it all. All the rules were only good so far as the way they were described, but would fall apart in varying degrees based largely on the colors surrounding—and thereby visually influencing—a given hue.

It’s still a difficult thing to pay attention to even as a painter, some 29-odd years later.

Judy Crook was brilliant.