Have at least decent knowledge of skate graphics. With two volumes of Sean Cliver’s (amazing) Disposable books, there’s really no excuse not to. Who wants to be the asshole that pitches a screaming hand graphic to Santa Cruz? Not me.
Also you are going to need to know who to pitch your wares to, right? Every company is different. Who is the Art Director? Is there an Art Director? Sometimes the Team Manager steers the graphic ship, sometimes it’s the owner. Find out these things. It’s way easier in the social media days we live in now than it was in 2003. Sometimes the generic email address will get you a response but most times not… Make Google your new best friend, LinkedIn can be very handy also. Not that you needed an excuse, but you should also read as much skateboard media as possible! I have subscriptions to the 3 major mags and peruse Chromeball, Jenkem, and the Slap Boards often. The more you know, the more you grow, as they say.
2. Be Good(ish)
You have to actually be good/decent/passable at art. Not that I’m all that, but prior to making my first skateboard, I had worked professionally in my small town for a decade, and made a little bit of noise with my Gangsta Rap Coloring Book. Any foothold is important, and in my case, having something already to my credit really helped my chances of getting a shot at skateboard work.
Even if you draw everything by hand, you should have some working knowledge of Photoshop and Illustrator. You should also be able to handle questions for the project, like if there’s a Kill Fee (when a company will pay for your time even if a project isn’t produced.) I got paid several Kill Fees from Element before something I did for them was actually produced!
You also need to know how to work within a budget, submit an invoice and meet deadlines. This should all be covered before you start drawing. Know what you are getting yourself into to avoid surprises. In some cases the process of getting paid and the paperwork has taken more time than the actual artwork itself.
After getting the okay for a project, I go through several approval processes: after 1st sketch, after inking and again after coloring. It can cost time waiting to hear back from your contact but it will save a headache when you are asked to completely redo something. In my opinion, once a project is approved, the company is on the hook to pay for it but they don’t always see it that way. You may even end up spending hours on a board that they decided not to make at the last minute. Know these things and you will be better off because it varies from company to company.
4. Thick Skin
You may not hear back. Shit, you probably won’t hear back, but you have thick skin, right? You might hear your style doesn’t match well, and it may not. Don’t pitch a Creature type graphic to a company with a whole different vibe. As a freelance artist, I love to work in as many styles as possible, which expands the scope of work quite a bit. I talked to the great John Lucero recently, and he said, “well, you can draw anything, right?” which was about as high of a compliment as I could ask for.
You may be told your not good enough, and maybe you aren’t! You don’t have to start out swinging for the fences though! Start by hitting up smaller companies, or local shops, or really anyone who can help you get your work in front of people. I also try to do as much apparel, print, or extra work as possible. It’s all a means to an end. Flow to Am to Pro if you wanna get all skateboardy with terminology.
5. Promotion and Goals
It’s a social media age, and there’s a lot of eyes staring downward at little tiny screens. Promote your work in any way you can. Instagram is the perfect medium for this, as well as Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Livejournal/Myspace. I’ve built countless contacts through these avenues and got quite a bit of work that way.
I try to have goals, and when you actually achieve one it’s pretty rewarding. Start small: I wanna draw a skateboard. Then what? I wanna do a series. Then what? My current goal is draw a board for every SOTY. This won’t be easy, but if you are reading this, Chris Senn! Holler at me!
6. Persistence vs. Annoyance
Build relationships, keep in touch, but not so much that it becomes overbearing. No one wants to hear from you all the time, but the occasional update, or check in can really help you out. There’s a lot of really great people in the industry, and it’s a really interesting business. In my case, I was already friendly with Todd Bratrud, who along with being one of the best skate artists ever was at the time art directing Consolidated Skateboards and had a very strong and admired graphic foundation built. He was nice enough after being asked enough times that he gave me the green light to draw up an idea which was then O.K.’ed and went into production. I got two boards for my service but don’t think I didn’t choke back tears when I opened that package. Thanks again, TB.
Learn as much about that side of things as possible and keep on it. I sent Ed Templeton emails for at least five years before I got a shot at doing a board for him, and now I’ve done over ten and worked in collaboration with him. It’s overwhelming and rewarding. Plus he rules, but you knew that.
I was overly excited to do a series of boards for Jaws only to have it cancelled halfway through, due to Birdhouse going in a different graphic direction. I took it way harder than I should have and most likely closed the door on working with them ever again. This kinda stuff is going to happen so don’t take it too personally. Learn from your mistakes, by acknowledging your own fuck ups you are more likely to grow and not repeat them.
In the past I’ve had art altered and changed without my O.K., but that’s gonna happen too. This goes back to having thick skin. Not every project is going to be a home run, switch darkslide, or whatever sports metaphor you want to apply.
It’s also possible to have your graphic ideas stolen as well. It sucks, but it happens. I covered this in my rejected skate graphics article for Jenkem, but there’s not much you can do about it other than hold your cards very close to your chest. Most people will respect you, but some won’t, as is the way of the world. There’s also the money, or lack of it. Most people don’t pay well. Don’t expect to make a mint, and if you have read this far you would most likely draw boards for free. The occasional free one is ok, but how much product do you really need in trade?
8. Have Fun
Skateboard art is one of the coolest mediums there is for an artist. It’s constantly self-referential, plays with pop culture and goes places a lot of other art avenues do not, so have fun with it. You’re not digging ditches. Enjoy it!
Words: AJ Morano
Graphic Designs & Artwork: AJ Morano
AJ’s work includes boards for Chocolate, Baker, Toy Machine, Birdhouse, Creature, World Industries, Skate Mental, LE, Foundation…etc. For more visit: www.ayejay.com or Instagram @ayejaydotcom
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What do you recommend doing if the company steals your concept during the approval process, then takes it to another artist?