by Arnie Fenner

In the past month a new group of artists have graduated from school, bright-eyed, enthusiastic, ready to take the world by storm. Others have been honing their skills, either on their own or by taking workshops or studying with mentors and friends. All want to make their mark, either as illustrators or concept artists or gallery painters or sculptors or game designers or in some way or other do what they love, be respected for what they do, and earn a living from being an artist.

The simple fact is…it’s hard.

There have been folks in the past that have been appalled when I’ve talked about making a living. We are creators! We’re artists because it is in our blood! We don’t care about money! To which I say, “That’s nice, but how do you pay for your paints and your computer and your software and your internet connection?”

Silence is usually the response.

Let’s cut the baloney: it’s a tough world, an increasingly expensive world. And getting tougher and more expensive each day. The marketplace continues to evolve, impacted by technology, the economy, fads, trends, and shifts in societal tastes and expectations—all of which affects an artist’s ability to make a living. Nothing stands still, nothing is carved in stone.

It does not matter how skilled, educated, clever, innovative, or enthusiastic an artist is, there is always someone else…better. Someone hungrier. Someone else who seems to have the knack of being in the right place at the right time. Someone—thousands of “someones”—competing for the same jobs, commissions, patrons, or gallery spaces that you are. There will always be times when the other guy gets what you want, what you’ve been working for. There will always be someone who is paid more than you are, who is better connected than you are, who is offered more work than they can handle, who will be talked about and rewarded and revered while you’re having to hustle to make ends meet. It can be a bitter pill to swallow.

I’ve heard laments and complaints through the years, whether about pay or favoritism or preferences in styles or technology or distances or costs—and almost inevitably the unhappy artist will insist, “It’s not fair!

And my reply is, “Exactly.”

I’m always a little surprised when the “not fair” complaint is made, because, of course, life in general isn’t fair.

And that’s okay. Really.

No one is entitled to…pretty much anything. Certainly not a career. With only the rarest of exceptions, nobody hands us anything; there’s no assurance that clients or an audience will like what we do. We are not “owed” either popularity or a livelihood. As David McCullough Jr. said several years ago in a high school commencement address that went viral, we are not special…at least not any more special than everyone else pursuing the same dream (even though our family, friends, and egos might tell us otherwise). There’s no referee to blow the whistle and spread the work or attention or approval around so that everybody gets their share. Success for all is not a guarantee.

The art world (whether commercial or gallery) will continue to change, technology will continue to have an effect, and tastes and preferences will continue to take unpredictable turns when we least expect it. For illustrators, concept artists, comics pros, and designers, corporations will continue to explore ways to get more for less and will look abroad for talent when it suits them and the price is right. Once you think you have it all figured out it can turn topsy turvy and leave you wondering what the hell is going on. Artists have to develop a thick skin. Rejection comes with the territory and, as hard as it can be sometimes, we as artists have to use that rejection for both self-evaluation and for self-motivation.

And this is the gist of this post, my School of Hard Knocks commencement address or pep talk to new artists entering the arena: as artists we can never stand still. We can never be complacent. We can never assume we know it all, should never allow our successes to make us arrogant. We can never take our clients, patrons, or fans for granted; we can never assume there will always be a next assignment. We can never lose our desire to learn, to improve, to grow. And we can never be satisfied with “good enough,” but always trying to make each new work better than the last, not for anyone else’s benefit but our own. The experiences we have on our journey, whether good or bad, are a large part of the reward of being an artist: experience and personal growth are reflected in the work we create. Having pride in everything we do will ultimately be recognized by others.

I’ve said there are no rules for creating art and that’s true.

But I believe there is one rule for achieving success (in whatever way you choose to define it): work. Hard work. Hard work that requires focus and devotion and passion and determination. “Passion,” of course, has become an easy word to apply to practically any endeavor these days, but I think it is actually only appropriate when describing what artists need in order to be…artists. Being an artist requires a lifetime of experimenting, practicing (deep practice, as Greg Manchess describes it), and networking. It requires an inexhaustible willingness to look at things differently, to think about things differently, and to learn from missteps and mistakes. It requires finding wonder and beauty and drama in everything big or small. And it requires a willingness to embrace change. A career as an artist is not for sissies. (I channeled Manchess for that last sentence.)

The nice thing is that there are people constantly trying to help us, to share with us the benefit of their knowledge and experience, to help us achieve our goals, to realize our dreams, and do so without leaving everything to luck or fate or “fairness.” We are not alone: we are a community. Utilizing those opportunities—and all others that come our way—is the way that artists stay artists.

Counting on life being “fair” is a sure way to be frustrated.

Remember…you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes…