Last fall, I was approached by the creative director at Rize, a leading developer of residential and commercial properties, about creating a series of posters based on their top projects. Each image in the series would highlight something unique about the architecture of a respective project. Based on the brief alone, I felt very unsure that I was going to be the right guy for the job.
This is the second instalment of a series of reviews of my favourite illustration agencies. More information about what makes for a great agency can be found in the first post in this series.
While not strictly New York based (they have Tokyo and UK bases too), Dutch Uncle has an address in the Big Apple, and they represent a number of artists based in the city and its boroughs.
And what talented artists they have! Dutch Uncle is almost the perfect agency, with a goldilocks roster (not too big, not too small) — which includes seventeen illustrators at the moment. The agency aims high too, boasting super star illustrators like Ping Zhu, Noma Bar and Satoshi Hashimoto. While technically not an illustrator, they have BC-based graphic genius Marian Bantjes on their artist roster as well.
One of the most remarkable things about DU is their support for their artists beyond bringing them and managing paid work by "encouraging and supporting their personal development and projects", in addition to helping "coordinate and produce their fine art projects including exhibitions, products and publications.". This may explain the maturity exuded by their roster — these are illustrators who've been around the block a few times and are clearly involved in pursuing more personal, less commercial work. For me, this kind of relationship, where the agency and artist work together to hone and develop their body of work, is an ideal to be pursued at mid- to- late stages of an artist's career.
On the branding and experiential sides, Dutch Uncle comes out on top. Their brand is cohesive, premium, and evokes a sense of restrained cool. Their website is at once no-nonsense and unpretentious. It is super minimal but somehow does not feel vacant or under-designed. It's the perfect crystal goblet through which the talent can sparkle, shine and effervesce. Of course, a nice looking website is nothing if it is unhelpful or misses the main task of giving clients access and insight to their talent and culture. Dutch Uncle has just about the best artist profile design that I have seen. Artists are represented variously by professional portraits or thumbnails. I like that they put the artists themselves forward, beyond their work. It seems like a risky move, but it actually speaks to the calibre of the people the represent. They're not selling twirly doodles for drug store greeting cards — they're selling the best minds and hands in the creative industry.
Clicking into an artist thumbnail from their Roster page takes you to the artist landing page, which large, eye-catching portraits and work images in a carousel, and a synopsis below. Further thumbnails allow you to click into either their rather extensive full bio page or their portfolio. In the latter, work images are shown large, and without superfluous doodads, in an overlaid window box. The only small thing I could pick at is that the image file names are displayed, in a sort of default, clumsy and clearly unintentional look. There must be a setting in their Squarespace panel to hide that or title the images more elegantly.
Their client list has all the usual suspects. As I've written before, the client list of an agency means less to me than the artist list and other experiential and branding factors, since most of the big companies make their rounds to most known agencies. If you've been around a few years, you'll have worked with Coca-Cola and Google and Nike and Adidas, etc.
Their Instagram is nicely curated but has a surprisingly modest follower count, given the calibre of everything and everyone else in their arsenal. I suppose 6.8k followers is commensurate to how often they post, which is about once a week as far as I could tell by a quick scan. They may have been late to the Instagram game, or perhaps they are focusing on building their actual artist's careers rather than garnering likes on social media.
While animation for me (and the entire agency world) falls on the sidelines, I'm impressed to see DU has a specific page on their site showcasing motion work by their illustrators. For over a decade the realms of motion and illustration have become more blurred together, and there is no sign of this trend going away. DU is clearly keeping up with the times, working with mutli-disciplinary illustrators and leading the industry with relevant services and content.
My Final Verdict
Dutch Uncle is possibly the most desirable agency to work for as an illustrator. With a philosophy of developing artists's careers and art practices, they put it into practice by putting their artists and work first (in that order, too). It's rare that an agency acknowledges the life blood of their business in such a selfless way. More than anything, I see that DU values relationships — relationships between them and their artists, but more remarkably, between their clients and the artists. It seems gutsy for an agency to promote their talent by showing a photo of the artists before the work, but then again, it's a huge vote of confidence in just who they're dealing with.
This is my first instalment of what I hope will be a series of reviews of my favourite illustration agencies. At first, I was going to write an exhaustive list of my favourite New York reps in one single post, but it quickly became apparent that this would take forever to both write and read. Instead, I will post one agency at a time, and will for now focus on reps in New York. Why NYC? Because it is indisputably the global centre of the illustration industry.
Of course, every review must have its criteria. I am hardly an expert critic on anything, but as a represented, full time illustrator, I do have my own opinions of what makes as good agency. For instance, an agency should have strong branding and a clear focus in its portfolio. I tend to favour agencies that have a few high quality artists over the ones that have dozens or even hundreds of pretty good ones. I am less impressed by the quality of individual artists than I am of the overall presentation of the set. But of course, who they represent is every bit important: I'm looking for at least one or two recognizable names, and I give extra bonus points for industry superstars (although not all reps with superstar names meet my other criteria). Good agencies of course show the work of their artists well and give each illustrator a proper bio and profile page. Another mark of a great agency is their demonstration of stylistic and technological freshness: their talent is current and creating good, time-friendly work, and their online experience is up to date. In 2017/18, We can't overlook social media influence either, particularly on Instagram. I'm looking at the follower count, which is an indicator of reach and influence. I'm also looking at the feed itself, particularly how it is curated. Finally, you may be surprised to learn that clients are less important to me than these other things. Most agencies can boast a handful of the big ones — Nike, Google, Penguin, The New York Times, etc. — if they've been around long enough. For me, the most stand-out agencies are the ones who are not just saying they're different, but actually are.
These are my personal criteria for what makes an admirable illustration agency. As I do not count myself an expert critic, I would caution you to take all my comments with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, I do not know how these agencies operate from the inside, nor do I know how well they are doing as businesses. The agencies that impress me most do so for the above reasons, and that's that. Furthermore, it should be acknowledged I myself have a New York-based rep. To make sure I am not showing any bias, I have left them off the table for consideration.
Bernstein and Andriulli
Bernstein & Andriulli is a premiere creative management agency with hands in all the pots: photography, illustrators, cgi, motion, beauty, fashion, and even influence marketing. But don't let their "one stop shop" appearance fool you: they boast an impressive talent roster, including pop art legend Sir Peter Blake, who created the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" sleeve. Among others, they also have the whimsical Nomoco (a personal favourite) and Toronto's own Polyester Studio.
What impresses me about B&A is their strong branding, which is sophisticated and premium, alongside a well designed web experience, which makes finding and viewing individual artists a pleasure. While there are many other reps in New York with similarly diverse and choc-full rosters, B&A do a very good job presenting the work in a way that feels cohesive and well-curated. It helps that their logo and overall branding is straightforward and elegant. Even their international-sounding name pleasantly lands on the tongue.
With an Instagram following in the tens of thousands, it's easy to assume that Bernstein & Andriulli are doing something right. And yes, their feed is delectable. It strikes a great balance in terms of showing work from its many disciplines, and demonstrates an expert curator's skill.
If I have any critique of B&A, it's fairly practical: for all the ease of use in finding artists on their website, finding information about the agency itself is less accessible. They don't have an About section on their page: I had to go to LinkedIn to find their agency statement. Their client list is similarly hard to determine, although specific clients are listed in individual artist bios.
My Final Verdict
Bernstein & Andriulli stand out as the top New York agency in my mind, with a good mix of legendary and fresh talent, a great online experience, high audience engagement, and a clear dedication to keeping with the times. They seem to elevate their artists and their work above any specific merits of their own, as an agency, which is refreshing in this industry. And this is the mark of a confident agency that knows what makes it most valuable — the work and the illustrators who make it.
There are no guarantees and no single path to becoming a full-time freelance illustrator, but there are definite things you can do to bolster your chances. Here are 10 things that worked for me, which I believe apply to all of us.
1. Live in a big city, at least when starting out.
Generally speaking, there are more and better opportunities in larger centres. You have access to museums and galleries, and the quality of work you'll find is likely to be higher simply due to the larger funding larger cities enjoy. And this extends to almost everything you'd need as an illustrator: educational opportunities, the calibre of agencies and studios who will hire you, exposure to good design (in restaurants, coffee shops, public spaces and art, etc.), diversity of people and culture, and so on. By simply walking out your front door, you are immersed in a sea of opportunity, and chances of striking gold increases exponentially with the size and importance of a city.
2. Find your creative community. Reach out to other creatives, especially people with the kinds of jobs you covet.
I'm not saying be a greasy schmoozebag, but it's entirely okay to find out who's making good work and even who has the best jobs, and kindly ask to pick their brains. Most creatives with any level of success are aware of the challenges of "getting there" and are happy to help others up. If someone seems a bit standoffish and hard to talk to, let them brood in their self-importance and don't take it personally — there are plenty others who want to cheer you on.
The most important thing, however, is this: it is relationships, not talent, that takes you far in any industry.
3. Identify work you love, and find out who's making it.
Knowing what you like is a huge clue into who you are, creatively speaking. What kind of work/art/products are you most drawn to? Fantasy? Minimal/designy? More traditional? Skate culture? Vintage kids' books? Whatever excites you to look at, that's the kind of work you're interested in. Your homework is to find out as much as you can about your favourite work starting with who made it. And then find out what else they made, and where they were trained, and see if they wrote anything — and then read it. You get the picture. By finding out the history and circumstances around the things you like, you peel back the mask and find out how the sausage was made. You realize how ideas emerge from things artists are thinking about or their experiences. And you find out who they were influenced by. Work is never made in a vacuum, including yours. Study people are are better and further along than you in their craft and allow yourself to be influenced by them.
4. Start and maintain a daily creative project that you share online.
The only way to get good at making things is by making things. The things you make at first will probably be worse than the things you make down the road. But you've got to start somewhere. And you probably need some structure around what to make, because the hardest thing is to stare at a blank page with no ideas. So here's something that worked for me: while in art school, I started a drawing blog, posting one drawing every day. I have no idea how many people followed me, maybe 20-30. But this audience, or delusion of an audience, motivated me to do something everyday, lest I disappoint. And as I did this every day, I found a style and a voice to work within, and people actually started to comment on it and encourage me to do more. This was an important way for me to gain confidence as a creator and also prove to people who would hire me that I'm active as a creator. This was back in the days before social media. It would have been so much easier to post on Instagram. You're already a few steps ahead of me in that sense.
5. Work first as a designer.
Very few companies are looking to hire full time illustrators. If you have any training as a designer, start there first. Not only will you actually get a job, but you will gain really important experience as the kind of person who will eventually be commissioning your illustrations. I work with art directors all the time, and it is a huge benefit in communicating with them to understand things from their point of view.
In my own experience, designers are far better at presenting their work. They understand that all good ideas must be sold, clients must be persuaded, and all this requires a level of professionalism and a touch of psychology when presenting the work. Illustrators tend to be more chaotic and less strategic. For instance, a designer would never just plop a screen grab of a logo concept into an email. Instead they'd build a nice presentation deck with a title page, a short synopsis statement, and maybe even a thank you at the end.
Needless to say, if you're the designer, you often have the opportunity to determine what kind of photography or illustration ends up being used in your projects. Few employers are going to discourage you from using your own illustration talent to save them from the cost of outsourcing!
6. Make everything about illustration.
Look for every possible way to make illustrations. On the side, up high, down low — illustrate until your friends start to worry about you.
7. Learn classical art/design skills and disciplines.
People often ask me how I came up with my style. That is an almost impossible question for me to answer (because to some extent, I don't know), but I do know that underlying everything is a foundation of classical art skills: colour theory, drawing, principles and elements of design, and typography. Look at any artist in history and you will see that they first had to learn the rules before breaking them.
Learning, practicing and ultimately internalizing formal artistic disciplines first allows you to create more intuitively, i.e. with more style, later on.
8. Be experimental.
One sure way of developing novel techniques and stumbling upon a unique voice is to experiment. Try thousands of things, waste time barking up the wrong trees. Lots of them. Paint badly, use the wrong tools, download and use free fonts, borrow a Wacom tablet for a weekend, rent a DLSR camera, start a YouTube channel. Write a lot. Make messy work without goals. Design fake logos. Along the way, you're going to learn stuff you could not have foreseen, and it's always the surprises that end up taking us higher.
9. Show your work to others.
Be vulnerable. It's the hardest thing to do, even for me, now. But if you want your work to resonate with other people, I'm sorry, but you're going to have to share it with some folks and be open to their feedback. Don't look for affirmation more than you want truth. When you receive hard or even harsh feedback, do this: 1) stay quiet, don't get defensive. 2) Go away and think about it. Is the feedback even a little bit true? Why did that feedback make you feel that way? Be objective as possible, and accept that you make mistakes and aren't right a lot of the time. But then, most importantly, identify how to improve, and try again. Repeat.
10. Emulate your heroes.
We all start by copying our heroes. And some of us continue to do work in the spirit of others who have gone before us. So don't be ashamed of stealing ideas and being a copycat — at first. When we're just starting out, we can emulate others, and this helps us deconstruct how work is made. But along the way, over time, something happens. We start to inject a little bit of ourselves into it, and we give birth to a new style. Over time, only a skeleton of influence is left, and we have something totally new and our own. But we must always remember to give thanks and pay homage to those giants on whose shoulders we stand.
This list is not exhaustive, but it's definitely a start. If you have any tips for starting out, I'd love to hear in the comments!
NEWS: I just completed my second collaboration with Reunion Goods & Services on some wall art a the new Upper East Side location of Quality Eats. Their photographer, Liz Clayman, was kind enough to let me post some of her photos of the interiors. You can see more of the art I did for this location as well as the original East Village one here.
Whether you are working directly with your client or through an art director, how you present your work will significantly influence the final illustration. Whether in sketches or final art, presenting the right thing at the right time — in the right way — can mean the difference between a good concept being rejected and it being fully realized in the finals.
As an illustrator, I rarely find myself on the receiving end of this transaction. But from time to time I get to commission art from fellow illustrators, and I get to see things from the other side of the table. While it's not perfect, I'd like to think I have a pretty effective process for submitting my work to my clients — one that works for both client and artist. Sadly, I wish I could say the same about some of my peers.
Better Presentations Mean Better Work
Ultimately, we all want to make awesome artwork and get paid. We want our clients to be happy. Along the way, the process can be easy or hard, and there's no avoiding some degree of sweat each time. But in order for a project to be profitable, we need to mind our time. We need to engineer our process to require as few revisions (back and forths with the client) as possible. And if we're all honest, we need to be in control of our own process. We don't want the client calling the creative shots, because at a certain point, they will lose trust in our abilities, and we'll lose ownership of the work. It's in the mutual interest of client and illustrator to have a smooth, well-directed process, where everybody gets to operate from their post of authority. Illustrator = authority in making effective images. Art director = authority in defining the visual problem and harnessing the unique skill of the illustrator. Client = authority in their business and brand.
I believe my process achieves the above goals by being professional, clear, and concise. It also has clear, incremental stages and leaves room at each for improvement. For instance, I never show finished-looking art before I've shown sketches, and those sketches have to be approved by the client before moving into finals. It is far easier to make changes to pencils before too much effort is spent in the execution of the final. There is also far more room to surprise and delight art buyers. Earn their trust with a good concept, and then sucker-punch them in the face with an amazing execution.
Never Bypass the Sketch Stage
My process has two stages: sketches and finals. No minds blown here, right? But you'd be surprised how many times, as an art director, illustrators have sent me finals without sketches. While some might argue that they don't do sketches — they jump straight to the computer or canvas — I think it's risky. It's risky because the client may not like the concept, and then what? Do you make little changes to your artwork, bit by bit, hoping to convince them? Or do you have to go back to the drawing board, over and again, until you please the client? This drains you of your creative energy, and it strips you of your creative authority. With each fumbly revision, the client gains more authority over what should be your domain (creativity) and losing trust in you. It's an inconvenience to them that they should have to spend any time doing what they're paying you to do.
Give the Client Options
Just as important as showing rough work before anything too final-looking is presenting options. You'd be surprised at how often I get just one sketch (if I get a sketch at all). For some simpler projects, one sketch will do, but for most projects, I always present two or three sketches per illustration. This demonstrates my understanding of the brief to the client (showing how I can see the problem in different ways), and it also gives them a chance to participate in the creative work, which at this stage is something they should feel completely entitled to. You may have a favourite concept, but you can almost be sure they won't choose it! The challenge for you is to present a) multiple options, and b) only options you like. There is an unnamed law that states, The client will always choose your least favourite concept. Be sure your least favourite is still exciting to you. On the other hand, by opting out of sketch options for the client, again, you risk losing control of the creative work. The client, not pleased with the only sketch you show them, has to ask you to go back to the drawing board. That's a lot harder to stomach than preemptively giving options, since it's likely they'll want to see more anyway.
Earlier I mentioned how being professional, clear and concise helps me maintain control of the process and my artwork. Being professional doesn't mean you need to wear a white shirt and khaki chinos and sit in a beige room (or I hope you don't). It's actually more likely you will never be in the same room as your client. Rather, simply present your work in a way that shows that you take it seriously, and by extension, that the client should too. I always present all work, sketches and finals, in a branded deck. A deck is a PDF presentation that has a cover page and the actual work to be presented on interior pages. It is branded in that it is consistent in layout, colours and type each time I use it. It can be emailed to clients, or presented on a screen or projector. The cover page should have the client name, project title, stage (i.e. Sketches or Final Art) and date, and of course also include your name or logo on the page. It should look handsome and understated, being sure to let the work speak for itself. The interior pages of your deck should have your sketch or art (obviously), with at least a descriptive title. Finals rarely need describing, but each sketch/concept should always come with a short paragraph that helps the client understand what is going on. Because sketches should be loose, absent of flourish or colour, some verbiage helps point the client's imagination in the right direction. Don't forget page numbers. If you think any of this is overkill, ask anyone who had to present their work to clients before the Internet.
Your sketches should be clear, and the same should go without saying as regards finals. They should be well thought-through, and easy to understand and describe. I actually find many of my concepts either pass or fail at the part where I start writing the little paragraph. If I have trouble describing a concept or I don't like how it sounds, I know I have to go back to the drawing board. As my writing teacher in university would say, if you can't articulate what you're thinking, you don't have an idea. This can apply to concept pieces as well as more abstract ones. If not in the concept, the clarity should be in the intention.
Finally, your overall presentation should be concise. If there was anything I resented in my days as a full time, employed designer, it was the countless options we had to present, as though showing tons of variations and iterations was helpful to a client who has hired us for our creative counsel. First we would present as many as 6 or 7 initial concepts (say, for a package design), and then we would go into dozens and dozens of design options. While I believe it is important to do tons of exploration work, it is not necessary to show the client all of it. Our job is to do the hard work of ideating, and then to curate the best ideas for the client.
I usually aim to show two or three options per sketch. "But you said show options" (says the Jim Gaffigan high voice). Yes, but showing too much process demonstrates a lack of judgment on your part and risks confusing the client (or even making them decision anxiety (I highly recommend reading Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice). Do yourself and your client a favour and step up to the plate as the one to decide. If you need help whittling down all the brilliant sketches you've made, call in a friend, wife, or colleague their opinion. Whatever you do, as a rule of thumb, never show your client half-baked work. There's actually a good chance doing so will derail the creative and take you in directions you really don't want to go.
Now, Go Present Like a Badass!
Aside from your emails, the only face your client sees of you is your work. Whether sketches or final art, your work is your face — an extension of you — and you should take it seriously. While you may actually be in your pyjamas in your studio, dress your presentation up, put a handsome pair of specs on it. Make it look smart. And don't stop at looking smart — be smart too. Clients want to participate in the creative work. Be sure to include them early on so they have the satisfaction and then hand over full control to you in the later stages where you are truly the expert. Present sketches first, and always a few options. Meanwhile, help them navigate the high seas of your creative vision by being professional, clear and concise. By so doing, you will retain more control over the creative process and more ownership over your work. The client will have confidence in you and the work you created, and you have a better chance of ending up with something you're truly proud of.
Happy New Year!
I'm proud to announce that my class, Inky Illustrations, is featured in Skillshare's own workshop, Turn Physical Art into Digital Textures: A 30-Day Experience for Graphic Designers.
The workshop kicks off on January 5th! This is a fun way to improve your Illustrator skills, as you’ll be learning along side hundreds of other students in real-time. If you've taken my Inky Illustrations: Combining Analogue and Digital Media class but haven't shared your project, then now is your chance! There are some great prizes being offered for students that submit projects during the workshop. You’ll get feedback from the community and Skillshare will send you reminder emails to keep you on track.