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Hurry Up and Wait

As illustrators we’re often tasked to complete Herculean tasks under impossible-seeming deadlines. We slave away, get the projects done just in the nick of time, turn them in and then . . .

We wait.

Sometimes for days. Sometimes for weeks. Sometimes even months, hoping to hear back from the art directors that the job has been approved, they need revisions, or at least something is happening with the work we’ve submitted.

This is par for the course. Part of the career of an illustrator is knowing that assignments will frequently stretch longer than anticipated and there may be radio silence for a while. This is not always a bad thing.

I’ve found that—at least as far as books are concerned—silence means progress. If sketches have been rejected, art directors will usually get back to illustrators quickly to request revisions so they can keep it moving. On the other hand, if things are approved, it may take a while for an art director to get in touch. They have to show it at a cover meeting, wait for the inevitable person to return from vacation to sign off on it, and then submit to an author and/or agent. That takes time. In other words: rejection happens quickly, approval happens slowly.

There are, of course, many instances where things get jammed up for reasons that may not be as positive for an illustrator. The project could have faltered and no one thought to contact the illustrator; the work might not have been what they were hoping for and they’re scrambling to find someone else before bringing down the axe; or the article/book/whatever may have gotten delayed. It happens.

To be protected from the inevitable waiting game, illustrators have to juggle multiple assignments. While waiting on approval for one piece, they can work on finals for another. While negotiating the contract for a third piece, they can be doing revisions for a fourth. Etc. Project management is vital to a healthy career in illustration and is the only real way to deal with the constant waiting.

So, as a new illustrator, if you find art directors’ responses seem frequently delayed, don’t sweat it too much. Just make sure to balance your workload so that you’re always busy and taking full advantage of your time. Eventually, the projects will come back into focus and you can tackle them on your own terms after renegotiating new due dates.

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Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, author, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He's an instructor at Parsons the New School for Design and the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar by James Patterson and Lisa Papademetriou. His new authored and illustrated book, The Secrets to Ruling School: Class Election, comes out this September from Amulet Books.

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