Confessions of an Artist – Part 1

As I enter the current round of trials in my life where I seek to find a way to organize myself professionally and to push my artwork to the next level, I’ve realized there were a few things I wish I could have done differently in the past or that I wish I had received proper advice on. I’ve made some mistakes and I feel that sharing some of them might help others, which has thus begun the first of what I hope to be a series of “Confessions of an Artist” so that hopefully someone might avoid the mistakes I made, or at least be able to face their own challenges with some sort of advice in mind.

As an artist, I’m still growing and still expanding my horizons so it’s not my intention to speak down to you as if I have already learned everything there is to learn. More than likely, I’ll keep making mistakes and learning new things as this wonderful world of art evolves.

My Confession of Discouragement

This is the biggest mistake I have ever made. Moreso than a mistake, it was an attitude I nourished early on in my life when I was in high school. I got a failing grade on my AP Art portfolio and despite my love of the arts, I let other people, including my parents, talk me out of trying for scholarships to attend art school.

“You’ll never be able to feed yourself as an artist.” Everyone intoned unanimously. “Art school is just a waste of money!”

I tried not to listen, but when you are young and reliant on your parents for college funding, you tend to go with what they want for you. And so instead of even trying for those scholarships, I went to a state school to earn a degree in English so that I might one day teach school and be able to afford to feed myself. That is not to say that teaching is not a noble profession and that I won’t someday do it, but I’ve always felt my fate lay elsewhere in more business-related ventures.

The more college classes I took, the more I started leaning towards art, art education, and business courses which soon pushed my education past the 4 year mark. By the end of it all, I had a double major in Art and English, a partial minor in Business Information Systems and far too many years of school under my belt. I regret my indecision and how much time I wasted as an unfocused student in a fine arts program that taught me next to nothing about commercial illustration, the field I was truly interested in. I must not be too harsh on these years in my life, however, for I learned many skills and met so many wonderfully talented students and professors at my college. My life would not be the same without having attended the college that I did and meeting the inspirational people that have entered my life since.

It was not until I worked through my lump of doubt after 7 years of undergraduate school that I bit the bullet, applied for a scholarship to the Savannah College of Art & Design, and managed to somehow obtain a significant fellowship, without which I would never have been able to afford graduate school. It showed me that it can be done, if I tried hard enough, and kept on trying. I only wished I had tried earlier. Now as a graduate of a Masters program, I’ve only just now begun to accept the mistakes I’ve made in my earlier decision making and have learned to move forward with my art career, a career which you are destined to fail at if you are not determined.

I am driven by the thought of “What if I had tried for those scholarships earlier? What if I just take the safe route and get a 9-5 job with my own cozy cubicle?” Sometimes the answers to these questions still terrify me…

My parents, and most parents, are right to worry about those of us with a twinkle in our eye and an itch in our palms to be artists. It is not an easy profession. You will most likely starve for your first few years until you are more well established. Only the most organized and driven of artists get jobs right off the bat. The competition for art jobs is massively high with more qualified candidates in existence than there are jobs according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To survive, one must be driven to improve, organized in their finances, and willing to work more than 40 hours a week starting off in most cases, particularly in the illustration field where you must meet serious deadlines.

The most common mistake I see in younger artists is that they think to themselves “Hey I like to draw. It’s fun. I should be an artist!” They give no real thought to how they can unite their love of art with a marketable format. This is a mistake of mine as well that led to much discouragement with the fine arts program at my college because I just could not find a gallery which would accept my kind of work. I felt like I was playing myself false…trying to inject themes into my work that would make me appeal to a wider “fine art gallery” audience when my heart lay elsewhere in more literal illustration. It did not even occur to me that someone COULD make money off of fantasy and book illustration until much later on. There were more options than the gallery (especially with the advent of new internet technologies) and I believe that to be a major discouragement for many artists going through traditional fine arts programs even today.

Even without the insistence of the gallery world, most young artists I know fail to even research what markets are out there that they might apply themselves to. Again, I cannot reference the GAG (Graphic Artists Guild) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics enough. Young artists, or even those who just feel lost, I encourage you to inform yourselves about your options. Art as a profession is not simply about drawing or painting. You must siphon your talents and skills to where they most suit your artistic drive. There are set designers, art directors, fashion designers, concept artists, scene designers, graphic designers, greeting card artists, and a whole multitude of specialized industries dealing with all facets of art. If you cannot reconcile the market with your work, you are merely pursuing a hobby, a personal pleasure, that will end up discouraging and frustrating you in the end if you try to make it your sole means of income.

Sometimes, even if you like to draw or paint, it is better not to pursue it as a profession if you find it impossible to push yourself to adapt to the demands of a business environment. And sometimes, this is okay. Some people are happier and more inspired without the expectations of business dealings hanging over their heads. That does not make them a failure and that does not make those of us who do business ‘sell outs’ ( a whole other rant there I’m saving for another entry).

In the end, all I can say is this.

Keep your eyes open, always work to improve yourself, research your options, expect to be driven hard and keep your head held high. There are artists who have become successful out there. They are not just random figures of serendipitous fate. They worked hard to be where they are now and they ignored those who told them that they couldn’t do it.

I wonder, how have you all faired? What mistakes have you made? And what have you learned from them?

My Confessional is always open.

8 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I know my life would be different now if I had felt someone believed in me when I was growing up (and maybe I could use a little more of that now too). I let others discourage me and now I feel like a failure because I was not strong enough to believe in myself when no one else did. It is a long and difficult road back from that and I am not sure I will ever recover. I hope one day I do.

  2. To Anonymous. Overcoming feelings of failure is a tough thing. I hit that point in my life right after graduation when I saw that there was no job for me and thought for a moment that I was destined to ‘starve’ just like everyone expected me to just because I chose art as a profession.

    I hope as well that you will find the courage and that special something that will motivate you to pursue your heart’s desire. It may be a fight, but put on your best gloves and get to punching.

    For me, I felt like fighting again when I realized that I do not want to live my life doing anything else. Art is essential to my happiness and I want and need it in all things, professional and otherwise. It’s what gets me inspired and keeps me fired up to face another day.

    Even if for some reason I cannot foresee I don’t succeed, I will at least be content in the fact to know that even after getting knocked down, I decided to get up again and try.

    Best of luck to you, my friend.

  3. Fantastic post, Angela. What an excellent series to start posting. I know with all your years of experience, your advice will be immensely valuable to beginning artists. You’ve worked a long and winding road to get where you are today, but I think it has all been excellent experience for you. Your art has certainly thrived for the influence of your English studies.

    I think it’s really great that you’re being so straightforward about your experiences and what you’ve learned about the industry. It’s so important to present frank information about making a living in this field, and the fact that it IS a business. Like writing, a person needs to have a market in mind if they want to make money off their work. Otherwise, they are creating for themselves. There are a lot of glorified visions of the creative mind at work, but if a person wants to make money, they need to be offering a product. A lot of people may recoil at that notion, and feel like it’s selling out, but even in art galleries you can’t expect someone to purchase a work they don’t like.

    As a small suggestion, I think you should keep those links to the Graphic Artists Guild and the Bureau of Labor Statistics on the main page of your blog (and deviantArt?) so that people can readily find them. They are great resources to know about.

  4. Charlemaine says:

    “when you are young and reliant on your parents for college funding, you tend to go with what they want for you.”

    well, i guess one can’t really fault u then…there r loads of ppl who experienced the same, who’ve had parents hold them back (albeit with the best intentions) frm pursuing wat they love best. especially when u’re not exactly swimming in money, they’d prefer u to study smthg that will eventually make u better off than them financially. this is esp true for the chinese (i’m one). financial security makes up abt 90% of our lifetime obsessions.

    i heard ur mom doesn’t value her own art much. she creates wonderful things & yet doesn’t think much of them at all. perhaps she was raised with that mentality? that fine artists are destined to struggle to make any kind of living, & she didnt want that 4 u.

    “Sometimes, even if you like to draw or paint, it is better not to pursue it as a profession if you find it impossible to push yourself to adapt to the demands of a business environment. And sometimes, this is okay. Some people are happier and more inspired without the expectations of business dealings hanging over their heads.”

    this is an awesome point, not to mention a reassuring one for me. i notice i can only draw when i’m in the mood. whereas i can write under all sorts of situations. i’m definitely happier visualising as & when i want to. so career-wise i think i’ve made a right choice…

    as for the sell-out part — those ppl can go screw themselves rotten. that’s all i hv to say to them 😛

  5. Charle, it’s always interesting to me to hear about expectations in different cultures. I can only assume there is even more pressure in China to go into a successful field? However much pressure there is, I am most certain that wanting the best for their children is a universal parental trait, no matter the culture.

    My mother and I were wonderfully similar at times in our journey through adolescence. She was a comic geek, I was a comic geek. She loved drawing portraits. I am not sure where we’d be now if she had pursued her dreams…or if perhaps she would have kept art as a hobby. Either way, I’m happy to see her returning to jewelry making at the very least. I’ll keep pulling out the paints on her so we’ll see what happens!

    The issue of being a sellout is one I’ll probably cover in a rant blog later. It’s a whole other can of worms for sure!

    I am glad to hear you’ve been able to balance your interests and professional life. It is something that is very hard to do! I’m still figuring it out myself.

  6. Stephanie. I remember thinking the same thing when I interviewed you for my thesis. I’m sure it’s a pattern that repeats itself with many successful artists who took the plunge later on in their life.

    It always brings a smile to my face to know that I’m not alone and that there is some hope:)

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