Last week I received and email from an artist who will be setting up at his first convention in March, and was curious if I had any advice about setting up and exhibiting. Friends of mine suggested that this might be a topic and reply worthy of sharing, so here goes. (And I apologize for the lack of visuals that tie into the text...instead, enjoy spot illustrations from the Mouse Guard RPG)
-Pulling the trigger
First off, I'd like to start by talking about getting to the step of exhibiting at a convention. I would never be where I am now if I hadn't plucked up the courage and reluctantly parted with some cash and set up at the Motor City Comic Con in October of 2004. If you want a career in illustration or storytelling, I recommend exhibiting in an artist alley at least once if only for the experience. Like anything, you learn by doing (not thinking about doing something someday) and even if you are unsuccessful at your first show, or first several shows, hopefully you will have learned and grown...or perhaps you will be successful right out of the gate!
Obviously, if this is your first con, you are going to need to put out a little bit of cash for some supplies like a portfolio some printing, and a table cloth...but I'll get into that stuff as we go along....just keep in mind, you can start small and build your con supplies up with a small budget. And price out a conventions that works for you. There are big expensive shows and smaller shows. There are shows with a comics-only focus and shows that are multi-media extravaganzas or pop-culture themed. Think about your audience and your budget.
-What is your goal?:
If you are ready to exhibit (or you think you might be) you will want to have a good idea of what you are trying to accomplish. There are lots of different types of jobs in comics: drawing/coloring/inking/writing for a big company & established characters, doing work for hire for private collectors, doing work for hire for several publishers, drawing/coloring/inking/writing your own material, or some combination of all of those. Knowing what your goal in work is can help you direct your attention for what to focus on for your table and conversations with patrons & publishers. The set-up of a creator trying to launch their own book is very different from a creator who is looking to knock out 20 commissions in a weekend, and is also very different from the creator who is selling prints of their own concepts to try and get attention from art directors.
-Your best foot forward:Make your booth approachable and nice as possible. You WANT people to come browse your goods and work, so make it easy for them.Gather your BEST work to display in a portfolio or on the table. This is work that shows off who YOU are...not who you can emulate. Just like a good portfolio shows a clear message and focus, so should your table. Some conventions provide a table covering, but it's worth the effort to get your own tablecloth (it can set your table apart and even be a design choice depending on color or material) For the tablecloth, fabric can be cheap at the fabric store if you shop smart, but you can also use a flat bed sheet. And if you can manage have 2 table cloths...one goes on the table under your merchandise, the other is draped over the top of your stuff at the end of the night to prevent things from wandering off while everyone else closes down or before the con opens the next morning.
-FreebiesAt your first con new business cards printed can be your freebie, but if you have more budget or are further on in your exhibiting you can also try bookmarks, postcards, stickers (though some cons ban them) or buttons once you get a feel for your market and what you are willing pay for free items. The items should have a way to contact you (a URL, an email address, your name, or bare minimum: the title of your project). To prevent blowing through too many of these items you paid for, you can offer them only to people who stopped and showed interest instead of just having them on the table marked 'free'.
-Accept credit card payments if possible:A few years ago, you could get by without accepting credit payments, but that has changed. I'm now seeing that I would lose a good number of sales if I didn't accept them. Square is an app and device for android or iOS devices and Paypal offers one too. The benefit about both of these devices is that you can use it on your phone's data plan (not just wifi) and you have no annual/monthly merchant fees. If you don't have a device that can use either the reader or app, but can access your email, you can ask a customer to paypal you the payment on their device and you can confirm the payment was sent by checking your email.
Figuring out the pros and cons of varied commission policies is a whole post on its own ...but I'd say the best advice I can offer is to plan ahead: What do you charge for them? (Is the amount based on size, a number of figures, media used), What you are willing and not willing to do per commission? (certain subjects/themes off limits? Backgrounds?). As you do more conventions your policies may change, and you may also need to devise a method/order for how/when you accept the requests (first come/first served? limit per customer? new list every day? pre-orders?) You will want to have answers ready (not necessarily written out on a sign) for sizes, options, pricing, etc. when asked and not try to figure it out on-the-spot.
Make sure you have materials you want to use to do commissions (paper, the right pens, pencils, color tools). If you are getting more requests than you planned, consider losing a little profit by overbooking yourself and offering to ship the finished art back to a customer after the convention. Commissions are a great way to build up a client base that may not yet be familiar with your work.
-Copyrighted characters & ideas:
Strictly speaking, you could be in violation of copyright laws by making a profit on any character/concept/or logo you don't own the rights to. A great deal of artists in Artist Alley do sell prints, commissions, and sketchbooks containing characters they don't own, but most do so at the risk that they could be busted. Some may have arrangements with the publishers of those characters because of their work history/contracts with them, others are just too small of a target for a publisher to take legal action. As an artist whose career is based on a creator owned book, I'm more interested in promoting my own ideas than copyrighted characters, so I'm biased...but my rule-of-thumb is that I won't sell printed material of anything that I don't own the rights to; however if someone commissions me to do a one-of original of a copyrighted character, I'll accept. If your goal is to get work drawing for a big publisher and you need to exhibit some of the work showcasing your understanding & skill at drawing those characters, it's fine to show, but I'd avoid selling it.
Don't be self deprecating or apologize for your work...(especially if you are having your work reviewed by an editor/publisher...just listen and answer the questions you are asked) being humble is one thing...coming off like a sad artist who doesn't belong is another.
Smile, be nice, and enjoy the con & meeting people. It's a fun experience!
Second up are the Beatles in Sgt. Pepper gear. I struggle with drawing humans anyhow and getting likeness is a tricky task to boot, so in my fear of making this simple watercolor wednesday into more work than pleasure, I abstracted the layout so that the Beatles themselves were absent and only their hair & clothing (and John's glasses) remained.