I came to the realization many years ago that I lack the talent and perseverance to ever draw comic art professionally. I also lack interest in acquiring the original art for pieces which have seen publication, because why buy the cow when the milk is in a polybag, or something like that? Finally, as best as I can tell, if I ever want to see characters from the world of Martian Manhunter comics other than J'Onn J'Onzz himself interpreted by different artists, I will have to pay for them myself. However, before March of last year, I had never commissioned a piece of art in my life, and had to learn on the ground at my largest local convention last year. I made my share of mistakes, some of which I am still paying for, and feel I made a much better effort this year. However, I'm still learning, and I thought I'd help others by teaching from my own experiences.
- Go Early. Ish. I've heard of folks who treat conventions like a rock concert, waiting in line to get first dibs on a commission list. Well, some comic artists think they're rock stars, and your tolerance for those types of shenanigans are probably higher than mine. For instance, I held up getting some prospective commissions because I had a specific poor man's J. Scott Campbell in mind, and wanted to see his rates. Unfortunately, the guy didn't show up until over four hours after the doors opened, and was charging more for a head shot than most artists were for a full figure plus background. I never saw anyone at his table, so he seemed to be game most of the con, and I do know of one guy who got a really nice piece by him. Point being, unless you're a hardcore fanboy, you don't have to kill yourself for a commission.
- Order Early. Some artists can turn out an awesome piece right in front of you within fifteen minutes. Those guys are not common, and they're not always easy to get access to. I had one major name artist do a piece for me with 15-30 minutes of actual work, but it took four hours for him to get started on it because of other commissions. Other artists will actually spend an hour or two on your job, through complex design, intricate detail, and sometimes just plain killing time in between gigs while giving you extra attention. However it breaks down, make sure you're prepared to allot at least three hours for any given piece, and likely more. This is especially true if the artist tells you it will take three hours, because so far, Marat Mychaels is the only guy who has come in under his quoted time. Artists are notoriously "optimistic" about making deadlines.
- Consider Going on "Off" Days. My local con was held over the Memorial Day weekend, and the city is trying to get the convention organizers to keep that date next year. Apparently, Friday was horrible for business, so there was probably plenty of potential for access to artists (not to mention haggling with dealers.) I went on Sunday, so I got free parking and a reduced ticket price. The downside to that is I missed one artist who was Saturday only, and another who blew off the rest of the show after that lousy Friday. Weigh your own pros and cons. Be sure to get permission first, and negotiate a rate before producing a scale.
- Do Not Let A Commission Become Homework. If you get a weekend pass, it isn't a big deal to order a commission on Friday and pick it up the next day. On the other hand, I'd be very cautious about letting that same commission carry over to Sunday, especially if you were told it would be done on Saturday. If you give an artist a foot, they will often take a mile. Also, their eyes are often bigger than their stomachs. You need to figure out how much time you're willing to give the artist to get their work done, and hold them to it or walk away.
- Never Offer To Pay Up Front The actual exchange of monies is an uncomfortable issue. Some artists do not want anything from you until they are done, because that places them under no obligation. These guys tend to be the ones who will give you the most bang for your buck, not only because they don't have your money yet, but also because they were conscientious about pleasing themselves and their patrons. Artists who want money up front are much more common, and because their first priority is to get paid, their quality isn't as consistent. That doesn't mean you won't get a spectacular commission, and with some artists you won't get any at all without upfront payment, but let them be the ones who bring it up. Some won't, and that gives you hand.
- Beware of "Favors." I paid an artist $100 up front for a single figure piece late on Saturday, and was told it wouldn't be ready that night. I couldn't come back for it on Sunday, so I gave the artist my mailing address. The artist had already volunteered without any suggestion from myself to do a second figure essentially for free, and he would even ship the finished art to me at no charge. Sounds too good to be true? That was fourteen months ago, and after agreeing to have the piece ready for me to pick up at the following year's convention, he "forgot" it. I was told it would be in the mail on Monday. Meanwhile, I'm saving my emails and wondering how long to wait before contacting someone about fraud charges and/or seeing if Rich Johnston would be interested in an article. See also: Lessons 4 & 5.
- Remember the Project Triangle Good. Fast. Cheap. You can reasonably expect two of the three, and will often face receiving only one of the three, but hat-tricks are longshots.
- Better the Devil You Know. You've contracted for a piece of art, and been pleased with the result. This will not always be the case. The artist that delivers has earned your trust. Take advantage of that reliability. I paid twice as much for a piece from the same artist a year apart, but didn't mind, because I feel I underpaid the first time and was happy with the results on the second.
- Do Your Research. There may be great artists at the show that you'll miss out on if you don't take the time to look up their art online. Alternately, there are some otherwise great artists who do mediocre to terrible convention pieces. Figuring out who you want in advance saves time, money, and disappointment. Comic Art Fans is a swell place to see what artists actually produce at a con, as opposed to cherry-picking their best work for presentation.
- Money Does Not Equal Quality. I paid $100 for a piece of art that is not in my possession and in all likelihood has not been created in the past fourteen months. I paid $25 for a head shot from a guy who recalls Geoff Darrow and Frank Quitely. I am consistently amazed by getting excellent work for chump change and saddened to pay a premium for crap. See lessons 8 & 9.
- Don't Be Afraid To "Lean" On An Artist. A.K.A. time does not equal quality. For instance, I ordered a commission sometime between noon and one. There were other pieces ahead of mine, include at least one due by two. I had a lot of pieces getting juggled, so I didn't apply any pressure. I came back at 2:30 to check on his layout as we'd agreed at his suggestion, but he hadn't started yet. Same for 3:30. At five, he finally did the layout, which I watched him finish at his request. Giving my approval, I left for another hour. When I came back, all that he'd down was trace his blue lines in black pencil and throw down a chicken scratch "background." I saw that 2 o'clock piece, and it was better than mine. The piece was not up to the standards of his displayed work by far, and wasn't even comparable to a piece completed by his tablemate hours earlier for $20 less. Customers were being escorted out of the area by security, because these guys were in the dealer's section instead of artists' alley, so I didn't have the time or energy to argue. Next time, I make demands or dismiss outright. Fortune favors the firm.
- Bring Reference. This would seem obvious if you're asking for a Bel Juz commission, but seriously, artists cannot recall every detail of Batman's costume from memory, and that's before getting into the issue of which Batman costume. I saw an artist using one of those big hardcover DC Encyclopedias, and single issue comics work too. Personally, I take printed out color full body scans to maximize my options.
- Hire a "Sitter." My first year, I was getting pieces all willy-nilly and having to fret over each one I collected as I bounced around (or at one point, bellyflopped going up the down escalator) the convention. How comfortable would you be propping an Ethan Van Sciver original on a urinal side wall? Instead of rushing back to get your finished piece, just let the artists watch your babies until you're ready to pick them all up and mind them yourself. Also, do bring something to protect the art once you collect it. I use a treasury size polybag, myself.
- Be Enthusiastic. Comic books are a lonely profession, so artists respond to positive reinforcement. If you're excited to get a piece, that enthusiasm can be infectious, and often leads to getting better work done.
- You Cannot "Flip" Martian Manhunter Artwork. The good side of that is that artists know you're looking for work for your personal pleasure, driven by admiration for their efforts, and not as a mercenary pursuit. Otherwise, you'd get Wolverine or Spider-Man or something. On the other hand, please don't hesitate to make me an offer on any past or soon-to-come commissions on this Martian Manhunter blog, because I do not love my children equally, and may be sorely tempted to put a red-headed stepchild up for adoption. ;)
I hope this article is helpful to others in their pursuit of comic art, and I'm also happy to have the opportunity to vent some shade about some of my less that thrilling encounters without attaching names that could get me into any hot water.