Friday, March 9, 2012

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


  1. Petar, thank you so much for posting this! I can surely relate to this story :)

    "I have tasted the humility and the obedience, which are the indispensable elements in the illustrator’s arsenal of qualities."...
    I have learned these lessons also trough my commercial illustration work, but, even more, recently as an art director working with illustrators. It was so important for me to be on the both sides to really understand.

  2. Thank you so much for this fabulous article Mr. Meszeldzija!
    It is highly encouraging for a young, inexperienced artist like myself to see the early struggles of someone who is working successfully as an illustrator today. I sometimes wonder if I will ever be able to work professionally doing any kind of art, but like you say, if I am willing to humble myself and meet requirements and deadlines with quality and timeliness, I can put food on the table with art.
    Just know that your posts have been very encouraging. And that your clown posters are really quite good! They have a Rockwellian quality about them that I find most appealing!
    Talk to you soon,

  3. I've seen "All creatures great and small." And I love it! I can't remember where though, although it may have been in the gift shop of the zoo I voluntered at for 7 years. And yes, I too like the clown posters! They make me smile, not a bad thing.

  4. This was a great post, really interesting story, thanks!

  5. Thanks for the post, Petar, and the humility to show us some of your early stuff! One of humility's purest definitions is to be teachable, and I think this article is a good reminder to us all of the fact that great strength in anything always comes with the price of discipline, determination, and steadiness — a form of faith (at least in yourself), in effect.

    "Let no man despise thy youth..."(1 Tim. 4:12) Time and success can sometimes make dim to us the gift of our youthful struggles. But those struggles that occur when we are starting out in something can give us the strength we need to continue in strength as we mature. Thanks again.

  6. I must agree with comments above about humility and determination. It is a great post indeed. My favorite piece is the 3rd image (clown) from bottom up. The blue light and color saturation really helps to break the melancholic feel.

  7. Thank you, guys, for your kind remarks and insightful comments.

    And of course, our early struggles are necessary and extremely important. To all of you who still doubt or hesitate, I can say that my experience is telling me that as long as we follow our dream ( or our bliss) and do things genuinely and wholeheartedly, it will pay off, sooner or later, in one or another way. At the same time, one of the most important things is to realize that only a rough road leads to the stars - Per aspera ad astra!


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