The path to becoming an illustrator isn’t as clear but as it can be in other professions. I don’t think theres a set roadmap to it, so much as it’s largely determined by the artist and tailored by the choices they make.
It dawned on me recently that I’ve been working professionally as an artist for 22 years now. Kind of can’t believe it. Its sure gone fast. Looking back at my own path Im struck at how sometimes random its been.
It hasn’t always gone smoothly, but as a whole I can look at my career and feel lucky where I’ve ended up. Of course there are lots of goals that I haven’t achieved yet, but its also become more and more apparent to me that its been made up of many small victories as opposed to any one huge windfall opportunity. Ive been able to sustain, or by some standards even to thrive in this field, which no one is more surprised by than yours truly.
Looking back I can credit a few thoughts that I’ve kept in mind over the years, that time and time again seem to prove useful.
You’ve got to at least try in order to fail
The single biggest determiner thats allowed me to eat over the years has been the willingness to throw my hat into the ring.
Its insane to me how many artists deny themselves of opportunities because they don’t think their work is good enough. Or it’s not an application or subject matter they have prior experience in. or “insert any other host of excuses that make it easier to not try than to face potential rejection”. Its almost always rooted in insecurity, which is fused forever to the very core of our fragile artists’ egos.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m not insecure. HA! You guys have no idea! Or, if you’re reading this you probably actually do :).
What I’ve tried to do over the years is use my fear as a tool to push me to work harder. Fear of failing can in fact sometimes be the strongest motivator, Especially if its in an arena that means everything to you.
But in order to even get there you have to at least try which in and of itself requires the willingness to place yourself into a situation where fear will be a factor (see what I did there, Joe Rogan?)
Nobody improves without some discomfort, and by forcing the situation you might just surprise yourself with what you’re capable of. And hell, even if you fail miserably, you’ll learn some valuable lessons from it, so its worth the effort.
Work that extra hour
This is a rule i’ve imposed on myself from very early on in my art endeavors. I realized that one extra hour every night equated to almost an extra full day of work each week. Track that over the course of a year and it adds up. Ill admit with three young kids I break this rule a lot more these days, but I think adopting this helped me get a leg up earlier in my career. And ill still grind out here until 3-4 in the morning a lot of nights, so there.
Don’t make them regret hiring you.
Which I think could be expanded into “do right by people in general”. Nobody will work with you if you’re flakey, don’t take direction well, phone it in, or are just shitty to work with. You’d be amazed at how many illustrators fail to grasp this.
Someone told me years ago that they felt every artist should have to work in the service industry for a period of time in order to learn how to deal with people in a friendly, productive transactional way. I whole heartedly agree with this.
I’m constantly applying lessons learned working as a cashier for nearly a decade before I started working full time in the arts. I credit that experience as being essential in preparing me for dealing with the sometimes completely insane client interactions that can be part of this job sometimes.
Have Fun and Love What You Do
“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” right?? Right??? Okay this is an oversimplification thats really never rung true for me personally.
Its not always gonna be fun. It can’t be. Ive referred to this over the years as the “too much ice cream” principal. Sure, we all love ice cream, but what if you had to eat that shit all the time? Even something as creamy delicious and rewarding as ice cream can get tiring, and before you know it your ass is pining for some fuckin green beans..
So, again, its not always fun. Revising something 10 times isn’t fun. Its just not. I don’t care how much of a boy scout you are. Theres a certain point where you find yourself pining for the good old days where you just emptied trash cans and mopped the floor with little consequence.
What I try to remind myself in times like this is that I get frustrated because I care so damn much. I care because I love making pictures and want more than anything for them to be good. If it was easy and predictable, if it didn’t present a challenge, if I didn’t give a shit than it’d be no different from emptying trash cans or mopping floors. Not that there’s anything wrong with emptying the trash or mopping. Its just not what I’m passionate about.
And at the end of the day all it takes is one little victory. One little thing that nobody would probably even notice makes weeks of toiling all worth it. Live for those moments. Thats where the fun hides!
Never Forget That It’s All a Random Series of Events.
Life happens. Your best chance of affecting this is to be adaptive, positive, and stay focused on consistently creating the best work you can.
When I first dropped out of art school, I scrapped everything id don’t in school and started work on a new, focused portfolio of work. At the time id developed this kind of elaborate sketchbook technique that I felt best demonstrated my skills. I bought a new book, and tore into it, creating targeted work that I felt could best help me land a job as a production artist.
I gave my sketchbook book to a friend of mine who was working as an animator at a movie fx shop out in Berkeley at the time. As luck would have it, the day he brought it in the computers were all down which presented the opportunity for the artists to sit down and review my stuff.
They didn’t have a place for me there, but a guy working there had come from a small video game company in the North bay that was looking for environment artists for a project they where working in.
“Does he know 3d?” they asked him.
“No! But he knows how to draw and paint, teach him the skills and he could be an asset for you guys” he said.
He must have been pretty persuasive, because they agreed to give me a shot.
So I get this call from a complete stranger, telling me I got the job and that they’d be contacting me to go interview :O To be clear, I didn’t want to work in games, but my stock room job at Barnes and Nobles was even less my bag so I figured it was worth a shot.
I went to the interview, where we hit it off pretty well, and they agreed to hire me on for a three month trial period. They would train me on 3d and using a computer in general, and if it worked out I could stay on.
Those first few months were painfully informative. I had to work hard not only learning how to use 3d software but also just how to use a computer in general. It was a lot to take in and and my prior art training didn’t necessarily transfer 1:1 to this new stuff, but I struggled through it, worked a lot of late nights and stumbled on.
A few months after id started there, we interviewed an artist from down south who was exploring a possible relocation to the bay area. He came up for the day to interview and we hit it off well. We were both kids who’d hailed from the wrong side of the tracks, and who’d both hustled ourselves into the unlikely positions of being gainfully employed production artists. We shared a lot of similar influences artistically. For some reason or another he didn’t end up taking the job, but we kept in touch.
Not too long after he hit me up and said he was going to start this website/message board based around concept art and illustration. He had assembled a loose collection of friends and acquaintances to help establish it and wanted to know if id be interested in helping out with it.
Knowing absolutely nothing about message boards, websites, and very little about the profession of concept art, I enthusiastically said YES! Because what was the worst that could happen?
I think it was mostly a timing thing, but over the next few years, and to most of our collective surprise, that site ended up growing into an actual “thing”. in the early 2000’s Conceptart.org became a popular destination not just for those interested in concept art, but for art in general. There was a constant influx of new blood seeking to learn and established talent lending their time and knowledge, sharing thoughts and sometimes invaluable information.
That early success of conceptart.org and the establishment of this community eventually led to conversations about the viability of throwing live workshops we could promote through the site. We decided to try it in Amsterdam, so if it was a complete failure we could at the very least get wasted enough to forget about it. To our collective surprise we had about 100 people actually show up! This subsequently led to us throwing art workshops all over the planet for the next 10 years.
It was also around this same time some of us began collaborating on freelance work that we’d get through the site. This laid the beginning foundations for what would eventually become Massive Black, the art house I’ve now been a part of for the past 14 years.
A lot has changed since back then. As they tend to do, the shifting sands of time bury some things and reveal new opportunities.
I could do a dive into Massive Black and expand on how seemingly unconnected events string together to create this crazy narrative, but that’s a subject for whole other post altogether.
How it applies to this is that I’ve had the privilege of working on hundreds of games films, television shows, toys, emerging technologies, print materials and all kinds of other crazy stuff.
Its been such a bizarre blitzkrieg of projects that it’s fairly common for me to be talking to someone about a game or commercial or whatever, and well into the conversation realize I’ve actually worked on it.
Ive been able to get my hands dirty on a much wider range of products and applications than I’d ever originally seen myself working in, which has been the most satisfying component of my career over the past 20 something years.
So whats my point in all this? Guess its to try to somehow show that you don’t need some grand scheme or plan.. Sometimes I feel like the Forrest Gump of the illustration world with how randomly lucky I’ve been. Like a box of chocolates or something.
My goal has always been simply to draw stuff for a living. Still is. I think in life above all else, its important to never lose sight of what got us into this in the first place, because thats whats going to drive you. And if you’re 100% invested and try in earnest, there’s a good chance it will all work out in some way…or another. happy new year everyone, and all my best to you in 2018!