How to Talk to Artists

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Game Publishing Lessons Learned


Recently I put out the word on Google+ to find an artist who could create some fantastic trade dress for an upcoming line of Pathfinder supplements. My experience was a bit bungled, to say the least. I realized, after inadvertently offending someone and receiving a few helpful bits of advice from someone else, that I didn’t really know how to talk to artists in the gaming industry.

Sure, Psi-punk went okay, but I found Melissa Gay through mutual connections at RPGGeek and it was an instant match. I hadn’t needed to contact anyone else or put out an open call. Now that I’ve had that experience, I’d like to share it with you. Additionally, I’ve spoken with some fine folks at the community forums who’ve offered up loads of helpful advice in regards to interacting with artists, so I’ll compile some of those notes as well. Hopefully someone can learn from my mistakes before they make the same ones.

What Went Wrong

Read for yourself:

I’m looking for a graphic designer to make a custom page border for a line of Pathfinder products and a matching cover template. Ideally I would use the same border/cover for a large product line, so having multiple colors would be nice. If you’re interested contact…

That was my original post to G+. Short, non-specific, and painfully ignorant. But hey, it’s a learning process right?

I received responses from a number of artists. Everyone had essentially the same questions to help clarify what I was looking for. Then I realized, I didn’t really know myself.

What I did know is that I wanted a cohesive look and feel that I could use repeatedly across multiple game products. I wanted borders, cover templates, and sidebar box designs. What I didn’t know is that this is the “trade dress” that I’ve heard people speak of before. Thankfully, a helpful G+ commenter helped me identify that.

That wasn’t the extent of my issue though. A couple of the artists I spoke with had offered to send me samples of what I was looking for. Another, more experienced artist simply sent me a link to their portfolio. When I asked that artist if they would mind submitting a sample as well, I learned another valuable lesson.

Asking for samples from artists, a process known as “speculation work” or “spec work,” is considered by many to be rude. I hadn’t meant any offense, of course, and because two of my potential artists had offered to do this I assumed it was fairly typical. It’s not.

It’s an unfortunate fact, but many an artist has been burned by this type of work in the past. Some unsavory types will ask for spec work only to take the sample images and run with them, never to pay a dime. Well, now I know.

Then, of course, there was the issue of contractual arrangements. I had been told in the past that contracts are important for both the artist and the purchaser, since they spell out exactly what to expect from each party. I’ve since learned that they’re perhaps not all they’ve cracked up to be, since contracts in this industry are just too costly to enforce. I’ll talk more about that later.

Finally, in not knowing exactly what I was going to do with the art (from the perspective of putting it into layout software and manipulating it) I wound up receiving some really great art that I had trouble using. The files I received needed some tweaking before I could use them, because I didn’t ask that the borders be on transparent backgrounds, I didn’t specify the exact dimensions the borders needed to be, and so forth. It pays to be specific, and I certainly wasn’t.

After all of this, I decided I didn’t really know what I was doing when it came to talking with artists about commission work. Thankfully the artist and layout professionals for Psi-punk were both highly experienced and were able to pry the right information out of me. I decided to go to a larger RPG community and ask for advice from industry artists and other professionals, and here’s what I’ve learned.

Advice on Talking with Artists

For starters, you can read the original thread in its entirety if you’d like. Here are the high points.

1. When a publisher contacts an artist, they need to know how much to budget and that means finding out what art is going to cost. However, it doesn’t seem like there’s a standard “going rate” for art, and it really depends on exactly what the publisher is looking for. So: What information does an artist need up front before a rough quote can be given?

When asking for a quote, it’s important to be as specific as possible. Some artists will quote you a basic rate they set for all of their art — for example, they might say $25 for every 1/4 page B&W image or $100 for a full page B&W image. Double that if you’d like color instead. A lot of artists don’t feel that’s a good way to price their own work though; 1/4 page illustrations may be as simple as a single piece of line art or as complex as multiple characters, a background, and lots of shading. Some artists prefer to charge by complexity, which is much harder to estimate but offers a more fair rate for the artist.

When asking for a quote, be as specific as possible. Know what you want before you ask. Some people advise even waiting until the layout process of your book is finished before you begin commissioning interior illustrations, since you can then know exactly how much space you need to fill (I’ll tell you though, some layout artists prefer to have all of the art in hand before they begin work, so this is a tricky situation to navigate). At the very least, you need to know:

• Size of image, including bleed. For illustrations, it may be enough to say 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, or full page. You can shrink or stretch art slightly to fit a specific slot in your layout, but it’s generally better to shrink it than to stretch it so estimate on the large side of things if necessary. For trade dress, such as border art, make sure you know the dimensions of the space you wish to fill with a border; if your border is going n your 1/2-inch page margins and you don’t want it to spill into the rest of the page, make sure you request the border art be no more than 1/2 inch thick. Of course, you need to remember to account for bleed which may be about 1/8 inch.
• Color of image—full color, greyscale or line art.
• Image resolution if it is higher than 300 dpi. Standard image resolution is 300 dpi (dots per inch).
• File format. For internal illustrations, .TIF allows for a lot of image detail without a bunch of image compression, which allows you to alter the image in many different ways before plugging it into your final layout. For border art, you may need to ask for Transparent PNG files, which will let you put the border around a page and leave room in the middle for text (you could also put the border on a background layer and let the text “sit on top of” the image).
• Timeline. Do you need this done immediately or is this project going to stretch over the next several months?
• Number of illustrations needed. This helps develop a timeline (see above).
• Intended style. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Comic, Children’s, or something else?
• Rough idea of image content (number of figures, action vs still, portrait vs landscape, background/no background, etc.).
• A link to artwork that matches the style and complexity you are looking for (preferably from the artist in questions own folio).

With all of that in hand, you should be able to get a reasonable estimate. Now an open call for art may look something like this:

“I am looking for an artist to do 20 1/4 page shaded B&W illustrations. Images will vary somewhat, but I am looking for a High Fantasy theme and the images will have between one and three characters, with backgrounds. I have about three months before this project needs to be completed. Here’s a link to a style similar to what I’m looking for.”

Notice that you don’t necessarily need to mention file type and image resolution unless you’re looking for something very specific. For example, if you’d prefer to have your images submitted in vector format you would want to specify that, since it isn’t usual (most images are raster-based unless they are specifically designed with a vector-based image program). You can hash out the details of image resolution, file format, and delivery method (Dropbox, Google Drive, snail mail) once you’ve begun talks with the artist.

2. Trade dress? Illustrations? Line art? What am I even supposed to ask for?

Now that we’ve tossed around a few of these terms, let’s attempt to define them.

“Trade dress is the external appearance of a product which indicates the source of the product (publisher trade dress) or, in a broader and less exact sense, connectivity between multiple products from the publisher.” It’s the cohesive look and feel of multiple products. Take a look at a shelf full of Pathfinder or D&D books. They often have very similar borders, fonts, covers, parchment-colored backgrounds, etc. You can look at a Pathfinder book and tell it’s a Pathfinder book just by noting a consistent look and feel.

Illustrations are pieces of art which accompany text in a book. Most of your book’s interior art, the pretty pictures that everyone likes to look at, are illustrations. They may be full color, black and white, with lots of detail or with little detail. Illustrations will likely make up the largest percentage of your art budget.

Line art is any image that consists of distinct straight and curved lines placed against a (usually plain) background, without gradation. This is usually a style of illustration.

3. Spec work. Should I ask for it?

The short answer? No. It’s generally considered rude to ask for spec work. The consensus is that if you wish to find out if you and a potential artist work well together you should offer to pay for a piece of art up front. You can ask for a less complex, less costly piece of art, but the point is that you agree to pay them for what they’re doing for you. If you like their work, you can agree to continue working with them. If it wasn’t what you wanted after all, you can thank them for their time and find someone else.

I know that it’s scary to pay for work you may or may not use, especially since margins on RPG products are so small to begin with. It’s important to remember though that we’re all in this business together, and we need to treat each other like people. You wouldn’t expect someone to ask you to design a game for them, or even a subsystem of rules for them, without agreeing to pay you for your time and effort, would you?

4. Contracts. Should we even bother?

There seem to be two different camps on this one. Both sides agree that there isn’t any money in litigation when it comes to the RPG industry; it costs too much money to try to enforce a contract that someone else breeches.

Camp 1 says that because it’s too costly to bother enforcing contracts, you shouldn’t bother wasting your time on them. Camp 2 says you should still draft and sign contracts because they let each party know what to expect from one another.

If you’re in Camp 2, don’t expect artists to have a contract waiting for you. You’ll need to provide one yourself. You can find sample art contracts online, but whether or not you choose to take it to a legal professional and get it notarized is up to you. It’s probably not worth the hassle unless we’re talking about several thousands of dollars though.

In most cases, I think it’s just best to expect the best from people. Work out some very specific details about timeframe, payment methods and schedules, and the work you expect to have done. Agree on everything before work begins, but then trust the other party to do their part honestly and with integrity.

Also, be sure that you both agree on who owns the art after it has been paid for. This is probably the one aspect of the deal that Camp 2 people are concerned about the most. In my opinion, it’s fair to allow the artist to retain copyright so they can use it in their own portfolio, but to grant you permission to use it in any way you see fit. Agree that no other third party can use your art, and you’re both satisfied.

5. Other General Advice

Aside from commissioning art, you’ll need to discuss with your artist how to pay for it. Nowadays PayPal is commonplace and most people use it, but I have had requests to mail physical checks for payment because PayPal charges a fee to process payments.

Also, it’s proper (and sometimes requested) to pay a deposit before work begins. The artist may request a certain amount as a deposit, or you may just offer 50%. That is, you pay 50% of the final quote up front, before the work begins, and the other 50% upon delivery of the final product. This ensures the artist is paid for their time even if you flake out on them, and it means you don’t get what you’ve asked for until you finish paying — there’s no taking the art and running with it.

You may be asking yourself what’s to prevent the artist from just taking the money and running. That’s why you’re only paying 50% up front. It works both ways. The artist doesn’t get the rest of what they’ve asked for until they deliver.

If you’re uncomfortable with the arrangement, you may ask to negotiate different deposit terms. For example, maybe you’ll pay 25% up front, 25% upon delivery of the first mock-up or example illustration, and the final 50% upon receipt of the final product. It requires more steps and transactions, so you may need to offer to pay the additional per-transaction fees yourself (rather than expect the artist to eat that cost). Remember, every exception you ask for is one you should be willing to compromise on.

That does bring to mind one more thing: what happens if you’re not happy with the work? Before work begins, negotiate with the artist how many revisions you can ask for before their fee increases. Some artists will be comfortable making minor edits to an image without charging you extra, but a complete redraft takes just as much time and energy as the first, so understand if they don’t allow for unlimited revisions.

You can protect yourself from revision nightmares by being specific with your requests to begin with. The more detail about an image you can offer up front, the more likely the artist is to deliver what you’re asking for. Here’s an interesting story about a designer who wasn’t specific enough with his request.

Final Thoughts

I am sure I still have many mistakes left to be made before I can consider myself a true expert in this area, but learning from mistakes is what I do best. I’ll keep you posted with any updates I have, but in the meantime please leave your comments and suggestions about your own experiences or advice.

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