My sign for the People's Climate Change March in NYC last Sunday. I decided to go with something a little bit more daring and funny than your typical protest sign. I'm glad I did, because it got a big response from the crowd.
When a client asks to see a "quick sketch" of a concept--usually their own--before proceeding (or not) to hire me, my initial reaction has always been that it's a very reasonable request. What's it to me if I take fifteen minutes to sketch out their idea for them? If nothing else, it always felt like a token of good faith on my part that I was willing to work with them, before payment, before a contract of any sort, to show them my commitment to the work.
But after freelancing for the last few years in the art, illustration, and design branch of the gig economy, I've come to the conclusion that it is ultimately an exercise in futility that is, unfortunately, usually doomed from the start.
For starters, the sketch almost never matches a client's expectations. I can never know for sure what people have in mind when they ask for a "quick sketch," (it's always "quick," "small," "little," or some other non-imposing sounding adjective) but based on some of the feedback I've received, I believe what they actually want to see is something far more elaborate than a true sketch. That confusion may just be a result of them not understanding the actual creative process of making an illustration; after all, that's why they are looking for someone like me with the skills to do it for them. They may not know that it usually takes multiple rounds of sketches to develop the appropriate concept, composition, and aesthetic for a piece. And because the work I pursue is usually coming from clients that are newcomers to the world of commissioning artwork, the chasm between expectations and reality may be that much larger.
But I've also found that agreeing to make a sketch actually hurts, not helps, my chances of landing a job. In nearly every instance where I agreed to the "quick sketch," I could sense that potential clients were usually disappointed with what I would send them. A pencil sketch, after all, simply doesn't match up with the more polished look of my other work. They expected to be blown away, when the reality is that no matter the talent of the artist, it is exceedingly difficult to capture the look a client is seeking with an initial rough sketch, and often with limited guidance as to what they are actually looking for. And most of these potential clients don't have the vocabulary to describe their vision in the first place--again, not their fault, just the reality of someone unaccustomed to commissioning artwork.
But it is not until very recently (as in, this week) that my position on the "quick sketch" conundrum became clear to me, and was solidified with one potential job in particular.
I had been emailing with a documentary filmmaker about doing a poster to accompany his new film. His concept for the poster was pretty rough, but when he asked if I could provide a "little sketch," I was happy to oblige. I had seen a trailer for his film only a week before and was looking forward to seeing it in full, so the chance to work with him on a poster was an opportunity I didn't want to miss. I worked out a sketch, as per his request, and emailed it to him. His response, dismayingly, was that the sketch "was not executed in a manner worthy of international distribution." It didn't do any good to explain that no sketch would ever be worthy of such a thing, of course; the damage was already done. Nor did it help to explain that his concept was going to be exceptionally difficult to execute in a way that did justice to his film and his film's mission. In the end, the irony was that in breaking off the conversation, he reiterated how much he actually liked my portfolio. I realized that I had lost the job precisely because I had agreed to do the sketch.
The fear, of course, is that I'll lose work if I don't play ball and agree to a sketch. And in a job market that can be as rough as this one, anything that can put us ahead of the pack may seem worthwhile to do. But I've come to the conclusion that when it comes down to it, my portfolio should speak for itself. And it's not just a matter of principle. Ultimately, even in the gig economy, we (the ones gigging) would be best served to follow a set of principles in order to try and maintain consistency in a market that can be anything but. Pointing potential clients in the direction of our portfolios, resumes, and references instead of agreeing to produce samples for consideration is one such way to do just that. And in the end, I may just get more work that way--or, more precisely, lose less.
"Freelancing" means a lot of things to a lot of different people. For illustrators, the term "freelancing" seems a bit trickier than in most other industries because almost everyone is, by definition, freelancing--going from one gig to the next, with or without the help of an agent or agency.
For me, freelancing means doing just about anything that pays fairly and falls under the umbrella of illustration, design, fine art, or creative work. In this case, I was hired by Standard Creative to paint marinara sauce portraits during a celebration of pizza's "birthday" at an event in Williamsburg last week. You can see me at 2:28.
...And here's a picture of some of the final products!