How to work with a fashion illustrator

Today we have a guest entry from one of my favorite protégés, Danielle Meder. I’ll just step out of the way and let her get on with it.
It’s been over a year since Kathleen encouraged me to help her write a post on how to hire a fashion illustrator. Based on my experience since then, I have written a revision of the original entry to reflect lessons learned because as any freelancer can attest, experience is hard-won education. First you get the test, and then the lesson. As hard as lessons can be, I am grateful for the support of Fashion-Incubator, my friends, the Toronto fashion community and my wonderful clients for making it possible to make a living from what I love to do.

In this revision I’ll explain why you may need illustrations, when and for which purposes. I’ll explain the various kinds of drawings you may need and the difference and advantages of hand vs vector illustrations and the most appropriate use of each. I’ve included samples of each kind of drawing. I will also explain planning your project, how to get the best price quote and have included a sample agreement you can use. Lastly, I’ve included some information for those who want to make a career of fashion illustration.

Why You May Need an Illustrator:
DEs will find they need illustrations for a variety of reasons, especially if they are not confident in their own drawing skills. Here are some benefits of illustration:

  • To help organize and edit their own creative design process.
  • To communicate their ideas clearly to their staff and contractors.
  • To label patterns and production documents so they may be identified at a glance.
  • To illustrate their line sheets for their salespeople and buyers.
  • To add flair to websites, invitations, and other promotional material.
  • To present their ideas to investors, competition judges, etc, in an attractive and persuasive way.

There are many fashion illustrators available with a wide spectrum of specialties. Many are trained at art schools, fashion schools, or are self taught. The best type of fashion illustrator to hire will reflect the type of work you need done, and your own aesthetic preferences.

Technical Drawings
If you need illustrations for line sheets, pattern cards, spec packages or production documents, you need technical drawings or “flats” as seen at right. These are detailed drawings of clothing as if the garment has been laid on a flat surface, usually line art in black and white. The technical drawing clearly shows the location of every seam, has accurate placement of buttons and design features and correct proportions. With a good technical drawing, a pattern maker and sample maker should be able to produce a sample very close to the designer’s original vision, and a buyer should have a clear idea of the appearance and features of a garment as it will be delivered.

The best illustrators to hire for technical drawings are illustrators with an understanding of how a garment is sewn -for instance, an illustrator who’s been trained as a pattern maker. While technical drawings do not have to be gorgeous, a nice clean presentation on a line sheet can be an invaluable sales tool.

There are two types of media commonly used for technical drawings. They are either produced by hand or by using a computer program.

Hand drawn technicals (example at right) are usually done in two stages – first a rough pencil drawing, and then finished in ink. Some illustrators use rulers, others go freehand. The illustrations can be scanned into the computer, cleaned up in photoshop and even colored. Generally, unless your colorways are complex with a variety of contrasting fabrics and trims, simple black and white line drawings are the best choice for technical purposes.

Hand drawn technicals are ideal for draped or embellished garments because the quality of the line tends to be softer and more natural, and details like beading and embroidery may be easier to render. The main disadvantage is when the scale of the technicals needs to be changed drastically -if the drawing is shrunk or expanded too far beyond the original size, details may be lost and resolution suffers. Another disadvantage is for lines with many similar styles, which creates a lot of extra, redundant work for hand renderers.

The most common type of computer programs (example at right) for producing technical drawings are vector programs like Adobe Illustrator. Vector technicals have a crisp, accurate quality which suits more structured garments. Lines with a lot of similar styles are ideally rendered in vector because the basic structure of the garments can be easily copied, pasted, and altered. The other great advantage of vector technicals is that they can be shrunk or expanded to any size without any loss of clarity or quality. The print quality is terrific at any scale. The disadvantage of vector technicals is that they may take longer to create initially, they are not necessarily time effective for some types of styles, like draped styles.

Figure Illustrations
If you need illustrations for promotional or persuasive purposes (example at right), you may be looking for figure drawings. Figure drawings show garments and their proportion on the figure. They may also be exaggerated to express an ideal or attitude to match the design. Figures are often an integral part of presentations to clients or for competition entries. Sometimes figures are simplified and incorporated into logos.

The best illustrators to hire for figure illustrations have a style that reflects your own aesthetic tastes, and an understanding of the attitude of your customer and your brand. It is critical to review their existing portfolio to get a good sense of their style. Many illustrators have websites with examples of their work, or you can schedule a meeting to see their portfolio in person if they live in your city. For a DE‘s purposes, an illustrator with a fashion design education can make communication easier, but if the brief is more creative that may not be necessary.

There are as many techniques and types of media used as there are illustrators, and fashion ebbs and flows when it comes to the type of drawings that are popular at a particular time.

The Project Description
Once you have selected an illustrator for your project, the communication begins. Because illustration is all about communication (a picture is worth a thousand words), the real challenge is getting the ideas from your brain to the illustrator’s brain so they can draw them.

The temptation as a client is to describe the project briefly (“I need technical drawings of 24 styles and three figures”) and then ask what the illustrator would charge -however without all the information clearly laid out it is very difficult for an illustrator to create a fair quote. If they do quote at this stage, they’re probably a bit inexperienced -not necessarily that they are not talented enough to complete the job, just that they may not have been doing it professionally for very long.

The best thing to do at the beginning of the project is to create a simple project agreement which gathers all the information relevant to the project in one document. It helps to keep you and your illustrator’s expectations on the same page. Below is a simple form:

Illustration Project Agreement

Contact Information:
Phone Number:

Phone Number:

Project Description:

  • types of drawings
  • number of styles, number of views of each style
  • type/complexity of styles
  • color or black and white
  • purpose of drawings

Due Date:

  • progress to be reviewed by:
  • complete project due:

Usage Terms:

Payment Terms:
Once you and the illustrator have filled out this form as completely as possible, it will be easier for the illustrator to estimate how long the project will take, when they can schedule it to create a fair quote.

Some illustrators will charge by the hour, especially if the project description is unusual, or not complete enough to allow a flat rate to be easily calculated. Either way, it is in your best interest as a client to be as clear and complete as possible when creating the project description -it will save time, limit or eliminate any corrections, and prevent misunderstandings.

If you feel that the quote is over your budget, discuss it with your illustrator. Your project may be able to be scaled back and still meet your needs, or some other point of negotiation may reduce the quote -for instance if you can extend the deadline or adjust the usage terms. If you can not create an agreement that satisfies both parties, you may wish to take the project description and submit it to another illustrator. Keep in mind that an illustrator is a skilled service provider like a pattern maker, and that the lowest bidder may not be able to provide the results you desire.

The Project
Once you and your illustrator have a completed agreement, finishing the project is as simple as following the agreement as closely as possible.

The greatest challenge as a designer is to be able to express your design vision to your illustrator, and managing all the information and reference material to keep communication running smoothly.

If you and your illustrator live in the same city, you may be able to sit down and rough out your ideas in person, or deliver actual sample garments to your illustrator for reference. Keeping your styles neatly labeled with numbers and descriptions, and keeping each style on its own physical page, keeps the project easy to manage and edit.

If you are communicating with your illustrator long-distance using email, you will probably send written descriptions with photographs, tear sheets of design details, and rough drawings. Good file organization is critical to avoid confusion. For every style, create a file folder with the style number and name and keep all the relevant reference material for that style in that folder. Zip the folders and send them via email. Good email hygiene is also very helpful, especially for large projects. Try to limit the email threads to major topics -don’t start a new subject line unless it makes sense to. If a misunderstanding happens, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone; sometimes a warm form of communication is the best way to keep things comfortable.

If you are an illustrator or interested in the professional issues that illustrators deal with, there are a number of organizations and websites that you will find helpful. In particular if you have a creative project, an understanding of the basics of copyright will help you negotiate the usage terms you need.

Association of Illustrators (UK)
Graphic Artist’s Guild (USA)
Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators in Communications
Illustration Mundo

So this is the gist of my lessons learned. There is a lot of satisfaction in finishing a project. I love working with designers and helping them express their ideas clearly and beautifully. I am very grateful to be able to do this for a living.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask, or if you are a working fashion illustrator I would love to hear your own perspective. Please feel free to check out my own website and blog if you are interested. Thanks!

Danielle Meder Fashion Illustration
Telephone – 416 603 6671

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  1. Karen says:

    Very cool post! It always seems like the designers on TV do their own illustrations, but it’s nice to know that a designer can still succeed by hiring someone else to help with the illustrations.

  2. Danielle,

    Thank you for such an informative post. After you posted in the forum today, I went over to your website to see what you’re up to. Very impressive. You are SO good at what you do!

    Wishing you continued success,

  3. Kathleen says:

    I’m surprised nobody asked about usage terms so I guess I will. Maybe nobody knows what that means or why it matters? Not that I know, I only know enough to be confused as to what I need to know.

    I’d also like to know how to negotiate usage terms appropriately. I want what is fair and tenable for both parties but I worry about accidentally overstepping them (what are the boundaries) or through incompetence, appearing deliberately non-compliant.

    At the same time, I’m having a bit of difficulty reconciling that an illustrator could potentially own a rendering that represents the sum of my own creativity. Danielle will know I’m not intending to be quarrelsome in saying this, but it doesn’t seem entirely fair. What are the boundaries?

  4. sfriedberg says:

    The simplest relationship is “work for hire”, in which the DE would own all tangible artifacts like sketches as well as all rights for reuse in any form the illustrator did on the project. This is very common in graphic arts situations, but doesn’t offer anything except payment to the illustrator.

    The other extreme would be the DE gets time- and usage-limited rights to images produced by the illustrator, and the illustrator retains the tangible artifacts and most or all rights for their reuse. For example, four images to be used in print advertising during 2008. This is typical for stock photography, sound effects, and fonts in the graphic arts, but probably not appropriate for fashion illustration commissioned by a DE.

    A very reasonable intermediate position would be similar to “work for hire”, but give the illustrator irrevocable rights to use the images for the purpose of self-promotion in any medium (portfolio, web, print, etc.).

    In any case, this is something that should be explicitly stated in the agreement between the illustrator and the DE.

  5. Danielle says:

    sfriedberg said it pretty well.

    Work-for-hire is a contentious issue among illustrators, and fashion illustration walks a fine line.

    For technical work, I treat it as if it is patternmaking work – that is work-for-hire. I do use it in my own portfolio, but I wait until the season is over, and ask the client, before I do so.

    The more creative a brief is, the more of the artist’s own sensibilities are part of the value of the piece, and therefore I find most clients are not willing to pay full compensation for the value of the work over its lifetime – especially when the work is not just season-specific. As an artist, work-for-hire at a rock-bottom rate is not satisfactory.

    I prefer “exclusive rights with limitations” – that is, the client has the exclusive use of the work for a period of time (as long as they need it). The artist retains the copyright, the moral rights, and agrees not to ever license the work to a competitor. I think that is a fair compromise that addresses the concerns of the client (that images of their designs are not misused, and more cost effective than purchasing full copyright) and the artist (that they do not have to sign over the full copyright, or risk having their artwork modified by anyone else).

    That said, I am not a lawyer, so I’m sure it could be put more finely. Does that answer your question Kathleen?

  6. Danielle says:

    To add –

    Illustrators who do editorial and commercial work professionally are keenly aware of copyright, as are most of their clients. DE’s who do not frequently commission creative work are not as practiced and misunderstandings about usage rights are common. Many clients want “full copyright” and don’t understand why it costs more.

    If you are concerned about usage terms I would strongly suggest visiting the association sites I posted in “resources”.

    Also, the GAG produces “The Handbook for Pricing and Ethical Guidelines”. Get the most recent edition you find yourself hiring creative people frequently (graphic designers too). It contains best practices and a survey of going rates among professionals. It includes sections on fashion illustration and textile design as well.

  7. Juliann says:

    I am relatively new to fashion illustration so would fall into the inexperienced but talented catagory. This answers a lot of questions for me, thanks for posting. One question I have is how much do illustrators charge? I am charging $20 an hour, is this too low?

  8. Danielle says:

    Hi Juliann,

    When I started out and asked that question, I was told I should charge “whatever the market will bear” which was frustrating at the time when I just wanted a number to start from. It makes more sense to me now – figuring out what you are worth takes practice.

    To calculate an hourly rate I would recommend taking into account your business expenses, how many hours you work in a year, and how much you would like to earn (appropriate to your experience level). You can use a calculator like this one –

    This should give you a rough idea of what you should charge in order to make your business profitable – which is the whole point of being in business, right?

    I very rarely charge by the hour, but I have an idea of what my time is worth and use it when calculating how long a project will take to help me make a fair quotation.

  9. Kathleen says:

    I used that calculator. It says I need to bill $431 per hour with $260 per hour to break even LOL.

    Oh shoot, watch that last box that says “Approximately what percentage of hours can you actually bill?”. It’s a percentage. I put in 6 thinking it meant 6 hours (per day) not 6% of hours. Changing that to being able to bill for 60% of my “working” hours changed my hourly rate to $43 or $26 just to break even. I’ll have to refine mine, I was just putting in rough figures.

  10. Denisa says:

    Hello, how much could charge for little bit experienced illustrator for lets say 4 pics of detailed drawings on A3?

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