Today we’re tackling the creative process of the character designs for Cerateran, a real book commission for Claude Peiffer. I hope these real-life behind-the-scenes can inspire and show you concretely what an illustration commission looks like and what an illustrator’s job is! 🥰
If you’ve missed the first part about negotiations:
discover what happens BEFORE the creative process!
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Defining the project
As mentioned in the previous video, Claude is one of my very first clients since 2015. We’ve evolved well together and I think we have developed a good system, which we’re going to share today. So, first thing, with each new order, we define a face-to-face meeting.
Most of the time, Claude creates character sheets with all the useful information, including physical descriptions as they appear in the book.
Where he is very efficient is that he has very specific ideas in his head of what his characters should look like, and he does a lot of research to find photos that would match his expectations exactly. Sometimes these visuals are to be taken as is, sometimes with additional resources for clothes, poses, etc. Basically, during the meeting, he explains every single character, their job or role in the story to understand who they are, their relationships with others, and then he gives me the explanations on how to use the photos he found.
For this character, Kin Wu, for example: use the model I had created from the back years ago, but without the tattoo, with the pose and the face of the lady in purple, and a more traditional looking Asian dress like the references, but more modern and knee-length.
The whole discussion takes us about an hour per project, it’s really plain explanations, note taking, and questions for clarification.
If you’re working with a client, and especially an author, don’t hesitate to ask any questions that pop into your head to make sure you understand exactly what’s being asked.
Some things are obvious in the client’s head and they don’t think to mention them, but they are crucial information for drawing… or maybe they just haven’t thought about it and you can define it together, or they just leave it up to your imagination.
To be honest, Claude is the most organised client I’ve ever had and I thank him enormously for all his research which is just top notch. The more precise the client’s ideas, the more important it is that they bring precise documentation, if they want to ensure a result that satisfies them. And important note too, the client knows their subject best, so it’s up to them to provide you with the necessary documentation, be it photos, descriptions, or anything else. If it’s something simple, yes, you can research your references yourself – for example, an illustration with a girl in a kimono surrounded by tulips with a tiger, which are general things that don’t require much research effort. In other cases, you may be asked to travel to take photos yourself, especially if you need to illustrate a specific location and need to see different angles to define your illustrations. There are orders where the client gives you complete freedom and you can take the first result on Google. But for anything that is not necessarily common, you have the right to ask for references, and usually the good clients who know what they want have everything ready.
Soo, moving on! After this presentation, I go home, send the quote, he pays the deposit which is equivalent to my work for all the sketches and preparations, and the real commission can begin. For your information, Claude and I don’t have a contract because we agreed on the conditions verbally 6 years ago and we trust each other, and the estimate is always quick because it’s always exactly the same work with the same prices.
Buuut in the meantime, I’ve become more mature and I don’t trust people anymore, so let’s see if it were a new client. At the end of the meeting, I’d tell them I’m thinking about their project and will recontact them with the estimate and contract within twenty-four or forty-eight hours. This allows me to assess the whole thing with a clear head, no emotions involved, and the client knows they have to wait a little and that I’m not forgetting them. Now, this part being done, quote, deposit, everything okay – let’s get to the drawings !
Once the creative process starts, I work solo. For most projects, I print out the references, but since there is always a lot with Claude, I try to be more eco-friendly and put everything in a PDF loaded on my ebook reader. Real screens like phones or computers distract me when I’m doing my first sketches and I need to concentrate, and the advantage over prints is that I can enlarge the visuals, especially to capture the important features of faces.
In this respect, Claude has also admitted that he prefers to start working on the visuals earlier, because depending on the liberties I take, for example on the clothes, he will be able to better visualise and adjust his descriptions in the novel. For the record, some of the illustrations are already created one or two years before the book is actually published. I admit that I sometimes get annoyed when he gives me the new volumes after one or two years, because I’ve improved my art style again and see some mistakes in those “old” drawings… but that’s just how things are for us artists.
So, now I have my sketchbook with all the info at a glance and underneath, I can start creating the visuals. I base it on the photos and adjust them with the keywords.
Since I’m not good at realistic portraits and I’m unable to reproduce faces as they are, and they are also adjusted according to the info in the novel, we avoid plagiarism and it’s more like “freely inspired”. Claude can testify, sadly for him, I just can’t draw any of his Asian characters, which is pretty fun because I’m Asian myself but yeah, the characters will end up looking much more different than his photos, although I’m doing my best to keep the general feel.
Also, for your info, normally at this stage with other clients, I need a lot more sketches and tests with many more visuals, and I usually propose several different versions to the client. Here, for example, we have a board of ideas for a mascot character created for the Cité Bibliothèque in Luxembourg City, where you can see many more ideas. Normally, Claude’s characters should follow the same procedure, but since he always provides me with such precise documentation, it reduces this step enormously and I can directly fine-tune the character as he imagines it or as I think he imagines it. If necessary, I add some notes on specific details, which we can discuss later.
When it’s all done, I scan and email it, potentially sending along my notes and questions if something was unclear, or explanations on different parts if I took more liberties. Going back to the previous reference example, it was accompanied by the note: do we keep it in a sexier mode with nothing under her dress, or opaque tights?
From then on, all our exchanges are by e-mail, and I insist on sending all the visuals at the same time. At the beginning, no matter who the clients were, I would send the new designs as soon as they were done because I thought I would look faster and more motivated, but in the end this resulted in tons of emails, daily conversations going back and forth, lost information, and it wasted everyone’s time. Now, all the info and visuals are centralized in one single email, and it will be much easier to find them quickly if needed later.
Intermediate steps & Corrections
When all the ideas are sent, it’s Claude’s turn to work. He gives me a first feedback with his comments, also all in the same mail.
- First case, everything is good and validated, and ready to be finalised.
- Second case, a few quick adjustments, for example his feedback on my notes, a few more wrinkles to make a character look older, some underwear under the dress of the girl we just mentioned, so those are all relatively quick corrections.
- Third case, more extensive adjustments if I’m totally off track with things that weren’t clear enough from the start, usually it’s the style of clothing.
Always faithful to his great organization, Claude often looks for additional references to better guide me, and sometimes goes as far as using his own drawing skills to help me better visualize what he wants… with all that training, someday, he won’t need me at all anymore haha ~
Normally, I handwrite all the client comments directly next to the sketches and if needed, I print the new references. Now, during this collab, Claude went from the “ideal client” level to the “super extra client” level, by making me a PDF with all my sketches annotated with his comments. Seriously, it made my organisational work even easier and if any clients come by – take note, if you make our job this pleasant, we’ll worship you forever!
So, following this feedback, I sit down again to correct my sketches, and make all the requested changes. Once again, I wait until I’ve finished everything before sending a second e-mail, after which Claude usually tells me that it’s all good, or that there are still a few things to be done for the toughest drawings. If this is the case, I add a last mail with a final correction, and we usually agree at this stage. As far as the back and forth is concerned, really, write down in your quote or contract how many changes you are proposing, otherwise you’ll risk ending up with a huge workload and an overfilled mailbox. My record was about sixty emails for one single project, honestly I nearly wanted to shoot myself, it was slowing the project down so much, and the client himself admitted that we’d have to find a better system for future times. Limiting the exchanges and staying firm on this number will benefit everyone, and if there are more than expected – you mention it in your quote, and you add them to your invoice.
Anyway, back to the project. It’s only when all the sketches have been validated, all the points defined, that I move on to the next stage, namely inking. This last mail is really the last stage where the client has the right to say anything. To make sure there’s nothing left to change, no regrets, I always ask twice if the client really confirms that it’s OK to finalise, because it will be definite afterwards. Sometimes I feel like an idiot when I say again, “Can you confirm one last time that you agree and understand that no changes will be made afterwards?”, but hey, it’s to protect you from wasting time working on something that won’t satisfy the client afterwards, and it does everyone a service.
Finalising the order
Last step, inking! As the client has validated everything and has nothing more to say, this is a job that I do completely alone. Claude is not the only one who has levelled up in terms of organisation since our last collab, I have also refined my technique by abandoning traditional liners, and I have switched to digital inking with Clip Studio Paint. Since the facial features are very important for this particular commission, and I know pretty well what and how he needs his illustrations, I’m already trying to take care of my sketch drafts with the correct poses, expressions and proportions, so that I can ink them directly after Claude’s feedback. This allows to keep the important features, to have more details, in short, everyone is happy.
The illustrations size is according to the size of the printed novel, with bleed edges, and 600 dpi resolution in case Claude would need it for larger advertising posters. And indeed, the last time I visited his studio, I was surprised to find some of the illustrations framed on a whole wall!
In general, this is a relatively relaxing stage, because I work entirely on my own with already well-defined elements, and in the end it’s “just” a matter of redrawing things properly and making them look as beautiful as possible. On the other hand, it takes a few days in a row because I’m trying to add as many small inking details as possible, and because of overwork and too much repetitive work over the last few years, my right hand tends to get a tendonitis again. The damage is done, I overdid it before, so now I try to limit myself to one morning or afternoon of inking, three days in a row maximum and a day’s break in between. Even if it’s annoying because I want to do more, I’ve realised that if I don’t take care of myself, I won’t be able to draw at all. So there you go, you learn and adapt.
Anyways, since it’s still a longer job, I usually take advantage of it to put on some background noise like podcasts or business trainings, it motivates me and makes me feel more productive, or if I don’t feel like thinking, it’ll be music. Like all the other steps, I try to complete the specific steps in one go, or at least in the same week, taking it as a priority over the other projects. First, it’s always easier to move advance faster and better once you’re in the flow, and second, out of respect for the clients, once the project has started, I don’t want to keep them waiting and always treat them as a priority.
After that, I export the finished visuals in low quality, and I do the near-final email to show the work. Again, Claude and I trust each other, so I don’t bother resizing all the illustrations and just send the full files, but normally sending them in low resolution is highly recommended. The aim is to show the client that everything is done, they have a preview, but they can’t use it without paying. First, you send the visual and confirm that everything is good, you send the invoice, the client pays, and only then you send them the HD files, the easiest way being Wetransfer for large files. It’s a protection for you, because having a client that already uses your artwork while you still haven’t been paid, well, it’s not the nicest experience.
For the record, orders for large companies, municipalities and ministries often take a longer time to be paid because several papers and approvals need to be made by several departments, and they often need the orders quickly. Since these are well-established and serious organisations, this is the only exception where I send the HD files before being paid. Otherwise, for absolutely all the other clients, especially if I’ve never worked with them before, especially if they’re bigger projects, I just don’t trust them until I’ve got my deposit, and until I’ve got the rest, because sometimes you never know.
To close a commission, it’s really basic afterwards – send the invoice, confirm that you’ve received payment, send the HD files, thank the client and see you next time. At this stage, it’s just important that the customer is happy. If you want to go further, you can ask them to write a little testimonial of your collaboration that you can showcase on your website to gather social proof and have more impact on your future prospects, as we talked about it in our sales video, link below. Also, ask how much of the commission you can show in your portfolio out of respect towards your client. You always keep the rights to showcase your work as written in your contract, but for instance if Claude’s book launches next year and he wants to keep the artwork a surprise until then, it would be kinda unfair if I already spoil the whole thing on my website right now.
On that note, clients can also request an addition to the contract that you can indeed publish their commission in your portfolio, but under a specific condition, for instance don’t publish every single page with the text for a children’s book because it would harm the sales, or don’t post a preview before the project is actually launched, which is totally valid.
So, that’s it for this special behind-the-scenes commission video. Once again, I really want to make clear that this is the method I work with, which suits us both well, but everyone will have a specific way of doing things, there will be projects where you need to adapt your methodology, but globally, this is how I proceed with everyone. I hope this real-life feedback has helped you to see more clearly how a commission works in practice, and also gives you some ideas on how to manage your own with more ease.
If you’re really serious and want to go into more detail about pricing, portfolio, contract terms, negotiations, I invite you to my masterclass which will help you get started with private and commercial commissions. There’s so much more to tell, and this course it’s like a compilation of all my beginner mistakes, with all the tips, feedback, project explanations, so you can create serenely, with clients who respect and love your work. The link is in the description, and it’s designed to give you all the keys you need to get started with illustration commissions.
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I really hope to continue this adventure for a long time with all of you, and thank you so much for being here!
See you soon again, for new episodes of Art in Business, Tuesdays at 6pm. Bye ! ♥
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