-By Lauren Panepinto
I want to address an issue that's been coming up from a few different angles on DearAD lately. As an artist who produces art on command — whether you're an illustrator, designer, photographer, or any other kind of commercial artist — it's easy to fall into an Us vs. Them mentality. Where "Us" is the artist, or artistic community, and "Them" are the clients and editors and commissioners who we make work for. Let's call them what they are — they are the Approvers. Sometimes you are commissioned directly by a company or client, and sometimes you are hired by an Art Director. Many artists think Art Directors are the client — thus the approvers — on a job, but that is rarely the case. In most cases, the Art Director is the middleman between the Artist and the Client. We are the translators between the art world and, for lack of a better term, the muggle world. We are the diplomats, the translators, the hostage-crisis-negotiators, and the bomb defusers. We are not the approvers.
This is important for a few reasons. First, because I want to remind artists that ADs are not the enemy. We are not the hurdle in the race to the final art. We are more like the coach. We first pick the roster, then once you're on the team we tell you what we need you to do. Once you're in the game we're feeding you critical play information and guiding you as the strategy develops. We are on your side because our ass is on the line right along with yours. Actually, more so. If your job gets killed, no one is going to know about it. If an art job gets killed, goes over budget, or just comes out poorly, it's on our reputation with the people we need to work with every day. It's our job on the line. Freelance artists can always find another client, but we're staff and we're proving ourselves over and over again with every book, issue, film, or game.
Second, I want to address the issue of priorities. As an artist, your job is to please the client, true, but your true priority is to make the most aesthetically strong piece of work you can for your portfolio, and get paid while doing it. You want that book cover, editorial illustration, piece of concept art, etc to be so amazing that when other potential clients see it they are totally overwhelmed and want you to work for them. Clients, on the other hand, have a different priority — they are selling something. And don't turn your nose up reflexively because money is the root of all evil and all that. Remember, when a client sells their product that means success and exposure for the art that's attached to it, as well as a much greater potential for that artist to be making more products.
Think of it this way. When a book hits the bestseller lists, that means that there's an author somewhere (who is also a type of artist, remember) that gets their contract renewed. Maybe they get to give up their crappy day job and write full time. When that book does well the publisher can take more chances on other authors, and pay more artists to work on those books. I am not saying big companies and corporations can't be evil, I've been raised too punk rock to deny that, but not every company pursues profits at the expense of the people that work with them or buy from them. And even in an unethical company, not everyone who works for that company is automatically evil.
So back to the ethical publishing company. The editors and marketing staff and sales team and the publisher above all of them have one goal: Sell books. Sure, everyone would like the book to look gorgeous and be completely artistically groundbreaking and amazing, but if the choice is between a gorgeous book that flops and an ugly book that's a bestseller, there's no question what a publisher will choose. And that doesn't make them wrong, or idiots, or all the other things we call them when we're frustrated as hell and can't get something approved.
(Ok, sometimes they're being idiots. But that's part of the game. I'm sure they think the artists are being difficult and overdramatic sometimes. And I know they think I am an insufferable pain in the ass sometimes too. The frustration river flows in all directions.)
So us Art Directors, we're caught in the middle. Our priorities are constantly walking a tightrope between getting the best art and producing a product that will sell the most.
Sometimes we have to make choices about art that pain us. Sometimes it's the most frustrating thing in the world when a great piece of art gets killed. Sometimes we don't get to work with artists that we really want to work with. But that's all part of the job.