Category Archives: illustration

The Power of Doodling

I love doodling. I find it to be a great activity that allows an artist to let thought flow more freely. Whenever I have the chance to doodle in prep for an illustration, I always find the end results to be richer and more detailed. Story elements also creep in. My visual language to express a character expands.

For cartooning, I think doodling is a valuable exercise. Kool Aid Gets Fired came from a doodle of Kool Aid having a moment of existential crisis. Many of my background characters come from doodles in sketchbooks. I doodle something that I feels really captures the visual essence of what you might think such a person looks like. When I drew the little guy down in the right hand corner, I thought he looked like an everyday background office worker, someone who pretty much comes in, does their job, and goes home.

His final incarnation in Kool Aid he had glasses. But the basic idea for what many of my office workers would look like came from this doodle. To me (and everyone is going to see different), it says, he’s been at his job not just years, but a few decades. Not fully beaten down, but definitely a corporate cog that knows his place.

As contrasted by this doodle, who I always thinking of as Ken Newman, bright, shiny, energetic, looking for ways to make a change and improve things. Often I will take a doodle and expand on it, working out how the character might look expressing different emotions.

Sometimes a character from a doodle ends up in a full illustration. I’m not sure if I specifically used the person on the left in the drawing on the right. The one on the left was a women who got onto the train with her chello and bags and insisted on squeezing into the space. I was trying out some new brushes in Painter for this. Clearly the way I drew the head stuck in my head for the crowd scene I drew.

When I worked in offices, often my meeting handouts would end up covered in doodles. Often they were of co-workers.

I think that moving forward, I’m going to devote some time to just doodling each week. No specifics, no goal, just a journey.

Looking at the Past

I came across a bunch very old illustrations the other day, and thought, man, I would not recognize this as my work, compared to what I do today. Here take a look. (Happy Reed? Pictures! Also forgive any formatting issues. Since these blog entries are as I think of them I don’t take much time to try and re-size images and such.)

These are part of a series done for Reeling, the Chicago GLBT film festival. They got a lot of attention and people really liked them. So much that someone ripped off the style for several brochures, and people thought I had done the illustrations. To bad I didn’t, because more then likely, the person who ripped me off got paid. I did this for free for the exposure. I didn’t get any work from this.

I was very proud of these at the time. They were the best work I had done at the time. I can still see elements of these in my current work.

My friend was working at Chicago Magazine, handling the entire online website. This was back before the internet started killing magazines and newspapers. Chicago Magazine didn’t support the online site then. It was just her, and she had no budget, no direction to take the site. It barely served as a, whats happening. So she asked me to do these tiny illustrations for the site. For free. I thought, at least I can say I have worked for Chicago Magazine, and maybe I might get to network to get some work in the actual magazine. But that didn’t happen.

For a while I worked at a company that did corporate communications, mainly newsletters, brochures and more. Sometimes, they wanted illustrations. My boss never wanted to spend money of art and graphics, which was good for me, since it fell to me to come up with illustrations.

I really don’t know what I was trying to do with the shape of the heads. These were for a brochure about hospital credentialing. Back then, computers had these giant, thick monitors, that took up your whole desk!

Oh hey! One of the first illustrations I got paid for. For Lakeland Boating (I still do illustrations for them). It was about how the head (bathroom) on boats often can be left…messy. I wrote a dirty limerick on the wall, and thought I had smudge it enough. I didn’t, but thankfully they caught it before it went to print. I don’t do that anymore. (Here I sit, broken hearted, came to shit and only farted, in case you were wondering.)

Back then, I did  lot of work with actual materials, and would have to send them in to be scanned. The good thing about that, is you can work in different ways. Like this for an article about Morse Code.

I did it on scratch board. I really liked it. So did the editor. So much he kept the original art and never sent it back. Nor did he offer me any money for the original art. Yeah, people actually do that. A contract prevents that.

However, this did lead to me doing a series of these of skeletons. A friend of a friend opened a small knick knack shop, and wanted artists to put their work up for commission. So I did a bunch, and they sold. The first few that sold she gave me my share. The rest, she kept all of it, because her shop wasn’t doing well, and needed the money.

Come to think of it, she was friends of the editor that kept the image above. Another good reason for going digital, or at least only delivering digital. And contracts

These are some images that I did that were not for clients, but just myself.



It’s always interesting to look back. I also found a disk with all these illustrations I did for this interactive CD a bank put out to help people prepare to take a test to get their real estate license. There were 3 of us doing the illustrations, and a 4th guy doing all the photo researching. I think there was over 500 illustrations that were needed. I was working for a company that was doing the CD for the bank. I never dealt with the person at the bank, but we always got to hear her feedback. Like, I don’t like the color green. So what about the illustrations about lawn care and such? She also didn’t like red. Or bright blues. In fact, she doesn’t like primary colors.

So the color palette eventually became grays, beiges, purples, light baby blue, and where appropriate, some greens.  She also so everything as sexual and violence towards women.

I honestly can’t say what I think about my old work. I can say my skill has improved a lot.

Common Elements

When I make friends with other artists who are at some stage of their professional careers, I get very curious about how they feel their success happened, and one thing that seems very common, is networking with other artists. Mainly the ability to get feedback, and idea’s and learn. Being an artists seems to be an ever learning process, which I am fine with.

But I also think successful artists also have a way of approaching making art as a professional that sets them apart from those that end up not being successful.

I’m also not much on the, Do What you Love, and the Money Will Follow kind of people. While their might be some truth to that, I know lots of people that did what they loved, and the money didn’t follow and they eventually had to give up. And not all of these people lacked a drive to make it.

But, I do think some of the ones that gave up, had unrealistic expectation of what success would be. I’ve heard many artists talk about the one thing that would do it for them. But, it’s never really about one thing. Everything is built on something else. I had good success with Kool Aid Gets Fired, but I don’t want to try and make a whole career off that one comic. I’ve had good success as an illustrator, but I’m only as good as my last piece. I’m not looking for that one image that will make everyone flock to my door.

I’ve known artists that get very negative when something they did, is well received, but doesn’t lead to other things. Kool Aid was well received, but i don’t think I’ve gotten any other work from it. It does help to show my level of ability and that I can write and draw a whole book. And that’s enough for me, honestly.

So, if people Do What They Love, and the money does follow, I think it’s because they don’t spend to much time worrying about if what they are doing is going to make them money. Yes, in this day and age, you have to worry about money. No one really likes living in a shack, with dirty cloths and eating garbage food because that’s all you can afford. But again, it’s not about that either.

For example, right now, I’ve agreed to be the weekly illustrator for a local magazine in NY. 3 drawings a week, for the Whats Coming up section. The pay isn’t on level with normal illo jobs, the magazine, while having a good profile, isn’t making money hand over fist it’s self. But, I’m getting to do 3 drawings a week, that require me to stretch my abilities, focus on getting the work done fast without hacking. I’m also trying to expand my style a bit, as I change my thought process in how I approach things.

Current work in progress, for Next Magazine

After a few months, I expect that I will see significant improvements in my art, and the speed at which I work. I will feel more confident in my choices. I didn’t mind the low pay, because the challenge of doing this is worth it to me. So, I’m getting paid in a way that doesn’t pay the rent, buy food or clean my clothes in any serious way. That’s ok. I’m investing in myself. I’m willing to take the ten years to see if it pays off.

I’ve been working at being an illustrator, for about 2 years now, and I really focus more on doing the work, finding the work and making the next piece better then the piece before it. When I don’t have any work to do, I draw and try and push my work into new directions. When the checks come, they come. It doesn’t matter that this drawing paid me $600, took the same or less time then this drawing that paid me $100. I gave them both my best work.

I know many artists who insist that you should always try for the $600 jobs. I do. But I take the $100 jobs too. I take the jobs, because what it really means to me, right now, is a chance to draw, with a focus and a goal and end to work towards. It means I have to trust the choices I make, and it means I get a chance to put my brain to work and see if I can come up with a great idea. It means I’m doing what I love, regardless of the money, because I’m actually trying to get something out of it that is more important then money.

Another thing I hear people say is that they tried for a few years, and things didn’t happen. I wish I had the link, but studies show, people who try and make it in the creative service industries, get successful in 12 years on average. By successful, they mean to the point where they can pick and choose the projects they want to work on, or pitch the projects they want bigger companies to invest in. And that on average, it takes about 3-5 years to get to the point where you are getting the kind of work you want. I’m lucky, I’m getting some of that now. But I still take what is called Meat and Potatos work.

I worked many years as a production artist for publishing companies. Now I work part time, from time to time, for companies that staff up when they have a lot of work and down when they don’t. It works out great for me, as it gives me more then enough money to get by, money to set aside for the lean times, and more then two days a week for my own work, or any illustration work. I work towards having to do less and less of that kind of work.

Also, I don’t take not getting work as a set back either. An actor I knew, gave up acting, after not getting a part. The way he tells the story, it was down to him and one other person. The other person got it, because they were friends of the marketing person for the theater company. I have no idea how he knew that, and I even asked, and the best answer he could give is, I just know it. The way he tells the story, is that he did A, B, C, like you are supposed to, and so he should have gotten the part.

But the thing is, that’s how the entertainment industry works. It’s partially how the commercial art industry works. It’s how a lot of industries work. It’s not the only way it works, but it’s foolish to think other wise. It’s also foolish to give up on what you want to because of one show you didn’t get the part to. And in the actors case, he was only in his early 30’s when it happened. It wasn’t like he hadn’t gotten shows or worked as a professional actor/singer before that. In fact he had. What bothered him, this was a big show. Would it have been a career maker? Who knows. It’s what I was saying earlier about not expecting the world from one piece.

To me, it just means I’m moving closer to success. I at least made it that far. What do I need to do next time to make it farther? Or in my case, what do I need to add it my art to make it better then last time.

That’s what I’m focused on. Not how big a check I’m getting.

What do you need to get work?

I’ve talked about needing a portfolio before being able to get work, but it also goes beyond just that. You hear more and more about needing an online site, and it’s true, so many art directors and image coordinators would rather you send a link. I would much rather send a link then have to mail samples. But I’ve also found, this hasn’t eliminated the need to have a physical portfolio. Sometimes an art director wants to meet in person. I just recently did that, and was asked to bring work to show.

When you have an online portfolio, it’s easy to think, but all you are going to see is what is on my site. But that’s not always true. I have lots of images that aren’t on the site, that just as easily could be. And I have lots of spot illustrations that aren’t on the site.

First, spend some money on a decent portfolio. Mine is from Kolo a company that makes photo albums and scrapbooks. But many of their books can also double as a portfolio, since they come with letter size plastic pages to insert your samples. It’s cloth covered. has a window in the front where I can place a custom image. The plastic inside is a high quality and doesn’t get milky over time. And, it’s only $30.oo That’s pretty cheap for a presentable portfolio. I’ve known friends to spend hundreds on portfolios, to impress.

Trying to impress with spending a lot on a presentation concept is mixed. If it’s related to what you do, yes. For example, a friend once spent about $150 on a custom made box for his portfolio as a photographer. Each photo was mounted and matted, he could fit about 12 images in the box, there was a cloth pull tab to remove the stack, because they fit so tightly. It was very impressive.

Did it ever get him any work? I don’t think the box itself it did. BUT what it did do was let ADs know he respected his own art and was serious about it. Which is what your portfolio should do. Hence it’s worth spending some money.

Because while a nicer portfolio might not get you more work, you can be sure that a cheap one could definitely say something about you that isn’t true. It’s one of those, “When it’s right, people won’t notice, but if it’s wrong, it’s going to stand out.”

What you put your physical portfolio in is the same as what you might wear to an interview.

Also, your portfolio could also be on something like an iPad. More and more art directors are will look at your work on such a device. The image is clear enough and large enough for them to get a good sense. If you have such a device, don’t hesitate to take advantage of it. However, an iPhone isn’t the same. It’s way to small.  (Thanks to Reed Bond for reminding me of this!)

I’ve talked to a lot of different illustrators, and one thing that comes up is getting postcards. Should you or shouldn’t you?

I once ordered a 1,000 postcards, to do mailings. I ended up sending out over half of them, the rest I threw out, because I had moved and the information on them had become outdated. It was very time consuming, and costly. And I don’t think I ever got a single job from doing that.

When I work on site for a client, I often see promotional post cards from illustrators scattered about. For the most part, they seem forgotten. I seldom see art directors or designers putting them up in their office or cubical.

But I still think it’s a good idea to get some. Not for mailing to Art Directors, but to hand out, or as a leave behind. If you go in for a portfolio review, they often want something to keep, with your information. This is a perfect use for a postcard. If you do trade shows or conventions, the same. You can hand them to people interested in your work. It’s bigger then a business card so your image is better represented then it would be on a business card. Putting a postcard in someones hand is far more effective then mailing them one. And with better print on demand services, you don’t have to order so many. And it’s much cheaper these days. Some services, like offer the ability to have multiple images on postcards and business cards, for no additional charge. That way if you can’t decide on what image you want, you can pick several.

Regardless of what you do decide to use to present your work, always have business cards, and always carry them with you and don’t be afraid to hand them out. Also, don’t stress out on making the best business card you can, that will stand out and make everyone notice you. Are you a designer? Then have a serviceable business card. Pick an image that you feels best represents your work, and make sure all your contact info is on there. When it comes to info, I do believe that it’s possible to go over board. With Twitter, facebook, Tumblr, flickr, and all the other social networks, sometimes people tend to link all those (I do).

To me, and this is my personal opinion, having a long list of where people can find updates and info from you, seems kind of desperate. Sure people like to get their info from one source, which is why I have them all, and link them. But I tend to direct people to my website, from which they can then get the info to my other accounts/profiles.

But to each their own. Some people think providing all the information saves people the time of having to go to a website, and such. And, they are right. To each their own, really.

The great thing about PDFs, they cost nothing, and you can change them around as much as you want. If someone wants samples, you can email them specific images. You can burn the file to a disc and leave it with them for pennies. So yes, having a PDF ready to go is important.

I’ve never been asked for a resume for freelance work. Only when I am applying for long term production art work where I will be working on site. I still have one ready and updated.

To me, a portfolio these days is actually a multi-piece of self promotion. It’s never just a site, or a book. Use whatever tool you can to get work. The more tools you have, the more you can do, the easier it will be to get things done.