Posters and learning a trade

by Petar Meseldzija

In 1993, I started to work for Verkerke Reproducties, a Dutch company that was one of the biggest poster and art print companies in the world. The poster business was a booming business in those days and the successful poster artists were getting rich. Unfortunately I was not one of them, but I had a friend who was a leading Verkerke artist and he was a rich man! At that time I was a starving artist who just came to the Netherlands and was struggling to survive. Any opportunity to earn some money was most welcome. In the subsequent 6 years I produced (designed and painted) about 120 posters, prints and greetings cards, most of them for Verkerke. I never got rich, but thanks to the jobs that I got from this company on the regular basis, I was able to earn my living. Also during this period, which I consider to be a period of my apprenticeship, I learned a lot and experienced all sorts of things that provided me with important knowledge and insights. 
The first few posters that I did for Verkerke were the posters of clowns, who were always playing an instrument, mostly a violin, and were accompanied by little dogs and boy clowns. The art director would explain to me what kind of paintings they needed, and because it was a highly commercial work, I obeyed all their wishes and, if necessary, I did all the requested changes and corrections. Typically the clowns had to be depicted as latently sad, melancholic people. The compositions and colors had to be sweet and appealing,  and they had to answer to the somewhat cheap aesthetic needs of the public who was buying the posters. The sentimentality was one of the main ingredients and a key to the commercial success of the poster.

This was my first clown painting. The initial expression on the clown’s face was sadness. I can’t remember whether the art director has  requested such an expression, but the painting was accepted and published as an oversized greetings card. After that the art director asked me to repaint the clown’s face and to make him smile, which I apparently did. However, this painting was never printed as a poster.

Back than the headquarters of Verkerke Reproducties were far from the place where I lived. In fact they were at the opposite side of the country. Although  the Netherlands is not very big, it took me a few hours to get there by several  trains. Once, I brought one of my clown paintings to the art director (see below). She was at first very pleased with the painting, but after a while she started to doubt. At the end she told me that she wants me to bring the painting back home and to paint a red rose on the ground next to the plate ( this was before the internet and Photoshop). Why, I asked. Because, she said, they have found out that, regardless the main subject, the posters that have a red rose included in the composition sell better than the posters without it! Also, a red rose was selling better than, for instance white or yellow rose. So, I brought the painting back home. A week later I was again sitting in the train with the same clown painting next to me, but this time with a red rose in it.

There were many situations of a similar kind during that period. I never complained about not having enough artistic freedom while doing this kind of job. I guess I did not need the artistic freedom at that time. Instead I needed enough work in order to survive physically and mentally, and I needed a challenge that would help me to develop my artistic skills. Most of these 120 paintings were not very good, some of them were really bad. There were only a few of them that I was completely satisfied with.  And although I now don’t like to look at most of them, these works were extremely helpful and important to me. I have had my share of ultra commercial art which does not deal with the terms like artistic freedom, or free self-expression. I have tasted the humility and the obedience,  which are the indispensable elements in the illustrator’s arsenal of qualities.

Nowadays the things are different. I guess I have earned my artistic freedom. I know now what I want, and what I don’t want, and when to insist on my own freedom of artistic expression.  But I also know when to put the thoughts about this freedom aside; I know when to shut up and do as the client requires, in order to refill my piggy bank.

This is one of the few paintings which I did for Verkerke posters that I am pleased with.

All creatures great and small, 1994, oil on wooden board, 100 X 70 cm,  39 ¼ X 27 ½ inch