Last year I was in a pickle concerning a project I’d been working on for a decade. I was looking to complete a demo deck of a card game but to do that I needed art. Art, however, isn’t cheap, and although I had a dozen established friends in the industry who were artists, even ‘friend’ rates for color renderings were running minimally just over one-hundred dollars per card. With one-hundred fifteen individual pieces, that would come to $12,650 just for art.
During a discourse with David Deitrick, we talked over numbers and what some of his art might look like. I invested the going rate of $110 to see what I’d be getting for the game because I thought David’s talents lent very well to the post-apocalyptic theme.
David did up this wonderful piece, and although I loved the style, in the end there was no way I could afford to pay him for the entire project. Knowing that all my other artist contacts were in the same range or much higher, I did what any red-blooded entrepreneur would, I looked to outsource.
The advent of the Internet has made finding artists easy, just take a look at a full world of ready to employ artists on DeviantArt or Elance. It’s simple, just log in, find a message board, post what you want, and let the portfolios flow in.
Did I feel bad? Sure, who wouldn’t… I have friends, real friends, who are struggling for work, wondering where their marketplace went and why companies that used to love them won’t return their calls and yet I’m ‘slumming’ for artists in Thailand. My initial thought was who wouldn’t rather want to throw a friend some available business even if it cost a few extra bucks, like if I go to Target and buy a T-shirt that’s made in the U.S.A. for $20.99 instead of $18.99 that is made in China. However, when the bids came in it very quickly ceased to be ‘a few extra bucks’ but something much more profound. All told, when the bidding war ended, I still gave my money to an American, Tong Bui, a struggling college student in Northern California, but at an unbelievable rate of $13.30 per original color card.
Ok, so using DeviantArt I just saved $96.60 per card for a total of $11,105 saved overall. How freakin’ insane is that? Would a real friend fault me for those savings? [Note: Yes they would, artists are not the forgiving type by nature.]
Side Note: In a conversation with Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games he told me point blank, ‘Art is cheap, don’t spend your budget on art’. It was funny, because at the time I thought, ‘is this guy crazy? Art MAKES the book.’ What I didn’t realize is that ‘good’ art can be faked to a flash and bang driven high-school consumer. The reality is there are so many artists out there you can spend next to nothing and at least get in the proximity of the desired look you want. Remember, however, that Goodman also built his entire company from the Dungeon Crawl Classics lines that utilized cover images from Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, Jim Holloway, and Jim Roslof so I still take his advice with a grain of salt.
Next question, and I’m sure the one that’s on your mind, what about quality? Well, I’m not here to be Lazarus Chernik and give a critique, so I’ll let you all be the judge. Would I rather have had Todd Lockwood than Tong Bui, sure, I mean it is Todd Lockwood after all, but Todd doesn’t come cheap. In some cases, artists of his caliber are paid upwards of $2000 per card image, so art in a deck of Magic the Gathering might cost Wizards of the Coast $80,000 or more up front.
Sorry, back on topic, I.E. quality. Well, having seen what Tong could do, I decided I wanted to test the field on a more standard image rather than a card and see what would happen. I went back to David Deitrick, veteran gaming artist and sci-fi specialist with more than thirty years of industry experience to quote me a price for a color piece of art concerning a sci-fi short story I wrote. He said he’d do a limited color piece for the friend price of $50. I agreed, and sent him the specifics of the picture.
Now before I go further, let me set that stage for this commission. The scene takes place in the future, a red-headed model doing a fun in the sun photo shoot spies a relic old earth red biplane, takes the pilot’s jacket and goggles, and produces a cover worthy image before all hell breaks loose. I sent David the entire written scene, and after a week, he sent me a digital version of the commission, no original which I assume would have cost extra.
So, I had a veteran American gaming artist version for this commission, now it was time to once again test dollar for dollar value. I went to DeviantArt again and found a French/Korean named Teddy Chindavong who I thought was in my price-point. He listed a color piece of art, digital copy only, at $50. Contacting him, I sent him the same info as David, and remember Teddy is French-Korean, so English is his third language, but he took what I wrote and gave a timetable of four days.
Here is what I got for my $50 from the overseas markets, this time Western Europe, so I’ve yet to even tap the Southeast Asian market or the Eastern Europe frontier. What I came to understand here is that there is a glutton of artists on the open market, and that you can well exploit their burgeoning talent assuming you enjoy their style and have the ability to pay.
Both of these young artists, Tong and Teddy, are college students, and can draft digitally very quickly on whatever computer their parents bought them before going away to school or that they’ve built up over their high school years on birthday money and with summer jobs. Looking back on my college days, I would have given just about anything for someone to email me out of the blue and offer me $50 for a short story I was probably going to do anyway as I practiced my craft between classes, parties, and dating.
The above, in its essence is the hard part, the fact that these kids can charge next to nothing because they have relatively nothing to worry about. There are no wives in these artist’s lives, no children, no mortgages, car payments, electric bills, etc. They, like an online retailer, have no overhead, and therefore can undercut artists that have paid their dues in the industry of hard knocks and are now required to charge what they do just to stay afloat.
Technology makes this all possible. The advent of the digital medium and the Internet to promote young artists looking for a taste of the big time changes the way established medium-grade artists die in the industry they once thought they could retire in. For the top ten percent, these young guns won’t have an impact, but that still doesn’t mean the creeping doom of these barbarians at the gates isn’t being heard or felt all over.
Side Note: Jeff Laubenstein was once the hottest artist at FASA, which was also the hottest gaming company in the world next to venerable TSR. One of the co-owners walked up to him one day in the midst of all the success and just kind of matter-of-factly said ‘don’t think of this as a permanent profession’. Jeff, a true company artist, sat stunned at the audacity of the statement, and yet eight years later FASA was defunct, Jeff was searching for freelance gigs, and cheaper new talent was filling the pages of brand new gaming companies that didn’t know or care who this twenty-year vet was.
Even legends like Jeff Easley are feeling the pinch, WotC parting ways with him after a twenty-five year run, and as publishers look to tighten their already shoe-string art budgets, it doesn’t take much for a big name to fall out of favor for an up and coming talent at a quarter the price. Remember, gaming art in its essence is driven by youth, and a youth market is easily diverted to the next big thing.
The greatest sadness here, in my opinion, is that the only ones getting any benefit out of this new world order are the companies. The cheap labor is great for their bottom line, but loyalty doesn’t exist [I just proved that], and there are always more up and coming artists to fill the shoes of those displaced, especially the college freelancers who believe the their early ‘success’ will equate to a future in the business where they can make a living. $50 every week or so is great when you are living off the parents dime, but it won’t keep you fed in the real world.
This is the world of the incredible shrinking middle class, the realm of 99% of wealth held by 1% of the population. This also reminds me of the fall of middle-grade writers, the average lifespan of a published author in the U.S. at a staggering rate of 5 ½ years. To survive at a comfortable rate in the industry of creativity isn’t plausible in the current marketplace, and I find it a sad testament to my experiment and where we are going as a nation.
In the end, when I asked David about this whole affair, he came back with this well-educated response that only David could, “I imagine craftsmen at the dawn of the industrial revolution felt much the same way. They worked and slaved through an apprenticeship – then spent years honing their skills only to have some canny Scot make some sort of mill that reproduced their crafts through a water-wheel or donkey power.”
Outsourcing and the Internet are our next Industrial Revolution, but unionization can’t solve the problems of this type of worker exploitation, and so we’ll have to find another way or fade into artistic oblivion.