Ask any creative type who has done freelance work and they will have a bad client story. Some are funny, some are harrowing. They mostly end the same way: the artist doesn’t get paid. It’s an annoying (and at times heartbreaking) part of the business. Artists often don’t have recourse for a delinquent client. We only get the hard-learned lesson and hope that we can learn from our mistakes.
My story took place in 2013, before I’d done any substantial freelance work. I posted art on my blog, but I was focused on my comic book, so I wasn’t actively looking for gigs. Out of the blue came an email from a man who had seen a digital drawing I’d made of a movie still. It was from a French film, and it was a simple portrait a woman sitting on a beach. It was from behind and only her hair and shoulders were visible. I was surprised and flattered that the man knew exactly what film it was from and that he wanted to hire me for an illustration job.
He was starting an online magazine called Cinesprit. He wanted me to design the cover for the inaugural issue. His idea was an illustration based on the iconic French film The Red Balloon. He gave me instructions on what he needed in the design and the dimensions, and I got to work.
When I sent him the rough draft, he approved and I began the arduous process of adding greyscale and color. I was not nearly as adept at digital illustration back then, and it took me some time to set up a work process in addition to creating the final illustration.
I sent him the first draft and he wrote back with some vague instructions on changes. I tried asking him more specifically what he wanted but he was unable to articulate further. This was the first red flag.
I sent him the next draft a few days later. I thought if I worked quickly on the changes he’d be able to approve it and get on with the rest of the magazine. This was a big mistake on my part. I sent him the next version and he came back with more vaguely worded revisions. It sounded like he wanted less detail on the figures, so I found a way to do that.
After this it became a very annoying routine. I’d work on revisions, then he’d come back with additional tweaks. I tried asking him specifically what he wanted, but it didn’t seem to do any good. I realized he probably didn’t know exactly what he wanted.
I changed the pose of the boy on my own and that seemed to be a big improvement. But he still wanted more done. Finally I told him that he could ask for one more change, and then I’d be finished. This process had gone on for too long already.
After the arduous process, he accepted the image. Then he had more suggestions for font and type placement, which was annoying but more easily changed.
We finally agreed that the image was done. At last! But I had made the biggest rookie mistake of all: we had not agreed on a price. At the beginning, he offered to pay me after the magazine was published and people bought it. Kind of a royalty. But he didn’t tell me when the magazine would be published, or offered any details about what would happen if it didn’t sell.
Well, guess what? It was a huge failure. After sending him the final image I heard nothing back from him. I checked online periodically but found no evidence of the magazine. (There was one article mentioning it, but the website it linked to was inactive.)
A year or so later, I was telling a friend about the experience. She got really mad on my behalf and told me to email him again. I did, and to my surprise he wrote back. It was an apology for the magazine not working out, but no offer of compensation for my time.
Had I been more seasoned, I would have obviously done quite a few things differently. I made all the mistakes and he took full advantage of my greenness. In a weird way I’m glad it happened when it did. I learned what I needed to do with future gigs (make a contract, get payment up front or at least upon completion of the work). The memory of my wasted time is no longer aggravating.
So…look out for yourselves, artists!