Thursday, April 15, 2010

Making a Concert Poster

I was asked to make a poster for an upcoming concert for Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus in Madison, WI, of which I am a member. It was an interesting project, the process of which I want to describe here by way of example. The process of making the poster itself was interesting. And there are thoughts about being a freelance creative that it brought to mind.

Click on image for larger version

The theme of the upcoming concert (at 7pm, May 22, 2010, at Mills Concert Hall in Madison) is Broadway theater music, and the show is titled Broadway, Our Way. (I had some input on the name of the theme, a few months ago.) I'm not that big on Broadway musicals; I like certain composers' work very much, notably Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and there are some great songs that have come from Broadway and become jazz standards, as well as standards in the "American Songbook." I've performed in numerous musicals over the years, among my extensive musical concert experience, and have enjoyed myself each time; yet Broadway isn't my Big Thing, and never was, not the way some other genres of music are.

The process of making this poster was different than many other concert posters I've made. In the past, I have often specialized in photo-based illustrative posters, in Photoshop, combining elements that I've photographed, scanned, or drawn in vector software such as Illustrator. The basic elements of this poster, for the first time in a long time, were hand-drawn.

My first decision was to make this an 11x17 poster in landscape (horizontal) format, rather than the usual portrait (vertical) format, because the theme of the program is Broadway theater, and I wanted to show the front of a Broadway stage or movie theater, and build the design around that.

I tried to do a photo-based poster at first. It just didn't work out. It didn't want to happen, and I eventually felt the concept to be stale and stuck. I looked at clip art for inspiration; I went out and photographed some renovated movie theaters in my area, with classic marquees and poster frames and doors and lighting. But it wasn't coming together; it felt stale.

Meanwhile, I had recently seen a wonderful 4-hour documentary on Andy Warhol on PBS, which included some archival film of how he made those large screen-prints (serigraphs) in series: multiple versions of the same image, often with variations in color or detail. What caught my attention was that Warhol had often screened the color fill-ins as underpainting first, over which he printed the black ink of the basic posterized image of, say, Marilyn Monroe. I was inspired to make this concert poster an homage to Warhol, evoking a poster look inspired by his screen-print style.

I chose a color palette of pink, yellow, and green pastels, as the basic background colors, for two reasons: the association of pink with LGBT cultural productions—not least the pink triangle—and because Warhol had often used similar pastel colors for his screen-prints. I like to incorporate these sorts of associative visual puns in my illustration work, adding layers of association and meaning that pun on "insider" cultural knowledge, but can also be seen as purely decorative design elements. It makes more fun for me, even if no one else gets the visual joke.

I drafted the basic poster background elements in pencil, measuring with a ruler, and drawing straight lines with a straight-edge, the image of the front of the theater. I drew the theater marquee, the doors, the poster displays, the sidewalk, the shapes of the front of a theater entrance. I had my basic image. Then I inked over the image, keeping to a closely-matching but calligraphic line of varying thickness, using a Japanese calligraphy brush pen.

Then I put a new sheet of paper the same size paper over the main drawing, and using a very broad sumi-e brush and sumi-e ink, did large splashes of painting, following the basic illustration's forms, but loosely covering them over.

Both sheets, the original fine-line calligraphic drawing and the broad-brush drawing, were scanned into Photoshop, where I colorized them and started adding the posters other elements in layers. I added the type, some other details, made posters for the Broadway shows whose music would be performed during Perfect Harmony's concert program, and added logos, etc. (By the way, the current version of the PHMC logo is one I designed a couple of years ago for the Chorus, in collaboration with Jim Larson and Kyle Richmond.) As a last joking touch, I signed and dated my name and Warhol's in a corner of the finished poster: just to make the homage more obvious.

The clients and many other people have all said that they really like this poster. I'm glad for that.

I'm not jumping up and down with it, exactly, myself, however. My heart wasn't fully in it, I was distracted by some personal health problems during the process, and I was frustrated that my initial photographic conception had not worked out at all. So, this isn't my favorite piece of my own illustration work. Some of it was quite fun, though, and the decision to draw rather than photograph the basic elements was very pleasing; I have been teaching myself to draw over the past few years, and it was a pleasant test of my new skills to make the poster using calligraphy brushes. With that aspect of the final result I am very happy. I hope to play with similar ideas again soon.

(By the way, I hope to see you at the concert!)

Some comments now on freelancing, which I think apply whether you're an artist, a writer, or whatever.

A very important rule of freelancing: You can't always satisfy your own creative needs by doing commercial illustration work.

And not everything you do will be a masterpiece. You just have to learn to live with that, and keep doing your own personal work anyway. Do it on the side, after hours, if you must; but keep doing it. The goal of a design or illustration project for a client is to give them what they want—and to do so without betraying your own artistic instincts. When everyone is pleased with the outcome, be satisfied with the job you've done, and accept the praise gratefully.

The professional artist does not linger over might-have-beens, but goes on to the next project with everything that has been learned via successfully completing the current one. You won't always love everything you do—but that's okay, that's normal. Your job is to do the best you can given what you have to work with, and if the client is happy with the finished product, you've done very well indeed.

Another very important rule of freelancing: Don't work for free. You must always receive something in return.

Now, it's okay to do some volunteer work, and donate some of your creativity to causes and/or organizations that you believe in. (Over the years I've donated my creative efforts, and also some artwork, to various AIDS support organizations, the American Cancer Society, and others.) But you need to make it clear that you are donating, and that normally you get paid for your work. Don't be self-important or rude about it; just gently remind people that your creative time and effort is valuable.

I receive numerous emails every year, asking to use one of my photographs, illustrations, or designs. Most recently, for example, I was asked for the use of one of my photos for the cover of a to-be-published book. I responded with my rates for the usage of my artwork, and have not heard back; I do not really expect to. A lot of the requests I get via email are from people I don't know who expect to be able to use my artwork for (almost) free; in most cases, I refuse. I am more than willing for my artwork to be used in whatever project people would like to use it for—and I expect to be paid. You'd pay your lawyer; why won't you pay your artist?

In truth, most of the requests I receive are very nice and very polite, and I respond to them nicely and politely—yet they offer me nothing. In many cases, the person requesting my art for free argues that "It's good exposure for your art!"—well, to be blunt, that's an argument that, when made to any professional and experienced artist, comes across as a request made in bad faith. I don't need more "free exposure," I get plenty of that already. (I'm not saying I've always turned down such requests; it depends a great deal on the nature and purpose of the request.) What I require is that my creative work and artistic skill to be respected—which means I need to be paid.

Now, I may not charge much at all; but I will charge at least a token fee. There is a necessary exchange of value for value, that betokens respect. In the past, when I've let some client talk me into using my work for (almost) free, in many cases I never heard from them again: I never received promised payment, and I never received the copies of the finished book or magazine article which had been promised to me. Well, live and learn. But learn this: Don't let yourself, as a freelancer, be taken advantage of. If you don't ask them to pay for your work, you're showing them that they can abuse you, because you're not respecting your own work enough to charge for it.

For this poster I was asked to design for the Chorus, I was offered a payment in trade. I sometimes accept that, if the client is a non-profit organization that I support. In this case, being a member of the Chorus, I received a few perks in exchange, and also an advertisement in the concert program for my photography work. I find that acceptable payment. Here's a version that ad for the concert program—the creation of which was an entirely separate process:

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Anonymous Swanee said...

Wish I could be there! Couldja send me the set list sometime, pleeez?

3:45 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

My first thought of the landscape is that the display windows outside theatres are generally portrait in shape.

I found the pink triangle link of interest. I knew that concentration camp prisoners were colour-coded but I don't ever remember seeing a full chart of the colours matched to their offences. Needless to say Wikipedia provided one.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Broadway junkie that you are, I'll save you a program.


It's an unusual poster all around. That's what prompted me to talk about it, and the process. You're right, of course, most posters are in portrait orientation; but it would really have squeezed the design idea here, and doing it landscape also makes the poster more memorable, hopefully. Perhaps that's why some folks liked it so much—because it IS a bit different. The novelty factor, maybe. Who knows.

The pink triangle is a major piece of LGBT iconography, with a lot of history to it, including some of the ways it's been re-purposed as an icon or design element in recent years. Glad the link was useful.

11:01 AM  

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