When I talk about conventions to friends, I say that one of my favorite parts is the Artists' Alley. I usually get a blank look. Sometimes people mention that they think it's more of of an insider's club, and they don't want to venture in.
What is Artists' Alley?
You can find an Artists' Alley at almost all conventions and usually by this name. It gives attendees a chance to meet and interact with their favorite creators. What artists have available depends on the convention and on the artist. It will include some variety of sketches, commissioned sketches and original art, sketchbooks, original art, limited edition prints, and other merchandise. The range of artists you can find in the alley is vast, everything from big industry names to your favorite webcomic creator.
Some Artists' Alley Tips
Don't be intimidated to wander the aisles of the alley. This is where creators get to interact with their fans. And in case you're worried about it, I've never had any creator in Artists' Alley push the hard sell on me either. Ever. They usually love to chat about their art or current industry news or most anything. I recently got to meet Tom Hodges at Phoenix Comicon and talk about how The Clone Wars really pushed my Star Wars love into burning passion. Or something like that. Remember, it costs you nothing to thank creators for their work or pay them a compliment. Don't take it personally if they don't want to shake hands though. Convention SARs or crud isn't made up, a lot of germs walk the convention halls beside you.
If you're interested in the artist's work, flip through the portfolio(s) that artists have on the table. If you do so, it's polite to flip back to the first page of the portfolio when you are finished (though this can differ by artist). Ask questions, browse, but do be mindful of the crowds around you. Basically, be careful not to hog a creator's time. Other fans want to visit too.
If a big industry name is present, do not be the guy or gal that brings fifty comic books for them to sign. Stick to one or two. It's just polite.
Getting Sketches and/or Commissions
One of the coolest things about meeting these creators is that you can sometimes commission original sketches and art from them. They'll work on your pieces while at the convention if they can, so the key to getting anything more than a sketch is to get an early start. Before you go to the convention, review the list of artists that will have a table. If you don't see any familiar names, look the artists up online. You'll probably find a style you like. Look around their website to see if they have any commission policies or reach out to them before the convention. Make note of where the artist's table will be at the convention, and as soon as you arrive at the con (hopefully on the first day), zoom right to that table and get started. The available slots for commissions for one convention can fill up fast.
Let's start with the difference between sketches and commissions. Quick sketches are usually something an artist does fast, and it's probably going to be rough. I would consider all the pieces in the above photo to be quick sketches. Artists do more developed sketches too. Commissions can be anything from portraits, full body, pencils, or full on inks and colors. I use a lot of qualifying adverbs because it differs from artist to artist. The price depends on the level of details, the popularity of the artist, etc.
If you want to commission a piece of art, I cannot emphasize the following enough: talk it through until you are positive that you and the artist are on the same page about what the finished piece will be. Will it be a head and shoulders image or full body? Will it be pencil or full inks? What size will it be? If you don't feel well versed enough to go through all the details, get help from a friend or even another convention attendee. Look through art that others have commissioned from the artist too. Commissions can differ from the everyday style of the artist. Also? Have a reference handy. Unless you are asking for a character that the artist has drawn frequently, they'll probably appreciate it. If you have quality paper with you, definitely offer it.
If you want to get a quick sketch, things are a simpler. Some artists will have a sign stating they are doing sketches, usually from free - twenty dollars. If they don't have a sign, it doesn't hurt to ask. The worst they can say is no.
For quick sketches, have an idea of what you want. I met one guy who asks for the same sketch from different artists at every show. As you can see above, I got a few Aayla Secura sketches at my last con. It's a fun idea if you go to more than one convention in a year. I recommend bringing a bound book for artists to sketch in. It will be a nice collection after you've gone to just a few conventions, and when the artists are drawing in a book, they know that chances that it will be turned around on eBay are slim. You can ask for a personalization for the same reason.
So, what are sketchbooks? I hear that question a lot. Artists create these periodically, a few artists I follow do one every year. They are a collection of the artist's work throughout the past year and can include rough sketches, little stories, finished pieces, sneak previews of upcoming things, and more. All the artist sketchbooks I own are booklet style. Artists print them in small runs. Sometimes they are limited edition and numbered, sometimes not. I think they are a great mini portfolio to get, and I always go for these at conventions. You can usually also get the artist to do a sketch in them (like in the photo above) for a little extra, occasionally for free.
Getting a Table in Artists' Alley
Artists can learn how to sign up for a table by visiting the convention's website. The rates are usually less than regular exhibitor or even small press tables. But then again, the space is smaller too. Big conventions like San Diego Comic-Con may have a waiting list. Also, keep in mind that sellers' permits of some kind are probably required. The convention should be able to give you information on the exact requirements.
I hope you guys get over to the Artists' Alley at your next convention and come away with a nifty piece of art. Let me know if you have any additional information or tips from the fan or creator side!