The Fine Art of Saying "No." February 28, 2019 08:50

From Jess: 

A couple of years ago, my husband and "Rescue Sirens" co-author Chris wrote a great blog about crediting your creative partners entitled "Credit Where Credit Is Due (Or, don't fear telling people you didn't do something.)" Today, I'd like to address something else that comes up when collaborating on creative projects: the fine art of saying "no."

Through our work on "Rescue Sirens," Chris and I have been really fortunate to collaborate with a number of incredible artists like Genevieve Tsai, colorist Edgar Delgado, Teresa Martinez, Dylan Bonner, Kellee Riley, and Gabby Zapata (to name a few). They're polite, responsive, upfront, and talented individuals, which makes them a joy to work with.

We've also gotten burned a couple of times. I won't be naming names, and details have been slightly changed so no one feels as though they're getting called out. (For the record, there are no hard feelings. Chris and I understand that this is just part of doing business.)

Chris and I have a lot of amazing character artwork for "Rescue Sirens," but what we're lacking now is environmental concept art. We'd love to be able to show people the Diving Belle, and to explore more of the undersea mermaid community of Lophelia. To that end, we've tried hiring a couple of extremely skilled industry artists.

We paid the first person in full, and they sent us a few rough digital sketches of both settings. That was probably two years ago (I think?), and efforts to move the pieces forward to finish have been unsuccessful. They're simply too busy.

Late last year, realizing that the timing just wasn't going to work out any time soon with our first artist, we approached another person to create a single quick, stylized illustration of the Diving Belle's pool courtyard for us -- something simple and appealing that you might see as a background in an animated series. They initially seemed really enthusiastic, and they're so fast at what they do that Chris and I were high-fiving each other for finally scoring a cool "Rescue Sirens" background. We'd pay this new artist, they'd draw the Diving Belle, and we'd be done, right?

Well, that's what we thought, anyway. Instead, when it came time to talk contracts, this artist seemed really uncomfortable even telling us their rates, and then they gave us mixed signals about our deadline. Chris and I needed this background for a last-minute meeting we were having, and it was admittedly very short notice (although we're talking a matter of weeks, here, not days). We told them over and over and OVER again that if s/he didn't have time, that was perfectly fine; simply let us know, we'd look elsewhere, and we'd try working with them again in the future when our schedules aligned. They insisted that they wanted to create the illustration, but the final straw was when they took an entire week to sign and return our Independent Contractor Agreement/NDA. (Actually, they only returned it after I wrote to them and let them know that we'd found another artist to complete the project.)

All in all, we spent two weeks engaging with this artist and had nothing to show for it.

In contrast to those two experiences is Nicholas Kennedy. Recommended to us by Gabby Zapata, he's the artist who we ran to in a panic when it became obvious that our second artist wasn't going to get the illustration done. We approached Nick about drawing both the Diving Belle's pool and Lophelia's council chamber, and his response was perfect: he said that, due to another project he was starting, he didn't have enough extra time in the next two weeks to draw both layouts, but he'd be happy to draw one of them (and he let us know that he was particularly interested in the Belle). Nick then gave us his standard hourly rate and estimated how long a drawing like this might take so we'd have a good idea of the total cost. He couldn't have made it any easier for us! He delivered a gorgeous image of the Diving Belle's pool courtyard ahead of schedule, and he was extremely nice to talk to as well as receptive to the very few notes that we even had to offer.

Then, the meeting that Chris and I were preparing for was rescheduled for nearly six weeks later. ARGH. We wrote to Nick again, and he now had the spare time to draw Lophelia's council chamber. Yes! We hired him for a second piece that turned out every bit as beautiful as the first and was equally as fun and easy to work on together.

My final story is a short one. I emailed an artist that Chris and I were interested in hiring for "Rescue Sirens" work, and she let me know her rates and her availability right away. She said that she might have obligations this summer (the time period during which we were looking to retain her services) and that would prevent her from accepting our project, but she would contact us just as soon as she knew for sure (and she gave us an approximate time period). Until then, the answer was "no"/"not right now."

I love it when an artist tells me "no."

Don't get me wrong -- I'm definitely disappointed that I won't get to work with him or her (at least not at the moment), but declining a job tells me that this artist is responsible, professional, and doesn't overestimate what they can get done in a given time period. They value their own time and thus guard against burnout. That's... rarer than you might think.

I mean, I totally understand; no one likes to let people down, and saying "no" can be hard, especially when you admire and/or you're on friendly terms with the person who wants to hire you. You want to help them out, right? Maybe the project is something that's right up your alley, and you'd love to be a part of it. And, oh yeah, maybe you could really use the money.

But saying "yes" when you don't have the time isn't doing anyone any favors. You tie up the person or company hiring you and prevent them from engaging with an artist who does have the time to complete the project, and you're adding so much stress to your own life by trying to juggle too many things at once. You might have to rush and pull an all-nighter (or all-weekender) to finish, which isn't healthy for you and probably isn't your best work, either; you might not get the work done at all before your deadline rolls around, which is going to be WAY more disappointing to the people hiring you than a polite "no" would've been in the first place. It's just a bad situation all-around.

A moment of awkwardness declining a job beats the heck out of days, weeks, or months of anxiety resulting from agreeing to a job that you don't have time to do. Rip off that band-aid! It's better for everyone in the long run.

So, what do Chris and I like to hear back from artists when we ask them about doing "Rescue Sirens" work-for-hire? It's really simple:

1. First of all, whether the artist is even interested in/capable of doing the proposed piece(s). (It's no fun for anyone if we hire someone who hates mermaids or can't draw fish, after all!)
2. The artist's current availability.
2a. If they're not immediately available but they're still interested in the project, then some idea of when they feel reasonably certain that they'd have the time; our deadlines are often flexible, so we might be able to wait.
3. The artist's rates.
3a. If this is hourly rather than per-piece, a rough estimate of how long the proposed piece(s) might take to complete.
4. And, as a bonus, if they're unable to take on the project for whatever reason, we love hearing recommendations for other artists who might be available!

That last one is really awesome, and it ties neatly into the whole "responsible, professional artist" thing: when Chris is approached to do illustrations, he pretty much NEVER has the time (remember, his full-time job is directing films), but we're always happy to point people to artists like Genevieve or Dylan because we've worked with them and we know that they're good eggs. If you earn that sort of reputation, you'll get repeat business from people you've worked with before, and, like we do, they may also recommend you for other jobs that they think might make an ideal fit for your skill set.

Don't be afraid to say "no" or "not right now." If the people hiring you are professional, themselves, they'll understand, and they'll respect you more for it.