I had the chance to speak to a group of artists the other night here in Utah. I thought that some of the things said might be meaningful so I am sharing it here. I have changed the text a little where it was specific to that evening.
I love this comic. It sums up much of the excitement for me as my own boss and as an artist. I think we all look at our next project as a potential masterpiece and can relate to these two little ambitious and blood-thirsty spiders.
My name is Howard Lyon. I am an artist and in that role, I work as a gallery artist, an illustrator, a concept artist, and sometimes as an art director. My career has moved around quite a bit but through it all there has been a central goal that guides my work and life, that is try to add some beauty to this world and be kind to others. I am not always successful in those goals, but they remain worthy targets for me. I’ll talk a little more about both of those things in a moment.
I am honored to speak to you tonight. I am not the best painter or artist in this room and I am sure that I am not the best speaker, so it is humbling to stand here among my friends and fellow artists because, in almost every way, you are my people. It is among artists and people who work at their creativity that I feel most at home.
I want to add a big caveat before I speak, and that is, these are my experiences that I will share and they might not define your path, but hopefully, there will be bits and pieces that have some resonance and prove useful.
I often hear and am told about the importance of and need for networking. I agree and have used that word many times when sharing advice, but as I was thinking about what I would share tonight, I felt that I needed a better word. Networking is kind of a cold word to me and it doesn’t imply all that it needs to when used in our context as artists.
I believe that rather than seeking out networking opportunities, we need to seek out partnerships. The difference is that the success of the relationship requires a partnership where both parties are working together on a goal, instead of networking where people and businesses can be viewed and treated as stepping stones.
In a true partnership, both parties benefit and rise together.
My biggest partner in this life is my wife. I know that your spouse might not be your artistic partner, and that is okay! Or you might not be married or want to marry. That is of course okay too! But let me speak a little more about my partners.
Shari Lyon is my wife and she is in Arizona right now, killing it at the Scottsdale Celebration of Fine Art. She is my sugar momma! I feel blessed and lucky, but you can’t all marry Shari, so stop asking. We’re happily married, people!
So, what do you do if you can’t marry Shari…
I want to talk about the other partnerships in my life and how they have helped.
My earliest partnerships, after my parents (I took out the garbage, they bought me papers and pencils) were my fellow students. I found like-minded people in Junior High and High school but especially in college.
There I met Joesph Brickey and found someone who possessed (and possibly exceeded) my zeal to learn and grow. He was someone who I was thrilled to share new ideas with, critique, and be critiqued by. We grew together because we had a trust, based on our friendship and desire to learn. I still count Joseph as one of my trusted partners whom I know that I can approach and he will give me honest and helpful input with the single intent to help me. I wouldn’t be painting how I do now without that influence in college.
I now have many more friends like that, some of who are here, and I can rely on them to aid me along my way and in return, I do my best to help wherever I can.
Seek out those people, invest in those friendships. It takes time, but the result is rewarding on its own. Who are your like-minded partners that you can lift up? Those partners might come in the form of teachers or mentors or family. Feed those relationships. This talk was a reminder to me to do better as well!
Clients can be partners. There are some people and companies that I work with that are special and when I find those, I do my very best work for them. As an illustrator, I have worked with many clients, but I have only worked with a few over and over. Wizards of the Coast has been one of those for me. I think I am in my 23rd year of doing work for Wizards. They have been wonderful for me. In return, I make sure that I deliver my best work on time. If changes are needed I make them without complaining. In return, if I should need extra time, they always give it to me. Trust has been built and so it can be built upon. I guard that relationship and treat them like a friend with whom I want to see succeed.
Brandon Sanderson is another one of those clients. His company, Dragonsteel Entertainment treats me honestly, generously, and with great respect. I work hard to make sure I reciprocate and I try to go above and beyond to accommodate their deadlines and needs.
Galleries can be partners. When partners, they don’t dictate to you but share their insight and wisdom while helping you become the best possible you. If a gallery owner seems like they are out to dominate your spirit and tell you how to be you, then I would question the health of that partnership. Find those spaces that give you room to grow and explore and take chances (more on that later)
Another partner that I have found is not a person, but an organization, Muddy Colors. It is a collective of artists and people in the arts that share essays on art and art careers. I receive exposure and notoriety, but that comes from giving my time and energy to writing an essay every other week. Sometimes I really don’t want to or, feel that I have time to write. But I have, for 10 years… every… other… week. I’ll be honest, I ran out of wisdom about 9 years and 10 months ago, but I keep going because it makes me grow.
How would this apply to you, because not everyone can go write for Muddy Colors, they just don’t have enough spots open? Find an outlet where you can share with others. Either as a collective or on your own. Online or in person. Do so without expectation of financial gain, but as way to share with others as I hope others have shared with you. Give to that blog, podcast, organization or group, as if it is a partner and as it expands it will start to give back to you. In exposure, growth, and happiness. Do this on a schedule that you commit to. Forcing you to take the time to share and give will enlarge your capacity to do so and those that partake will give back to you and others. It is a cycle through which everyone wins.
Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about style and voice and risk
A child was drawing and an adult walked by and observed the drawing.
The adult said, “You’re drawing that horse wrong.”
The child replied, “How am I drawing it wrong?”
The adult said, “Horses don’t have wings, it is wrong.”
The child replied, “Then why did you call it a horse?”
Sometimes you don’t want to draw a stupid horse with their dumb long faces and huge teeth and legs that bend weird. (Just kidding, I love horses) Sometimes a pegasus unicorn with rainbow stardust breath and a silky long mane is what is needed, and you don’t have to paint horses just because someone out there wants a horse. Or, maybe you redefine what a horse is. You distill a horse down to all its horsey goodness and ferment the horse tincture in your mind and on your canvas and when you are done you’re able to express what it means, not only to be a horse but also are able to share exactly what that looks like through your eyes and mind and heart.
That is when people will look at your work and say, I knew this was yours. This is your style. This is your art. But all of that comes with risks.
There is no guarantee that anyone will love your horse. Some people like disgusting broccoli and don’t even think about beautiful horses. I don’t understand it, but that’s okay. You won’t and can’t please everyone. But, that might mean it takes time to find your audience. It also might mean that it takes time for your publisher to find your audience, or for your clients to find the right project for you.
But find that voice and be true to it. When you hear hoofbeats coming, it doesn’t have to be a horse OR a zebra that you think of. It might be a rhinoceros wearing tap shoes, or a little squire banging coconuts together. You get to define how you interpret this world and all the varied inputs. You get to define your art. Don’t let others make that decision for you.
Trust in this, the more true you are to your heart, the more love and passion you will have for your art and that can get you through the tough times and ultimately take you farther than trying to please someone else.
Take risks along the way and ALWAYS be looking for opportunities to learn, experiment, and broaden your mind.
No single painting will make or break your career, it is a progression of work that pays off as you go. I am looking for journeys, not destinations. Sometimes, often, I end up in places in my career that I never imagined, but I wouldn’t change that because I learn so much along the way!
In summary, I suggest that you create and seek out opportunities and people that are willing to be your partners to whom you can give as much or more than you receive. Be true to your heart for that is where your passion and joy are found and find ways to stretch and take risks along the way and always put wings on your horse. If you can pull that off, you’re gonna eat like a king!