Desk with all six of the illustratrations Sarah K. Benning created for the Washington Post.
All photos courtesy of Sarah K. Benning.
Editor’s note: This post is continuation of our series How I Got That Gig, where craft industry professionals tell us the story behind a great commission, job, freelance opportunity, or contract. Read other stories in this series from Libs Elliott, Erin Weisbart, Jennifer Perkins, Amy Friend, Alyson Jon, and Heather Grant.
Back in October—October 17th to be exact—Washington Post art director Eddie Alvarez got in touch via email asking whether or not I would be interested in creating six pieces for their upcoming (now published) ‘Best Books of 2019’ story. His email explained that he came across my work on my website and thought some embroidered illustrations would be a great addition to the piece both in print and online.
After some careful consideration I said yes! Of course I said yes! I mean, working with the Washington Post felt like a really incredible opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, but I entered into the arrangement cautiously. I hadn’t taken on a commission in about four years. I’m not all that great with deadlines or working within the parameters of someone else’s vision—these are weaknesses that I have come to recognise and accept, preferring instead to create at my own pace and release collections of my personal work inspired by my real and imagined surroundings.
But, I thought it might be a really great creative challenge and Eddie’s initial email was wonderfully clear and to the point about expectations, what he had in mind for the pieces, the timeline, and the budget, and I was granted an enormous amount of creative freedom. So after a few questions on my end and some contract negotiation and paper work, the clock started ticking on my first ever commissioned editorial illustration job.
The work begins
I was given about two weeks to create and submit sketches for the six commissioned pieces: cover and spread images celebrating books in general and four genre images depicting romance, horror, mystery/thriller, and sci-fi/fantasy. As anticipated, this was a great creative challenge—especially the sci-fi and thriller categories since they are so far outside of my subject matter norm. The challenge was compounded by the very tight turn around and staying within the given budget (I didn’t, but because I retain full rights to the pieces, I was able to supplement the Washington Post’s budget by selling the originals and will release a series of prints in the new year).
On October 31 I submitted my sketches. Three of the six were accepted right away and I was given the green light to start stitching. I was asked to make some significant tweaks to two of the pieces. And the Washington Post decided they would rather have an illustrated cover for a children’s books category instead of horror, so I had to start from scratch on that one. The last three sketches were accepted on my second submission and then it was time to stitch. Around the clock.
At this point I was about two weeks away from the final submission deadline and it was tight. As a way to make the stitching a little more manageable—anyone who has tried embroidery knows what an incredibly slow medium it is—I designed the genre pieces with directed light sources and only filled in the lit sections with full color embroidery. The areas of the composition that fell outside of the light I stitched with just black outlines. It was a huge time saver, but more importantly it felt like a real stylistic breakthrough for me.
Though I haven’t had time to explore this compositional tool again since the holiday season is in full swing, I am so excited to dig into this idea of light and filled color vs. line work in the new year.
This kind of breakthrough was exactly what I was hoping to come out of this commission. Even though working within someone else’s set parameters is uncomfortable for me, I thought it might be a great push in new directions and a reason to explore new subject matter and methods of making and luckily it was!
It came down to the wire, but I finished the six pieces in time (and then took a week off of stitching to let my hands recover), photographed them at a very high resolution for printing, and sent off the images to Eddie on November 17.
It was a whirlwind month of work, but it was so rewarding and the Washington Post was such a delight to work with. I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to create more editorial illustrations, but I am so glad I was open to this experience! The six embroidered illustrations appeared online accompanying the list of best books on November 21st and were printed in the Sunday paper on November 24. The whole experience was so positive and I will always be grateful to Eddie for the opportunity and for the respect he showed my work.
Sarah K. Benning