Saturday, November 21, 2009

Does The Use of Clip Art Hurt the Professional Illustrator?

I see this topic around the internet and the general question is: Desktop publishing and the use of Clip Art has everyone people the ability to add graphic images to documents. Does this spread of clip art pose a threat to the professional illustrator?

When I initially read this question, I had to stop and think. The thing that gave me pause was all of the issues that are similar to this and seemed to have bundled themselves together in my mind. I'll explain. I've been involved with custom illustration work since the late '70s. In those early days of my freelance career I would get all kinds of odd jobs because I would take anything that came my way for the experience. We had no form of mass communication with other artist the way we do today. Most of the research you could do on an illustration career was found in out-of-date books in the local library and they were few and far between. So everything you learned, someone taught you that had experience or you jumped into the project and learned as you went.

The goal of course was to go to college and learn all the mysterious secrets of success. Forget forums online where you can ask other people that we have today. In those days you may have been lucky enough to know the cousin of some guy who was married to the woman who cut and pasted newspaper ads for the local weekly newspaper. Or perhaps you had an art teacher in high school who once did the cover of a local literary magazine? Or the lady next door painted barns and teacups on doilies. This was your point of reference for information.

So let me back-up a bit. That lady who worked at the newspaper doing paste-up is our link to this answer. I didn't know her. But I knew people like her, people who had to compose ads for the newspaper. In my case I knew the store manager of the local Wal-mart and each store back then made their own newspaper ads. I think at this point there were only about 200 Wal-mart stores in the world. And they did everything to cut costs back then. Even using local store employees to make the paste up ads for their local newspapers.

My friend saw that I was interested in advertising art (graphic design was not a common term then, people tended to refer to it as commercial art back then). So he let me start preparing the ads for weekly sales. And you know what? We used clip art.

Every store had sign painting kits to make their in-store signs for windows and displays. No on-staff artist, just the most talented person who would step up and volunteer generally got the same minimum wage to be creative rather than unload trucks and clean bathrooms.
Now being creative is a very subjective term thinking back on what we did then. But in addition to those sign kits each store had ad kits too.
The local newspaper staff person would come by and pick up the work when it was ready and you would get the work ready by using these kits.
They were primarily composed of stock images of clip art. Drawings of models in various generic looking clothes, Toasters, mixers, and
other appliances. TV's, stereos, bags of cookies, chips,clothing, etc. There was generic clip art for all of it. All you had to do was get the information for the proposed sale and find your art. Clip it, paste in a tasteful layout and pass it off to the folks from the newspaper advertising department. We would even save all of the proofs for our old ads and sometimes cut them up to reuse certain pieces of clip art, as I mentioned we had to keep cost down.

Were we putting illustrators out of work? Absolutely not. Were we being asked to come up with some unique visual creation? Heck no!

I eventually headed off to that fabled institution called art school. Back then my school of choice was Oklahoma State University School of Technical Training at Okmulgee. Then reputed to have
the fourth best commercial art program in the country. And just a mere few hours from my home. My eyes were opened to the world of custom illustrations and ads. One of the things we were taught was to maintain a 'swipe' file. A file of clippings and photos that you could use
in your work to expedite your work flow. Having handy reference could save you time and money.

The legend of one student there was that he was so over-zealous with his file system that he quickly ran out of space. He supposedly had a little train of three filing cabinets on wheels he would drag to class every day just so he could be the best designer in the school.

One thing we never did was discuss clip art. In fact I don't think my work on the newspaper ads even came up. Nor the methods employed in the teaching curriculum.
We were to busy learning how to use the art-o-graph, the hot wax machine, slicing rubylith and amberlith, ordering type, inking with triangles and T-sqaures, etc. When we toured some ad agencies in Tulsa we even saw real living and breathing on-the-payroll staff illustrators. (Though they were never employed in the same ratio as the graphic designers and paste-up artist at the time.)

Now the big days of illustration were already over. Photography had already come into its on and replaced illustration as the image type of choice in most cases. So even though those clip art books existed they were not harming the illustrator anywhere nearly as much as the photographer was.

As I have already talked a lot about this subject without getting an answer to the question, I will jump forward in time and save you decades of anecdotes.

In the mid -'90s I had worked with clip art, custom illustrations, cartoons, typography and photography to create designs. Both for print and for this new budding technology, the web. In fact most people thought I was crazy for wasting so much time on the internet. But one of the
things I discovered was all of the great free fonts and clip art you could get. Heck The Corel Corp. would give you a whole catalog full of the stuff if you bought their software, the Corel Draw Suite. Even Adobe and Macromedia would even throw some clip art and free fonts in the mix as an incentive to purchase their software too.

As I worked with computers over the coming years, I found that clip art was a great tool to knock out a low budget, quick turn-around type job. An ad for a family reunion. A flyer for that lady who painted barns and now decided she would offer the world art lessons. A newspaper ad for a furniture store, a business card for the small business owner or a church bulletin for a local church. None of these type of work had budgets alocated for custom work. But the work needed doing. The fact that clip art existed made these jobs possible. It put no one out of work and generated a tiny bit of cash for the original creator of the clip art when they sold it to the clip art publisher. (These where ually images owned by the artist that had already been generated for other custom work and now was being resold for use again so that some residual income could be generated from work that had already been paid for.)

Today, I own a 'swipe file' full of clip art. I also have several of those big clip art collections you see advertised. And you know what? They are
great for what they are....time savers. They allow you to take on some of those low paying jobs to keep the electricity turned on. If you are very creative you can do a mash-up of clips and create original work. But if your client isn't paying you to do this your are just killing time that could be spent on other work in your studio.

Now when doing design work I don't buy stock illustration. I consider the term 'stock illustration' to be that type of work that is a step above the massive clip art collections. The work cost more to acquire the useage rights to. It is also used less than the general copyright free clips are, so it is less visible in the public eye and thus has a perceived higher value. While some stock illustration and photography are similar to the clip art we discussed earlier in the fact
that they may be images an artist already had created and just had sitting in inventory waiting to be re-used. Some stock art is actually generated for the purpose of selling it as stock imagery. Especially in the photography field. Yes photographers are still competing with illustrators for sales of visual art today.

So here we are today in a world filled with clip art, stock art and custom art. The difference in the times is that while clip art and custom art both existed back then, stock art has risen to the top in playing a larger role in image use. Not only for convenience and keeping budgets
lean, but also because we are not in a world of local creators. We are in a global world of image makers all connected to the public and vying for attention via the world wide web. We don't just rely on pounding the pavement to get face time with art directors, nor sending them
postcards every quarter reminding them of our existence. We don't have to spend thousands of dollars just to get printed in an illustration directory next to all of our competitors just to be seen. Now we too can connect with image buyers in a quicker and more efficient means by the use of technology and improved communications that are now available to the design studio owners.

The thing we have to do as illustrators (as opposed to designers) is market the fact that we create unique imagery that is not seen by everyone else in the world prior to its usage as new work. You don't have to worry about the competitor down the street having the same weekly flyer images as you do which would make you seem un-original printed with your shared stock imagery. (Though if you are working with a large corporation who expects custom work, you sure better not try to cut corners and deliver a job with stock imagery as it will come back to haunt you.) Market yourself as creating original and unique work for the task at hand and play up all aspects of this unique originality.

But....don't beat yourself up trying to convince a cheapskate to pay more for custom work. Some people are committed to being cheap and tasteless(They probably are not educated in the arts enough to realize they have no taste). It is not your mission in life to change or educate them. That is just a deep hole to throw time and money into that will have little or no return. If they want work created with clip art or stock art let them have it. They are not going to pay an illustrator working wages anyway so the usage is not cutting into any illustrator's work load. These people are who stock and clip art were designed to reach. In a way it is a 'headache
relief'' tool as it helps take care of them while leaving you more time to work on real illustrations for people who see the value in custom work and are willing to pay a realistic fee for its creation.

So in retrospect, photography killed the spread of illustration and cartooning. Clip art and stock art are just side effects of artist trying to generate additional income while reselling art that they already own the rights too. And while print editors and art directors have made the choices over the decades to embrace the spread of photography. The rise of electronic publishing has seen such a huge growth in recent years so that stock images and clip art have been gobbled up and regurgitated enough to where the images are becoming common. Or the quality and sameness when compared to custom work is very apparent to even the less trained eye.

Custom illustration once more is needed and is a commodity that is in short order compared to days gone by when illustration was king. Originality is the key to selling the idea of custom work.
Finally I can't touch on this subject without bringing up one other thought that gets bundled together with this topic in my mind. It is the topic that is the core of what makes me have a bad feeling about custom illustration and dealing with cheapskates. That topic is 'Spec Work'.
Spec work (short for speculative work) is work that is done for no financial compensation. It is done for the promise of exposure or to get your foot in the door. It may be pitched as a sample or just trying you out to decide between you and the other one or two hot-shot artist the
potential employer is considering using. Spec work is the work that those cheap and sometimes con-artist clients are trying to foist on the new designer or the inexperienced illustrator. The get-something-for-nothing crowd. Students beware! It is dangerous and a waste of your time.

Nothing ever good comes from it to the artist. It is the classic instance of someone being taken advantage of. It is like the star struck actor arriving in Hollywood looking for any entrance into the industry. You will be an instant target and labeled a sucker. You will cheapen your work and
reputation and all of the other folks working in illustration as well. Spec is bad! Spec should be fought and taught against at every opportunity.
No matter what they say or how they make you feel, do not be lured into this scam. These are people who do not value you, they do not value your work or education. They are out to lie, cheat and steal any way they can to save a buck. They are not concerned with real quality and
originality. These are people I do not work with and will not work with. If you are wise, you won't either.

So sometimes there is a feeling that clip art is like spec work in that it can harm the industry but when we really look at the issue, clip art and stock art are not the villains, 'spec' work is! Join the 'No Spec' campaign today. (Visit in mind the Graphic Artist Guilds' "Ask First" campaign. Stand up for your artistic rights as well as your fellow artist. Help educate one another as well as new students entering the industry. Because if you hide in a corner and let this type of thing get out of control you will find yourself not getting paid what you are worth. Nor will anyone be left to value custom work. Avoid the meat markets like These are not gigs worthy of your time, their clients are buying work that is the bid for the cheapest deal type
jobs. You can't compete with someone in a third world country who will work for pennies on the dollar. And these third world artist can't compete on a creative playing field that is present for true custom illustrations. That being said you don't work for anyone willing to take advantage of another human being that way. You also can't expect that the work generated there will be the best work available as artist will not put as much into a ten dollar job as they will a thousand dollar job. You get what you pay for. That is why these companies are bottom feeders and not part of the large corporate world. Microsoft and Apple don't start a new campaign and run to looking for original creative work because it is cheaper there and can save them money on their budget. No, instead they buy the best art available that is custom fit to their unique campaigns. They pay for the best people because they want the best work to represent their image to the world. In doing so they create a personae that helps the public perception of their corporate image and sells products as well as shares of stock.
Meanwhile Joe's T-shirt shop is feeling lucky because they got some guy to design a new shirt for free, all they had to do was point out that at least 25 people would see his work and the exposure would be overwhelmingly beneficial to his future career. Remember No Spec!

Well I guess you get the idea by now. I see clip art and stock as useful tools. I don't personally sell my images in this manner. I do however use the material when originality is not the key factor and budget and deadline considerations are. On the other hand spec work kills our
industry and the value of our work. That is the real area of concern to the illustrator in a troubled economy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Color Use in My Work

This is a recent question I received about color.

"You have used color extensively in your own work will you share some of your personal preferences?"

The ways to add color are many and varied. Some of these methods are able to work together effectively and some are not, primarily due to the nature of the mediums in question. For example you can not add watercolors on top of dried tempera paints as the moisture would disturb the underlying medium of tempera.

I've always been adventurous with art tools and love to find new ways of approaching image making. My color favorites include, watercolors, Conte' pencils, acrylics, colored pencils and with computers-digitally. Other methods I have used in the past and still do when needed are, oils, pastels, gouache,tempera, casein, alkyds, markers, crayons, watercolor tins, watercolor pencils, enamels, colored inks and colored dyes, fingerpaints, airbrushing, spraypaint and colored ball point pens.

I've been attracted to colors since I was a kid growing up in the 1960s. Plastics were able to accept vivid highly saturated colors at this point-in-time and toys came in many vivid hues. When I was about 5 years old we bought a large color TV, going from black and white to color
was huge in impacting my young mind. At first I thought everything that was filmed in black and white was from the past and apparently before color had been invented.(In fact the film that I made sure to watch annually, "The Wizard of OZ" was filmed in color decades earlier, unbeknown to me at that time.) I later realized that was a wrong assumption but found it funny when my kids came to a similar analysis
when they encountered black and white films for the first time at a young age.

Needless to say Saturday morning cartoons and all the great 60s TV shows that started filming in Technicolor over the course of the decade(as opposed to the cheaper black and white) literally blew my young mind. The NBC peacock was truly spectacular and worthy of watching
each time it appeared as far as I was concerned. Or the CBS chimes that followed the brightly colored letters with the voice over stating,"Filmed in Living Color" (not to be confused with a FOX TV series by the same name that followed decades later).

Shows like Hogan's Heroes, Bewitched, Gunsmoke, and the Beverly Hillbillies went from one season in black and white to the next in color and it seemed like they had leaped into the future. Meanwhile shows like the '60s Batman and Green Hornet played up primary colors found
in use in comics and that was my other huge are a of influence, comic books and comic stips. The dynamic use of primary colors in comics. I loved the black and white line work when I could see it printed by itself but the color comics really brought life to the medium. One reason why Sunday Funnies are always bigger draws than the smaller black and white dailies in the comic strip sections of our newspapers, is that spark of life the color adds.

Finally my teachers in elementary school exposed me to fine art at the capitol building in Little Rock, Arkansas on field trips. There I encountered my first color field paintings along with other abstracts that just focused on color.
Ever since then I have loved using color, weather it be full color or something as simple as a monochromatic scene.