I had the pleasure of drawing the back cover of Highlights a few months ago, and I wanted to share how I went about making it. If you make art and then write about it on the internet, it makes you an expert, and I are that.
Step 1: Become a professional illustrator. This step is, by far, the most painful, and could take up to 79 years to complete. Don’t you want a job as a banker instead?
Step 2. Get the assignment from Highlights. Here’s typically how this goes:
Them: You’ve been assigned the back cover.
Me: YOU’RE HIRING ME AGAIN?!
Step 3. Wait for the page template. No point in drawing anything unless you know what the rest of the magazine looks like. Might as well eat snacks and call your mother.
Step 4: Rough in the shapes. Once you know what your page layout will look like, it's time to figure out what goes where. This can also be the most stressful part. THE BLANK PAGE. “THIS WILL SUCK. I SUCK. I WILL PUT THEM OUT OF BUSINESS WITH MY SUCKY ART”. Try not to be THAT negative, but if you are, just keep drawing.
Step 5: Start layering in detail. I like to start with a hair style or a funny nose. Any detail is fine. Build build build. Don’t worry about drawing teeth or shoelaces yet.
Step 6. Compare your work to other artists and shame yourself into giving up. This is also a good time to call your mother again.
Step 7. See if you can still get a job as a banker. You probably can. It's not too late.
Step 8. Go for a walk or something. Leave and come back to your artwork. You will immediately see something you can improve. I normally take 29 walks in a single day. Not really but just keep reading.
Step 9: Clean your art up and send it in to the art director. Fill your email with nice things about that art director and ask if there is anything else to help with. Don’t ask the art director if they know of any openings for bankers. That would be unprofessional.
Step 10. Refresh your email. You can refresh up to 500 times a day if you’d like. It will make the feedback come quicker.
Step 11. Make sure you understand the feedback. Once you have the feedback from the art director, make sure you clearly understand what’s being said and that you don’t have any additional questions/clarifications of your own. Compliment the art director on what they are wearing. It is okay to lie at this point. Never call and scream at an art director. It rarely works and they won’t send you a present at Christmas.
12. Refine refine refine. If you feel you need more feedback, then work looser and loop your art director in. If you feel confident that you know where you’re going, then draw and forge ahead with your artistic brilliance. Time and trust are the factors here.
13. Finalize the sketch. Before you move into color (unless you’ve been instructed to do so), make sure the art director is pleased with the final sketch. Make sure they realize you are considering this a “final sketch” by calling it “final sketch” or “this is my final sketch”. You can even name the jpeg or screen grab “final” and use “this is final” as the subject. You can’t use the word “final” enough here. You may also call the art director and repeat the word “final” over and over again until their voicemail fills up. This is considered acceptable business practice.
14. Inking. Upon approval of the sketch, I jump into ink. Well, “ink”… it’s Photoshop ink so I guess I’m jumping into pixels. I also like to work at twice the resolution. It’s not necessary, but it makes me feel better. Bless my heart. Note that there could still be changes down the pipeline, as most magazines/publications have multiple decision makers involved. If there are late changes, no need to get rude. You can ask for more money or more time and if there is none then you can negotiate those changes down to minimal changes, or just do them as quickly as you can. Another option is becoming a banker.
15. Color your artwork. Once inks are complete, I’ll begin color. Color can be the devil in the details. Remember that if you’re working for a printed magazine, color your work in CMYK. If it’s digital, then use RGB. I have been a professional artist for 900 years and I still make this mistake from time to time. It sounds dumb, but it happens. I like using a similar color palette for all of my illustrations, so that they look consistent and recognizable. It also takes the guesswork out of what colors to use if I always use the same choices. Personal preference for sure.
16. Approve the flats. For my work, I like using very simple shadows and highlights, but I’ll get my art director to approve flat color before I start going into that level of detail. If I’m feeling really fancy (and have the time/budget) I’ll also color the lines, but again, that’s only if I’m feeling really saucy. For this back cover, the complexity of the illustration wouldn’t allow me to color the lines and still make deadline. Plus, sometimes just solid black lines look better anyway.
17. Add freckles. Once you’ve gotten approval from your good-looking and well-mannered art director, you can start adding in all the details. Highlights. Shadows. Blades of grass. Freckles. Crumbs. Whatever you want. This is YOUR time to shine.
18. Review your hours. You HAVE been recording your time, haven’t you? Anyway, hopefully the fee you’re getting is a good wage against the time you’ve put in. Sometimes it’s not, so if it isn’t, make sure you ask for more money next time or work more efficiently on the next assignment. You may also consider becoming a banker again.
19. Final art and money. Now the artwork is complete. Well done you! Send it off to the art director and include that invoice so you can pay off any gambling or horse racing debts.
20. The end. Finally, the printed magazine hits shelves and you can take pride that YOUR artwork is featured on the back cover (no one else was available). Your mother will be most proud, and if you have children, they won’t even notice and ask for snacks. Back to work.