Saturday, 24 September 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.1: Sketch from the back garden of Butlers Lane, 1976

For the first in the Museum of My Archive in 10 Objects  (apologies to Neil MacGregor and the British Museum) I bring you a sketch of our house, drawn just before my 17th birthday from our back garden during the sweltering summer of 1976.

23 Butler's Lane from the Back Garden Rotring pen and Winsor & Newton ink on paper, June 1976.

We lived in Butlers Lane, Sutton Coldfield from 1970 until the end of 1977,  this was the house where I grew from child to teenager.

It was a corner house and significantly bigger than any of our previous (and subsequent!) homes. My parents bought it for a bargain, it hadn't been altered since it was built in the 1920's and was in desperate need of complete modernisation, much of which my dad did himself. I still have clear memories of when we moved in - there were slate fossils of ammonites and other pre-historic sea life left in the kitchen from the previous owner, also a big, black cast iron built in range, and in one of the bedroom cupboards an old clockwork railway set. All were disposed of very quickly in the urgency to fix up the house, much to my regret!

The reason this is the first in my History is because this house is where it all started, this is where I really embraced a love of history and of art, where I began drawing in earnest. I've more fond memories of this house than any other.

One of the best things about it was the long extended back garden, which had two large trees and several smaller ones (not visible in this drawing), a rock garden and an allotment at the bottom, which my grandfather cultivated when he later moved in with us. I shared a bedroom with my brother (on the whole amicably), on my side of the room my dad built a study alcove which we were supposed to use for homework, but which I actually used mainly to paint Napoleonic soldiers. Airfix model aeroplanes hung from the ceiling in an eternal dogfight. On my brother's side of the room was a large cardboard cut-out of Marc Bolan, Roger Dean posters and a fur trimmed record player. We gone on okey. My sister always had her own room, bedecked with posters of Black Sabbath and David Bowie. The house was easy walking distance to school and local shops at Mere Green, a bike ride from Sutton Park, and just a couple of minutes walk from Butlers Lane train station, which gave us access to Sutton Coldfield and Birmingham. In the summer I'd cycle the opposite direction along country lanes out towards Lichfield.

From this distance in time it seems a pretty well perfect place to have grown up. I loved this house.

This wasn't the first time I'd drawn it, nor would it be the last, but this particular image seems to me to sum up a perfect summer at one of the happiest and most carefree times of my life.

Friday, 23 September 2016

The Museum of Me

My dad was the last of his generation in our immediate family. One of the consequences of his passing has been the sorting out of all the nooks and crannies of his house, which revealed a lot of things I'd completely forgotten still existed. Not only parental items we grew up with from childhood, but also things left behind by us kids as we moved on in life. As the artist of the family I've by far been the worst offender - when I set off to art college all my school art work was consigned to my dad's loft, where some of it stayed for 40 years. Even when my parents moved house, they loyally took my old artwork with them.

Other bits and pieces were thrown, but artwork was sacred, even the scrappiest of work. To this was later added my degree course sketchbooks (though I threw away most of my finished course work when I left Manchester), bags of artwork from my London studio days, and various bits and pieces from the 21 years I lived in Japan, including every single letter I wrote home to my parents.


They kept it all. Yellowed, damp and foxed from all those years in my dad's loft, great wads of the stuff. And now it's all in my possession again.

This is in addition to my dad's creative life - the contents of his little art studio room, his oil paints and other materials, some of his paintings, boxes of books and postcards that inspired him (largely seascapes, the Impressionists and Victorian genre painters). Plus his collection of First World War books, and most importantly for me, our family archive of photos and documents - as the family genealogist I worked a lot on these with my dad's encouragement, painstakingly identifying faces, scanning and photoshop restoring, compiling and researching our family history, these are all in my safe keeping now.


So I've been buying new storage furniture for a major reorganisation.

When I left Japan I came back to the UK pretty well empty handed, in grief over my wife's death I threw away virtually all artwork except children's book illustrations, abandoned my furniture, household items and record collection, and sold off 2/3 of my books. I brought very little back from Japan, It was a new life coming back to England, I wanted to start afresh, not be burdened by the weight of a previous existence. I regret throwing so much away now, but it did stand me in good stead over the numerous times daughter and I moved house.

But now with the arrival of all this material I'm in a bit of a dilemma what to do with it all, not the family archives, but particularly my old artwork. My dad's occasional paintings are one thing, but my adolescent stumbling art attempts? Some of these ancient works are truly embarrassing, for the prosaic subject matter as much as anything - what was I thinking? It always surprised me that my parents were more interested in displaying my immature work on their walls rather than my professional illustration career. But age has given this work a resonance and unique significance I can't ignore. It's now an archive, I can't throw it away, it's history!

..... some of it I'm quite proud of actually, these were important stepping stones.

So, inspired by Neil McGregor's successful BBC/British Museum tie-up series A History of the World in 100 objects, I'll share a few bits and pieces of in a History of my Archive in 10 Objects.

Coming up is Object Number One....

Monday, 29 August 2016

More Peeping on People

Here's a few more sketches of people on trains from all the recent rail trips to and from the Midlands.

Some people are contemplative.... 


...others bemused.
Activities on trains have changed over the years. There was a time when most people would be reading books or staring out of the window. Now there's an awful lot of tapping on little machines.
Though of course still plenty of dozing too...

... unfortunately he woke up before I could finish.

I've not only been drawing fellow travellers of course, whimsical doodles, experiments and so on have also been filling the pages on these journeys, though I've not been sharing my more imaginative wanderings on social media much recently. Partly because of deadline pressure, but also for reasons I outlined last week in this article for Words & Pictures.

However, maybe I'll share some of those shortly.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Journeying through the Peaks and the Troughs

So, we approach the end of summer, and for me things are beginning to calm down after months of precipitous highs and lows. Amongst the highs are the release of two picture books - Will's Words in the US (distributed in the UK) I've previously mentioned, but also Yozora o Miage-yo (Look Up at the Night Sky) for Fukuinkan Shoten in Japan..... more on these titles shortly.

Yozora o Miage-yo, written by Yuriko Matsumura
I've talked about these releases on Twitter and Facebook, but the reason I've not blogged about new books, or much else at all this year is due to all the other stuff, a variety of pressures, much of it (though not all) work related, as hinted in previous posts, plus latterly these have been overshadowed by the terminal illness of my father. I'll not linger on these, other than to say that things are just beginning to settle down now.

One consequence of all this has been much rail travel between Norwich and the Midlands for one reason or another, which has seen a lot of sketchbook activity. Having been shut up in my studio with deadlines for so long, just getting out and about is nourishing, whatever the circumstances. When I travel, I tend to sketch and doodle a lot more, lately I've been taking a revived look at my creative direction and position in the UK.

Enroute to the SCBWI Picturebook Retreat in Worcestershire, June.
In June, straight after completing the last of a string of challenging picture book deadlines I was off to the Worcestershire countryside for the SCBWI Picture-book Retreat. This was a fantastic weekend held at Holland House in Cropthorne, focused entirely on creating picture books, led by illustrators David Lucas and Lynne Chapman, both inspiring speakers. There's a full report of the weekend by Helen Liston in the SCBWI journal Words and Pictures. As I've been so focused on illustrating books by other writers the last few years the weekend was particularly effective for just nurturing the neglected buds of storytelling in my own right. Though I've had my own stories published in Japan, I find myself easily disheartened with story submission in the UK, so this was just a perfect weekend.

Most of the retreat attendees, mentors and leaders at Holland House, missing chief organiser Anne-Marie Perks and a few others (photo by Candy Gourlay)
While I was there my father was taken seriously ill, and I spent the following week further north in the Midlands, in Lichfield, travelling by bus to his hospital in Burton-upon-Trent every day. I know Lichfield well, having lived there a year when daughter and I first came back to the UK, but Burton was new to me. The return journey from the hospital meant long waits in in the town centre for the evening X12 express bus, so plenty of time to ponder the sights.

Burton War Memorial
On the wall of the Leopard Inn

It was the time of that intense heat wave in July, the beautiful, lush green of summer contrasted against the declining health of my dad. On a couple of days I gave up waiting for the X12 and took the local village bus, which winds it's way through the villages of Branston, Barton-under-Needwood, Yoxall, Kings Bromley, Alrewas, Fradley and Streethay. Glimpses of the narrow boats... the half timbered cottages... I thought I knew the area, but this was a revelation. A bus crawling the bumpy local back lanes of rural Staffordshire are hardly the best for sketching, but I managed to record his man and his coiffure...

On the local No.7 bus from Burton to Lichfield, 18th July
Staying on my own in Lichfield I ate out every night, so had the chance to try a large range of eateries. The solitude of thoughts and my sketchbook was comforting, as was re-discovering the town.

Diners in the Bowling Green pub, 18th July

I grew up a few miles south of Lichfield in Four Oaks, which I also got to see during this week. I left the area in 1978 and have rarely been back since, I couldn't believe how green everything had become in the intervening years. Standing one night on the platform of my old local station, I was gripped by a sudden bond with the Midlands. It felt like everything was falling into place, every experience framed within context of the circumstances of impending loss.

Waiting for the last train to Lichfield, 11pm, Butler's Lane Station

At the end of the week I had to return to Norwich due to visiting family from Japan, but soon booked another train ticket to Lichfield as my dad's condition worsened. Unfortunately I missed his passing by one day, nevertheless it seemed like I'd already shared a journey of conclusion with my father. I felt like he was with me all the time. He'll be with me in memory forever.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Sad News

@Godfox
Summer skies between Lichfield and Burton, July 2016

Dear friends, some readers may have heard that my father passed away very recently, his illness this year has been one reason for my recent silence on the blog, though other various factors have also had a major part.

I had hoped to post a full tribute to my dad, but I've been asked by family not to share our grief on social media. I will be back shortly with illustration and art related posts however.

Many thanks for your understanding.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

In memory of my father Ken Shelley, who passed away 2nd August 2016



Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
                      (Dylan Thomas, 1914-1953)

Sunday, 10 April 2016

New Book Release - Will's Words

Wow, busy April! The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death is almost upon us and things have been very hectic here in the studio, hence my silence on the blog.

 Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk was officially launched on 22nd March in the USA, and widely distributed in the UK.


Written by Jane Sutcliffe, illustrated by yours truly. 
ISBN 9781580896382,  40 pages long
Published by Charlesbridge (Penguin/Random House US), and distributed in the UK through PGUK.

Following my previous collaboration with Jane Sutcliffe Stone Giant, this book was another very involved project which occupied a great part of my activity last year. I've always had a big fascination for the 17th Century, so it's no surprise the research alone completely sucked me into the era (more on this in a future post!)



The narrative describes London in 1606, how the Bankside theatres were the entertainment focus points of their day, and one playwright stood out more than any other - William Shakespeare.

However, as Jane relates the story of The Globe, she finds that whatever she tries to write William 'gets in the way' - the text is punctuated with words and phrases coined by Shakespeare himself. Expressions such as 'excitement', 'a sorry sight', 'wild goose chase', 'cold-blooded', 'amazement', these all come down to us from Shakespeare through his plays to become 'household words' (another expression invented by the Bard). Jane uses these and many other Shakespeare expressions and explains their origins in the plays, while my illustrations form the background and setting of London life and the Globe in the early 1600's.



I'll post about some of the research and processes shortly, in the meantime the first reviews are in!

"Shelley’s meticulously detailed painted pen-and-ink drawings brim with life and convey a clear sense of 1606 London, “a bustling, jostling, clinging, singing, stinking, head-chopping, pickpocketing wonder of a city,” while still managing to individualize the personages both onstage and off. They are perfectly married to Sutcliffe’s concise, humorous, fact-filled prose" (School Library Journal starred review,  Spring 2016 selection)


"Shakespeare could turn a phrase, and Sutcliffe brings a number of them to readers' attention, smartly worked into a vestpocket history of London theater during Shakespeare's days. Shelley's artwork is a lively accompaniment, delicate in color and linework but bustling as only a big population in small confines can be." (Kirkus Reviews)

"Each spread is crowded with intricate, colorful details that seem to spring to life in, for instance, a cutaway of backstage actions, the crowd arriving for an afternoon's performance, how different social classes positioned themselves during the play, London street scenes, and so on. These watercolor and pen-and-ink images invite endless searching of the crowds' unique faces and Thames River vistas" (Booklist)

The Guardian ran a pre-launch gallery of some of the artwork here.

As the Shakespeare anniversary approaches I plan to be out and about with Will's Words in the UK, so do get in touch if you'd like me to be involved in your Shakespeare celebration! Jane Sutcliffe is touring New England bookshops this month, if you're in the US please check the upcoming events page of her website for dates.

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Balance Between Deadlines and Doodles

Sketching, sketching!


I've not posted any sketches to the blog for a while, for a variety of reasons, the main one being that I've just not been travelling very much lately, and it's on train journeys that I tend to find the time to sketch and doodle for the most part. Most of this past year has been spent in the studio every day, working on overdue picture books and other work tasks, no trip to Tokyo last year, (almost) no train journeys outside this area. The fact is I just don't sketch as much when I'm in the home/studio all the time. One of my New Year resolutions is to get out a lot more, it's important to refresh, exercise your legs ... and brain!


I've not posted any doodles from my sketchbook pages either recently, partly for the same reason. But also I made a conscience decision last year not to post idea drawings to social media, for once a drawing is "out there" it's shared, it's somehow "finished" so I thought I'd be less likely to do anything else with it, like re-work it as a finished illustration/exhibition piece, or develop it into a story. I also wondered what my patient editors may think of it all - are they not worrying "why does he have time to doodle and post things on social media? What about my deadline?" If you're in your work studio (as opposed to time off on a train journey) is doodling simply a form of procrastination, distracting you from the real job in hand?


And there's the dilemma.

Drawing for yourself is good for you, sketching and doodling is very important for illustrators, without it we become stale, we need to sketch and doodle to explore and express our creativity outside the confines of commissions. Sharing encourages you to draw more and create new ideas - one drawing shared makes you want to create another. But you still have to work and earn a crust!

Getting the balance right is the key thing, everyone has 'time-off' from work, whether you realise it or not, no artist works from early morning until late at night without break, seven days a week. The challenge is to identify those transient time-off moments and focus on using them in a creative way, though it may be difficult to differentiate between time "on" and time "off" when your studio is a room in your domestic home. Switching between work and non-work is tough, work and home life, everything blends together. You can try placing a sketchbook in every room in the house, so that when the urge to sketch hits you the materials are always at the ready, however there no guarantee you'll use them. It's not about the convenience of materials, it's focusing the brain on using time-off to sketch, and that's very tough in a home studio.

So this is another reason it's important to just get out, get away from the studio for a change of scene,  encourage yourself to have "sketchbook lunches" in cafe's etc..... if only there was a decent cafe near where I live!

Friday, 1 January 2016

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Season's Greetings !


To all my friends and readers, whatever faith, background or heritage.  Wishing everyone a festive, relaxing and very Merry Christmas!





Monday, 23 November 2015

Why are children's book deadlines like buses?

They always run over time and then three arrive at once. 


What is it with my local buses? Yesterday the bus into town was 15 minutes late, then I waited nearly an hour with my daughter in the rain for a homebound bus back again. Why can't they keep to timetables? What is it that holds them up? 

From Michael Rosen's Nasty (Barn Owl Books edition, UK)

Well I shouldn't complain too much, I'm hardly one to point the finger at other people running late. This year has been demanding, illustrating books can take up a very large chunk of time, and I've been very, very late with all my projects, hence my limited online activity for much of this year. 

I wish I could anticipate production time for books more accurately, it's so much easier when you only have one or two images to create, e.g. for editorial (magazines) or other non-book work. I wouldn't say I prefer 'other' illustration over books, they're two entirely different types of work, but editorial is a lot more straightforward and easier to calculate schedules for. You read the commission, bash out some idea sketches which the editor quickly evaluates (in the case of Tokyo's Wingspan magazine it's within a matter of hours), do the artwork, and it's done! An editorial drawing might take just a couple of days including sketches, or at the most a week to turn around. 
Idea sketches for a recent editorial feature in Wingspan magazine, about an environmental exhibition featuring the biggest paper ball in the world. 
The finished illustration

Scheduling books however is much more difficult to calculate. 

For a start my technique and style of working is very different for books, the artwork for which is usually non-digital, in ink and watercolour. Books pull you into the 'world' of the text, you have to absorb the tone of the writing, to plan and compose the pages with a coherent narrative, to tell the story visually over succeeding spreads with strong characters and compelling compositions. It takes a great deal of contemplation and experiment to get into the skin of the text. Picture books usually have at least 20 images, often more, and always evolve and develop between concept to final book, whether self-penned or illustrating a commissioned text. At every stage of a book's production there are tweaks, re-writes/re-draws, adjustments and revisions, especially in the case of non-fiction where research is such a crucial aspect of the process. Books are complicated things with a whole manner of challenges that can potentially upset your carefully laid plans, even before you get to final drawing and painting the artwork. Despite the assumptions of a recent TV programme, you can't turn a book around in a day.

Early pencil sketch for Yozora o Miage-yo. A great deal changed between this and the final book.

All this planning and tweaking is okey if you just plan one commission at a time, but if you've more than one project in the pipeline the pressure is on. You might find a relatively small unanticipated delay with book 1 causes a major re-scheduling of book 2, and complete postponement for book 3, if the publishers can't wait you find yourself in a mad dash to meet multiple deadlines all landing at the same time. It's exactly comparable to how the ripple effects of minor delays cause major traffic jams, or buses to arrive late and bunched together.

This has been the case for me this year, which has been filled with two non-fiction picture books involving a lot of research and revision, one, Will's Words being a history of Shakespeare and the original Globe theatre, written by Jane Sutcliffe, and the other Yozora o Miage-yo (Let's Look at the Night Sky), written by Yuriko Matsumoto, on the subject of star-gazing. 


It's finished! Completed artwork for Yozora o Miage-yo

These were exciting but very involved projects, requiring much more time than initially anticipated. Both will see publication in 2016 - Will's Words by Charlesbridge publishers in the USA, and Yozora by Fukuinkan Shoten in Japan. 

There are certain ways you can speed things up - spend less time in front of a computer screen, work to more stringent daily routines etc., there are ways to limit distractions and cut down procrastination. But finding the correct balance is important, it's all very well working into the early hours, but with longer commissions what you gain from over-working on one day you tend to lose the next day due to fatigue. Sleep and exercise is important for efficiency, and for illustrators working from home studios both can suffer if you're not careful. Additionally as a widowed single parent I'm entirely responsible for the needs of my daughter, get her off to school in the morning, feeding, clothing and spending time with her, so burning the candle late at night is only an occasional option.
 
These books were absolutely fascinating to work on. I love being absorbed by non-fiction, the research, the challenges of getting it right and so on. With the artwork for these titles now completed though things will get a lot easier hereafter (touch wood!) -  I've other delayed book commissions waiting in the wings, and they are fun fiction projects - so not quite so much research required!

To all my long-suffering publishers and editors, my deepest apologies.

Now, onwards!

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Update

My, it's been a long time since I posted to my blog, you may have thought in fact I'd given up on the blog entirely. Well no, not given up at all - but I made a decision to put things on ice for a while. There are a few reasons for this, one of the biggest being a very heavy workload this year, so I've cut back on a lot of social media until things get a little easier. 

So what have I been up to then? Here's a brief update on activities. 

First and foremost, a cover reveal! 


My next picture book collaboration with Jane Sutcliffe is currently awaiting release in the US in March 2016. Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, is published to coincide with the anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 1616, and takes the reader through the streets of Jacobean London to the Globe theatre. Dropped into the narrative are numerous words and phrases from his plays that are widely used in everyday speech today. I'm greatly excited about this book, research and production of the artwork consumed much of my workload during the first half of this year. This will be my second collaboration with Jane, (our previous book together Stone Giant: Michelangelo's David and How He Came to Be was released in 2013).


Currently I'm working on a picture book for Japanese publisher Fukuinkan Shoten, Yozora o Miageyo, with words by Yuriko Matsumura, which follows a child's discovery of the stars of the night sky, culminating in a country trip to see the Perseids meteor shower. This too is due for release in 2016 in Japan. Here's a sneak snapshot of some work-in-progress.



Other book projects thereafter are currently under wrap - all will be revealed in due time! 

Finally, I was recently honoured to be interviewed by writer Kathy Temean for her excellent blog Writing and Illustrating. This is a very full interview with plenty of images, so if you haven't seen it already do please have a look!


Saturday, 6 June 2015

More work for Wingspan

While I'm on a hiatus due to deadlines, here's some more work for Wingspan magazine....

Aroma Dating parties in London

Bathing in beer at the Starkenberger Beer Spa, Austria
A Silent Disco is shut down by the mayor of Salzburg for being too loud.

Yes, that's a self-portrait behind the turntables... well I couldn't resist.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Recent work for Wingspan Magazine

Here's some more of my regular monthly cut illustrations for Wingspan, ANA's inflight magazine on their international flights.

A story about a wild boar in Australia that went on a rampage after swigging 18 cans of beer.

Nepal's Bird man Gautam Sapkota, world record holder for his ability to mimic 151 species of bird

Dracula's Castle goes on sale
In Dresden a moose became stuck in an office building for six hours

More to come!

I've been shamefully behind with my blog this year, chiefly because I've been pretty well overwhelmed by some very involved book deadlines, things have been extremely hectic! It's not over yet, things are still very busy, but I'll post again when things get easier.



Thursday, 15 January 2015

Crinkle, Crackle, Crack Released Today!

My latest picture book is launched today!


Released by Holiday House Publishers on 15th January, Crinkle, Crackle, CRACK, It's Spring!, is available in bookshops and online across North America, and in other countries via online bookstores.

The story is written by Marion Dane Bauer, regular followers may remember our previous picture book collaboration Halloween Forest in 2012. This time the theme is the change of seasons.


In the middle of a cold, late winter night a child is awoken by strange noises outside. In the garden stands a bear, who takes the child in a mysterious journey through woods covered in melting snow.


Other animals join them as they go, a rabbit, a squirrel, a beaver, and a newly hatched bird, while the strange cracking sounds grow louder.


Eventually they discover a giant egg, which bursts to reveal - Spring!


A Japanese language edition is due for release in February from Bronze Shuppan.

Crinkle, Crackle, CRACK, It's Spring!
Words by Marion Dane Bauer
Illustrated by John Shelley
Holiday House Books for Children, 32 pages
ISBN: 9780823429523

Friday, 2 January 2015

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.