Q&A on Illustration and Comedy

Apparently I’m not the only one trying to balance two passions.


Recently an illustration student got in touch with me, who sounded like she’s asking herself a bunch of questions I think about all the time. I’m posting the exchange here, hoping others might find it helpful:

David,
Hello, I’m Morgan, the illustration student who contacted you a week ago on tumblr about asking you a few questions.
First off I’d just like to say that it was a real revelation finding your work because I guess before this I didn’t really think it was possible to balance illustration and comedy! In the last two years I’ve gotten really into improv and sketch and I’ve felt pressured to choose between those things and illustration. Your work has given me hope that I might not have to do that, thankfully.
So, how do you balance illustration and comedy?
What advice would you have for someone looking to break into illustration?
Could you describe your process, starting from when you are contacted by the client, ending with the finished work?
How did you develop your style? Was it a conscious decision or did it develop naturally out of the way you draw?
I understand if this is a lot to ask, but if you do have the time to answer these, then I’d really appreciate it!
All the best,
Morgan

My response (a.k.a. where I talk too much about myself):

Hi Morgan,
Thanks for getting in touch! I like thinking/talking about this stuff!
I’m very familiar with the “illustration vs. comedy” struggle. For me, I knew I’d be really depressed if I let go of either of these passions completely, so my “plan” was to keep working at both, hoping that one would take off, and I’d feel okay about doing the other a little less. So far, I guess I’ve had more tangible success with my illustration career, but I’m still doing comedy just as much (if not more!)
I’d argue that keeping up this juggling act is how I got my first real “break.” Once people in the improv community started seeing me as a go-to for making posters and promotional art, when they found out the UCB was looking for an illustrator, they told me about it immediately. So I submitted, and since the UCB wanted an illustrator with improv experience, I got the job! It’s still crazy to think I contributed to a book that’s become so important to an art form that I love so much. I realize the uniqueness of it and I’m very grateful.
I definitely owe getting that break to all the times I said “yes” to comedy-related illustration gigs that paid me anywhere from “very little” to “nothing at all.” I know that this is an unpopular opinion in the professional world, but I’ve found great value in working for free, specifically if it’s for a person/show that I believe in. I wouldn’t feel half as confident painting in Photoshop if it wasn’t for all of the covers I designed for Minutiae, a web-based parody magazine written buy some UCBTLA dudes. They asked me once if I could do a cover that looked like an oil painting, which pushed me to figure out how to do that — something I’d never have explored if not for my willingness to donate my time to a funny project I believe in.
Another benefit: more often than not, if you’re doing something for free, you’re not given strict guidelines, therefore you’re allowed the freedom to take bigger risks than you normally would for a paying client. Many times I’ve been given a prompt for a poster, something that’s a cool challenge and a bit out of my comfort zone, and the result is something I never would have thought I could create.
Hopefully the preceding ramblings answer your first two questions, so I’ll move onto the others:
Here’s how I’d break down my process with a client:
- Agree on pricing! I like working at an hourly rate, which turns lots of clients off, so sometimes we’ve gotta find a compromise. There are also lots of good boiler-plate “Design Agreements” on the web that you and a client should sign once you’re officially moving forward with each other.
- Get info on what they want. If they can reference a specific style they like, that makes things easier.
- Rough drawings. I’ll do real quick/sloppy sketches (on real paper!) to get the idea across. Then I’ll send that to the client and they’ll let me know if I’m headed in the right direction. It’s so much better to get notes at THIS stage, instead of when you have something that you thought was complete (and therefore harder to edit).
- After the roughs are approved, work on the final piece. I’ll literally bring that sloppy rough into Photoshop and start cleaning it up. (I interned at an animation studio and learned a lot about cartooning from guys who studied under John K, creator of “Ren and Stimpy.” They taught me that there’s great energy in rough drawings, and you should stick as close to them as you can! The more you re-draw, the more life you might be draining from it!)
- Send final to client, with an invoice. (If it’s an ongoing project, I try to send weekly invoices). I’ll include thumbnails of the rough drawings and the final version in the invoice, so they know exactly what they’re paying for.
Also worth mentioning: I’m not really at a place yet where I get contacted by clients a lot. Most of the paying gigs I get are from job boards (even Craigslist!) where I’ll send someone to my portfolio with a note saying “I think I’d be a good fit for your project.” I’m still learning to hustle!
I’m not sure how “consciously” I’ve developed my style, it might be a constant give-and-take between how I want my art to look and how it actually ends up looking. Hopefully the more I do it, the more that gap closes. The way I naturally draw is influenced by cartoons and wanting to be an animator as a kid. I gravitate toward shorts from the 40's-60's, when Disney got a bit more stylized and UPA was all the rage. In that sense, I guess it’s a conscious choice to emulate those styles, purely because I find them so appealing and want to better understand them.
One last thought: check out the book “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon — it’s a quick read and full of great advice on this sort of stuff. I found it very helpful and reassuring.
Again, thanks for getting in touch! This made me nail down a bunch of abstractness that has been floating around in my brain for a while.
Talk soon,
David
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