Last week I received the news that the novel I recently illustrated, A Horse Named Sky is #4 on the New York Best Seller list! A Horse Named Sky includes over 100 illustrations drawn traditionally (a big first for me!) I feel especially excited to share this on Muddy Colors because this extended community has been a big part of the foundation of all I’m creating today.
If you have been illustrating for a while you may know that career highlights like these can feel… up and down. I’m not the first artist who has thought that a big commission or a fancy client will magically accelerate the trajectory of our career. More seasoned now, I know it’s the little decisions we make every day that add up and steer our careers.
To help guide my students, I ask them to write a list of 100 things they love aesthetically. I ask them to get as specific as possible. My hope is students will find connections that could lead to the subject matter they might like to explore, color palettes, and even their coveted “style” could emerge in the findings.
If that doesn’t tempt you or lists aren’t your thing, simply pay attention to when something takes your breath away. When do you lose track of time or an idea consumes your thoughts? Have you ever enjoyed something so much you forgot to eat? That’s how we know we are on the right path, making the right stuff.
When I’m unhappy with my work I can hold it up to my internal list of loves. It becomes very clear why I’m unhappy. On occasions like today, I can hold the work up and see horses… and I love horses!
Steering the stallion of your career can look like turning away work that doesn’t interest you. (Risky, I know.) Sometimes it’s the side jobs that sustain the balance between gigs that need a change-up. Some might need a swift kick to get out of the mud! Nudging the reins means something as easy as putting something from my love list into a commission piece or it can be as difficult as turning away a job from a client I personally love to work with.
The love list can be so much bigger than your art career but your artistic life. At first, we may be drawn to a niche of art only to learn about an aspect of that type of work or community that doesn’t suit us. Nothing is perfect, but when we can’t tolerate a communication style or deadline, a subtle shift will point you right again.
I’ve spoken about my longtime battle with Crohn’s disease. Getting somewhere every weekday 9-5 is never going to work for me. That has been an immense driver for me to craft a flexible freelance career. Everyone has parts of the routes they can’t control, we all need to know when to go with it.
It’s only been these last few years I’ve allowed my horse to graze and be less in a rush. I let myself follow the shiny ideas, the ones that are pulling me from the work on my desk. It’s not as dangerous as everyone says! It leads to two things quite predictably for me.
The first and most common, I realize that the shiny idea is just as hard as what I’m supposed to be working on. This new shiny idea has to go through all the stages of the process. The thing on the desk isn’t un-fun, it’s just currently in a hard stage. Or maybe the thing on my desk IS un-fun and I should nudge the reins. But only just after I put a bow on it for the client as planned…
The second thing I’ve found is that sometimes the shiny idea is as good as you hoped! This idea can be nurtured (and sold!?) That thing on the desk needs to get done, but this new shiny thing is exciting indeed. I may lose 1-2 work days lost in it but the ferocity of the first big push of an idea can’t be passed up. It’s like running into your oldest friend unexpectedly on the trail and you have lunch that lasts 6 hours. It must be done.
I wish we all were lunching now! Trust your instincts. Ride on! If you’d like to purchase a copy of A Horse Named Sky click here.