Sex, Lies, and Art Direction

-By Lauren Panepinto

Before we start I'd like to introduce (and thank) Marc Scheff who helped me crystallize my thoughts on this issue to such a great extent that I just finally asked him if I could get him to write it all out and use him as a co-writer for this post. Marc's outlook on this topic is especially helpful, because he's the one person I can think of that is simultaneously being commissioned AND art directing in the same field. Marc is a fabulous illustrator, and has also been doing some fantastic art direction for Treehouse Brand Stores—that great Tomb Raider art project a few months back was his baby. And now that the legendary Jon Schindehette has landed at Treehouse as well, I can't imagine what amazing stuff those two will cook up.

I'd also like to thank the generous Tim Paul for illustrating yet another of these posts. His ideas for this one really cracked me up. I was going to feel guilty, since I'm the one who wrote the article on working for free, but in trade I am designing the type for his Xmas card. (I love bartering.)

And, as usual, even though I talk to other ADs constantly about these issues, I don't speak for anyone else officially, so all hate mail can be addressed directly to me.

When Dan Dos Santos originally asked me to be a contributor on Muddy Colors, I was very excited, because there are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding the business of illustration and art direction, and I really wanted to pull the curtain back. I found myself having the same conversations with artists over and over again, and I realized there were not enough places to read about these issues online. It makes me so happy to be hearing from so many artists that these posts, and all the fabulous posts Jon is writing over at ArtOrder, are helping to shed some light on our business.

I believe that the answer to most problems is almost always better communication. As an art director, translating between editorial/corporate (words) and artists (pictures) is the core of my job, and I have learned that these two species do not speak even remotely similar languages. The quickest and best way I have found to foster cooperation between these two alien species is to raise the empathy level between them. When you have empathy for another person, when you can understand their motivations, then you can respect their position (even if you do not agree with it) and you can work to find common ground. This is what I do daily as an AD. (And Tim's illustration below perfectly illustrates how that feels much of the time.)

And it’s true, as I stated in one of my very first posts on the problems with getting paid, that MOST people are not out to screw other people over. Therefore MOST problems come from poor communication, not intent to harm. Which means they are not only misunderstandings, but avoidable, or at least able to be overcome by a healthy dose of empathy and perspective.

In an ideal world, corporate and art would have this empathy and perspective, which would result in a better community, and better work for everyone. When our bosses want more for less, we tell them why that’s not reasonable. We have won many of these battles. In most cases there’s not even a battle to be fought—just a message to get to the other side and have understood. We educate our companies of the artists point of view, and they are, in most cases, able to accommodate. We find a middle ground that works to protect both business concerns and creative concerns. That’s why I am happy to have these conversations with artists over and over, explaining the side of things they don’t get to experience. That’s why I spend so much time writing these posts. And that’s why it has saddened me to see a great idea like artPACT occasionally take turns into very bitter territory. I support a lot of what they stand for because, like every other AD I know, I love to get the absolute best deal for our artists. However, over and over again in comments and on social media from many sources, I am too often seeing the AD blamed for company policy over which they have little or no control. I can't condone public shaming in general, but especially not when it's supporting misconceptions about how the industry operates.

Let’s take a step back and try to see the issues without bitterness. Does it make sense that an AD would want to have anything other than perfectly happy artists? Most often it is the AD that is railing against, and trying to change, the very same policies that infuriate artists.

Call me a hopeless optimist, but as the "monkey in the middle" in a lot of ways, I really believe we can work together to iron out misunderstandings, as well as make positive changes in the industry together. It shocks me to see artists consider ADs more on the side of a company than on the side of artists. We call artists “our artists” because they are our team, we need them, and we want to take care of them. I can't speak for every AD in the world, but I know almost every AD working in the SFF world, and I can be completely confident in saying that we want the best for you and work hard to get it. We are not the enemy...maybe we sleep with the enemy sometimes, or just make out out a little bit, but we always want to protect our artists at the same time. ADs and the companies they work for are separate entities, and need to be judged as such.

For example: I have publicly posted that my company is pretty awful at getting people paid sometimes. It's not on purpose, it's just outdated bureaucracy. I know this, and as an AD I go out of my way to make sure my artists are getting paid. I chase payments, I tell artists to make sure to not feel bad about letting me know if something has gone wrong, and I have even spent hours and hours at work developing a better system for the company as a whole to adopt for paying artists. It will get through eventually, but making change in a huge company has taken over a year so far. So I support artists organizing, and speaking out about the conditions under which they will not work. If artPACT wants to give my company a bad rating for payment processing, please do! I can use that discussion to affect change. You’re working with me. But counting me, the AD, as responsible for that payment system’s malfunction is counterproductive. And vilifying a person for policies they have no control over just fosters hostility in our community. 

Less blame, more constructive criticism.

If there's one thing I've learned in my years as an AD, it's that change comes from communication,  understanding, and cooperation. The SFF art scene is one of the most nurturing and welcoming scenes in the entire art world. I feel like we owe that to ADs like Irene Gallo and Jon Schindehette and many other ADs and artists. Of course there is room for improvement, but we can't let what is good be torn down in the attempt to change for the better.

And since I feel like the best way to mend fences is through humor, here's a Quiz I've designed to equally amuse and educate. The answers are in white under each question. Try to take an honest guess, then highlight the space after "answer" with your cursor to reveal the answer:

1. When an Art Director is looking at your portfolio they look most closely at:
    a) Your strongest piece
    b) Your weakest piece
    c) The piece most like what they need to commission

Answer: b) Your weakest piece

LP: When I hire an artist I hope for the best and expect the worst. For each and every job I have to ask myself "If everything goes wrong with this project, and the artist turns in the level of their worst work here, will I be able to deal with that?" If I have a lot of time on a commission then often I will take a chance on that new artist I've had my eye on. If things go south, there's time to do a few extra rounds of revisions or try something else. When it's a high-pressure job, though, I'm going to go with someone I've worked with before. 

MS: Every AD I know is willing to put in the extra time to take a chance on someone, but we can't take chances every time. What if we hire you and we get your worst day, and on a tight deadline? This isn't about pessimistic, it is simply realistic. We have all had that project go south and had to go extra rounds or in the worst cases pull in a ringer or even make changes ourselves . It costs time and money. It frustrates the artist, and is emotionally challenging for them and us to get things done. That’s why I tend to hire off of portfolios where I love every single piece.

2. When an Art Director is looking at portfolios of artists to hire for a job the most important factor is:
    a) Looking for art they like
    b) Choosing artists they are friends with
    c) Picking the most reliable artists
    d) Finding an artist that will get approved by their (editor/CEO/license holder)
    e) Hiring an artist the fans of that genre like

Answer: d) Finding an artist that will get approved by their (editor/CEO/license holder)

LP: Although I jest about hiring artists that bake me pie, in truth, my personal relationship with an artist has very little to do with hiring them. Clearly it helps to know the person is pleasant to work with (remember the "good/nice/on time" venn?). I'm also not going to hire someone whose work I don't like. I usually pick 2-3 artists to pitch for every project. Sure, I control the options, but it's not me who gets the final say. Before I commission an artist, my editor, publisher, and usually the author need to be on board. I have a long list of artists in my head I am dying to work with, but for some reason or another, I just can't get them approved.

MS: I’m lucky, there are so many great artists out there I can usually put together a list of ones I like with confidence that some number of them will get approved by our clients. That’s in the 73% of the time my job is in an ideal world. The other 27% of the time the deadlines we are given are impossible to put it mildly, and leave me without time to negotiate, so reliability becomes a big factor. The truth is everyone I know who buys art, from corporations to individuals,  wants it fast, cheap, and good. I tell them they can pick two. And even THEN I know that I may have to put in extra time either working with the artist or finding other ways to get the job done.

3. When an Art Director doesn't get back to you quickly it's most likely because of:
    a) Laziness
    b) Exciting social life
    c) The other 30-300 projects happening simultaneously
    d) Inbox stuffed with emails from other artists
    e) Waiting on feedback or approval from higher up on the chain

Answer: Ok, trick question, c, d, AND e are all correct.

LP: I know artists see my Facebook feed and see me hanging out with other ADs at cons, going to the Society of Illustrators for lunch, and going to art events and openings. Very glamorous, I know. What you don't see is all the late nights I'm sitting at my desk until 10-11pm simply answering emails. Trust me, they're the norm, not the exception. I don't like to post about it because no one likes to hear me whine, and also, I do it out of love of my job, not because I'm looking for pity. Also, as frustrating as it is for you not to hear from me, it's twice as frustrating for me to not be able to get an answer from editors that sit 5 feet away from me. Approval chasing is the most annoying part of my job, hands down.

MS: Waiting on approval is the number one issue I deal with in scheduling. As an artist myself, I can’t help but be a bit of an empath and I feel the frustration on both sides when I have to talk to artists week after week on a project that has become low priority for a client and I'm just saying “hang on.” I am currently working with Jon Schindehette on a new system that will help us get approvals at Treehouse easier and faster. A lot of this will involve communicating the same need for empathy and understanding Lauren spoke about above. We know you guys, especially those who work hard and count on freelance as their only income, need some clarity on schedules for stability, and we’re trying to get that done. As Lauren said above, when the chain of command is long (and they almost always are) this just takes time.

4. Who sets budget maximums per project?
    a) Creative Directors
    b) Art Directors
    c) Publisher/CEO

Answer: c) Publisher/CEO

LP: Although I have a little wiggle room if thing are a rush, or if we go through an excessive amount of revisions, I do have to get every dollar I spend on a cover approved. If I spend too much on a book, it could very easily tank the book, and mean that an author doesn't get to write any more books for us. It's my job to protect my artists and make sure they're being paid as well as possible—but at the same time it's the editor's job to make sure the book ends up in the black, and it's the publisher's job to make sure the company stays afloat. If Orbit goes under, then I can't pay any artists. Sometimes I have to ask artists if they'll work for less than I know they're worth. Sometimes they can't, and sometimes they can. I trust the artist will be honest with me—if they just can't take on a lower-priced commission, I hope they just say so. I certainly don't want them agreeing to a price and then being bitter about it. I'm not ever going to hold it against someone if they turn down a commission from me, because of price, schedule, or anything else.

MS: I’m lucky again, we pay pretty well. but not everyone does or can. That said every AD I know went to art school and has working artists as their core and extended friend group. Nothing, nothing, gives us more pleasure than paying people well for their craft. Sadly I have seen posts online about an AD who, for the simple fact that they are the messenger for company policy, are called a "joke" or "terrible" or worse. If you think we like telling anyone we can't give them more money for making their art, you're not really thinking the situation through realistically. Offering a great rate will get us the best artists, and the best work out of the artists with whom we get to work. Getting you good rates makes our jobs easier so we have every incentive to do so. 

If I were to suggest a path forward for those like artPACT who seek to  affect positive change, I would say to open a dialogue with your AD and find out what they need to help you. Tell us what's working, what's not. If enough artists start turning down lower commissions at any one company, maybe that's enough ammunition for the AD to go back and tell corporate that they can't get the artists they want and need to raise their rates. But every company is different, and every bureaucracy has different pressure points. So do ask your AD how you can help, and if they have time to push on that pressure point, you will get a fair response. That’s good communication and will help everyone.

5. Art Director salaries are generally:
    a) More money hourly than artists are paid
    b) About equal hourly to what artists are paid
    c) Less money hourly than what artists are paid

Answer: b or c, depending on the company

LP: This is a hard number to give concrete evidence for, but look at it this way—I guarantee you that the companies that pay the lowest commission rates also pay the lowest AD salaries. And the ADs that work for those companies do it because they love what they do, not because they're raking in the dough.

There are industries in the SFF genre that make more money than others, and some, like gaming, can only stay afloat by making a lot of art for minimal cost per piece. Many artists use that system to climb up the ladder to higher commissions for other companies and industries. If you feel the rate is too low for you, then don't accept those commissions. If enough artists turn down the commissions, and the company has money, then they will probably try to raise rates eventually. Unfortunately not every company has the profit margins to do that.  

MS: Lauren is right, there are a lot of factors that go into this, and I can’t speak for every AD in every industry or in every state. But it’s true, ADs generally have a salary and a reliable, stable income. In order for artists to do the same, we have to work quickly enough to get a good “hourly” while still producing work that will get approved and that we want in our portfolio. However, some projects take more time for the artist, and some even require that I, as an AD, step in and do some of the art fixes myself. (Huge disclaimer: I only ever do that if I can’t reach the artist for a very fast turnaround and I always get the artist to approve any changes I make.) What I can tell you for sure is that on any given project, my take home pay is both worth my time and measurably less than the artist.

6. Who controls the terms of the company's contract?
    a) Creative Director
    b) Art Director
    c) Legal

Answer: c) Legal

LP: Although I am lucky enough to work for a company that takes my input into account, contracts are the legal team's territory. I get very little wiggle room on altering terms of a contract, and no wiggle room on licensing. For example, if an artist cannot give me World English book use, I can't work with them. The publishing industry has changed and due to ebooks we can't license by geography anymore, we need to license by language. If an artist or agent can't grant those rights, then legal says I can't hire them.

MS: Like Lauren, my company is pretty awesome and when I bring up issues around licensing and payment, they actually listen and make changes. But we typically don't write the deals. We have bosses, and they have bosses and clients, and they make rules they feel are in the best interest of their company, just like artists make decisions about which work to take and for whom based on the needs of their businesses and in many cases their families. Some of these rules make sense, and some can be coaxed to change. Good terms and rates for our artists makes our jobs easier. Happy artists do better work with fewer revisions. That's why when these rules aren't great for our freelancers, we push as hard as we can to change them.

When I first started at Treehouse Brand Stores, we had a simple work for hire and a very vague kill fee structure. These contracts came from our clients, and that made sense for giant game companies with tightly controlled IPs. When I called that out internally, they were open to a new way, but didn't have the resources to research it themselves. So I did my own research, and approached them with a new, very specific, non-Work For Hire contract and two-tiered kill-fee structure. It took some education, and a few artists who turned us down based on the contract, but they were open to my suggestions and limited licensing is now our standard.

Great, right? But VERY unusual. Treehouse is a small team, and nimble. Larger companies with dozens or hundreds of employees or those run by even larger companies have big legal teams and lots of decision makers. It takes time to affect this kind of change.

7. Most art revisions come from:
    a) Editorial/Corporate
    b) Art Director
    c) Licenses

Answer: c) Licenses

LP: I go out of my way to give as much detail as possible to an artist, so they know where they do and don't have artistic license. I tell them exactly what needs to be in there to check all the boxes for target audience, genre checkpoints, story details, etc. I'm also seeing sketch stages along the way, and course-correcting. Usually I have minimal revisions as we get close to final. Unfortunately, no matter how many stages I show them, my approvers very often have a change to make that I couldn't anticipate. Maybe the manuscript came in and it's a much darker book. Maybe the author rewrote important character details. And thank god I almost never have to deal with big IPs and licenses. Art for a license like Star Wars needs to be perfect, or the license rejects the piece with little thought for all the work that has gone into it. There is no compromise when drawing an X-wing. It's going to keep getting sent back for revisions until it's right, or the piece will eventually just be killed. There's no room for debate there.

MS: Working with IPs and Licenses is a unique challenge. It means there are certain requirements we have for the kinds of illustrators we hire. Most common is a certain look, a certain level of finish, or a style. In some cases we really need artists who know the property because our clients are the absolute experts on the game in question and any deviation from the design in the game will stand out to them like a sore thumb. I know that if I turn in an image for review and the character is wearing the wrong coat, or the spaceship is too long, it not only means more rounds of reviews, but it means an unhappy client. Fortunately, there are enough great artists who love the properties I hire for. I wish I could hire everyone, and sometimes I get a schedule with enough room to take chances on someone with great work who doesn’t know my IP. It still takes longer to finish, but it is gratifying to take that chance and end up with a great product.

8. An Art Director's greatest skill is:
    a) Taste
    b) Photoshop
    c) Diplomacy

Answer: c) Diplomacy

LP: Of course an AD is expected to have good taste, and yes, we generally have crack photoshop skills, but the real talent that makes an AD is diplomacy. We are like the translators in the UN, stuck in the middle of the General Assembly floor trying to diplomatically translate a fight between two sovereign states determined to go to war. We are argonauts constantly navigating the rough seas between Corporate Scylla and Artist Charybdis. (OK, I'm getting dramatic here.) We're the ultimate people pleasers, yet we're pretty much always the fall guy when shit hits the fan.

MS: I’m pretty sure I studied more Latin than Lauren and, man, that’s a great analogy. What we deal with more than art, more than email, is humans. Artists and our bosses, all human, all with the desire for a communication style that works for them. You can say things to anyone in ways that they’ll get, and ways that they won’t, and it’s never the same for any two individuals. So it’s up to us to learn people, and find ways to communicate with them so that they want the result that will get the best product in the end. As Lauren said, artists and corporate don’t speak the same language, and translation can be a bitch, but when it works it’s. the. best.

9. The hardest part of an Art Director's job is:
    a) Pleasing Editorial/Corporate
    b) Keeping artists happy
    c) Getting projects approved without becoming too watered down with revisions
    d) Not getting to hire artists whose work you love

Answer: Well, all of the above, but mostly d) Not getting to hire artists who's work you love

LP: Even with all the challenges and rough things about being an AD, I still say the worst thing about my job is not being able to hire every artist I want to. There are artists who are so good, and so deserving of work, yet that perfect project just doesn't come up. Or it does, and I can't get my first choices approved. There are artists I have wanted to commission for the entire 5 years I have been at Orbit, that I would be thrilled to collaborate with, but I haven't been able to make it work. I tell artists that sometimes, that I really want to work with them, and I don't think they actually believe me.

MS: We have a limited amount of art to hire out with deadline that vary from months, to weeks, to "oh shit, I need it tomorrow." Even in a banner year we can't hire every qualified person. It's like ivy-league applications out here, we say no to so many obviously qualified people because there are just too many to hire them all. I have a healthy list of artists who I pitch on almost every project that don’t get approved. But I’m patient, their day will come, and that will be a fabulous day because they have worked hard to develop an amazing look, and hiring them to do it is incredibly gratifying.

10. The best part of an Art Director's job is:
    a) Winning awards
    b) Commissioning artists they like
    c) Getting into Spectrum
    d) Seeing their products in stores
    e) Collaboration

Answer: e) Collaboration

LP: Again, I can only speak for myself here, but collaboration is the drug that keeps me going. Otherwise I'd simply burn out. It's not awards or publication—although it's awesome to work on a project that wins an award for an artist, or gets them published for the first time. Seeing my covers in stores is more grief than joy—it's hard not to reorganize every Barnes and Noble SFF section when I wander in there, to put series in order, or see how little room there is to face-out covers. The reward really is the process. When a project just goes right, and editorial and the author and the artist are all happy with the end product (and maybe it even sells!) then that's what keeps me going.

MS: When the communication is running smoothly, artists are happy with their work and with requested revisions, and my bosses are loving what they see, it’s Miller time in the Scheff household (those who know me know that it’s bourbon time, but you get my meaning). Nothing makes me happier than a team who gets excited and stays excited over the course of a project. My job is to make that happen. When it doesn’t, I do my best to figure out how to make it happen better next time. That learning process keeps me ticking, and when it goes well, my tank is full. Again, I’m lucky, I get to make art and hire great artists. I remember explaining this to my wife, or maybe she explained it to me.  I love doing both because the people side, the collaboration, the creating of things greater than the sum of their parts, I just love it.


So I hope that little quiz was fun, and a little eye-opening for people. I hope you feel like you know a bit more about things from the AD POV. I know the Corporate > AD > Artist workflow isn't always perfect. Artists have real and understandable problems with many things the corporate world does, and corporate doesn't understand how artists think, or their priorities. In the middle are the ADs, who above all want the process to run smoothly. We are an artist's ally, their men and women on the inside, with the conduit to affecting change at the corporate level. So include us in your attempt to make changes. Ask us questions. Don't assume you understand what's going on behind the curtain, and instead try to give people the benefit of the doubt, at least long enough to to have a conversation so we can create a better community for all artists.

In summation. Be excellent to each other. And that is the best way to make positive change.

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