I’m writing this post from my first DragonCon, and taking an extra slot this week since I’m here with Dan Dos Santos, fellow columnist and fearless leader of Muddy Colors, and he is stuck at his Art Show booth currently with zero internet. I’m an Art-Director-At-Large and I’m not stuck at a booth so I said I’d go find some internet and do an extra post. I happen to have a topic that works nicely with the “Imitation Game” post from earlier this week, in which I dispel some myths about whether practicing by copying art or using reference photos in art is “cheating” somehow (spoiler: it’s not). Today I’m going to tackle another myth: Whether you’re a “real” artist or not if you have a day job to support your art career.
It’s no secret that Western popular culture (if not world culture at this point) is obsessed with youth. It started in the 50s, when advertising execs realized that marketing to teenagers got you customers for a much longer time than marketing to their parents. Youthfulness quickly became the beauty standard as well as the power symbol. Add to that our era of internet startups and 20-something millionaires and “_____ Under 30” lists and it suddenly seems like if you haven’t “made it” by 30 you’re a failure. This is not the case in history, and it’s ESPECIALLY not the case in creative fields like art. Child prodigies are impressive but true genius takes time to develop, and more importantly, it’s takes life experience. DaVinci would have been considered a complete failure until his 40s.
I think there’s a lot of pressure on people to know exactly what kind of artist they’re going to be and be able to fully support yourself from just your art very quickly. Some artists will come out of school or training and be able to make work that pays, either by finding a devoted fanbase quickly or just by chance having a very in-demand look. However, I think most artists need time to develop their skills, their style, and their network. These artists are by no means lesser talents. Very often it’s those artists that develop slowly that have the true staying power in their careers. I’ve seen it happen many times that when success comes quickly, it can set that artist up for failure later on, because they don’t know how to deal with disappointment when their career hits a rough patch.
It is always my advice, if your art isn’t paying your bills yet, and that is stressing you out so much that you have trouble thinking of anything else, and you’re starting to make stylistic choices by what you think is going to sell rather than what your true artistic voice is, then get a job. Maybe it’s just part-time. Maybe it can be art-related, like working in an art supply store or apprenticing to a more-established artist. Maybe it’s just retail. (Let me tell you, nothing will teach you more about audience and buying habits than working retail.) This does not mean you are less of an artist. Just do not fall into the quicksand — you must remember that being an artist is your real job, and this other job is just supporting that. You have to stay dedicated to practicing and continuing to develop your art. Sometimes people find that so hard to do that yes, they would rather do things like eat ramen, move back in with their parents, or move to the middle of nowhere so that they can be full-time artists right from the beginning. That’s fine too. But it is not inherently more noble to do so. Enough already with this myth of the starving artist being the only true artist. You are not “An Artist” any quicker if you do or do not have a shift at Starbucks. You are not more noble without healthcare, trust me.
Or don’t trust me, but trust Albert Einstein. While he was writing his most famous papers on relativity, he was also working a day job at a Swiss patent office, and he liked the structure it gave to his work.
So it was that Albert Einstein would end up spending the most creative seven years of his life— even after he had written the papers that reoriented physics— arriving at work at 8 a.m., six days a week, and examining patent applications. “I am frightfully busy,” he wrote a friend a few months later. “Every day I spend eight hours at the office and at least one hour of private lessons, and then, in addition, I do some scientific work.” Yet it would be wrong to think that pouring over applications for patents was drudgery. “I enjoy my work at the office very much, because it is uncommonly diversified.”
He soon learned that he could work on the patent applications so quickly that it left time for him to sneak in his own scientific thinking during the day. “I was able to do a full day’s work in only two or three hours,” he recalled. “The remaining part of the day, I would work out my own ideas.” His boss, Friedrich Haller, was a man of good-natured, growling skepticism and genial humor who graciously ignored the sheets of paper that cluttered Einstein’s desk and vanished into his drawer when people came to see him…. Indeed, we should not feel sorry for Einstein that he found himself exiled from the cloisters of academia. He came to believe that it was a benefit to his science, rather than burden, to work instead in “that worldly cloister where I hatched my most beautiful ideas.”
Recently I was reminded of this while listening to one of Orbit’s authors, Nora K. Jemisin, talk about why she went back to having a day job – I’m paraphrasing, but the gist was, she had a large enough advance to write her book that she gave up her day job – and that’s supposed to be the big goal of any artist, right? But she soon found herself missing her day job and it’s structure, and she soon found herself taking a job again – one that allowed her to still write, and supported her more comfortably, and exercised a part of her mind she still felt was important. You can listen to the full podcast HERE.
So don’t let anyone dictate to you whether you feel like an artist or not. Are you making art? Then you’re an artist. Whether you’re a starving artist or an artist that has to get up a 6am every morning to make art before they go to work, you are an artist. Keep working, and keep improving.