One way to run your art department

by Jon Hodgson

About the author: I'm Jon Hodgson, a UK freelance artist. I work primarily for Games Workshop on their Warhammer Historical line, and I do stuff for Wizards on D&D. But also I try to keep my hand in with the indies - I did a bunch of stuff for Dust Devils, and I've recently done a cover for Ron Edwards' Spione project. I live in Falkirk.

Thought I'd put hands to keyboard to write a piece about one possible way to run the basic processes in your art department. And even if you're just one guy I still think it can pay to think about an art department - those moments when you have the Art Director's hat on. What I'm laying out here isn't meant to be definitive by any manner or means. Its just how I most often work with a wide variety of companies both large and small, in and outside of gaming.

First catch your artists

This piece assumes you're working with some kind of art budget, and are looking to hire freelance artists. We're all clever chaps and chappesses, so its not too hard to work out which steps to skip if you're working with a friend or for barter or whatever.

So finding artists. Two very common approaches - surf the net looking for artists, find some you like and email them an enquiry as to their availability and rates. This is a very normal thing for an illustrator to receive, so have no fear in sending a simple enquiry. Speaking as someone who gets a fair few such enquiries I urge honesty as the best policy. If you're a neophyte it will show, so don't pretend to be anything else. Too much guessed-at technical talk, or guff about your "organisation" or "corporation" is laughable, but amazingly people do it. Hey ho. I much prefer a very plain enquiry something like this:

*Hi (insert their name out of politeness), My name is (insert your real name - again with the manners) and I'm an independent publisher looking to hire an artist for my project, (insert project name). I am looking for (insert what you require - eg: cover art, internal illustrations in black and white, line art, maps etc) and I think your work would suit our needs. I wonder if you could let me know about your rates and availability in the coming months? We would be looking at a provisional deadline of (insert well padded deadline).

Thanks for your time and keep up the good work, (Your name)*

Formal enough to be taken seriously, not off-puttingly officious. From this point in you are building a relationship with the artist, so it pays to start as you would like to go on.

A common alternative is to post an "open call" at sites like, Enworld, The Forge,,, The advantage with this is it lets the artists do the running, and you can set out your stall to answer a lot of questions from the get go. Similar advice here too - be open, honest and don't build your part up beyond what it entails. People out there aren't stupid and you will (quite rightly) be asked questions about the gig. Sadly entering the public arena in this way will almost always attract some kind of negative attention. That's the net for you. Rightly or wrongly freelancers are often edgy folks given the way we are often treated, so be careful with your wording. You might not realise you are doing the same thing that 27483748932478237 other publishers did before you - offering "exposure" as payment, making promises and claims about your game's inevitable success, promising future work that doesn't actually exist yet, using Forge lingo outside of the Forge. Probably the biggest sin in the eyes of the jobbing freelancer is where you as the publisher are actually looking for a favour, but present it in a way which spins it to appear as if the freelancers are the one receiving a favour. Its a silly thing to do and you will be called on it. Its worth bearing in mind that commercially viable art skills are a highly salable commodity and in demand. A great many people mistake the popularity of art forums for a huge market full of artists. Whilst there are vast numbers of wannabes, you're looking for someone you can work with, who can work to a deadline, take direction, understand your needs and work to your budget. And hey, who might even be relatively skilled. That whittles the market right down very fast.

That's a very brief run down on that initial process, and I could write a whole other article on successful open calls and approaches. Which I may well do at a later date.

So how many artists should you use? A simple rule of thumb is that one artist gives you a consistent look, and only one person to manage. If it works it's great. If they are a flake it leaves you in a the poop. Multiple artists can insulate you to some degree against individual flake outs, personality clashes, missed deadlines and all that horrid stuff. If you have a little stable of people you can more easily recover from problems than with one person. However if you find the right person then there's not much finer than that close creative partnership.

Step 2 - contracts

The next most likely step would be to sort out getting some contracts signed. I read a huge amount of guff about this on the net. Here's what's important - a written agreement between two parties that clearly sets out what is being exchanged, the time frame, and what both parties expect from each other, and what you agree to do if it all goes South. It is particularly important to get a signed contract if you want to own the copyright to the work. You can write your own contracts. The sums of money are generally so small that who is realistically going to sue in gaming? And who really thinks a contract means much in terms of protecting you? Its a nice idea but I can say every time I've been properly ripped off I had a signed contract. Sadly it doesn't mean all that much when the other party has done a runner, or just shut the company.

So the point of the contract is to both agree the terms, and both accept the other's expectations. Very important.

So what rights do you need? A lawyer will tell you to get all rights, and use work for hire. Its worth taking the time to consider what you specifically want to do with the artwork. If you want to put it on lunchboxes, T shirts, make miniatures from it, basically reuse it and own it for as long as copyright allows then using what's called "Work For Hire" or "All Rights" may be for you. Its very common in gaming, unlike almost every other publishing field, and total overkill for most publishers. Sure, Games Workshop make a lot of different products, and are building a commercial IP. Makes sense for them to own everything lockstock, and they pay for the privilege. Sometimes licensed products require that kind of rights grab. Fair enough. But if you just want a picture for the front of one book and its reprints then negotiate on that basis. First rights with 6 months exclusivity might well be enough, and you could potentially save a lot of money. Also with letting your artist keep their copyright can work for you - they have a stake in making the piece resalable. And heck, you just look like a nice guy, and nice guys get better deals.

As part of the contract you'll be setting a deadline. Do not under any circumstances give your freelance artists the day before you go to print as your deadline. Pad it right out as far as you can. This is a no brainer to protect both parties. Freelancers do flake out at a distressing degree. Equally though people do have accidents and personal difficulties. Heck last year I went through a very difficult time personally, and a number of my clients earned my undying loyalty and respect for how generous they were about deadlines. That's money in the bank for them, you know? Smart move. As well as showing they laid their plans to allow them to be nice people.

Now what's a reasonable turn around on artwork? Well the thing is, a busy artist like myself can turn around a cover in a couple of days if I have to. But my schedule is booked a couple of months in advance. And really if possible you want to be working with prolific successful people, rather than gigless wasters sitting on their hands. So the time it physically takes to make a given piece is only one factor. Its hard to generalise, but a month is a good lead time for most jobs. Allows your freelancer time to do a good job, to think about what they are producing as well as fit your work around other gigs. Keeps everyone happy.

Step 3: The Brief There are no set rules about this, and art directors and artists all like different things from a brief. My best advice is to talk to your artists about what suits both them and you. You can range in style from simply passing them the text and asking for X number of illos per section. Or you can write detailed descriptions of the illustrations as you imagine them. Alternatively offer a list of single line suggestions or topics to illustrate. Or just chat it through.

Overwriting your briefs can be counter productive - you might think you're ensuring you get exactly what you are imagining, but you can fall into what I call "rentapen" territory. ADs who say "If only I could draw myself I wouldn't need you". That's not really the best way to form a creative partnership. Letting artists have their head a little can really pay off. Other times you may find artists really wanting strong direction in order to make you happy.

For me its good to remember the level you are all working at - both publisher and artist. In the smaller presses and indie realm you don't need to be overly grave or officious about the whole process. Enjoy it! No need to apologise if you have no art directing experience either - everyone starts somewhere, and I'd take open and honest over experienced every day of the week.

At this stage I would really encourage your artists to ask questions, have strong lines of communication and don't regard any question as stupid. You want your artists to like you and want to perform well for you.

Step 4- thumbnails

Not everyone does this, but I certainly have found it a useful process. Certainly for covers, and more elaborate internal pieces its worth getting a few thumbnail sketches for approval. These are lightning fast loose sketches which just show the placing of the main elements. They can be accompanied by notes. Don't sweat the details at this stage - its just very rough ideas. Its a time saving way to just make sure you are both on the same page, kick around a few ideas without too much investment of effort. Pick the one you like, feel free to make suggestions, and give your approval. Bear in mind once something is "approved" that's final in most artists' minds. You can't give an approval on a sketch and then change your mind without giving cause for major upset.

Step 5 - tight sketch

Now you're ready to receive a tighter sketch. Artists vary wildly in how tightly they sketch, Some work to a comic book principle and use this stage as "pencils" which show everything in detail, exactly as it will appear in the final image. Others (particularly painterly folks like myself) can provide less detailed stuff, but which still shows the main gist of what will be where and give you a good idea of what you are getting. There's a line here somewhere between killing the energy of the final piece with too much tweaking of sketches, and making sure you get what you want. A couple of changes at this stage are entirely normal and shouldn't be a big problem. Since you will have already approved the basic ideas in the thumbnail stage its not a good idea to throw in major revisions to the brief now. In fact its a no-no. When you are happy give your approval (sometimes called "signing off") and await your final art.

Step 6 - final approval

So hopefully some time before your deadline you should receive a proof of the final art. It ok again to ask for minor tweaks at this stage, but not huge shifts in the brief. Again there's a balance between minor improvements and revisions, and driving your talent to despair with huge lists of seemingly micromanaged changes. Eventually an artist will just stop caring about the piece if too tightly art directed. You see that happen from the bottom of the industry to the top. If you're paying very low, then people will just walk away from the gig if hassled too much. Even if you're paying top dollar there comes a point where the hourly rate falls below minimum wage and its just not working. Its always best to do everything you can to avoid that situation with clear approvals at earlier stages.

Step 7 - delivery

There are a few ways to take delivery of your finished artwork. Via email if its small enough. On disk via the mail. Or over FTP. FTP is my favourite since its quick, easy, risk free and pretty much costless. Sites like can help with that. Remember to add in delivery time for the art into your schedule.

And that should be that. One way of doing things. There are plenty of different ways of going about this, but what I've outlined above is the one I most commonly encounter, and what I would dare to call "standard practice". Its fine to deviate from that, but be aware that something like the above is what most artists will be expecting.

Now I haven't figured in payment schedules into this process. There are a great many approaches to this, and its probably a topic for its own thread.

Hope there's some useful info in all that. Cheers!

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