Thursday, 18 December 2014

Seasons Greetings!

Wishing all my followers a warm and joyful Yuletide!

Hoping this festive season brings you peace, mirth, and cheer.

 

Monday, 24 November 2014

Freelancing for Free?

Rant! Rant!   (from King Smelly Feet, Andersen Press 2002)

There it lies in my inbox, another tantalising proposition for illustrators. Carefully written, brimming with enthusiasm and creative aspirations, how this wonderful project will be seen by all kinds of important people.... it all looks very exciting.  So I scroll down for the important details: what's the brief? When is the deadline? And, crucially, what is the fee? But oh ..... how strange, there's no mention of fees. And then comes the fateful line, usually in small print right in the last paragraph...

"Although there is no fee for participation this will be a great opportunity for exposure"

Well, as has often been repeated, people can die from exposure. And yet nowadays we constantly hear in the creative industry of projects and "opportunities" for artists and other creatives that offer no pay at all, but are, bizarrely, supposed to be good for us. Now, feeding myself and my daughter and maintaining a roof over our heads is good for us, it keeps the two of us alive, that's for sure. But working for free? Erm, nooooo! 

It used to be the case that low fees were undermining the business of illustration, that is bad enough in itself. But now we hear tales of no fees at all! That's nothing. Zilch!

Generally these so-called opportunities fit into one of two types:


The "Good for Exposure" Project

The client needs creative work, but say they don't have the budget for a fee.  Instead they persuade artists by saying it will be great "exposure" for your work, or a great addition to your portfolio. They might tempt you with "this one is free but it will lead on to other work" (probably also free!). They might add "all our other contributors are doing it for free". Often they don't have funds because the business model is fundamentally flawed. Nomatter how well the illustration is packaged there is no respect for the actual illustrator, the project has not budgeted for creative content, only for production. So the printer gets paid, the distributor gets paid, and maybe the publisher gets paid. But not the malleable contributors.

Sometimes the projects are worded as if they are charities, artists are thanked for "donating their services" - well that's great for philanthropy, sometimes I offer my work for free to a worthy cause I believe in, a registered charity that will benefit people or environments in crisis. That's my decision, because I want to support the charity. But a commercial enterprise is not a charity. You're selling a product or service? You pay the printer? Then you pay me!

Good for your portfolio? No it's not, because if it's free, the chances are it's an unprofessional job that will mean nothing to a respectable art director. If you want to improve your portfolio work on your own projects!

The client (especially self-publishers) might suggest a profit-sharing agreement "If the project is successful the contributors will be paid", or "we'll split the profits". If you're a writer considering this, don't! - this is dragging your contributors into your gamble. Speculation means risk - only offering payment if the project/product sells is obliging people you employ to take on your risk. Freelance illustrators are not in a position to gamble on other people's ideas.

It's not only published material, the same principle applies to speaker engagements - if you're asked to speak at an event you should be paid, unless it's a group you yourself is involved with and want to freely volunteer for.  


The Speculative Pitch

The other type of "free" work is when major clients ask illustrators for spec work to compete for a job. Juried competitions for illustrators have been around for a long time - freely submitted works are selected by a jury for an important exhibition or a notable prize, the winners get the prize, those rejected - well, better luck next time. I don't go in for this kind of thing, but I can understand the appeal for others if the prize/award/exhibition is big enough to warrant pursuing. However in recent years this practice has been twisted into use by companies for nothing more substantial than an illustration commission. The word is put out, artists are commissioned or invited to pitch by creating a sample piece of free artwork, the client just picks the one they like, the rest go hungry.

A friend recently shared this fun animation that spells it out very clearly.

I've even seen some competitions that require artists to pay submission fees, with nothing more substantial to offer the winner than a poster commission. Not only is this an appauling way to treat artists, it's an invitation for unscrupulous clients to use whatever they want from the rejected artwork as well as the chosen piece.

Supporting Start-ups


But what's that you say? Having to pay contributors prevents cash-strapped entrepeneurs starting worthy projects? Ground-breaking, start-up initiatives with great ideas will have to sell out to find the funds? Well there are innumerable ways that new projects can raise money, ranging from applying for Arts Council grants to staging benefit fund-raising events, from pursuing selective sponsorship to forging distribution deals. All things that should be established before commissioning writers and illustrators. Attaining backing is not a simple task, no one is saying it's easy, so many of these start-up enterprises don't even bother to pursue funding, it's so much easier to just say "no fee" and push the pain down the chain onto their contributors.

Collectives and collaborations are other ways to approach low-budget enterprises - in a collective everyone pools resources and shares the risk (and the profit if it's a success), the contributors control the project, it's a group responsibility. In the same way writers collaborating with illustrators, submitting as a team to publishers or self-publishing as joint authors  - it's your project, not a client's. Neither of these are the same as asking artists to work for free on a commercial concern they don't own or control.

I once ran a music fanzine back in my post-art college days. The first issue cost very little to produce, was badly printed and was entirely created and distributed by me, but it sold out with a small profit, which enabled issue 2 to be better printed and have a bigger print run. That too sold out, which funded more improvements in issue 3... and so it grew. Gradually it evolved into a fine little journal, in the end there were other contributors, all paid a moderate but acceptable fee for their contribution. I'm not saying every project should work this way, but it goes to show how new ventures can get going, grow and maintain their integrity, without "selling out". The trouble is a lot of these non-payers are not interested in looking after their contributors, they regard them as the weakest, most flexible part of the production chain. Or, due to the parameters of the job they are unwilling/unable to put time and effort into growing something from a small acorn to majestic oak.

Unethical proposals have always been around, in the past they were in the realm of unscrupulous outfits and beginners, but nowadays the "unpaid gig" is creeping into every aspect of mainstream creative media and the arts, from small entrepeneurs to the biggest publications and corporations. These practices are becoming more and more prevalent from companies who should know better. And of course they do know the score, but they also know that for all the professional artists who walk away there will be a bunch of young illustrators desperate for work, any work, who leap at the chance to get into print. Paid or unpaid.

No, no, no, no NO! I will not work for free, and I will not stand by and see fellow illustrators taken advantage of. "This opportunity may not be right for every artist" says one no-payer. Believe me, it is not right for any artist, it's not something we can ignore, free work is undermining the industry, not only for those who undertake such work, but for every freelancer. Free work is sapping the life out of the creative business, it's not an opportunity, it's an abuse, and it must be stopped!

So I'm taking a pledge. From now on every time I hear about or receive one of these bad practice "opportunities" I'll warn all the artists I know, I'll post on Twitter and wherever necessary. I won't just let it pass.

Some further reading

There is a lot of material on the web from artists and other creatives standing against no-fee assignments, here are a few good articles:
Emmeline Pidgen article against working for free
Lauren Panepinto post on the differences between Spec Work, Working for Exposure, and Competitions
The Business of Illustration on Working for Free, including a link to Harlan Ellison's much shared but timelessly hilarious rant Pay the Writer.


Thursday, 13 November 2014

Sketch: Shooting for the Stars

Here's an aspirational doodle.



We all need to aim for the stars, these are ambitious times!

I've not had chance to blog much lately, due to distractions like being made this month's SCBWI BI Featured Illustrator, with it's associated Web Gallery, the SCBWI Winchester Conference and of course deadlines, deadlines DEADLINES!

There's a lot happening, and never enough time at my drawing board.... I'll be back shortly, when I can find somewhere to land!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Iggy Pop and Rock n' Roll vs Children's Publishing

The recent speech given by Iggy Pop for the John Peel lecture on BBC Radio 6, Free Music in a Capitalist Society (the transcript is available here) got me thinking of the parallels between popular music and the illustration business, especially the world of children's books.

Iggy Pop at the John Peel lecture (image courtesy BBC)

Think for a moment of an industry dominated by big companies, but with numerous smaller enterprises (usually with limited budgets), and lots of DIY producers of varying levels of ability and success. An industry full of great ideas and striving creative artists, but driven by easily marketable (and sometimes bland) popular titles and by a limited number of headline celebrities. Think of a business in which being young, fresh and fashionable is at least as important, if not more important as being technically skilled, dedicated and talented. I give you the British music industry! .... I also give you the UK children's illustration market!
"We are now in the age of the schemer and the plan is always big, big, big, but it's the nature of the technology created in the service of the various schemes that the pond, while wide, is very shallow."
This is not a criticism, I'm just making observations here. Nomatter what our creative expression, music, writing or illustration, it's the same basic business structure behind all. The fact is we all have to make a living in our chosen forms of expression, and, as Iggy points out, in order to make money we have to be commercially viable.
"when it comes to art, money is an unimportant detail. It just happens to be a huge one unimportant detail."
I think there are a lot of parallels with publishing today and the music business at the end of the 1970's. I'm a child of the '70's, my memories are laced with the sounds I grew up with - it was an era that saw a succession of revolutionary movements and major changes in the music business. In with the new, out with the old! Glam to prog rock to punk. Reggae to dancehall. Funk to hip hop. The '70's saw a major shake-up in the way music was made, produced, marketed and sold, from the explosion of indie labels to challenge the majors, the introduction of cassette tape recording allowing people to record music from the radio for free, and, in the first years of the '80's, the start of CD technology. There have been equally ground shifting changes in the publishing industry - ebooks, unregulated discounting.... none of them seem on the face of it good news for creatives. Publishing is booming, but less and less of the turnover seems to be going to the writers and illustrators, as reported by The Bookseller.  Stylistically there have also been waves of fashion, "traditional" (ooh I hate that word) drawing to digital art, and back again, much like the waves of changing fashion in music.

I began as an illustrator inspired by the great early 20th Century Golden Age illustrators, I was entralled by the work of masters like Beardsley, Rackham, Heath-Robinson, Ardizzone and Dulac, I thought - "that's what I want to do with my life", such a simple decision to make! It was all about the art, not the money. But of course times have moved on from the belle époque, society has changed, the industry has reinvented itself a hundred times over. Somehow I had to learn how to match my skills, my creative integrity and ambition to the modern business of illustration, a business that evolves just as you think you know it. Keeping up with the changes is a process that never ends, it's the kind of skill you rarely have chance to completely nail in art college, it's the reality of working in the real world, being a freelance, self-employed artist that makes or breaks an illustrator. In an ever shifting world not everyone is able to maintain a long-term career, and it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the quality of your artwork.

"some guys are born and raised to be the captain of the football team and some guys are just gonna be James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and that's the way it is. Not everybody is meant to be big. Not everybody big is any good."

Adapting to the market, seeing the opportunities and being aware how you fit in is essential, but equally it's a bad policy to simply follow what the market thinks it needs, we need to live, but we need to be true to our art as well. Publishing, like the music industry and all other creative livelihoods, is a hard, tough business, but it hinges on the precious and personal vision of it's artists. The creators are always the innovators, not the marketing staff. Don't ever lose track of that!

"I only ever wanted the money because it was symbolic of love and the best thing I ever did was to make a lifetime commitment to continue playing music no matter what, which is what I resolved to do at the age of 18. If who you are is who you are that is really hard to steal, and it can lead you in all sorts of useful directions when the road ahead of you is blocked and it will get blocked. Now I'm older and I need all the dough I can get. So I too am concerned about losing those lovely royalties, now that they've finally arrived, in the maze of the Internet. But I'm also diversifying my income, because a stream will dry up. I'm not here to complain about that, I'm here to survive it."
I shouldn't push the analogy too far, these are times of change, technology and the market for books is moving in ways we don't yet fully understand. But we've seen with the music business how digitalisation led to overwhelming piracy, tumbling prices, revenue for musicians and so on. I worry that it's happening too with e-books, I desperately hold onto the value of the printed page. I'm also concerned that creative editors no longer have enough say in what gets published, when the marketing team determines what will or will not be printed, innovation and quality go out of the window. I worry that children's publishing in the UK today seems often to be more about Kajagoogoo than the Sex Pistols.

But maybe I'm concerned too much about the "industry" and forget sometimes that we creators are the ones on which the book trade depends. Whatever the media, our talents will eventually find an audience, and if that audience is limited, well so be it. If we have to do some unimaginative jobs to pay the bills then fine - as long as we also have an outlet for our honest creativity. I always have faith that somehow, if I just keep at it, keep drawing, keep painting, I'll continue to find the funds to feed my daughter, keep a roof over our heads, and still have time to produce work that both satisfies and challenges me. And that's all that's important.
"It's good to remember that this is a dream job, whether you're performing or working in broadcasting, or writing or the biz. So dream. Dream. Be generous, don’t be stingy. Please. I can't help but note that it always seems to be the pursuit of the money that coincides with the great art, but not its arrival. It's just kind of a death agent. It kills everything that fails to reflect its own image, so your home turns into money, your friends turn into money, and your music turns into money. No fun, binary code – zero one, zero one - no risk, no nothing. What you gotta do you gotta do, life's a hurly-burly, so I would say try hard to diversify your skills and interests."
Diversify skills and interests! that's a key point, whatever your creative expression. Thank you Iggy.

(All quotes are from Iggy Pop's lecture, courtesy BBC)

Monday, 13 October 2014

John Shelley Exhibition at NNUH

This past month has been very hectic, not only with illustration work, but also setting up another major exhibition, a career retrospective at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.


The exhibition came about immediately after my return from Tokyo. The hospital Arts Project at NNUH was running a series of workshops for children "Supernatural Garden" run by visiting artists from the University of Tsukuba in Japan, headed by Professor Yasuyoshi Saito and Dr Herb Fondevilla. I'd met Herb some years before in Tokyo, the hospital was very keen to link an exhibition of my children's book illustrations (especially those published in Japan) with the workshops.

The central corridor is a busy thoroughfare through the hospital, used by staff,
patients and visitors. I hope that the illustrations offer a brief imaginative escape
from what can be for many a very traumatic experience.
The Boat in the Tree (2007, Front Street)

Emma Jarvis, Hospital Arts Co-ordinator, says: “Our colleagues in Japan take a different approach to art and John is a great example of bridging the gap between the two cultures, allowing East to meet West. The illustrations will allow patient, staff and visitors to be reminded of their childhood, looking at detailed illustrations of well-known stories and provide something that everyone can enjoy no matter of their age or gender. The exhibition is a great and very rare opportunity to explore another world through an internationally recognised and award winning artist’s work who lives right on our doorstep, making it the perfect partnership.”

Two of the 4 volumes of Hans Christian Andersen Tales
(Hyoronsha 2004-5).
Various exhibition pieces, and illustrations for novels (Hawaiian Big Daddy 2003,  
The Deptford Mice 2005)
There are over 140 pieces of artwork on display, in 11 large wall mounted display cabinets dotted along the length of the hospital central corridor. The majority of work is children's book illustration, covering almost 30 years of my career, from my first trade picturebook The Secret in the Matchbox (Andre Deutsch/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1989) to my very latest Stone Giant (Charlesbridge, 2014).
From The Secret in the Matchbox (Andre Deutsch / FS&G 1987),
passing through two prints for Disney Japan to The Cobbler and the Elves
(Oki-na Pocket magazine, Fukuinkan Shoten 2007)

Stone Giant (Charlesbridge, 2014) - These are facsimile inkjet prints, as the
artwork is still in Japan

Artwork from other books on show include Peer Gynt (1990),  12 no Tsuki-tachi (The Month Brothers) (1991), Cinderella (1994), Hoppy no Atarashii Uchi (1995), The Magic Umbrella (1999), King Smelly Feet (2002), Hawaiian Big Daddy (2003), The Deptford Mice (2004), my Hans Christian Andersen series (2004-5), Charlie Bone series (2006-7), The Boat in the Tree (2007), The House of the World (2008), Halloween Forest (2012), and Jack & the Beanstalk (2012). Also a number of independent works from exhibitions and other projects. So, this is quite a big show, with examples from the whole gamut of my career in children's publishing.

The Charlie Bone novels (Tokuma Shoten 2006-7), and work for a WWF tie-up
exhibition  Denizens  (1990)

King Smelly Feet (Andersen Press, 2002), and Hoppy no Atarashii Uchi
(Hoppy's New House) (Fukuinkan Shoten 1995)
Much of the work on show has only been published overseas and is displayed for the first time to the public in the UK. All the works are for sale, either as originals (in the case of stand-alone pieces) or inkjet prints (for book illustrations). The show will run until May 2015, so if you're in the area over the next six months and have a chance to visit the hospital do take a look.

Cinderella (Hikari no Kuni 1995), and Peer Gynt (Hyoronsha 1990)
12 no Tsuki-tachi (The Month Brothers) (Miki House, 1991)
The House of the World (a subscription-only picture book for Benesse, 2008)
and The Magic Umberella (Fukuinkan Shoten, 1999)
The Hospital Arts Project at NNUH works on diverse projects with the community, interior design, site specific arts, performances, workshops, exhibitions, events, gardens and more. It's funded by grants from organisations and charitable donations. For more information visit www.nnuh.nhs.uk/arts

Halloween Forest (Holiday House, 2012)
Jack & the Beanstalk (Fukuinkan Shoten, 2012)
My deepest thanks to everyone behind the show, especially Herb Fondevilla (Tsukuba University), Emma Jarvis (curator, Hospital Arts Project), Richard Drew (Director of Arts in Hospitals), Eloise O'Hare (Norwich Dandies) and Natsue Hayward (Centre of Japanese Studies, UEA).

Monday, 15 September 2014

Tokyo Sketchbook Part 2

Here are some more pages from my sketchbook in Tokyo this summer. I already posted this selection on Facebook, so apologies to my friends who've already seen them!


 








Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Tokyo Sketchbook Part 1

Over the summer in Tokyo I filled a sketchbook with pen drawings. I always sketch a lot when I'm in Japan, but it was particularly so on this trip, perhaps I was driven by the shear joy of being back in the city, it was as if something had been unlocked.

Some of these drawings were the kind of fantasy ideas and escapist shenanigans I regularly doodle. One or two were observed sketches inside restaurants...

Gonpachi Soba-ya, Azamino, Yokohama. 3rd Aug
But a very large number were observed drawings of people on trains, especially the Denentoshi line, which runs from Chuo-Rinkan through the northern Yokohama suburbs, across the Tama river into Shibuya, from where it continues through the middle of Tokyo as the Hanzomon line.



It's a long, snaking line and very busy, on the evening trains out of Tokyo to the suburbs its very difficult to find a seat nowadays, even outside the peak times. Compared to a few years ago the passenger dip between the rush hour and the late trains has become much shallower, there's very little difference between 7pm and 9pm. Waiting for a later train might be fractionally less crowded, but it still doesn't mean you'll be able to sit down.



Thus, many of my sketching chances were on journeys into town at midday, often on the slower local trains.

 Whenever opportunity allowed, I'd commandeer a seat and discretely draw those around me in my small pocket sketchbook. Curiously, despite standing out like a sore thumb as the only non-Japanese on the carriage, few people ever noticed that I was drawing, and I'm pretty certain none of the subjects were ever aware.







I think this is because many commuters simply shut off when they're on the train, they close their eyes in either real or feigned sleep, or fix their gaze on smart phones.



People effectively wrap themselves in their own worlds, oblivious to the rest of what goes on in the carriage. It's a gift of the Japanese commuter to be able to do this, perhaps due to the nature of Tokyo itself - in the neon drenched street of the urban centres so much is going on around, the noise, the flashing kanban, most people develop a selective awareness of the environment around them - they filter out the unwanted "noise" of the city, and thus preserve their sanity.

There is an art to survival in the metropolis - people concern themselves with details that interest them and are able to largely ignore the rest, train journeys can be meditative affairs, and if you want to escape entirely technology provides you with music, game apps or a read.


So I'm able to blithely sketch away on Tokyo trains undisturbed in a way I'd find difficult in the UK, not least because my train journeys in the UK are much rarer, with seat layouts that make it difficult to draw other passengers. Tokyo trains, with seats facing opposite, are the perfect life drawing class.


Another thing I noticed during this trip though, compared to former years - the poses are largely the same. In the past people would read books, talk, or whatever. Now, almost everyone who gets a seat on Tokyo trains does exactly the same thing - they sit, bag on knee, smart phone in hand, headphones in ears, and close their eyes.




My task is to unlock their thoughts and character through a lightning sketch, before they move or are blocked from view. It's one of the exciting things about sketching people on trains, the knowledge that you might only have a few fleeting minutes of opportunity.



Friday, 5 September 2014

Tokyo Exhibition report: In the Shadow of Giants

I've just returned from five heady weeks in Tokyo, soaking up life back in the old metropolis, the place I lived for nearly half my life. Every year daughter and I go back to Japan, usually in the summer, every year we return with new and unique experiences, the only constant being the humidity and the constant murmur of cicadas, though this year there were several unseasonably cool spells amidst the swelter.


It's wonderful to explore familiar locations, see old friends and family, but I also had a very busy schedule of preparation, culminating in a ten day solo exhibition at Space Yui in Aoyama, followed by another seven day show (currently still running as I write) at Yui Garden in Yokohama.

The front porch of Space Yui

No matter how many years go by my fascination with Tokyo remains undiminished, I try to be as busy as I can when we go back, it's a city that demands purpose and direction. As I no longer live in Japan I find that without such direction and with daughter mostly staying with her grandparents I start to feel an emptiness, ponder too deeply on the past and other topics best left alone. No, move on, on, always onwards! Like the city itself, my relationship with Tokyo is constantly evolving, the journey continues.

Hanging day at Space Yui with gallery owner Hideyo Kimura
It's On!
It's been busy, inspiring and very encouraging. The exhibition, still on at Yui Garden, centres around original artwork from my recent picture book Stone Giant (Ishi no Kyojin in Japanese), from which visitors can order Neograph prints (giclée art prints overprinted with a fine silkscreen to prevent oxidation and deterioration of colour, rendering prints that are virtually indistinguishable from artwork). I also created several smaller pieces of original art specifically for the show.

Book of prints, and artwork from Stone Giant
Some of the smaller images created especially for the show

The Librarian
Wolves in the Forest
The gallery staff have been supportive beyond measure, Space Yui is a key part of my platform in Japan, the care and encouragement I receive there is inspiriting and progressive, all credit due to Kimura-san and her team.

Opening party, with Komine Shoten editor Tsuyoshi Yamagishi
and author/illustrators Mitsuo Shinozaki, Eriko Ishikawa and Satoshi Kitamura
Opening party - with Togo Kasahara (Mikasa Shobo), designer Hiroyasu Murofushi
(I & I Inc) and Takeshi Fujisaki
Opening party, with illustrator Satoshi Kitamura (background),
Taiko Nakazawa (Ginza Gallery House), Tomoe Furuhashi and DJ Young Richard
The show at Space Yui began with a busy opening followed by a regular stream of visitors, I was quite overwhelmed by the large number of attendees. Signed copies of the Japanese edition of Stone Giant (Ishi no Kyojin) sold out within the first few days and had to be re-stocked by publisher Komine Shoten.

Signed copies of the Japanese edition Ishi no Kyojin
There were several highlight successes, the biggest being news of several competing offers for the Japanese rights to my next US book Crinkle, Crackle, Crack!. Written by Marion Dane Bauer (who also wrote the 2012 released Halloween Forest), the US edition is due for publication through Holiday House next year. I'll post more about the Japanese edition when details have been confirmed.

With art director Susumu Yamada (Tokyo Planet Design)
With members of SCBWI Japan
With Emi Noguchi
With my daughter and photographer Hitoshi Iwakiri

The exhibition is now on at the fabulous new gallery Yui Garden in Nakamachidai, Yokohama. In a building created by and for an architect's design office that overlooks Seseragi Park, the setting, interior and atmosphere is simply exquisite. If you're in the area before it closes on the 8th please do drop by.

Entrance to Yui Garden
The show at Yui Garden
It's been a wonderful summer. Many thanks to all the gallery staff and visitors to the exhibition!