LOVERS & ROMANCES FROM MYTHOLOGIES OF THE WORLD (Revisited – first published August, 2015)

As an illustrator my most lucrative commissions, pro-rata, were for advertising agencies. I rarely earned less than the equivalent of £500 per day and often considerably more than that, and this was back in the 1980’s. But there was a catch; a burdensome and irritating trade-off, which was having to deal with the agencies themselves and especially the members of the “creative-teams”. These “creatives”, often genuinely brilliant and yes, creative young people were, more often than not, hampered by their competing egos, their manufactured passion for the job at hand and their-oh-so-cool agency “patois” made them highly ineffective givers of briefs.

Briefs were generally muddled and unclear, and always – but always – the artwork was required yesterday at the latest. I can honestly say that in the dozen or so jobs I did for agencies I can’t recall ever being entirely sure of what I was supposed to be doing, and nearly always having to do it through the night to have it ready for the courier the next day.

By contrast, although book covers could also pay very handsomely, for most book illustration work one earned relatively little. Yet despite this, I nearly always enjoyed the work. Most publishing house art directors were – or had been – illustrators and artists themselves and had had an instinctive knowledge of how to give clear and lucid briefs. Similarly, time was never a major issue, being determined more by the scale of the illustration job itself rather than purely commercial considerations.

One such job in the summer of 1998, which turned out to be my final excursion into illustration, was something of an epic. I was commissioned, again by Cassell Illustrated to make a series of 16 gouache colour plates to front each chapter of a book called “Mythical Lovers”. The author, Sarah Bartlett, was/is a well-known astrologer who had compiled and written a coffee-table history based around 16 ancient and iconic love myths from around the world.

After the job was completed and I had been paid, I left illustration for good, and rarely gave Mythical Lovers another thought. And because I no longer required a portfolio  it was the only job for which I never received or asked for finished copy.

Then the other day, I was going through the drawers of my old plan-chest here in Spain and I came across my original gouache plates – all sixteen of them, and in a state of perfect preservation, and thought what a curious subject they would make for my next “gallery” post. For me, it’s a reminder of just how versatile one had to be as a commercial illustrator – the “Carol Kaye-type session artists” of the visual art world.

And yes…as one or two of you who know us have noticed, Dido and I (plus a girlfriend of Dido’s) were the models for most of the characters portrayed. Much hilarity was had by all during the photography and as for the photos themselves – well, they’re indescribable! But that’s another story…

(Click on a picture to view the gallery with titles)

MY BEST WORST-PAID JOB – and how I cracked Krak…

In my previous post I discussed some of my work on book covers back in the late 1980’s, which also happened to be among the best paid work I ever did. Best paid, both in regards to the amounts, and the time-to-work ratio. I think that the longest I ever spent on a cover was about two days, with the pay, rarely less than four-figure sums, and in the spectacular case of Billy Bathgate, just 20 minutes work for over £3000!

I also made many illustrations for the inside pages of books, and these were often less well rewarded financially. Normally, if one was contributing a single illustration to a text-book, the rule of thumb was £250 for a half-page, and £500 for a full plate. And even this, seemed pretty good most of the time, when the typical job took less than a day to complete. However, on one occasion, in 1996, I received a commission for a half-page illustration which turned out to be the polar-time-to-work-ratio-opposite of the Billy Bathgate job.

My half-page reconstruction of Krak des Chevaliers – the original being pen and ink, with ink wash.

The commission offer was for only £150 (the lowest offer I ever accepted in my ten years or so as an illustrator), and I knew from the brief, that it would be enormously time-consuming. But, just as struggling actors, never turn down a role, however bleak, so it is with most freelance illustrators (as I then was).

Fortunately, as things turned out, what the commission lacked in remuneration, it more than made up for in job-satisfaction. For, not only was the illustration for a Thames and Hudson publication – the sort of encyclopaedic book I’d devoured as a child – the subject matter – the great Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, in modern Syria – was truly thrilling, and not to mention, extremely challenging.

My task was to draw and colour an accurate as possible reconstruction of the castle based on two large black and white photographs, supplied by the art director, of its ruined state. Fortunately, I dug up some additional colour photos from my local library, and with just a touch of artistic license, after nearly three weeks of hard work, I arrived at a plausible vision for the how Krak would have looked in its intimidating pomp.

When, a little while later, I received my complementary copy of the book, I can honestly say, that seeing one of my own, lovingly executed illustrations, gracing the very sort of book which had thrilled me as a little boy, I have never experienced more gratification. Which all just goes to prove, it isn’t always only about the dosh!

Incidentally, for those interested in some photographic record of how the castle looks today (fortunately, I believe it has escaped the ravages of the civil war) do take a look at my cousin Ian Harris’s recent post from his 1997 trip to Syria and beyond…https://ianlouisharris.com/1997/03/06/journey-to-lebanon-syria-jordan-eilat-israel-day-four-tripoli-krak-des-chevaliers-on-to-homs-6-march-1997/

GETTING IT COVERED

Book covers were generally my most fun jobs as a commercial artist and illustrator, and I think it shows in much of the work that resulted. The main reason for the success of these commissions was the fact that I was employed by art directors, who were often artists themselves, and who thus gave good, clear briefs.

My first job as a professional commercial artist. The original artwork was gouache on board.

I’ve already discussed my successful partnership with George Sharp for Pan Picador in relation to my cover for the novel Billy Bathgate, but that was just one of several enjoyable collaborations. In fact, my first ever professional commercial art commission (soon after I joined the Virgil Pomfret Agency in late 1989), was for another Picador publication, called The Fruit Palace by the noted travel author, Charles Nicholl. In this case, George simply wanted me to copy the author’s own photograph of a Bogota street corner, in my classic poster style. It was an easy, dream first commission.

At the outset of my career as a freelance artist, I targeted several travel companies, sending them mini-folios of my travel poster artwork. Within days of my first mail-shot, I received a phone call from Thomas Cook Publishing, who went on to commission a series of covers from me for their new set of travel guides. They were all done in oil pastel, again, on board. This I always felt was the most successful of the group.

However, things got even better a few years later, when I tried my hand at freelancing, and found that I could target publishers and companies that appealed to me and my personal travel and epicurean related enthusiasms. Hence, for a period of about two years I became something of a go-to artist for those wanting hand-conceived images for the covers of travel guides and the like.

This was another of those exciting coincidences that seems to have occurred throughout my adult life, as within days of handing this in to Thomas Cook – having never been to the USA before – I was on a plane flying out to Seattle.

Book covers, as opposed to general illustrations (of which I also did plenty) were well paid and particularly gratifying. Short of seeing one’s own book in the window of your local book store, spying one’s own cover comes a very close second. The fact that I was often stimulated by the subject matter also didn’t hurt.

I love pubs and British beer almost as much as I love travelling. In fact, after nearly every spell abroad, my first port of call on my return to England will be to my local pub for a pint of fine ale. I did two covers for CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale); one for their cider guide, and this for family-friendly pubs. In this case, the model family entering the pub were our friends, the Crouches, from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, and that’s our late Maremma Sheepdog, Aura, sleeping on the lawn. The irony behind this particular cover is – being an adult (and well behaved dog) only pub seeker – that I tend to avoid family-friendly pubs at all costs, and thus I actually used the guide to help me steer clear of such terrifying establishments!

TRIPLE-TAKES AND DOUBLE CHOICES

During my ten  years or so as a commercial artist I had spells with two top London artist’s agents. The main and obvious advantage of having an agent was that they went out and got you commissions.  Most artists by definition, tend to be ill equipped, emotionally and attitudinally for the tasks of both finding and especially negotiating with clients. Artist’s agents on the other hand, often with backgrounds in advertising and / or art production have extensive lists of contacts and the wherewithal for exploiting those connections. 

This scene from a street in the Andalusian town of Arcos se la Frontera remains my favourite image from the series…

The big disadvantage in the artist / artist agent relationship however was the near-total lack of control the artist has over the process, from commissioning to payment.  And, it was ultimately the payment issues which trumped the advantages and convinced me to toughen-up and go it alone. My final artist’s agent’s commission was a case in point and also the last straw. What began as an unusually free brief – to paint a series of of 24 poster-style gouache paintings to decorate 12 luxury, first-class cruise liner suites for a seriously good fee, manifested as an exercise in frustration and acrimony. The fact I had to resort to the threat of lawyers against my own agent to extricate partial payment gives a good idea of just how sour things got.

This is a scene from a courtyard restaurant in Granada, right by the Alhambra Palace…

In the normal course of events, I worked directly with the clients, and delivered my work to them myself. For some reason never fully explained, on this occasion I did not get to meet the client and instead dealt exclusively with my agent. What exactly went wrong between the time of me handing over the finished pictures to the agent, and her passing them to the client – or indeed, if she ever handed them to the client, I never discovered. All I did know for sure, was that two months of hard work was never fully paid for.  Fortunately, during my ongoing film-to-digital trawl, I recently came across colour slides of several examples of the artwork from that fateful commission and the original photographic templates.

The delightful “balcon” at Arcos…

If I was ever to receive a similar commission again, apart from making sure to deal with the client on a one-to-one basis, I might also decide to produce Photoshop images (presented on the similar art papers to the original gouaches) rather than paintings. For me the finished results, especially with these highly graphic, minimalist images are at least as good as paintings, and in the awful prospect that I again would not be fully recompensed, would have expended a fraction of the time.

And finally, the Bishop’s palace in Seville.

Presented here (within the text) in triptych form are four of those very images. The photo templates comprise the central images, with the original gouaches on the right, and my new Photoshop treatments on the left. See what you think and don’t be afraid to let me know…