Plank Road Brewery by Michael Halbert

This is the second page of the work of St. Louis Illustrator Michael Halbert. In his own words is a history of his career as an illustrator. John Dyess

There were other important changes for us freelancers in the ‘80s: local curriers, overnight shipping, fax machines, and cheap long distance calls, to list a few. Once the local curriers got started, a job could be delivered between the artist and client anywhere in the St. Louis area for a small fee, generally around 10 bucks. That 10 bucks saved a lot of time, and a wise artist or rep was able to have the client pick up the tab for this expense. With overnight shipping, FedEx being the main innovator in this area, working out of town became much more practical. Add to that the fax machine and cheap long‐distance phone rates, and now the illustrator could work with a clients across country as easily as with one across the street.Within a year of buying the studio and with all these innovation, which made working out of town easier, I made a career‐changing decision. I decided to run my first ad in Black Book, an illustration sourcebook used buy art buyers to find illustrators from across the United States. This was a major step and somewhat risky. Although the ad could help expand my work area from St. Louis only to the whole of the United States, the ad cost me around $3,500, and there was no guarantee the ad would even work. It was my opinion that for an ad to pay for itself it needed to generate enough new work to at least double the ad fee. I did only slightly better than that with my first ad, but the ads worked progressively better in the following years After running the ad and getting a few responses, it became clear that an illustrator trying to get work nationwide has to be very specialized. Therefore, I took one final step in narrowing down my portfolio. I had been using a variety of styles with pen and ink, but I had one style that seemed a favorite with clients. I call it a woodcut or engraving style. Basically, the illustrations are done on scratchboard with shading done by using thick and thin lines. This is the style I went with and still use today.

Scratchboard of Hippopotamus by John Dyess

Scratchboard if "The History of Beer" by Michael Halbert

Once I had made the decision to run the national ad, I started making preparations for actually doing work outside of St. Louis. I organized packing supplies for shipping including having custom boxes made for shipping the finished art. I also had new portfolios made, along with custom boxes for shipping them. Is it obvious? I didn’t want to waste a lot of time with shipping, so I streamlined that process as much as possible. The portfolio had always been key to the success of the illustrator, but it was an even more important factor when competing with talented illustrators from across the country. It wasn’t unusual during this period for an art director to call in portfolios from five or six different artist to be considered for the same project.Therefore, I put a lot of thought and a fair about of money into my new portfolios. I had a custom bookmaker build the portfolios, or books, as they are sometimes called. These books, six of them, were designed to look like old‐world leather‐bound books, which was a natural fit for my woodcut style. The reason for multiple portfolios was so books could be sent to several different clients at one time, and there were many times when all the books were out. The new portfolio design helped give clients the perception that I was engrained and dedicated to the woodcut style, and the books helped me win a lot of jobs that I may not of otherwise been awarded. Things were going pretty well after my first Black Book ad, but I was still trying to find ways to move my reputation further. I decided to get an artist representative, thinking an artist rep could help guide my career and get me better work. My criteria for having a rep where two: I wanted a rep to find me higher end clients and therefore more prestigious projects, and I expected them to negotiate higher fees than I could. By the way, the concept of the artist rep doing all the legwork had vanished with the onset of FedEx, curriers, cheap long distance calls, and the fax machine. However, there was no change in the percentage the rep collected on each project. Like most of the other illustrators, I went along with this. After all, the main thing I wanted from a rep was to improve my reputation as an illustrator. I tried a local rep first, and that didn’t work out. In almost ever case, I was with the clients she brought me, and the fees for the project were the same as I would have gotten on my own. Subtract the rep’s commission from that, and I was going backwards financially. So, then I sent my book to some reps in New York City, and ended up working with Mendola Artists Representatives. They didn’t improve my reputation very much and didn’t guide my career, but they did get me a lot of good projects for several years. It wasn’t unusual during the late 80s  and throughout the 90s for me to have more work than I could handle.

Christopher Columbus by Michael Halbert

Giant Farmer by Michael Halbert

Then came the new millennium and things started to change. It was about this time that I started feeling areal slow down in work. Apparently it had already been slowing down for several years for illustrators with other styles. I think it was 1997 that was my best year ever financially, but the work started falling off eachyear from then until the lowest point a year or so after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. A slow economy due to fear generated by the attack was part of the reason for the slow down in work, but this was a temporary effect.The main reason for the slow down was computer graphics. It wasn’t until the mid 90s that computers began to get powerful enough to handle graphics. They were very limited in scope at first, but by the turn of the century every ad agency and graphics firm was completely committed to computer graphics. Everything was being done digitally and for good reason—it was a better way to work. Most illustrators saw the shift to digital graphics but few accepted or liked it. It was taking away their livelihood after all. The writing was on the wall: If an illustrator didn’t start working digitally, or find a way to deliver the work digitally, he or she was finished as an illustrator. I purchased my first computer setup around 1997 and began trying to adapt to the computer age. I was fortunate to be friends with a fellow illustrator, JeanProbert, who already knew a lot about computers, and she gave me lots of advice and answered my endless questions. I tried my hand at creating illustrations with different software programs like Adobe PhotoShop and Illustrator, and I learned how to do web page design, how to do Flash animation, and how to shoot and edit video. As fun as it all was to learn, none of it translated into a new career direction. Basically, what I did was cut my expenses, tightened my belt, and stuck it out.Then by, say, around 2004, I started to get calls for my traditional scratchboard work again, mostly for wine labels and other packaging. This was due in part to my web site that I had put together to promote my work, but I think it was also due to other factors, too, such as an improving economy and the tendency of designers to start using some hand‐done illustrations again

Garlic Book by Michael Halbert

Although I have held on with doing my illustrations by hand—the old fashion way—I also use computer technology to improve the way I work today. I used what I learned about web design to build my portfolio web site. With the web portfolio there is no more carrying portfolios door‐to‐door or shipping them across the country. Clients now look at my work on line. I also use my web site to sell reproduction rights to my existing art. I have over six hundred illustrations with rights available. The process of working with the clients has changed, too. Most of the communication is through email messages. I even deliver the finished work to the client by email—no more of the inconvenience and expense of packing and shipping.

Michael Halbert and his Motorcycle

My workload has returned to a respectable level. It’s nowhere near my high of 1997, but that’s fine with me.I made the decision at age 55 to start slowing down with work and to start doing other things, like traveling by motorcycle across the United States. At 58, I can more or less work part time and, along with what I earnselling reproduction rights, have enough money and time to do the things I enjoy. When I’m old enough for Medicare, I will go fully into retirement mode. Hopefully I will continue to do some illustration and I will continue doing them by hand. I hope I never lose the thrill of doing a good hand job.

Here is a link to a You Tube video of Michael creating an illustration. It is about 9 minutes .

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Comments
  1. Glenn Myers says:

    It is truly encouraging to know that an artist’s hand refined in its skill and dedication is still
    an amazing creative force in an age where the computer has mimicked styles and added speed to the equation as an alternative to the real thing. Not to discount the computer and its usefulness, it’s just encouraging to know that the human touch is still a factor in creativity. Michael, thank you for sharing your journey and an over the shoulder look at your efforts in progress. And thank you, John, for making this available on your blog.

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