I was commissioned to make a couple illustrations for a terrible piece of writing. This happens. It’s part of the deal. I don’t have to endorse or approve or even tolerate the word salad that accompanies my pictures. Sometimes I’m even the author of said salad.

There are ways to make the process worthwhile that have nothing to do with the original intent of the thing. Maybe a geographical location that can spur an image search. Some photos of a river in Oregon and test out a watercolor set I got from the house of an older artist who’d passed away. The resulting painting has little to do with the overwrought essay it’s meant to enhance but feels like it was worth doing in a modest way anyhow. When I send it in, the editor who hired me seems happy, so I’ve done my job and can put the whole thing out of my mind.

I listen to interviews with writers or true-crime stories as I work. Oftentimes, I completely forget what the thing I’m making is even for. Good thing that there’s no pop quiz on the nominal reason for doing what I’m doing. I’d flunk for sure. In many cases, I don’t even have any text to reference. Just names of people and places. Maybe some reference photos. A lot of flying blind involved.

Another recently completed job is thirty-five portraits of characters in a forthcoming book I haven’t read. The writer sent me their names——all Russian——and some lo-res reference photos. Drawing faces comes so naturally now that I don’t have to question much about the owners of those faces. I recognized a couple of the people in the photos but when I asked the writer whether it was important to get a good likeness of them, he said they were just archetypes. I’ll share those with you once that book is published. I’m curious how my work will be used.

I used charcoal for the first time in awhile to design a poster featuring more portraits. Chicago writers this time. Unlike the Russian portraits or the landscape watercolors, I’m in charge of most of the elements of the poster composition. I just have to include the verbiage given by the organization that hired me and make it more or less legible. They trust me to handle the rest. This frees me to rummage in the cobwebby corners of the toolbox for long-neglected implements. A box of vine and compressed charcoal, in this case.

But rather than doing the whole thing on one piece of paper as I would have even a few years ago, I drew the portraits separately, then took a couple more big pieces of paper to draw out the text. I scanned them all in, then played around in Photoshop until they looked wrong together in just the right way. The collage thing has invaded almost everything I do now.

It’s a load off to do work for other people because it’s so much less responsibility. They get me to make a record cover or poster or book illustration for their thing and, if they’re satisfied with what I’ve done, I rarely think of it again. I don’t have to sell it, store it, or wonder what people will think of it. It’s rarely that clean and simple when it’s something no one else asked for.

I can never be free of it the way I can when it’s for someone else.

[I previewed some films in this week’s Chicago European Union Festival——including one of the best movies about childhood I’ve ever seen——and Mallory and I talk about The Box.]