Category: freelance artist

Confessions of an Artist: Embracing Defeat

This post needed some humor so here it is!
This post needed some humor so here it is!

It’s been a long time since I wrote a personal/art career post here.  The main reason for that has been the absolutely disastrous year I’ve been having.  Rather than continue putting on a happy face, I thought an entry of candidness might be more helpful.  After all, I started this journal because I wanted to talk about my journey as an artist and I want to stay true to that instead of let this place devolve purely into WIP’s and self-promotion.

This year started with my partner nearly dying from heart complications from bronchitis.  Nearly dying being terrible enough on its own, the ensuing mentally draining recovery topped with an icing of medical bills made a perfect cake of disaster.  The funny thing is, we were more prepared for this than most and those savings got us through a difficult time, including the time immediately after his recovery where my partner was let go from his job.

I’ve said in the past we’re a single income household, with my art bringing in some income, but not a lot.  There followed another extremely stressful and depressing period where we both weren’t sure what was going to happen next.  Even still, my partner reassured me that it was okay to continue trying to do art as my living (because he’s awesome and so, so loving).  We had enough to live off of and emergency measures in place.

But I had something to prove.  I didn’t want to be a money sinkhole when we were in such a period of turmoil.  Here I was in my own little dream world trying to squeeze every penny out of my art, which only made it harder to create anything with that pressure to make everything I made worthwhile and profitable.  I spent more days tied up in a lack of motivation and depression than producing anything at all.

As this year wore on and other medical catastrophes and setbacks happened, I hit a low point.  I gave up for the briefest milliseconds on the notion that any of this struggling to be a professional was worth the suffering it was putting me (us) through.  It felt like everywhere I went, people I respect were bombarding me with the fact I was especially failing this year, that I should be farther than I am.  I needed to be stronger!  My insistence that I could never show weakness and should react by working harder and beyond my limits only worked against me because I turned all of that stress inwards, causing my own physical and mental health to decline.

In a strange way, finally accepting defeat this year has been freeing.  I have become increasingly aware of the long game and the shortness of life here on this earth.  Entering the IP Development Mentorship with Robot Pencil earlier this year was a game changer for me.  I have a lot of ideas I’ve always discredited because they weren’t producing results RIGHT now, but here were several professionals telling me my ideas are “F**king awesome”.  I’m not sure I would have entered this mentorship otherwise if I hadn’t been in the place where I was just so tired of struggling and really wanted to give those unacknowledged passions a chance they would not have gotten otherwise while I was obsessing over proving myself.

It’s funny how we need permission to just do the thing we always wanted to do…

Luckily, we’re doing much better now.  Kev has been making leaps and bounds with his recovery and has also found employment.  We continue our game plan to let me build my art career.  And while I feel guilty for having this privilege when so many other artists don’t, I’m not going to squander this opportunity with guilt anymore because I’m trying to impress those who quantify success as merely money, when success in life is so much more than that.  That path leads to elitism and becoming the kind of person and artist I don’t want to be.  With our income stable for now, I have also started saying no to a lot of jobs that I feel aren’t going to advance me as far as my personal projects might.

I’m still terrified of the unknown and of waiting for another bad thing to happen, but I’m hoping that surviving one terrible year means we’re better equipped the next time.

I suppose if there’s any advice for other artists to take away from this, it’s that sometimes you have to embrace failure because it’s one of the best ways to learn how to do anything right, that other artists who you admire more often than not are projecting a self-image of success (even when it’s not true), and that doing so doesn’t make them any less of an artist.  Also, try to save up backup funds for those rough times because they are waiting to sucker punch you in the gut when you least expect it!

Meanwhile, I’m still here…a little older and a little wiser.

Dealing with Bad Habits and Rejection

PHOTO BY REMO MASINA

Here we are a few weeks after IlluXCon and my mind is still buzzing with the possibilities, even as I settle back into the same routine I had before.  Yet now I have realized something.

Here I am back in the same ol’ catch 22 that trapped me into an unhealthy unproductive pattern as before.  To make ends meet, I work small side jobs (mostly leather crafts or independent commissions) and by the time I’m done with that, I’m left with just a few hours at the end of my day to cram in both my portfolio work and my personal work, which usually means choosing one over the other, unless I’m crafty and double-dip the chip, metaphorically speaking.

It’s so very difficult to take time from these activities that bring us income to convince myself working on portfolio pieces instead is going to pay off!  But it needs to be done or I’ll stop and look at the 40-year-old in the mirror and ask myself if I’ll ever accomplish what I want in life by age 50.  Bills still need paying and that’s a problem I have the power to influence as a content creator.

So I’ve been asking myself what is bringing me a step closer to my Mountain?  I’ve been reflecting on that a lot lately.  It’s led me to some simple conclusions.  First, the cycle must be broken!  If I need to work a little later in the day and sacrifice some time with my loved ones, than so be it.  I need to dump my guilt about doing this because my partner believes in my career just as much as I do and my success is his success.  I am the one who brings guilt to the table.  As long as I don’t work late every single day, it will be alright.  If I want to get anywhere with my career, I need that extra push, especially right now when I am so close.  As long as I  know to stop working, should my schedule become unhealthy.  It’s a problem I’ve had in the past and I will have to learn and abide by my limits in this regard for my mental and physical well-being.
Next, I need to start believing that my art is good enough to boost my income.  I stopped submitting to publishers and art reps years ago because I only ever got automatic rejection responses.  I know now that it was because my work was simply not good enough back then and I had no idea how to present my portfolio.  Neither was my work branded for the companies I submitted to!  But now?  I am armed by the knowledge granted from places like Muddy Colors and ArtOrder.

Having peers and respected artists review my portfolio at IlluXCon and tell me that I’m “almost there” has fueled the realization that I only need a little shove to get me where I need to be.  With just a little grease and polish on my work, I will start approaching publishers again.  I will start believing the time I spend on my portfolio is worth the time I take away from short term sales!  It’s a precarious tight-rope act trying to compromise between short-term and long-term goals with a constant fear of failure, that the time spent will be wasted.  The older I get, the more I feel that urgency and the more unsure my feet become!  It’s that self-imposed and societal reinforcement that if you don’t have the American dream by age 30 that you are a failure in life (I am currently 31 years old).  This is bullshit, especially as our society evolves new work patterns and standards of happiness and success in life.

I realize that I need to diversify my income, which would, in turn, help me be able to spend less time scrambling for side jobs and more time planning long term portfolio pieces.  While I have done this with leathercraft, it’s had the side effect of stealing away something I used to do for enjoyment.  Leathercraft was always meant to be my happiness hobby and I would like it to be so again.  Everyone needs that hobby that brings them pure happiness and fun or you are just working. All. of. the. time.  
My first coloring pack is available now!

I’ve been brainstorming many ways to help pad the income between jobs, the first of which is producing digital art items such as coloring book packs, which I plan to roll out more of soon!  I have also been researching how to sell my old work as stock illustration.  The article on revenue streams over at Muddy Colors reminded me of a lot of old plans I never did put in motion.  Time to step up and get things moving again!

With everything buzzing around in my head right now, it’s so easy to feel paralyzed by ALL THE THINGS that need doing!  I find that is where lists help to quantify my goals and make them more achievable.  So here goes!:

TO-DO

– Revise my current portfolio pieces that are salvageable for submission to Fantasy Flight Games, Paizo Publishing, etc. (Kushiel’s Dart, Lotus Dancer, and Dreaming Butterfly).

– Create new work branded for the IPs I want to work with. (Magic the Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Tor, etc.)

– Catch up in Painting Drama. Even getting halfway through this course improved my work so dramatically!
– Create more traditional pieces in my Art Nouveau style, as they seem popular with collectors and I quite enjoy doing them.
– Submit old work to istock.  Might as well extend the value of these paintings!
– Sell off the massive glut of sketches and originals sitting around here doing nothing.  Saying goodbye to my old work is also quite cathartic!
– Get new 2D art commission samples made. The previous ones are years old by now!
– Start approaching small publishers and work my way up. 1000 no’s may equal one yes!
And so it is that I continue towards my Mountain, now armed with the proper gear and a glint in my eye.  No trolley for me, baby. I’m hiking that mother!

Thinking Long Term

It’s been a minute here since I’ve really sat down to post in this journal since I moved into my new digs (other than the short jaunt through the studio). I’ve been slowly, but surely settling into the new space and entering a brand new phase of my life and art.  A whole new balancing act has begun and the time was needed to sit back and consider this without spreading my energies too thin across the net.  I’ve fizzled out of conventions this year for the same reason.  I needed time to sit back and gaze upon my work with a long lens without the obsessive selling haze of conventions and have decided I’d rather be concentrating on producing new and improved work, instead.

Another big change for me is the fact that I am living with a wonderful, loving partner who has willingly agreed to take on the bulk of our financial burden so that I can concentrate solely on my art career.  It’s a definite switch from my previous situation, which involved barely combating my student debt with part-time work, leathercrafting, and getting by with what little commissions, royalties, and art sales I could make.  Some might find this surprising, but even though I’ve been doing this for a few years, I still consider myself more towards the beginning than the end of this endless journey to becoming a professional artist (or, to define this term more accurately ‘professional artist’ being an artist who makes the majority of their living off of their art).

The prestigious and encouraging Echo Chernik, whom I met at DragonCon last year, gave me the advice that it takes at least 10 years to establish yourself as an artist.  By that measure, I am only 4 years into this and only ‘middle-aged’ in my career!  If so, the last couple of years were my ‘mid-life crisis’.  I’ve been struggling, mentally and physically, with this career path and if it really was worth the heartache it caused me with my debt, neck/shoulder issues, and the feelings of failure that come with not being where I wanted to be.  Your words really hit home for me Echo!  I had to stop holding myself to the standard that I was a ‘failure’ at being an artist because I haven’t reached my predefined level of success in a mere 3 years.

I’m sure some people are wondering “Well you have someone supporting you now. What are you worried about?  Kick back and relax!”  As a proud, independent, and highly stubborn woman, it’s hard for me to admit that I have to rely on anyone else to help carry me in any sort of fashion at all.  A whole slew of guilt can result from this arrangement with one’s partner, including, but not limited to:

– You comparing yourself to your partner’s profession (and therefore measuring which one is more important or worthwhile)
–  You feeling guilty that they’re murdering themselves at work while you have ‘the easy route’ because you enjoy your job. (Thankfully, my spouse very much enjoys his work, which makes this worry easier to handle!)
 – And finally the kicker for any modern woman, the fear that you’re reverting to old stereotypes where you are the content wifey who stays at home and cooks the meals and does her cute little art thing on the side (aka. art is not a serious job that will make any sort of serious money and therefore, again, not considered a serious persuit).

But if there’s anything that I’ve learned about art, life, and love, it is a balancing act.  Before my boyfriend and I could come to this decision as partners, I had to examine my direction first, ask myself the tough questions.  Is pursuing art as a career worth the struggles we’ll have along the way?  Can it really equal any sort of serious money, in the long term?

In the end, my answer was ‘yes’.  If talking to other professionals who have ‘made it’ has taught me anything, it is that an art career can be both fulfilling and lucrative, but it hardly ever just falls in your lap!  One of the most important revelations I’ve had in the past year or so is that I needed to seriously sit and consider What am I passionate about painting and where does it line up with paying industries?  A lot of people fall short doing this (to which I highly recommend every single one of you read Jon’s portfolio-building series over at The ArtOrder RIGHT THIS MINUTE).  Then, you are in danger of stumbling into the trap of Oh I’ll just draw pretty things and someone will find me.

This is dangerous trap because it often leads to disappointment and I will tell you right now it can equal a lot of wasted years of meandering boredom with what you’re doing or opening up your portfolio one day and realizing you don’t have a single consistent example of the Cool Stuff you want to actually draw and get paid for. (This has recently happened to me. A client asked me for samples of a book cover and I had only…two viable examples. Ugh!)

I am realizing that every job and every opportunity that will come in my career is a victory not just for myself, but my partner as well. He believes in what I’m doing and knows that it is not a fancy or a phase, despite the fact many people around us are prone to think of it as such.  Most of all, he respects it as a job which requires the same amount of dedication, if not more, as driving somewhere and working for a paycheck.  These factors of understanding and respect were essential for us to agree upon before we could ever settle with our current arrangement.  I share these feelings here as a matter of posterity for those who might be dealing with the same conundrum of a work-at-home partner and any of the guilt that might be involved.  It takes balance and respect without judgement of yourself or your partner from either side.  It takes clear communication of what you both expect to achieve together.  Most of all, I know that if this wasn’t our arrangement, I would still be pursuing the same goal.  My path being made easier isn’t an excuse or a reason for success.  You gotta want it first, else you risk not just your own success, but a loved one’s as well!

For now, I’m quietly phasing out the distractions from my career goals and working towards building my portfolio as a book cover illustrator (which branches out into all sorts of fun things, like CCG art and RPG art).  I have one simple goal for this year besides that, which is to attend Illuxcon and get my name out there to a few targeted companies.  I’m keeping it simple, maintaining my balance, and already I am feeling so much better for it!

I hope to bring you some actual ART to this art blog the next time around.  Till then, congratulations for reading through my entire wall of text!