The New York Review of Magazines

Illustrating Man

By Suzanne Weinstock

Fred Harper’s first experience with caricatures nearly got him killed by a mob of angry football players. He sketched a popular girl in high school asleep and drooling on her textbook and a buddy posted it in the bathroom. Seeking revenge, the players tried to drag Harper down a flight of stairs. Not that he was well-liked to begin with. “I was antisocial. I didn’t know how to talk to people, so I would just draw,” Harper says. “I didn’t drink, I didn’t party with anybody and I just creeped people out.”

Today, despite growing long hair, getting in shape and inking himself with an abundance of tattoos, Harper, 43, still comes across very much like the school geek, with small oval glasses and a self-conscious awkwardness developed during his years as an outsider. He makes his living as an editorial illustrator for publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Bank Technology News. His main gig is drawing the covers for The Week, possibly the only major magazine other than The New Yorker that still consistently uses cover illustration.

Although Harper is a relatively successful illustrator, his profession has lost much of its luster, as magazines have moved away from artwork and increased the use of photographs. What was once a booming and lucrative career today offers diminished financial rewards. “Now it’s hard to just say I’m going to be an illustrator and that’s all I’m going to do. Basically I’m a dinosaur,” Harper says. “If The Week wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be making a living.”

As of 2008, there were nearly 220,000 artists — about 10 percent of which were commercial artists, such as illustrators — working in the United States, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. That number has plummeted from 308,000 a decade ago. Artists’ median annual income has remained static at roughly $41,000, after adjustment for inflation.

The history of editorial illustration is even older than the printing press. Woodblock illustration began in Europe around 1400 and became cheaper and easier after movable type arrived about midcentury. On-the-scene reporting during the American Civil War (1861-1865) brought illustration to prominence, and technology advances brought about what was characterized as a Golden Age of Illustration around 1880. “A newly literate public, released for the first time from the constant drudgery of work, avidly consumed the unprecedented number of periodicals being published during this period,” Helen Goodman said in a 1987 article in Women’s Art Journal. High-speed presses and halftone plates meant magazines were not only numerous but could be produced and sold cheaply. Illustration-rich publications included: Life, Harper’s Weekly, The Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s, McClure’s, The Century, Collier’s, McCall’s and Vogue.

Illustration was lucrative and highly in demand. “Illustrators in the early part of the 20th century were really like our celebrities today,” says Vicki Morgan of the illustration agency Morgan Gaynin. Illustrators like Norman Rockwell, Howard Pyle and Edwin Austin Abbey were stars. “People made a lot of money.”

An illustration school in 1905 advertised that students could make $25 to $100 per week in the profession. That’s roughly $600 to $2400 in today’s money. But by the 1930s, advances in photo reproduction sparked illustration’s slow decline, which accelerated in the 1950s when television started eating away at the number of periodicals.

However, healthy careers in editorial illustration hung on for a couple more decades. In the early ’60s, when illustration veteran Robert Grossman started his career, and on through the ’70s, work was still plentiful. “One time I went past the newsstand and there were five magazines, all with artwork on the cover by me!” Grossman said. “But now if you go to the magazine stand, it’s a really rare one that has art on the cover.”

Illustrators continued to command healthy fees. Many magazines still had six to seven full-page illustrations per issue, Morgan says. Assignments for two-, full- and half-page images were plentiful and made up a big part of her business in the early ’70s. A full page might fetch $900 (more than $4,000 today); and a spread, $1,200 ($6,000).

How times have changed! “Illustration’s not prevalent like it was,” Morgan says. “Now it’s a spot or a quarter page. Occasionally a full page.” One of Morgan’s biggest clients recently told her he gets about $800 for a full-page illustration today, the equivalent of less than $200 in the early ’70s. “I don’t think you’re going to make a great living doing editorial illustration.”

Those are the facts of life and art that Fred Harper faces. He says he has been drawing since he was 6. “I started stalking weird-looking people at the mall where I grew up in western Pennsylvania. I would follow somebody, wait for them to sit down, then I would go around the side to get a good profile shot, and I would sit there and draw them.”

He had the lofty ambition of becoming a theme-park portraitist, and he actually did work as an amusement-park caricaturist during college. He came to editorial illustration circa 1997 after comic book work dried up as that industry contracted. On the plus side, comic book work taught him about storytelling; on the negative side, his job was penciling and inking, and so he hadn’t worked with color in years.

Harper put together a portfolio of three images and took out an ad on page 200 or so of the Directory of Illustration, a book of work samples from illustrators seeking assignments. “The first day [the directory came out] The New York Times Magazine calls me and says, ‘Would you like to do a cartoon for us?’ I thought it was a trick question!” He got $400 for his second cartoon — somebody throwing up on a priest.

Slowly he built his portfolio and began to gather more assignments. It has come either from people who are already familiar with his work or in response to marketing himself by sending out samples. When he gets a call from a publication’s editors or art directors, he accepts the assignment if he is available on their deadline. The magazine or newspaper sends over the article for him to read, sometimes with instructions about what they are looking for. He responds by submitting an average of three sketches and, if he gets the go-ahead, he produces a final image.

Five months after his first Times Magazine cartoon, Harper got a call from Sports Illustrated that resulted in one of his most nerve-racking assignments. The requested composition had eight faces in it and his illustration had to be approved by multiple art directors as well as the editors and writer. Harper submitted eight sketches, far more than the usual three. “I apparently caught her on her last nerve,” he said of the art director who was his primary contact. Harper told her he would drop off the requested sketches at 3 p.m. but was 15 minutes late. “When I got there she was all red-faced and pissed off. I walked out of the building thinking I’d be happy if I get paid,” Harper said of the job. He assumed that was the end of his Sports Illustrated career, but three months later he got another call (the testy art director had been fired) and ultimately got a recurring gig illustrating “The Scorecard,” a regular front-of-book feature.

A few years later he became one of four rotating cover artists for The Week, where the owner — the eccentric, potty-mouthed billionaire Felix Dennis — is committed to maintaining cover art. One by one, the other artists dropped off, until only Harper remained. It’s good, steady work, but he laments the change in the covers. “They used to let me do my interpretation, which usually had an opinion in it, but now their goal is to be as neutral as possible, which means I’ve got to do a very bland illustration. I don’t need to think.” Although, he adds mischievously: “Sometimes I sneak my own things in the background.”

Harper knows he is extremely fortunate to still be doing covers. Grossman recalls doing a cover for Time in 1968 depicting an American and a Russian on the moon during the space race. Forty years later, Time called, asking him to recreate the image but update it by including a few other countries that had ventured into space. “I was kind of excited. I thought I was going to be on the cover of Time magazine again — and it turned out to be a tiny little spot,” Grossman says.

For many years now, the conventional wisdom in the magazine world has been that photos sell better than art. Grossman used to do about three cartoons a week for Us Weekly. When Bonnie Fuller took over as editor-in-chief in February 2002, one of the first things she did was eliminate the cartoons. By the end of the year, circulation rose by 17.3 percent. Numbers like that spell doom for illustrators. And it doesn’t help that more and more cheap options have become available to art directors over the years, thanks to stock imagery and digital tools.

Harper recently lost his regular work with Sports Illustrated shortly after upgrading to a more expensive apartment in Manhattan’s financial district. He did 50 illustrations for “The Scorecard” but hasn’t gotten a call from SI since the feature underwent a redesign. “I’m not comfortable with just one magazine being my main thing,” Harper says. “I call publications, I e-mail samples and I do postcard mailings. I buy lists of companies looking for illustrators and I make giant mailing lists. I get stamper’s cramp.”

On the surface, it appears that editorial work pays moderately well, he says. But as a freelancer he covers his own healthcare costs and overhead costs like art supplies, and the money goes quickly. Illustrations can usually be sold just once because they are specific to a story. At 43, he won’t consider marriage or a family because of his unstable income stream. “I’m not interested in getting married. I have a career. I’m focused on that and I’m waiting until I can do some stuff that can generate longer-term income.”

There are still magazines that buy artwork, but they’re buying less of it, and they’re not raising the prices they’re willing to pay for it. Looking back at the ups and downs of his career, Harper says: “I got into illustration I think at the end of a time when you could still get in traditionally and say, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do — give me a job.’”

There will always be illustrators and there will always be work for them, but magazines are no longer a place where they can become stars.

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