How long is a piece of string?

As a freelance artist, one of the hardest questions to answer when preparing a quote is “how long will it take?” Experience helps, of course. It’s much easier to be able to look back over similar projects and use them as a guide for timescales. But the problem is, there is no way to factor in a mental block.

Like it or not, sometimes the design process just grinds to a halt of it’s own accord. If you care about the quality of your work (and I do), there is often nothing you can do but keep grinding away until you get it right, all the time knowing that your hourly rate is plummeting as you burn through sketch after sketch after sketch of utter rubbish! Because lets face it, a client isn’t going to pay for your failure to produce the goods. They don’t care about artist’s block. They are paying you to do the job, not to agonise and tear your hair out because it just doesn’t look quite right.

A case in point: for the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a series of character designs for a new Wii title. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that the design involves a child with an imaginary animal companion. On Tuesday morning, I started a work on a new pairing; a young, sassy girl, and her squirrel companion. The girl was simple enough – I reused an abandoned design from an old, unreleased title; made her a bit younger, changed her costume, and a few hours later she was pretty much done.

But the squirrel. Oh, the squirrel. I wish I could post the sketches here to demonstrate the process I went through trying to get it to look good. By Thursday lunchtime, I still couldn’t get that damned squirrel quite right, so I made the decision to move on to something new, before I started clawing my own eyes out in frustration.

Feeling pretty dejected (I hate to be beaten), I began work on another proposed pairing, a young boy and his grumpy French-speaking penguin. This time it was a doddle! Two quick iterations for boy and penguin, and the design was done. A couple of hours later I had a nice, dynamic action pose for them finished as well (again, I wish I could post the results here).

Of course, working full time means I don’t have the same pressure on my hourly rate as when I was freelancing. But there is still a client to answer to (in this case my employer), and there are producers and managers who don’t understand or care about the creative process. They just look at the times allocated on their project schedules, and raise a critical eyebrow when it takes twice as long as estimated to get something done.

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