I thought a lot about what would be an interesting topic for this article. I´m fairly new to the game, so what could I possibly have to say about anything? Then my mentor suggested that since I originally come from a different field, and the transition period from starting my first serious art training to becoming a professional was relatively short, it might be worth talking about mindsets that helped me along the way. I thought that was a great idea.
I’ll tell you a little bit about my background first. I loved art and painting from a very early age and I took classes in the local art school for many years but with cautious advice from my art teachers and basically no information about career options in artistic field I later went on to study English in high school and Psychology in university. I still think that was a good and pragmatic decision, and both fields of study proved to be more than helpful in my later pursuit. While studying I realized I really didn’t want to be a psychologist, so I slowly learned to work in Photoshop, I patched together a couple paintings and got a part time job at a local game studio where my job was to paint over 3D renders. After finishing my Masters Degree the studio went out of business but I was already in love with the idea of an artistic career…so I started freelancing. Oh, the naivety. With being mostly self-taught and having mediocre, all-over-the-place portfolio, it took one year of different small art jobs and constant financial worry before I admitted to myself, with a lot of pain, that I just wasn’t good enough to keep this career going. I needed to learn to paint.
Two years later I got my first Magic the Gathering assignment which I considered to be a turning point in my life as a professional artist.
Since all this happened not so long ago, I decided to observe my old self and figure out what went on in my head in that time. I read all the emails I sent to teachers and art directors and I revisited old paintings from the mentorship programs I’ve done over the period. I almost forgot I ever painted some of them. Memories of frustration and desperate need to paint well but not yet being able to started to come back to me and, with relief, I realized that I don´t feel that way when I paint anymore. So from all that journeying into the past, I managed to distill 3 most important mindsets, that I believe helped me “break in”.
Have a mentor. Always.
After I gathered the courage to expose my fragile ego to the best of the best, I turned to the online world of serious art training. Logically I understood the necessity of being in contact with competent professionals and teachers, or in general, artists who were way better and more experienced than me, but emotionally it was pretty scary. But I didn’t have time to ponder, I was in need of serious help or I would have to go get some HR job. I needed someone to guide me and help me do things I wasn’t yet able to do by myself.
With modern options of online education, and with artistic community being unbelievably generous and kind, it is fairly easy to reach out to artists one aspires to and ask for a critique and advice, or to go see them at a conference or workshop. If you´re lucky, they might offer mentoring, or teach at online art school. This experience quickly became extremely motivating instead of intimidating. I’ve had countless wonderful talks with professional artists and art directors who were so supportive in their emails or in person, either telling me exactly what I needed to do next with my work, or refereeing me to someone else who could help. I hunted down artists to have those 5 minutes with them and I put what I learned from them into the work, so I could later come back and show the proof that I listened. People are pretty excited and likely to further help you if you listen. Each portfolio review and conversation left me with new information, new perspective, and an idea of what to work on next. All the mental fog and chaos also continued to clear out when I enrolled in mentorship programs. Weekly assignments brought external structure into my process, I got familiar with how the industry works and very importantly, I was having regular conversations with professionals about the direction I wanted to go which helped me set goals and make plans on how to achieve them. Along with the support of the art community and other students, all of this made it a lot easier to manage negative emotions that naturally accompany the pursuit of something difficult.
Quality of the work is all that matters
My early experiences with doing all kinds of mediocre art jobs convinced me that the only thing that could ever guarantee any kind of security in the artistic profession was the quality of my work. I figured that even if I had the best strategy with social media, I was able to pull off 10 pieces a week and I met all the art director in person, but had mediocre paintings in my portfolio, it would all lead nowhere. That realization allowed me to prioritize just one problem, instead of dealing with a bunch of intertwined problems. The priority was to get my paintings where they needed to be, in my own definition of quality.
In practice this meant letting the paintings take as much time as needed, getting rid of false assumption like “reference is cheating” and reworking almost every sketch multiple times after my teacher´s feedback. I often compared WIPs to works of artists I admired and forced myself to see the differences in quality. It was valuable information. My time was precious, so I tried to maximize the potential of each work to get me as close to my goals a possible, and that meant approaching every piece as my next masterpiece. I believed that if I could show a proof that I could actually do the thing and that I could do it well, people would notice and opportunities would start to present themselves.
Like the things you like
There was one painting I did early on that defined the way I make art. I got the idea while skiing in the snowy mountains. At the time I was quite paralyzed by choices and decisions I thought I had to make, like a proper neurotic beginner. Concept art or illustration? Is using reference cheating? What should I paint?
There´s not much to do while you´re being pulled by the lift to the top, so I just gazed into the forest occupied by these thoughts. I remember suddenly being so dazzled by the white snow and orange leaves, a young redhead woman started appearing before my eyes running through the trees and then falling. Damn, she´s bleeding, the hunters got her! It was my imagination intertwined with the reality I was experiencing, one fed the other, and I got so excited. I hurried home and started putting the idea on the canvas. I didn’t have time to think about whether I should or shouldn’t use reference, the piece just needed to be realistic, like my vision. Was the scene going to be appealing to the the clients I was aiming for at the time? Who cares, I loved it.
I even found an old screenshot of the work in progress named “happy.jpg”. Working on that painting made me happy, so happy that I captured the moment so I could remember it.
I think that was when I realized I was a fantasy illustrator and also that I just loved visual drama. This ended up to be my first painting that got recognized, it even got me an IMC scholarship here on Muddy Colors. All of that made it super obvious that when I felt excited about my own work, it made me try so much harder and do everything necessary to communicate the vision. Technique and fundamentals started to serve this single goal of showing, to the best of my abilities, what was in my head.
I believe you don´t consciously come up with your values and decide what kind of artist you want to be. You discover it. You closely observe your feelings and behaviors, and you allow yourself to find out. Since this realization I keep surrounding myself with visuals, music, nature and everything I always adored and I bring the inspiration into the actual art making. What a cool lifestyle that is. I used to think that professional artist should be able to paint anything, preferably in any style, but I don´t think that way anymore. I´m too busy painting what I want, exactly the way I want and making it awesome.
So I think this is it, these are 3 most important mindsets that helped me back then and are still helping me now. Maybe they´ll help someone else too.