Thinking about commissioning an artist for the first time? A walkthrough.
In my early days on Writing Twitter, I noticed something amazing: authors like me were showing off custom artwork of their characters. I was immediately obsessed. I started collecting a list of artists I loved in case I ever wanted to commission something.
Okay, truth: I knew I wanted to commission something, and it was just a matter of time. I'm very reward motivated, and I'd already decided each time I hit a writerly milestone of any sort, I needed some kind of celebratory way to acknowledge it. To make it special. To make this whole publishing quest more endurable over the long haul. For example, each rejection while querying earned me one piece of excellent chocolate. Because rejections are milestones, too. Each partial or full request, same. Anytime I saw "Query reply" pop up in my inbox, I grabbed a piece of chocolate before opening my email. Whether it ended up being a consolation prize or a celebration, the chocolate did its job well! Non-food rewards tended to be craft books or a preorder with fun book swag.
But I needed more, especially for the big stuff!
The first time I decided to reward myself with character art was soon after I applied for Author Mentor Match. I figured the odds were against me but the process of applying had forced me to do a ton of reward-worthy work: hone my query letter, write a synopsis (ugh), polish my first 50 pages. Next up, picking an artist. I cannot say enough how lucky I feel to have found Alina, who goes by @Alilyushka on Twitter!
I already knew I loved her work from her portfolio and the character commissions by other authors that occasionally graced my timeline. But working with an artist to bring your characters to life requires more than finding someone with artistic talent. Our characters are precious to us, right? I can't imagine the disappointment I would feel if their representation fell short of what I'd pictured. Thankfully, I never had to experience that disappointment because Alina has an incredibly intuitive sense of who they are as individuals, though she's never read my books. How is this even possible? Probably because: (a) Alina is amazingly talented (b) She listens to every detail I provide and makes adjustments until I'm happy (c) I provide a LOT of details! Like, a lot.
Proof of (a): here are a couple of pieces I commissioned from Alina for different books. This one's the full cast from my multi-POV sci-fi thriller CHILDREN OF HESPERIDES, which you can read about here.
And this one's from my nerdy YA rom-com MIRA & JAYA BOLDLY GO.
So. Thinking about commissioning an artist for the first time?
I'll outline the general process as a walkthrough of a baking scene I recently commissioned, with permission from Alina to share her creative process. This of course represents my n = 1 experience (please note that every artist works differently—it's a good idea to check in with your artists on what they need to be successful). Once Alina is open to commissions—wait, how do you know who's open in the first place? If you're searching on Twitter, you can search the tag #PortfolioDay and sort by most recent. Artists will almost always say whether they're open or not in their bios. Sometimes artists will have long wait times, and you'll have to decide if you can be patient or want to move on to an artist who's currently open.
DO commission an artist whose skill level and style is a good fit for you. Look at as many examples of their work as you can find! And be sure to consider the artist's range of styles so you have reasonable expectations about their ability to execute your genre and the elements of your worldbuilding that are important to you.
That said, if you're a fantasy author and the artist you've selected doesn't have any examples of fantasy characters in their portfolio, don't necessarily rule them out as a possibility if you like their style otherwise. Maybe no one's ever commissioned fantasy from them before, but they may be perfectly capable of drawing your mages and thiefs and fae, etc.—just ask! Getting Started
Per my reward system, I wanted to celebrate signing with my agent, so I let Alina know I wanted to be in her queue for commissions as soon as possible. Fortunately, she was open, and I began the way I always do: by describing my vision for the art in general terms. For this piece, I didn't have a super clear vision of the baking scene when I first reached out.
DO include details like: the must-haves in your art. Outline what you want included so the artist knows which elements are most important to you and where they have room to add their own creative touches. Next, I provide reference photos. How many? As many as needed, and no more. Pinterest is a great source for this, along with Google images and wherever else you can find images. Important note: Since these pics are only for reference, I'm not careful about fair use in DMs—this is only for the purpose of visual communication between me and the artist.
I strongly believe in supporting artists by crediting them properly and paying them for their content! In the following examples, please reach out via my contact form or DM me if you recognize the artists I found on Pinterest so I can update this post with their info.
DO add notes and other markups to the images you send your artist! The more specific you can be, the happier you'll likely be with the end result.
In the baking scene I commissioned, I wanted my characters to wear the aprons described in my book, and while there are many Star Trek aprons, I couldn't find one that matched the description readers would be familiar with. So I crudely drew a Trek delta on the lower portion of an apron that was close to what I wanted to see.
Clearly, I am not an artist!! Sometimes, you don't know exactly what you want until you see it. Good artists will be open to taking the creative lead if you're unsure of how you'd like your characters or other elements in the drawing to be posed, the color scheme, etc. In this case, I knew I wanted the cat Fizz from my book MIRA & JAYA BOLDLY GO asleep on a chair, but I didn't know (or really care) how he was posed.
DO provide options in your reference images, especially when you're not too particular about certain details!
After I send my ideas, I wait to get Alina's early sketch, which maps out character positions and other details like clothing, background, expressions, actions. For this scene, I was having trouble deciding exactly what my characters should be doing in the kitchen, so she sent three possibilities and I had the opportunity to make further suggestions.
There's a usually a lot of back-and-forth from here as Alina makes clarifying edits based on my feedback on each new stage of the drawing.
From there, I make... more suggestions! Often with more reference photos. At this point, I had a better sense of how I wanted the kitchen to look, so I did a truly horrible job coloring the rough kitchen sketch Alina provided.
Turned into THIS!! (still not the final image, but omg look how great it is already!!)
DO share any lingering tweaks you'd like to make with your artist, within reason. At this late stage, there were only two changes I wanted to make: a different floor pattern/color and darker lips for my character Mira (left) to be consistent with Alina's previous drawing of her. So I sent off my final suggestions using yet more reference photos.
And the completed, beautiful, exactly-as-I-pictured-it result? Was THIS...
Some final tips:
DO be patient with your artist! While Alina has always had a pretty quick turnaround for my commissions, artists get busy and good work can take time. I've never asked for or expected art on a short deadline.
DO be kind to your artist! That seems like an obvious one, but sadly, it's not.
DO credit your artist when you share their work! It's the right thing to do, and you want to send more work their way anytime you can.
So to wrap up, why do authors need artists? If you're an author in the trenches, on sub, post-book deal but pre-publication, your book likely has been read by only a small number of people. Your characters are still locked inside pages on your computer, waiting to enter a bigger world of readers.
Character art offers us an early way to let our characters out into the sunshine, to share what makes them special with folks who haven't gotten to know them yet. It's magical in that way; artists are magicians who transforms our words into pictures. And there's something wonderful about supporting fellow creatives. We truly need each other!