Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The 2013 ISCA Convention, St. Pete's, Florida

What do you get when you combine a class reunion, a fetish ball, art school, clown college, a tech trade show, a drinking club, an international relations summit, and a sleep-deprivation marathon? You get the annual International Society of Caricature Artists convention. Bringing together 167 competing artists from 12 different countries, the con just wrapped up in St. Pete's Beach, Florida, and I was lucky enough to attend most of it. (This year, due to prior gigs and bad planning, I had to bail out early and miss the awards banquet--but really the exciting part for me is the frenetic lead-up to final artwork and voting!)
Figuring out which likeness to vote for is a daunting task.

Over the decades, the ISCA con has evolved into a well-planned series of seminars, competitions, and social networking opportunities that one cannot experience anywhere else or any other time. I'm still recuperating from it, so bear with me as I type out a stream-of-consciousness rundown of events.

See my last post for Sunday night's icebreaker and ARTFIGHTS (hosted by Matt Zitman and Nolan Harris). After that, and a couple of morning seminars on facial geometry basics and marketing tips, there was the LIKENESS COMPETITION. This is a highly-attended contest in which artists draw from slides projected onto a large screen. We get a few practice faces and then three that count, and we are given ten minutes to draw each subject. "Pencils down!" always seems to be yelled out before you're ready. All drawings are then placed on the wall, surrounding a printout of the photo, and the participants vote. It is humbling, every time, to see your perfect little creation sink into oblivion on the wall of a hundred or so entries. And such a variety of ways to capture the same person. Sure, they have varying degrees of success, but often you see two diametrically opposed stretches somehow both work at capturing the same person. Deciding who to vote for is insanely hard. Winners aren't announced until the banquet on Friday, so after voting everyone heads back to the shenanigans in the main drawing pavilion.

The fruits of my efforts in the
30-minute gig competition.
Then later that same night the GIG ARTIST COMPETITION was held. I went ahead and participated in this, a first time for me. Other artists serve as volunteers and we draw for 30 minutes, creating as many gig-worthy drawings as we can, which are then judged based on quality AND quantity. I cranked out 10 faces in that half-hour, way over my typical gig speed estimate (due to adrenaline maybe?), and I was certainly not among the top few artists in this category. The really fun thing about this contest was seeing the other artist-models do their impersonations of party guests. Crowding the artist, demanding you draw "just one more," and asking if you have a real job too. It went on and on. But--unlike your typical party gig--we could counter this heckling with no punches pulled. Everyone channeled their inner insult comic and uncensored verbal barbs were flying all over the place; things came out of my mouth that I'd never DREAM of uttering to a Bar Mitzvah mom or a bride's father. It was cathartic to say the least!

By the time the gig competition ended, it was nearly 11pm . . . but that's about the time things start rockin' and rollin' in the drawing pavilion. This room stays open all day and all night, and it's always filled with folks socializing, drinking, and working on their pieces. Caricaturists had staked out territory and little groups had formed. The atmosphere is far too inclusive and egalitarian for me to call them "cliques," but little work groups form based on geography, interests, and friendship. I sat near Pennsylvania artist Emily Anthony (also my roomie & fellow carny at the Texas State Fair), the delightful mistress of paper cutting Beejay Hawn, and Blind Ferret webcomic artist (and owner of a celebrated beard) Lar deSouza. Here and there were tables occupied by Korean artists, Japanese artists, European artists, and American artists who had worked together at Kaman's Art Shoppe or Fasen Arts or on the fair & festival circuit. Dutch licorice, Belgian chocolate, and Canadian maple cookies were passed out by those who resided in such faraway locales. Newbies to the con (wearing a bright green dot on their convention badge) were taken around and introduced here and there by mutual acquaintances.
Controlled chaos in the drawing pavilion. 

The work was just starting. People zipped around taking photos and video of other artists they wanted to draw (or sculpt, or paint, or otherwise render). The weird-looking artists were highly sought after. Easels were pulled around the room, electrical outlets were found, secured, and defended like watering holes on the Serengeti (okay, it wasn't quite so cut-throat, but with SO many digital artists electricity was in demand!).

Rounding out the international credentials of this con was our guest speaker, Venezuelan painter and caricaturist extraordinaire Jota Leal. He gave a talk and showcased his work, apologizing that he was new to public speaking, a "virgin" as he put it, and added "like it is with virgins, this will probably be bad and over quickly." For someone who did not speak English as a native tongue, Jota was quick-witted and very good at making himself understood. Later he gave a special presentation for the "gold members" of ISCA (those who pay a slightly higher fee in exchange for a few perks). Surrounded by a few dozen eager apprentices, Jota fielded questions as he painted a quick black-and-white acrylic study of Leonard Cohen. In just under two hours (and a couple glasses of wine) the painting took shape before our eyes; Jota kindly donated the piece for the ISCA fundraising auction to be held at the awards banquet.

The drawing pavilion was quickly filling up with every kind of caricature one can imagine--and a few kinds that defy imagination. And artists get downright silly as the week wears on and the wee hours of the morning creep in. 
"You really should have shaded her nose in more,"
complained the scantily clad art critics

Alcohol was in good supply, and various strands of music were leaking from phones here and there. At around one in the morning, Sarasota artist Michael White cranked Haddaway's "What Is Love/Baby Don't Hurt Me" and shouted "DANCE BREAK EVERYBODY!" He was joined by Englishman Steve Hearn and the two of them boogied furiously for the next five minutes before settling back into their chairs. But that little interlude paled in comparison with what walked in at 3 a.m. on the night before judging. Kirby Rudolph and Cory Lally showed up baring almost all, and strutted their stuff in green and orange bikinis, making fellow artists squeal and squirm. Their little escapade inspired a few pieces of art, of course. Maybe that's why they waited until 3 a.m. the day before judging to stroll around like that--just to inflict more insomnia on the already slap-happy caricature artists who cannot resist drawing something to memorialize a scene like that.

If you show up like that, it will get drawn.
I went with a graphic (in more ways than one) depiction of the two beach bunnies--but I replaced Kirby and Cory with body doubles in the shape of ISCA board members Wade Collins and Chris Galvin. Jared Stokes drew a delightful retro-looking image of a beachside Cory being stripped by a Kirby pup, a la those old classic tanning lotion advertisements that featured a much cuter, feminine model. 
Taka Wanatabe's version of Jeff, left, won best Master Caricature
 of the Year. I still don't know who did the one on the right!

Despite all these distractions, the variety of art that sprung up on the pavilion walls was truly jaw-dropping (as has come to be expected at these cons). An array of techniques that spanned all mediums and approaches: basic geometric shapes to incredibly highly rendered painterly work to sculpture with mixed media to digital art. And one of the remarkable things about caricature is that there is no one right stretch for any face. One artist might choose one direction, and another might go a completely different way, but if they are successful caricatures, then the identity of the subject will be obvious in both. Look at San Antonio artist Jeff Pecina, on the left here. The highly rendered acrylic by golden nosey holder Taka Wanatabe and the goofy cut-out both capture him but in such different ways! And same goes for longtime ISCA member and The-Nose.com operator Tad Barney, whose nostrils have become the stuff of legends.
Tad's mug captured by the delightfully twisted Eric Goodwin (l)
and cut out of wood and printed by Chris Neuenschwander (r).

The SPEED COMPETITION was held toward the middle of the con, with artists competing in separate heats to determine finalists and then a winner for "World's Fastest Caricaturist." The emphasis here is on speed speed speed, though a small group of judges does peruse the completed drawings and toss ones that are incomplete or have no likeness at all. (As a former board member, I was one of the judges for the speed competition a few years back. There is also sometimes a bump-up for quality; any artist showing exceptional likeness quality will get an extra point or something. but I have no idea how the judging equation has changed since then). Each heat is five minutes long, and competitors generate 15, 20, sometimes 25 drawings in that short stretch of time! I cranked out just 10, a far cry from the winner, Steve Dorris, who produced 26 drawings to grab the title this year.
Some of the drawings that were produced of me during the
speed competition. The one in the middle captures me, no?
The speed competition is really an exercise in freeing up your mind from worrisome constraints that you'd feel at a gig or a retail environment--granted, you replace them with a singular, overriding worrisome constraint, as your brain screams GO GO GO DRAW FASTER and you try to economize every line you put to paper. The results are spare and resemble gestural contour drawings. The music fills the room and the nimble-footed models (other artists not competing in your heat) jump directly into your chair when you shout "Next!" . . . No one heckles or acts snarky as they do in the gig competition. Everyone is focused like a caricature laser. I feel a spike of adrenaline during this surreal five minutes, and what my brain learns here really does seem to benefit me at every rushed gig I work for the next year.
Some of the artists drew from media and pop culture to get inspiration: My Little Manny
Pony (by Brian Oakes), the ISCA officers ready to transport down to a planet's surface
 (by Emily Anthony), and Nolan Harris getting the serial killer treatment from his friend Dexter
 Rothchild (by Rob Dumuhosky) and showing off his super alter ego (by Kosuke Miyagi).

Back in the drawing pavilion, caricature magic was happening all over the place, and a few artists who sprung for vendor tables were dividing their time between transactions and producing art. Between diaper changes and playing with his three young girls, Belgian caricature  master Jan Op De Beeck was doodling people in the front pages of his new book, Sketching Is Fun. Miguel Aguilar also offered his new book of bizarre and fascinating ink drawings, Absolute Elsewhere, and the Pankeys offered their homemade jams and preserves.
The 3D submissions were varied and clever this year!

The 3-D category, which I've been a contender in for some years now, just seems to grow outward and upward each year. Elizabeth Pankey and Deb Donnelly were working away at a sewing machine, and Emi Soto Op De Beeck (wife of Jan) crocheted an adorable Matt Zitman. 
Beejay Hawn produced a gorgeous papercrafted threesome of the young Op De Beeck girls in the "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" pose. Multi-year champion Johanna Veerenhuis, from the Netherlands, created beautiful Sculpey statuettes of long-distance paramours Matt Zitman and Beejay Hawn, him holding a beer and her posed aggressively in her Artfights outfit. I worked on just one 3D piece this year, of Teague Tysseling (his adorable goatee bow-tie and watch fob were just too much to resist, I had to sculpt him).

I had to go buy a $6 clearance necklace in the hotel gift shop to make Teague's watch chain. . . . That's one of the fun challenges of 3D: you sometimes have to go on a scavenger hunt or call upon MacGyver, the patron saint of improvisational use of materials. No one ever brings EVERYTHING they will need to a con. You simply cannot anticipate where your artwork will head and what supplies you will need to get there. At one of the first cons I attended, my luggage was misplaced by the airline and left on the tarmac in pouring rain, ruining all my paper. Artists from Japan gave me drawing board and had me try out the watercolors they were using. Others gave me paper and various implements to use. Johanna has gifted me with Sugru, a special self-setting rubberized putty that hardens in minutes and is great for repairing Sculpey cracks, and I have traded clay with a few Asian artists who had completely different materials than those available in the U.S. Belgian Karel Op De Beeck (brother to Jan)  kindly supplied aluminum foil for those of us sculptors who needed it.  
A few progress shots of my Teauge sculpture and then the man himself holding the goods. 
The past few years we have been lucky enough to wrangle a local art store into setting up a temporary art shop right in the drawing pavilion, and though this year the art supply vendor only showed up for one day, I was grateful. I bought two packs of Sculpey and then borrowed acrylic paints and brushes from Nate Kapickney, who seemed to think he came out great in the bargain because I gave him a watery rum and Coke from the hotel bar.
Dutch Sculpey queen Johanna Veerenhuis
is my ISCA friemesis (friend and nemesis).

But, as commerce goes, information trading trumps materials trading--and boy did I get some amazing hands-on training from all kinds of brilliant people! You pick up a lot from the seminars, but learning doesn't end there. Two Wacom reps came and demonstrated their new Cintiq Companions and hybrid units, as well as a new pressure-sensitive stylus made for the iPad. I was all set to buy one until Orlando artists Ted Tucker and Keelan Parham warned me that the Bluetooth connection on them fails when you work next to another artist using one--and since all my digital gigs tend to be in close quarters with other artists, that's a purchase-killer for me. Ted is a natural trainer and kindly sat with me for long stretches, showing me aspects of the ArtStudio app that I had not discovered yet. The several key tips I absorbed from him will greatly help my process at my next digital gig! I was able to peek over Lar deSouza's shoulder as he drew and colored his daily strip, Least I Could Do, and he gave me some great photoshop shortcuts that will help my coloring and shading. Bob East ("Beast") was putting together his Friday seminar on animation, which I would sadly have to miss due to my early plane flight, so he said "Well sit down!" What followed was my own little mini-seminar on old-school animation techniques and a viewing of some of the hilarious work he and his colleagues did on the SNL cartoon "Ambiguously Gay Duo." I definitely picked up things I could use on my next few Vine
Jeremy Townsend (Jert) had a body that was in demand! Ali Thome (top) won first
place for "Outstanding Body Situation" for her take on Jert's inner workings, and
Emily Anthony included a flip-open mask for the oversized Gorn featured on her
Star Trek themed wall piece.
 stop-motion videos. 

Social connections happen too, of course, and (for better or for worse) like any other close-knit group, ISCA revolves around personal dynamics. Some complained that in this tech-reliant age we have mostly switched from life drawing to just snapping phone pics and drawing in solitary confinement from laptops. To counter this, Matt Zitman organized a "drawing circle" wherein a few dozen artists simply pulled easels or lap boards into a circle and everyone drew everyone else--live, not from photos. Ha ha, some non-participating artists have called the ISCA con a "circlejerk" and I guess in this case they'd be half right! But seriously, rubbing elbows with admired luminaries or even just the rank-and-file caricaturists of the world is an eye-opening experience. The convention puts people with a very specific skill set--and the weird sense of humor that usually accompanies those skills--all into a room together for several days. The typical artist lives in a city with just a few other artists, or some are the only caricaturist in their region. Coming to your first ISCA con, you feel like Walter from the recent Muppets movie: you've grown up a lone muppet, feeling weird and isolated with no other muppets around, and then suddenly you are surrounded by muppets of every size and shape in a chaotic but fun madhouse, all doing muppetty things and understanding muppet in-jokes and celebrating their muppetness! More than one caricature artist has expressed this joy in terms like "I have found my people!" or "I feel like I have finally rejoined the mother ship!" Romantic relationships spring up. Intimate friendships start or are renewed. 

Who's afraid of a little nudity? Not Steve Dorris (by
Hironori Motohashi) or Heather Joy (by Sakura Tangppopo)!

A close kinship exists at the con that allows for all sorts of off-color jokes, effusive hugging, naked drawings of your peers, and spontaneous displays of affection. I must have counted at least two hundred interactions that would have been branded sexual harassment by the typical HR director. I think I personally instigated at least twenty.

Congratulations, SUCKERSSSSS!!!! Uh, no, I mean thank you for taking up
the hallowed mantle of volunteering to serve ISCA and doing all that work.
Of course, in the midst of all these fun and games, the real work of an organization has to get done. I fought every natural inclination I had and dragged myself to the early-morning ISCA business meeting. (Okay, it was at 10 a.m., but that IS early after so many long nights in the drawing pavilion!) Lorin Bernsen, who I have been lucky enough to consider a good friend for many years now, has helmed ISCA as its president this past year and managed to keep the ship afloat even as he moved all the way to Seoul, Korea, and back again. He is stepping down, and the experienced Chris Galvin will take up his spot, while Wade Collins remains treasurer. Two brave young bucks offered themselves up as new blood, and so the board welcomed Nolan Harris and Matt Zitman into the fold. I can't wait to see what the new 2013-14 ISCA board members cook up for the organization in the year to come! Congratulations, Nolan and Matt! And also an everlasting thanks to Tracey Iverson, who tirelessly works as our organizational guru and people-helper, giving ISCA the illusion of a home office staffed with countless capable receptionists.

As Thursday afternoon turned toward evening, hordes of sleep-deprived artists hung their final caricatures on the walls underneath their competition numbers, culling the weaker pieces and reinforcing the rest with tape (the pavilion was actually a tent, and the "walls" swelled inward and outward with the wind, much to the chagrin of artists not lucky enough to get a spot on the black standing display partitions). I walked around in a weird state between excitement and gloom: So many wonderful new pieces were going up on display and, sadly, I had an airport shuttle to catch. I missed voting, which is always an excruciating process. I also somehow missed seeing Stacy Pierce work on the wonderful, whimsical sculpture that grabbed top honors this year for 3D (Beejay Hawn got 2nd place, and I was awarded 3rd place in absentia, I heard via text message).
Stacy Pierce's awesome award-winning
sculpt of Ali Thome and Jordan Martin.

As to the TOP top honor, the coveted Golden Nosey was awarded to Kosuke Miyagi, with Marcus Sakoda taking the silver and Brian Oakes the bronze. I wish I could have been there to partake in the banquet festivities. My hat's off to ALL the amazing, skilled, funny-pitcher makers who were able to attend this year. Next year the ISCA con will come to my home state of Nevada, to the Peppermill Resort in Reno. 

So start saving your pennies now, all you West Coast artists, that's not far from the Bay Area. I'll probably tough out the 8-hour drive so I can haul up an air compressor . . . and I want to give a seminar . . . and I wonder who Rob and I can room with . . . and . . . and . . .  I can't help it! The only cure for ISCA con withdrawal is happily planning for the NEXT convention . . . 

In the meantime, enjoy this wonderful quick video put together by Ali Thome! 

Click this because I can't seem to upload from Youtube

Monday, November 18, 2013

At the Caricature Convention!

This is going to be a rushed blog entry, as I am ticking it out on my phone between seminars and tropical drinks at the International Society of Caricature Artists 22nd (or 23rd?) annual convention! About 200 funny picture drawers have convened in St. Pete's Beach in Florida to talk shop, make fun of each other, and enjoy the bizarre, unique, and very strong comraderie that exists in this field. 

It's only the second day, so expect a more thorough rundown next week. The opening night icebreaker featured a recently added but already traditional event, the ART FIGHTS, organized by Nolan Harris and Matt Zitman. It's a wild draw-off pitting artists against one another in rapidfire heats of two-minute gag drawings judged by applause. 

That's me on the left drawing the topic "How Lorin got such a long neck" . . . I managed to win that round with a poorly drawn rendition of Lorin peeping over a nudist camp fence, and I also eeked out a victory against the talented Beejay Hawn in the semi-semi-finals, but was eliminated in the round after that (though I did get several compliments on the drawing of my opponent as an ice cream cone--his sketch of me as a plate of spaghetti was just better!)

The final winner, after many heats and many creative topics, was Tom Faraci. Along the way, he beat ISCA legend Lar deSouza in a very challenging round where they drew each other using their non-dominant hand! Fun fun stuff. I regret that in the excitement of it, and from my vantage point, I did not get any good pics of the drawings. But take my word for it, they were scribbly, crude, and made everyone laugh. 

Here's a barefoot Tom showing off his ArtFights championship belt later the next night. Though I really think it would have looked better on me, Tom did a fantastic job and folks will be gunning for him next year!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Crowd Sourcing: The Good, the Bad, and the Not-So-Innovative

Crowdsourcing. We all do it to some extent. Blasting your friends asking them en masse which plumber in town is trustworthy, whether the new blockbuster is worth seeing in 3D, or what outfit to wear. But what is crowd sourcing as a trend doing to the art business as a whole?

Better, much more prolific and respected artists than me have written on this. Stephen Silver has launched a crusade against what he defines as exploitative burglary of artists' ideas. But I recently had cause to try and see it from the other side. A friend from college announced he was crowdsourcing the design of his upcoming book on the site 99Designs.com. This friend is going to remain nameless, as I don't want to bad mouth him here but rather use him as a bellwether for the way a non-artist views (or justifies) this type of hiring model. This fellow is a very bright, articulate, well-educated man who was elected president of my graduating class at a fairly prestigious college and has since risen to prominence in politics. He served as Secretary of Technology for his state and was tapped by President Obama for his knowledge of technology as it pertains to business and public policy . . . and he saw crowdsourcing as an innovative way to get the freshest ideas from a more diverse group of designers for his book cover. He told me so when I cautioned him on a Facebook thread that crowdsourcing sites were seen as a scourge in the industry and clients who used them were sometimes hit with bad publicity and seen as exploiters. I was not a lone voice, there was one other commenter who took umbrage at our friend's decision. I'm going to quote him anonymously too: "Rather than find a more 'diverse' group of designers, you'll more likely be drawing on a more homogenous group of designers who are willing to do this type of work, and produce work that reflects putting the minimal amount of time cranking out entries into these contests rather than giving your creative brief the time, attention and process that more often yields innovative and unique design . . .  I'd respectfully ask that you reconsider the message you're sending by endorsing the platform."

Spoken like someone experienced in dealing with politicians, right? Now, I like this former classmate and respect him greatly. I do not see him as purposely being exploitative or gullible or cheap. So it provided a moment for me to really examine this type of model. Is it really so bad? If he views it as the future of design and art transaction, is he right? What would that future look like, exactly, for the typical working freelance artist? What about for the client? Maybe I should troll about the site and see if it's really so bad.

Here's a rundown of how that the project unfolded on 99Designs: For $799, he received 193 designs from 61 designers. The winning designer had submitted 10 designs. A few others had submitted as many as 15 or 16. If each design takes around one hour (and that would be incredibly fast to read over the project brief, come up with an idea, put it together on photoshop, and make it presentable as an entry), that means the client received 193 hours of work for his $799. That breaks down to $4.14 per man-hour . . . if, hypothetically, all the designers were splitting the pot. Surely the winner spent more time on his/her designs, though, after all, the quality was good enough to win payment. If the winning designer spent, say, two hours on each design, that means he/she earned $39.95 per hour. Not terrible. One might argue that $40 an hour is certainly a fair wage for an in-house designer . . . but to earn that consistently the artist would have to win EVERY contest they enter. And freelancers often charge more per hour than in-house designers, as they must pay for their own benefits and insurance and whatnot.

From the client's POV that breakdown looks fantastic. Professionals and not-so-well-known artists, anxious to please and willing to devote time and brainpower in hopes of "winning" a payment. Your own virtual art factory where artists pump out work for around half minimum wage! Well, put that way it doesn't sound great. It does sound exploitative. But clients won't see it that way unless something changes. Designs can be viewed and discarded with a click, anonymously. Artists are choosing to submit work, no one is forced. Why should anyone feel guilty? The average fair-trade-coffee-buying, anti-sweatshop, living-wage proponent would still see this model as perfectly fine--indeed, there's a sneaking tendency to see it as egalitarian, a way to "level the playing field," and find some yet undiscovered young talent who needs their big break. By golly, this is fair market! And fair markets always produce the best product. Competition makes the cream rise to the top!

Again, it's not so cut and dry. Let's now look at the designer's/artist's POV. First off, what kind of designers and artists are we looking at here? A cheerful young photo of a designer on the website states "With no real qualifications or previous clients, I had no way of gaining any income through design work previously. With 99designs, you don’t need a CV!" Wow, awesome, dude! No real qualifications needed! Rock on! The website touts several of its most prolific designers as grassroots success stories, but I am, as ever, skeptical. The numbers game here means that even the most successful participants would be spending a huge amount of time blasting off ten, or fifteen, or twenty designs for each payment they "win." (Not earn, it's not seen as earning, it's winning! Yay, you won your paycheck! How much more fun would an office job be if you didn't earn your money but instead WON it? Am I right?)

If I were to make my living (or try to win it) on crowdsourced art sites, I would want to--no, I would HAVE TO--streamline my process and go scattershot. Hit as many possible jobs with as many entries as I could crank out. And better to crank them out fast, as no one is paying per idea and the smart tactic would just be to flood the site with entries. The site itself serves as a firewall, keeping clients safe from those pesky illustrator and designer wannabes. You have limited contact with the client. Keywords and a short description serve as the fuel for the brainstorming process, though you appear to be able to send messages at some stages if you have questions. 

Also, there'd be no real impetus to come up with something innovative. My ally on the facebook thread put it well, "Most of the designs you'll receive tend to be of very poor quality and lack originality, often produced by designers who take a shotgun approach to pumping out repetitive, formulaic designs that don't match the creativity and originality you'll more likely find with a professional designer." The goal of participants is not to win a design award from peers or come up with something groundbreaking. The goal is to win payment. And that prize is awarded by someone who is themselves an amateur and not necessarily educated enough to have an eye for it. Nor can you take the time to build a client-artist relationship over the phone or in person and explain why design A is a great way to stand out but design B is hackneyed already and will look similar to every other book in the discount section. I worked at a book publisher for about a decade, and I heard stories of authors hating their book cover at first--yet the design went on to win awards, take top billing on catalogs, sell a boatload of books, and be emulated by other book designs a year later. The marketing and design departments were firmly in charge of book covers, that was stated in the contract. And the reason was pretty obvious: the author would fuck it up. Some authors preemptively sent in sketches or suggestions, and while some were okay many were laughable. A couple were passed around and, indeed, laughed at. But in the end, a good design team would save the book from bad ideas and make the author look good. In a crowdsourced model, that wouldn't happen. There's no talking a client out of a lousy idea; just make that lousy idea happen and hope you get picked. Again, I'm just extrapolating how I would go about making money on these types of sites . . . I would feel pressure to cater my entries to what an amateur eye would see as "professional." Make entries look like typical book designs on the market right now. Do not take risks. Go with templates and copycat work. Pretty much the opposite of innovation.

Okay, to add some neat visuals to this blog post, I took a look at another 99Designs project, and I SWEAR I didn't spend time looking up the worst one there. This was random--the first one I clicked on in their completed projects section. For a prize/payment of $399, a film company was asking designers to create an original movie poster for a completed feature film titled "God of Thunder." They provided links to stills of this highly original piece of cinema for reference. Twenty-five designers took the bait and came up with a total of 76 designs to choose from. Here's a handful (the winner is at the top).

That's right. In case you missed it, or just can't take your eyes off that last submission, someone just up and submitted a poorly photoshopped version of the Thor movie poster. It was among the "eliminated" entries, and it wasn't the only copied & pasted Thor poster sitting in that section. But gotta give props to the winning artist--it's not a bad job, and though clearly derivative of one of the Thor posters, to be fair the movie itself is clearly derivative of the Thor movie. I'm guessing this is an overseas copycat film, produced on a shoestring budget with B-actors and just skirting copyright enough to slide by. I've heard of those . . . and it doesn't exactly speak well of the client list that 99Designs caters to. 

What about my old classmate's book? Sorry, no pics because I'm trying to keep the author incognito--but I will say that, to my eye, the winning book cover looked pretty good. Standard, and in line with other books on the market now. However, I am not a book designer.
As part of the obligatory showing-off that must take place on
a blog, I present to you the book covers Rob & I did for
the Johns Hopkins University Press a few years ago.
A few years back, Robert and I produced two illustrations that were used as book covers, but these drawings were placed in the deft hands of skilled, experienced designers who incorporated their knowledge of book design trends, composition, materials, textures, and available inks to really knock it out of the park. I doubt any of the jpgs submitted to 99Designs came with specs for the printer to use a particular paper, metallic ink, or spot-gloss.

How can we bridge the gap here and "fix" the crowd source model? Can it be fixed? Should it be? Technology isn't going away. People aren't going to magically start wanting what they perceive as "less bang for the buck." If an online way to get free ideas exists, people will use it. And there will never be a shortage of folks willing to work for free. Tom Sawyer today would find plenty of suckers to paint his fence for him--for exposure! But if a few tweaks can be made, and if other models can be popularized, maybe in time the landscape will in fact be ripe for innovation, fair trade practices, and good client-artist relations. What can we do?

Kill the Contest Model

This is the model most reviled (and rightly so) by art activists like Steve Silver. A huge company or successful band puts out a call for entries and offers a chance to design the new T-shirt/album/commercial print ad, etc, and win some sort of prize or a chance at that elusive holy grail: "exposure." A few lines of legalese explain that all entries, even the ones that don't win, become the sole property of the sponsor of the contest, and they immediately own the rights to all the ideas, even if they decide not to award the prize. That's about it, basically they ask the world to give them ideas and art for free, and the world does. Mr. Silver has shamed a few companies putting on these types of campaigns, and he has used his popular blog and Facebook page to rally other professionals to flood these contests with bogus (laughably awful) entries or skew voting if the contest is based on popularity. It must have been embarrassing for contest site Talenthouse when one of the most popular designs in the contest they ran for Linkin Park ended up being a scribbly caricature of the band with the words "Linkin Park: Give us your ideas and we'll give you shit!" Indeed, Mr. Silver did receive a response and got to air his grievances with a representative of the company. Whether such guerilla tactics will work in the long run has yet to be seen, but when applied surgically I think they can make a difference. There is a place for such contests: who doesn't enjoy seeing a band's "biggest fan" being crowned based on a quirky video they made showcasing their collection? Contests like that are fun, and they are clearly aimed at an amateur crowd. If a large, successful company simply wants to avoid paying a professional designer for a job that requires one? Well, that's just shitty. And why stop there? Hold a contest to see who will landscape the record company's offices the best, and give the winning landscaper "exposure" or some free swag. Don't pay an accounting department, just open it up to math students as a contest and hope they get your company's taxes done right in exchange for some free T-shirts. Sound ridiculously cheap and even dangerous to a company's reputation? Hopefully design contests like this will indeed be seen as tarnishing a company's reputation. Follow Steve Silver's lead and do what you can to help kill them off.

Support Models You Want to Survive
There are other art-farming sites out there, in fact there are a truckload of them. The ones that become popular will survive, the ones that get ignored will disappear. I have only spent a short time browsing and discovered a few. Likely there will be others popping up next week. Freelancer.com looks very similar to 99Designs.com, but in addition to the contest model it looks like they try to also offer a service to connect clients with professionals who hire out at set hourly rates. Freelancer also includes professions such as writing, editing, translating, and marketing. The very similarly-named Freelanced.com offers itself up as a social networking hybrid site, where you can follow other freelancers, post your portfolio and bio, and choose different projects to bid on. The projects there seem to vary wildly, from clients that sound like 13-year-olds ("Design my fantasy book cover, featuring a knight killing a dragon, for $25") to clients that sound rather professional, offering a few thousand dollars for graphic novel work. But at least none of the projects are set up as a crowdsourced contest asking for free spec work. Check out all the sites out there offering professional-to-client service models. Sign up for ones you like, and weed out the ones that are exploitative. In fact, complain to the ones who are exploitative and give them suggestions on how they must change before professionals like you will take them seriously. If you get snarky "we-care-nothing-about-you-unless-you-work-for-free" replies from their management, spread that message far and wide on social media.   

Demand Client-Artist Relationships over Anonymity

Sites that do not list their artists by name and portfolio are no place to build a reputation. The age of meeting every client over coffee and shaking hands before accepting a project are long gone--but if a third-party website wants to reduce you to a short nickname or a number, that's a good hint on how you'll be treated. You know that homeless cleaning off windshields downtown? . . . Well that guy has a business advantage over you if you put your trust in anonymous design-farming sites. That homeless guy looks every one of his potential clients in the eye. It's human contact that reminds someone that another person is providing a service. Call it guilt-tripping if you want, but the guy gets paid in large part because of eye contact. There is no human contact in down-voting dozens of anonymous numbered entries. Look for personal touches in any artist-to-client model: a place to put a photo of yourself, a short bio, a list of prior satisfied clients and the work you have done. It makes you a real human being, one that is doing real work. We are actually at a disadvantage in that our work can be done silently, away from the client. I doubt anyone would be comfortable with a crowdsourced chef service: can you imagine having a chef come to your home, spend an hour cooking a meal, then, after one bite, telling that professional "This is nice but I think I'll pass--there are a dozen other cooks I've called and the next one will be here shortly. One of them will get paid." No, that would be unthinkable, right?! But if it's an anonymous click of a mouse, who cares? 

Educate Colleagues and Clients 

Really, I guess I'm trying to do that now, with this blog post. Just like I and that other Facebook commenter were trying to do that by commenting on a politician's Facebook page. These sites rely on getting business from those seeking "innovative" art AND on a steady stream of young artists and designers willing to do work they likely won't get paid for. It seems a zero-sum game that might resolve itself over time: any artists who get proficient, develop a strong portfolio, and start to value their time will naturally fall away from crowdsourced models. This will take a toll on the quality of work clients can expect from such sites (which already seems rife with some lackluster material--e.g., some of those God of Thunder images above). I believe that helping this process along is worth doing. Warn students and hobbyists you know that such sites might seem fun to try out, but participants are simply giving away time, skill, and ideas. Redirect them to sites that better approximate a fair client-professional relationship. Clients will feel justified that they get to choose the "best" work available on such a model, but they, too, should be warned that they will be skimming the cream off a vat that has already been thoroughly skimmed.

If You Still Want to Work for Free, Do It Selectively

If you really want to do some free work and feel like you're at a point where you could use the practice and experience, do it! BUT . . . there isn't any need for you to offer your services to clients on freelance models that are exploitative in their nature. Even if you are fine being exploited, by contributing to these sites you help them survive and exploit others. Instead, why not produce some fine fan art honoring your favorite show or movie, then post it on DeviantArt and get some geek love from other fans. Or offer your time and talents to help design something for a local charity. Get connected via Facebook or other social media with causes that you believe in, and tell them you are willing to donate your services. Not only will you get real exposure and appreciation this way, but you will be doing real, meaningful work that helps people who really need it. That feels way better than trying to "win" payment from a client that sought out crowdsourced art.

Want to read more on spec work and why artists should be paid for it? The American Institute of Graphic Arts has a great position letter about that topic here. Also, it's a great place to send clients who are insisting that you work for free. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Caricaturing by Lantern in a Blackout . . . on a Mountain!

I worked a very interesting wedding gig yesterday. It was a bit of a drive up Mt. Charleston to the popular Mt. Charleston Lodge, where the couple had planned a rustic wedding reception in the chilly mountain air. I've worked up there before, but little did I know this would be a first for me. Here's the view during the daytime at the lodge . . .

Pretty, right? Well the sun was going down as I drove up the mountain, as I was booked for 6-8pm and was part of the evening entertainment. Everything was going well, the DJ was playing hits and folks were dancing, while I drew busily in a corner off the dance floor, when POP . . . the lights flickered a bit and then went out completely. The music went silent. Someone screamed, and the room was filled with that weird energy you feel when you're part of a semi-emergency in an unfamiliar place.

I was almost done with a double, so I whipped out my cell phone and tried to get some light from it to see my model and then see my paper. That didn't work well. But soon enough the management from the lodge had some battery-operated lanterns placed around the dining area and those lit it up the area passably.

Just passably! The guests were now firmly on my side, ready to help me out, and moved the lanterns back and forth to try and find the best configuration so I could see properly but not get blinded. The crowd just formed a little horseshoe behind me and watched me draw, like the olden days I guess. The cake was brought out and shots were passed around. And guests seemed pretty upbeat about the whole thing. One relative remarked that it was the deceased grandparents' way of attending the wedding and pulling a prank. The bride said that she knew no one would forget her wedding now (she described herself as the opposite of a "bridezilla," and she certainly seemed to be down-to-earth). Both the bride and groom had worked in the service industry--they said they met while working at a sandwich shop--and I swear, that just makes for nice people. Once you have to deal with the public, you get a whole lot more understanding about stuff in general. There's only so much human beings have control over, and once you work in customer service, you realize that.

The staff came out and alerted everyone that power was out on the whole mountain, and they said this happens quite a lot. Just a hazard of working on the mountain. Unfortunately, they also said it would probably be off all night. So, no lights and no more DJ music. The father of the bride didn't get his father-daughter dance, and I felt bad for the guy. Though the bride and groom were taking the sudden interruption of their celebration like champs, they did chafe a bit at the fact that the venue hadn't mentioned the whole frequent-long-lasting-blackouts thing to them when they booked their reception. Yeah, that would have been nice to disclose.

Well, I kept on drawing and was now the only entertainment . . . I ended up drawing everyone there, and folks were so nice and having fun with the whole situation. I noticed everyone's pupils were so large when one draws in the dark, and the couple I was drawing said "Nah, we're just coked out of our minds" and giggled. The bride thanked me for being okay with the circumstances, and I assured her it was my job to make them happy, not their job to make me happy. You gotta roll with the punches. I was just sad I no longer carried a battery-operated lantern in my trunk! I used to! But the lodge had them aplenty, at least. The bride hugged me, said it meant a lot to her that I was undaunted, and added "I saw you trying to draw off the light from your phone! That's dedication!" She sent me off with my payment, plus a little extra, PLUS some cool wedding table gifts they had extras of. An autumn-leaf wine topper and two little scented soaps. Adorable.
Leaving was a little scary . . . mountain dark is definitely different than city dark. No light pollution, just dark sky and dark ground. I had to use my cell phone to guide me through the hallway out and then the small parking lot to my car. On the hour-long drive back down to Vegas, I was so glad to have powerful headlights! And I'm going to start bringing that battery-operated light I own, as a backup for my corded lights, juuuuust in case.