THE dream commission WHICH went like a dream…
Checking back on posts dealing with my experiences as a commercial artist they nearly all describe dealings with dreadful and unscrupulous characters. They comprise a rogues gallery of capricious and lazy agents; self-adoring ad men and women; inarticulate, jargon-laden briefs; slow-paying and non-paying clients and, worst of all; copyright and ideas thieves.
However, there were some good and honourable people out there too, and small wonder that it was they who got the best results out of me. Significantly, ALL the latter worked in book publishing as art-directors and had a grounding in art, while ALL the former worked in advertising and publicity-related companies with little if any understanding of art processes.
I first crossed paths with George Sharp, the art-director at Pan Books in 1987* when he hired me to do the cover for The Fruit Palace (by Charles Nicholl). It was at the outset of my career as a professional illustrator and the process went so smoothly, from brief to payment, it lulled me into a false sense of security about my future in commercial art.
Sadly, as I was to find out during the course of my very next commission for the UK’s then-top advertising agency everything about working for George and Pan was atypical – from George’s clear and concise briefing to Pan’s prompt payment .
Especially during my time with artists’ agents, as a commercial artist I was exposed to a higher proportion of jobs from ad agencies than book publishers (something I endeavoured to rectify once a freelance), so when my agent called me early in the Spring of 1989 with the news that George Sharp wanted me for another job I was naturally delighted.
My excitement increased however, when I met up with George in Pan’s West End offices and he told me the nature of the commission – to illustrate the book cover for the UK edition of an American best-selling novel. The fact that the author was E. L.. Doctorow and the novel was Billy Bathgate (his take on the New York City gangster, Dutch Schultz) was virtual fantasy land for me. It was exactly the kind of illustration job I had dreamed of doing when I left fine art for commercial art. The £1000 fee was simply the icing on the cake.
Then, unbelievably, the job went even more smoothly than the Fruit Palace. George talked to me for no more than ten minutes as he must have sensed my innate feel for the brief, which I began working on the moment I arrived back at my house in West Hampstead. After about half-an-hour I was already faxing a sketch of my idea through to George, who immediately phoned me with an enthusiastic thumbs-up. A mere twenty minutes later I was waiting for my finished gouache painting to dry.
I was back in George’s office less than two hours after I had left it earlier that morning, and he was as thrilled with my image as I was. In fact, it remains the only illustration job I have ever done which did not require even the slightest of tweaks.
Within a month I had the pleasure and pride of seeing Billy Bathgate, plus my cover in the window of every book store I passed and my image on posters advertising the book throughout the Tube. Within six weeks (super fast relatively) I also received a cheque from Pan for £2500, far more than I had expected. Then my agent explained that I had earned an extra £1000 for the poster rights, plus another £500 syndication fee from a Danish company who wanted to turn my gangster image into some sort of comic strip (I never did find out what they eventually created…).
Although Billy Bathgate did not enjoy the same success in the UK which it had in the States, and that the movie of the novel two years later was a total flop (despite the best efforts of Dustin Hoffman and Bruce Willis), I was more than happy to console myself with the knowledge that it had seen me earn the quickest, easiest fee of my career. I think that even Dutch Schultz would have been impressed!
* Many of you may be familiar with George’s own book cover artwork…