I'd like to take you on a walk through my illustration process for client work. Here's a piece I recently finished that a past client requested as a Christmas gift to his wife. As freelance artists, most of the time we work with non-artists, and it's important to understand what the client is aiming for even if they can't articulate it exactly. I'm not psychic, I mean establishing an open Q&A with the client about various details and issues that appear before and during the project. Miscommunication with these details can lead to the client not getting exactly what they want, and an artwork that's not as strong. But if you practice C4 (Clear Communication with Clients is Crucial), the end result is that both parties are happy: the client gets an amazing product that exceeds their expectations, and you get a folio piece you can be proud of!
A past client emailed me to commission "a portrait-ish type piece" of his wife's dog Oliver and sent this picture.
He also said he'd like it to be "a little cartoony, but not super cartoony." What exactly did this mean? I sent him some examples of past dog illustrations I made and he liked the style, color, and tone of this one best.
The client described that Oliver "is basically a living cartoon character," but I thought that didn't reflect well in the original photo he sent. The photo is almost in a profile view and reminded me of more serious hunting dog paintings of yore. So I asked him to send me more photos where Oliver is showing his quirky personality. I wanted to portray his more playful side, like how the black dog is romping around with the girl in the example illustration.
The client also wanted to include a "label" below Oliver of his nickname. To clarify, I asked him if he meant something like this banner in a portrait of my parents, which was exactly what he wanted! I told him it would be cute if the banner would be at the bottom with the dog's paws hanging over it.
Note that ALL of this communication was over various emails the happened BEFORE I even made the contract or did a sketch. I have a rule of always finding out as much of what the client wants as possible, writing all those details in a contract we both sign, and getting a down payment of half the cost BEFORE even putting pencil to paper. This saves TONS of time and effort down the road, and I hardly ever have to do corrections beyond minor initial sketch tweaks. After we hashed out price, contract, and payment, I began this sketch!
In my contracts I always say that changes to the art are free in the sketching stage. Here, the client said that Oliver's chest was stockier - he had wider shoulders and short little legs. I realized I used the puppy picture (bottom right in the reference pics) as a main body reference. I then used the middle picture to create the modification.
Once the sketch was approved, and since I did the sketch at actual size (14x17), I used some transfer paper to easily trace the sketch onto the hot-press watercolor board. I added more fur details and used a compass to make the banner and letters more aligned.
Inktober really helped me - I can see an improvement in my own line weight! I used Winsor & Newton waterproof ink here, so I can overlay the watercolors right on top later.
Since the client's wife is a huge University of Kentucky basketball fan, the client pointed out that Oliver's collar should be royal blue. I suggested that the banner should also be blue to match, but the client had pictured the banner being gold or bronze. Even though we think of these colors as representing high value, I knew gold or bronze would not be a good color choice here for 2 reasons: 1 - not enough contrast between the dog's fur color and those earth colors. 2 - watercolors don't shine like real metals do, and the result might be muddy. But instead of writing all that out trying to explain myself, I made a quick digital mock-up* to SHOW the client that blue would look the best. The client could instantly see the difference and agreed with my blue choice.
*It's important to communicate to the client that this is just a mock-up and the final medium will look more detailed. Here, the digital colors are solid, but the watercolors will have more varied shadows and depth.
Watercolors - the final step! The client said the fur in the digital mock-up was a bit too dark (I based that off a shadow in the "smiling" picture). Oliver was a different color in every reference photo due to various lighting and environments - what was his TRUE color? I asked if the pic where Oliver is looking up is closer, and the client affirmed, adding that his chest and belly area is a little lighter than his back, sides and shoulders. Also, his muzzle is grey because he's an older dog.
With all that in mind, I had a heck of a time mixing the perfect light cream color (it kept turning out too peachy... must've been too much red in that Raw Sienna). Once I got a good mix, I had to find the right balance between shadows for contrast, while still maintaining the overall light color. I found that painting Pro White as highlights over the cream tone accomplished that goal.
Here's a clip from the client's review: "I am not well versed in art at all and I was only able to describe to [Mindy] what I wanted at a basic level. She worked with me to develop the concept I'd described to her, was receptive to my input as the concept evolved, and ultimately delivered exactly what I wanted. The most amazing thing is she delivered my vision that I didn't even know how to describe when we started."
Another satisfied customer! To artists, remember C4 (Clear Communication with Clients is Crucial). It's OK to tell the client your thoughts on a better solution. They'll respect and appreciate your expertise as an artist. Don't be afraid to offer different ideas from what the client initially suggests. To people looking to commission art, it's always best to trust the artist's judgment. By working together with clear communication at all stages of the artwork, both artist and client will be happy!
I grew up with dogs, and I know one day in the future I'll own one again. But at this point in my life I need to save up for a new computer instead of saving up for a dog. Every day dog care like food may not be too expensive, but God forbid if your pet gets sick. If you don't have enough saved up it can be really draining.