How to Work with Art Directors

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A topic often glossed over in school is, how to work with art directors. This is a huge part of the business side of Illustration and many beginning illustrators approach it with a bit of trepidation; in this episode  we help shed some light on the topic by offering advice, suggestions, and by sharing some of our successes and failures in working with art directors.

SVS, our show is sponsored by It’s like Netflix for art classes. We love the guys down there at SVS:) If you are interested, click here.

Current Projects:

Will: Working on redoing a class for SVS, and originally the class was done live and so now he is giving it a facelift and making it more organized and coherent.

Lee: While waiting for a book project to start, has started working on a basic Digital Painting class for SVS. He has done 90 videos done so far. Also, took a week to dial in his studio, his process and needs have changed over time, so now he has taken some time to customize his studio and built things to streamline it. Fancy customization.

Jake: Just finished, Inktober! Yay! Finished all the Inktober posts, has been doing a ton of work on the Inktober posts, which is a ton of work. Did all of his personal Inktober drawings, plus another 20 or so to promote sponsors.

Cleaned the whole studio with his trusty assistants, Aaron and Tanner.

Now is working on the Inktober book which is all about how to ink, how to do Inktober, and where do you fit in the world of Ink.

November Art Challenges:

Slowvember: taking time to slow down after the franticness of Inktober and just focus on making one thing beautiful.

Another popular art challenge is Huevember, combined with Sketchtember, and Inktober. People do sketches during the month of September, ink them during October, and then add color during Huevember.

Slowvember, all about creating an amazing

Last year Lee did 2 pieces during that month. 2 weeks a painting. In today’s world it seems like it is all about speed, so it’s so nice to slow down and work on a painting and give it 100% of what you’ve got.

It’s the last 20% that makes you a professional. Students can totally get to that 80% mark but they get stuck and don’t know what else to do. It’s that final 20% that is the hardest part and this challenge is a perfect way to work on getting past that.

We love this podcast! This is what are meetings used to dissolve to anyways, so we’re happy to share it now with you.

Today’s topic is: How to Working with Art Directors.

The nuts and bolts of working with an art director is usually learned on the job and is not covered as much in school. So hopefully this will be helpful.

We have some questions that were submitted to us by a former art director who thought these would be helpful questions to discuss and consider.

How much creative freedom can I expect to have when illustrating a book?

For most children’s books that Jake has done he has been hired based off of a specific illustration he has already done. Some artists have only one distinct style and so if that’s the case the client most likely wants something in that style.

Usually Jake will email them and ask what type of style they want for their illustration. The freedom lies in how you can use that style to tell the story. You have to stay in that box of the style and work inside that box and all of the storytelling and design you do should fit in that box.

Usually Lee will ask the publisher why and for what reason they chose him. Then they will send some images that they like of his and start to describe the look and feel of the project.

Your creativity doesn’t change as much as your confidence does.

Lee feels that he has the same amount of creativity and capacity to have good ideas now as when he started, the difference, however, is his confidence and ability to pitch those things and more creative solutions to the art director or publisher.

We all need to overcome self imposed limitations of what we think the art director wants. There is a freedom to pitch things out there and see if they are received.

It took some time but now Lee has confidence to think outside of the box and to propose new solutions.

Talk to the art director like a person, and give them more options. Don’t only focused on “will they like it?” Focus on coming up with creative solutions.

Overcome self-censoring to do what is fun and exciting.

Here’s an example, for a book Lee gave them three different options of approaches they could take on it and listed the pros and cons of each option. Talk openly about all of those things.

Jake likes to think about the current children’s book as the calling card for the next one. So he tries to really push things as far as he can and do his very best on at least a few spreads so he can show that stuff to other publishers.

If you give them boring stale work, and that’s what they want and that’s what you’ll be continued to ask do for them.

Lee gets shut down all the time, and that’s okay, he understand and has developed confidence.

“I love the limited color, but maybe we go full color..”

Anything you draw is never wasted. Anything can be reused, shown, and you get to become better as an artist because you went down that path and explored that option.

Have you been as satisfied with your professional work as your personal work?

Lee has done 24, 25 books and still feels like he hasn’t been able to hit the mark of his best work.

Of all of Will’s books, Bonnaparte Falls Apart is doing the best. It was published by Random House and it is the book where he had the most freedom.

As a rule of thumb, the smaller the publisher, the less freedom you’re going to have.

Lee: is working with imprints of Scholastic and Simon and Schuster.

Jake has worked with Chronicle and Harper Collins.

These publishers are at the top of their game, they allow you to do your best work with creative freedom and they will give directional nudges, and are not overly micromanaging. Smaller publishers may micromanage and have silly requests.

Will will approach art directors and show them really rough sketches and tell them that they are for their eyes only, don’t show these to the editor. This allows him to pitch concepts without having to do a lot of detailed sketching.

You need to prove yourself with a new client and give them some nice sketches before you start showing them really really rough concepts, so they can know what your sketches entail.

The caliber of client does change the answer to this question of how satisfied you may be with working with a publisher. Some smaller publishers will micromanage.

A good example of trust and a proactive solution mindset. Jake noticed when the book was nearing completion that they had left out a spread and they were a whole spread short, so he proposed an idea for a final spread and the author, editor, and everyone liked his idea and let him carry it out.

The Twelve Sleighs of Christmas

Throw good creative ideas out there, if you don’t really have a good idea, don’t throw ideas out there just to throw it out there!

What to do if you don’t agree with the art director?

You can definitely push back more the more confidence and experience you have.

Would you do that as a beginning illustrator?

Pick your battles, it can’t be a daily thing. Every project will have issues. you know there is going to be some push back to what you do. You are going to want one or two of your ideas, to be really gutsy and push back. But it can’t be a daily thing.

When considering pushing back against feedback given, always ask, “Is this worth it? Is this more important than the other things that I really care about?” Pick your battles.

Check out our monthly drawing challenges at!

Be solution-oriented.

If you need to make a change and it’s not your idea, then you need to love the change or revision.

Will has loved something about a book and then had that thing changed and then he was able to love that new thing even more than the thing before.

We are resistant to change because we have attached value to something and then when that is attacked we feel unsettled.

Skeleton at Dinner

Being a student, almost anything you pitch is accepted and your teacher just wants to see you create good work.

As a professional, that isn’t the case, many things you pitch won’t be accepted or agreed with, but you have to keep a positive and team player attitude.

When going into professional job, realize you are going to be apart of a team, it helps you have a better mindset.

In regard to illustration, Jake likes to have the mind of a mercenary. You are hired by the author and the editor and they have a vision, he will, 9/10, go along with their vision.

One good reason for this is that the editor has been through this process so many more times than you, and she works with a marketing department and has seen designs and books succeed and fail. Normally she or he knows what

they are talking about. Jake tends to go with their feedback, unless maybe it is something specific that he feels strongly about.

Push back on only a handful of little things. Trust their vision.

Have you ever refused to change something?

Jake, never done it.

Lee, did this once. Did icons for a magazine and they got caught in this ongoing never ending revision loop.

As artists we are all caught in this paradox where we are wanting to make money and also wanting to enjoy out art and this fun career path. Sometimes you need to know when to say yes and no.

Sometimes you say yes, because there is a really good paycheck.

Sometimes you say no, because it doesn’t fit with your brand or artistic vision.

Will lost his rep by saying no. The art director was really upset because everyone wanted Will, the illustrator to rewrite the book, and Will knew that wasn’t his job or responsibility, and refused to do so. He lost his rep but stood up for himself. Soon after that publisher actually went out of business.

Being an illustrator does not mean: “I will illustrate anything for anyone in any style.”

I.e. Lee doesn’t do likenesses in his illustration work.

Know what you’re good at and know what you’re not.

You don’t have to be a Jack of all trades.

But you also don’t have to limit your skill set but you can limit what you do.

Is there a way to feel out the publishing team before you do a book for them, to make sure you see, creatively, eye to eye?

Some questions to ask early on to help you feel out the your compatibility with the project and team. What images of mine did you see that made you think of me? Why did you pick me? How do you see this project happening? Am I primarily working with the editor or the art director. You want to know what you are getting into.

Will’s friend wanted him to do a logo, and Will agreed to do it but had his friend show him 3 of his favorite logos so that Will could get a feel for what his friend wanted.

Make them send you stuff that fits their vision, so that you have a better idea as to what it is that they want.

Sometimes you have to spend a lot of money on your furnace.

You have to stick with it having a consistent online presence, you need to build an audience a fanbase, when you are in need they will likely support you!

How long do you wait on getting feedback on thumbnail sketches?

It can take as long as 3-4 weeks.

Worst experience with an art director?

Everyone has nothing to share. Will already shared his.

How to become friends with your art director?

People like to work with friends and with people that they can relate to.
Will tries to make it personal, “have a good time… this weekend”, “I’m going to be doing this, this weekend” Be kind and be their friend.

Jake likes to follow them on twitter or to comment on their art if they are an artist to find connections and build friendships.

A lot of Wills art directors are return clients.

He has had 5, 10, 30 projects with the same art directors.

Think about it, if you do good for someone, then they will count on you and look to you as a go to person. Be fun, be interesting, be a good person, care about them, show interest in what they’re doing. They will want to keep working with you if you produce good work, and are easy to work with.

One more idea, send your art director or publisher a card or a print, and do something extra like that for them.

Lee sends his new publishing clients his Kickstarter book so they have a really strong taste of what his process and finished work is like.

We hope you liked this discussion, this is a good thing to talk about because working with art directors, it’s part of what we do!