How NOT to hire an artist

I was browsing Reddit earlier today, as is my morning routine, and I came across an article called How to hire an artist (archive link). This article has been widely panned and criticized by artists and people with the capacity to think, and rightly so. The more I read it, the more it irks me, and I wanted to issue a point-by-point response.

Original article link.

How to find an artist:

I recommend looking through art sites such as Deviantart for an artist which suits your taste, or any other site that has a decent art community such as Newgrounds. There’s a few reasons you want to find an artist this way. First of all, they’re cheaper. These guys aren’t used to making a lot of money for their work so they will be more appreciative of the chance even if they are being payed slightly less than what professionals are payed.

That’s a bit misleading. I know many extremely high-rent, talented and quite expensive professionals that host their work on DeviantArt and these other sites. Just because they’re on this site doesn’t mean that they’re automatically cheaper. There’s going to be a wide spread of artists at all skill levels and price points.

Second, stating openly that going cheap is the top priority when looking for an artist is dumb. Art is NOT a commodity. Matching the artist to the task is important. If I’m contracting out creation of the game’s main character, I pay more for a better artist to do it because more eyes will be on that asset for longer, and it’ll be scrutinized very closely by players.

But if I’m looking for basic background props like crates and barrels, I tend to look for lower-cost volume vendors. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for, and learning how best to allocate your resources to achieve your project’s development goals is important.

Sometimes budgets are limited and you need to hire inexpensive artists. Nothing wrong with that. But in my experience, the world isn’t divided into “cheap, inexperienced artist” vs “expensive, talented artist.” Every contract is different and every artist is different. People are motivated by different things, and if your financial means are limited, you can still do a lot if you can find what it is they actually care about that you can offer them. I’ve gotten to work with extremely top-shelf artists on low budgets because:

  1. I can offer a steady volume of work over time that I can commit to contractually,
  2. We negotiate a specific number of revisions in the contract, and pay for all revisions above that number. This is SHOCKINGLY uncommon, and I’ve gotten unbelievable price breaks on this because it essentially removes the bulk of the risk to the artist. Getting stuck in infinite revisions and never being paid sucks, and showing up-front that YOU understand THEIR concern and THEIR risks and genuinely want to be fair goes a long way.
    This also forces you to assign a specific dollar cost to changing your mind on anything later, and will encourage you to get better at planning and making good decisions.
  3. I can negotiate their name in the credits. Sadly, this is also very uncommon. This isn’t a straw man, either — I genuinely do have to fight with my own companyclient to negotiate for this.
  4. I can offer them an opportunity to work on a type of game or with an art style they like but never get a chance to work with. I’ve gotten some awesome results from this. A lot of successful high-end artists sometimes get stuck on projects they don’t like and long for something different and fun, and being able to let them go totally nuts on something they can be passionate about and feel ownership over is enormously compelling.

Honestly, a predatory sort of tone comes through in the article that I really don’t like. I understand what he’s intending to say, but for god’s sake, you have to learn how to talk about it carefully. I’ve fallen into this same trap before with an old article of mine. You should be more mindful.

Second of all, they’re better. The quality of art you can find through this method is pretty amazing, and the vast amount of artists guarantee you will find something that suits your tastes and needs. Unless you have a specific price you want to pay in mind, ask THEM what they are willing to charge for the project. This usually causes people to give offers that are lower than what you normally pay, and will make them happy.

I don’t know why he thinks that cheaper, apparently inexperienced artists are going to be inherently better than seasoned professionals. I do agree that you can find diamonds in the rough and great talent rather easily on sites like that around which artists congregate, however.

The last half is actually a common negotiation technique: Whoever gives the first number loses. If you intentionally seek out inexperienced artists not familiar with negotiation and lead them into that trap, then sure, you’ll probably get lower prices. That doesn’t make it any less of a dick thing to do!

If I’m working with young and inexperienced artists, I prefer to be fair, be open, and try to teach them the ropes (within reason) as we go. If I’m in a position to help educate them on the job to become better and more effective artists, that benefits both of us and, in a broader sense, the industry as a whole.

I like working with smart, experienced people, and if I can do my small part to help people learn to be more effective professionals, I’ll gladly do it. Every young artist I shepherd along is going to be a better artist for his next client, and so on. We’re all in this together… and I’m not a fan of milking the informational advantage I have over the artists just to save a few bucks.

The obvious downside of this, though, is what if that artist figures out you’re screwing him? All he has to do is talk to another artist. Losing an artist in the middle of a contract or a project sucks! If you approach the beginning of the contract with openness and mutual respect, you’re more likely to retain that artist for the long term, which benefits you and your project enormously.

Think long-term and don’t get caught in the trappings of short-term sacrificial gains… it always pays off to play it straight and honest.

How NOT to find an artist:

Do not look for either professional artists, or an artist that has done a lot of game design work in the past.

This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. Don’t hire experienced professionals? This guy must not value his time at ALL.

I think of it this way: I’d rather pay 20% more for a professional that’ll deliver exactly what I want the way I want it THE FIRST TIME because he knows how to make game-ready assets, than to spend VAST amounts of my time managing and tweaking an inexperienced artist’s work because he doesn’t know how to develop usable game art and I have to teach them as I go. I’ve been caught in this trap before and I hate it. This piece of advice is bad for artists AND managers.

The problem with artists who do this as their full time job is that they’re usually expensive. Compared to what you can find through art sites, these guys tend to cost an arm and a leg.

Did it occur to you that they might be expensive for a reason? (hint: It’s because they know what they’re doing and will save you time on endless revisions and novice mistakes. Everything costs.)

Artists who have done a lot of game design work are also bad for a similar reason, they know how much flash games can earn so they expect a decent percentage of the profit.

I’ve been involved in managing dozens of projects of all kinds, including Flash-based games, and I’ve never had a single artist ever ask me for percentage of the game’s profit. Nor would I ever consider offering it.

Most intelligent artists see “I’ll pay you a percentage!” as code for “I am cheap, this game will never launch and I will waste your time but act as though you are my slave because of Massive Future Profits!”

This is another side effect of working only with inexperienced artists: They’re naive enough to think that’s actually a good deal! Most smart, professional, effective artists are strictly work-for-hire because they’ve made that mistake in the past.

There are certainly exceptions to this. I’ll be the first to admit that my experience is PC and console-heavy, and less Flash-based games. But the general principle here still holds true.

Artist payment:

Make it clear to whomever you hire that they will not be payed until ALL the work is completed, unless it is completed by a predefined date, and unless it matches or exceeds expectations.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about artist payment. In general, yes, payment is received when the work is completed. Specifying a due date for the work is a given. Meeting or exceeding expectations is also, naturally, expected and specced out clearly in the contract beforehand. However, for example, what if it’s a multi-month project?

In my experience, artists going longer than three weeks without some money or payment will disappear and never speak to you again. If you’re asking an artist to do an enormous amount of work for which he’ll be paid only at the end, he’ll likely never start or be slow at it.

My favorite way to structure a contract is to divide all the work up into discrete work units that the artist can invoice for every two weeks as long as the work comes in on time and is approved. That way, it’s essentially a steady bi-weekly paycheck. I’ve experimented with all kinds of different contract lengths and payment schedules, and two weeks is the sweet spot. It keeps motivation up tremendously, and I always push hard for that payment schedule.

Finally, don’t forget that, as a manager, the artist is taking a risk by working with you if you’re a new client. Artists get screwed all the time. If you can understand that and meet them in the middle and show that you’re honest, trustworthy and understand their concerns, they’ll be easier to work with and you won’t have to worry nearly as much about artist turnover.

The assumption that an artist should be grateful to be so honored as to be paid to work in the presence of your magnificence is insulting and demeaning. I’d like artists to want to work with me on my project. I’m not special just because I have money.

We’re all people, here. Fair pay for fair labor. One of my cardinal rules is NEVER to enter a deal that isn’t equitable for both parties. If I only have $X to spend and the artist wants $X + 20%, I try to find a way to streamline, simplify or otherwise adjust the scope of the work to make the cost make sense.

If we still can’t come to an agreement, I thank them for the time, and move on to try to find another artist. Often I’ll ask for a referral from the artist to someone that may be better-suited for the work. See, I want to establish long-term positive working relationships, and entering a deal where one side has vastly more upside than another is not kosher to me.

I’m not out to get as much as I can out of somebody, I’m out for each of us to feel we’re getting a fair deal and to have a long-term, positive working relationship. This benefits everybody. Artists get stability, I get great art at the right price and on schedule, and neither of us have to deal with the drama of replacing each other. Nobody likes churn.

Paying prior to the completion of the project is a bad idea for several reasons. Only paying for the finished work encourages the artist to finish their job faster, if you pay up front the artist has no motivation to finish quickly. Similarly, if you pay up front the artist could disappear and you may never get what you payed for!

This is HYSTERICAL to me. Have you considered that you have problems with artist turnover because 1) You hire only inexperienced, naive people you disrespect and underpay, and 2) You’re a really crappy manager that they want to escape from as quickly as they can?

This is a self-created problem. I have never had problems with artist turnover because I don’t treat them like ignorant slaves. There is a lesson to be learned here!

Keep them in the dark:

This relates back to what I talked about earlier. If an artist knows how much their artwork will increase the value of the game they will then feel they deserve that amount of money. This is not how a market economy works, you hire whoever is able to do the best job for the lowest amount of money, anything else is a loss of money on your end.

This is so deeply misinformed and ignorant that I’m actually offended by it.

One of the biggest driving forces behind an artist’s passion and motivation is the amount of pride and ownership he feels in his work. I remember that, having started in games as an artist, and I try to give that to the artists I work with.

Whenever possible, I explain to them the context of how important their work is to the game. I send them screenshots and news articles. I tell them what other parts of the game it’s influenced, I tell them how much the rest of the team loves their work, and I try to give them as much of a sense of ownership as I’m able to with the parts of the game they touch.

I’ve seen artists’ work transformed from merely average to truly excellent because they finally see the results of their hard work and the context in which it will be seen by players.

I’m passionate about the projects I’m working on and I try my ASS off to sell that and show other people why I’m so into it and why they could be, too, but I have to give them legitimate reasons for feeling that way. I go out of my way to try to foster a sense of them being on a team and being an important part of the project because THEY ARE!

Contract artists do not feel entitled to share in the profits on the games they work on. It is widely understood to be a simple work-for-hire arrangement. They get paid for their work, and then they move on when their part is done. Only an inexperienced amateur would even be irked about sharing profits and trying to seek it out later. Once again, this is another self-created problem from this article’s author. This is truly dumb and painful to read.


Give strict dates about when you need the art done (even if you don’t) and give consequences by deduction in pay if the art is not completed by the date. Unless the person you’ve hired happens to be very punctual, you will need strong motivation to make sure they finish the art in a timely manner. Try to only hire people ages 18+ (I may sound a little hypocritical here), kids are generally less reliable and have more IRL things come up that they can’t control. I’ve had several bad experiences with this.

Setting due dates is, of course, a given. Deducting pay, however, is a completely dickbag move, and I would never consider doing that to an artist. What if it’s YOUR fault as a manager that the art is late?

No intelligent artist would willingly choose to put his earnings at risk because you’re clearly incompetent and may change your mind or create more work for him on a whim. I’d never do that myself and I’d never ask someone to do it. Just because you’re in a stronger negotiation position by being the man with the money doesn’t mean you need to be such a dick to people.

If an artist completely blows a date, use the termination clause in the contract to end the contract and pay him for the work completed up to the date of termination, and then don’t issue any further contracts. Then find a new artist.

Artists either succeed or don’t, and I’ve NEVER successfully motivated an artist to be awesome through the use of threats. Even if it worked, I wouldn’t want to.

And hell, man, if you’re concerned about giving them motivation to finish in a timely manner, see my notes above on how to encourage an artist to care about your project and make him feel involved. Not all artists are motivated solely by money, or by threats of withholding pay.

You, sir, are a terrible client and encourage everything I despise. I hope you change your ways and start treating artists better. However, now that your article has been this well-publicized, I’d be surprised if you can find a competent artist willing to work with you. And rightly so.

For shame.

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