Category: hard truths

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 a.  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.

Out With the Old, In With the New

Persephone. A new direction?

We’ve headed into the final round of my charity auction (for now), and I’ve got to say it’s been a roller coaster of emotion for me!  I’ve said goodbye to so many of my old pieces in the past couple of weeks, some of which sold for only a dollar.  I’ve made my peace with this, however, as I’d much rather see these pieces go to homes that will appreciate them, rather than sit in my basement gathering dust. GONE, they are, and now I feel a weight lifted knowing that this old work is not present for me to rely on anymore as the base of my body of work.

I feel like having my old work around encouraged me to be less productive. It’s easy to get comfortable when certain pieces have met with some success.  Now that they’re gone, I feel an even greater push to be productive to fill that hole in my closet. I’d ideally like to be able to produce at least one fully thought out and detailed piece a month, but it just hasn’t happened for me for one reason or another.

It’s funny to think that my work will be different now, if Persephone is a portent of things to come.  I’m afraid of not being able to present a cohesive body of work anymore since my old work still makes up the majority of the prints I sell.    As such, I’ve been slowly retiring older prints (many which I already have in the CLEARANCE section of my shop) and gradually re-branding myself with newer work more pertinent to the industries I’m aiming for.  There is such a massive undertaking of creating completely new bodies of work ahead of me!  I have to wonder if most artists go through this shedding of skin? This metamorphosis of imagery, style, and media?  Surely, I am not the only one who shifts their colors throughout their career?  I wonder if we just never see the older work of the pros we know, so we always assume they knew what they were doing from the get-go.

On that note, I’ve been thinking long and hard about just what industry it is I’d like to target right now, with the good advice from friends in said industries and art communities to guide my way.  The hard facts are that my work and fundamental skills need to be more polished to get into concept art, which is my ultimate goal.  Neither do I currently have the ability to relocate to the places where I’ll find those kinds of jobs with my significant other’s career in the mix as well.  His career takes priority right now because I am simply not ready to enter into the field I’d like to pursue, while he has advanced to the point in his field that he is ready to enter the next level.

This is one of the many challenges of having romantic relationships as an artist.  Moving can be difficult when you have to prioritize one person over the other to make sure your bills are paid, while you also have to be honest to yourself about what your potential is at the given time.  By the same token, we are so incredibly lucky to be able to advance together and provide constant support for one another.  While one person is building strength, another can man the wheel.

However, all is not lost, as there are other art fields which seem suiting for me.  Playing card art, book covers, and interior art for rpgs have caught my eye, since they all tie in to my favorite subject matter (fantasy, scifi, and character-driven works) and, for the most part, allow you to work remotely.  It’s a way to suit my needs and develop my skills while still being in an industry I can be passionate about!

I’m excited about this course correction of mine and have been brainstorming on a list of subjects I’d like to depict in a targeted portfolio for each.  I shall have to ramble on what I’m thinking of doing later, however, because this blog entry is already long enough!

Thanks to all of you who drop words of support here and in other online communities.  I feel like a flag in the wind sometimes with no control over where life is taking me.  Words of encouragement can mean so much to build the kind of positive attitude I need to reach my goals.  I started this blog to document a journey from amateur to professional and I feel like I’m finally on a course that’s not as unrealistic as it used to be.  I have goals, steps, and everything I need to get there. Now it is up to the art to pave the way!

Let the productivity begin!

Confessions of an Artist: Switching Career Focus?

So back to a serious topic I broached somewhat when I was talking about what is working for me and what’s not.

I’ve been weighing my potential career through a clouded looking glass lately.  I’m turning the big 3-0 this year and this fact has me particularly introspective about my path in life.

I could continue going down my current path of the feminine high fantasy and really try to tailor myself to everything that the licensing business wants (colorful, steampunk, unicorns, fairies, holidays, angels etc.)  All lovely in its own right, but I just can’t seem to get motivated for anything lately.  I find myself asking too many questions:

“Is this what I want to be known for?”  

“Is it too late to change what I’m doing now if I want to do something different?”

“Is my current path what I’m passionate about?”

More and more, the answers to all three questions respectively are No, Yes, and NO.  This indecision has led to more than a bit of art block for me lately (probably why my crafting has gone WAY up and new 2D art has gone WAY down.)

If you would have asked me what kind of artist I wanted to be when I was in high school, I would have told you I want to be the person who illustrated RPG books, a video game artist, and also write and illustrate my own story books.  One by one, I convinced myself I could never make a living doing any of these things, an attitude aided by the discouragement of family members and teachers who claimed ‘illustration’ was a dirty word.

More practically, I didn’t want to move from my current location to follow the job opportunities that might’ve sprung up from these industries.  On average, if you want the well paying jobs in the industry, you have to be willing to move to snag those jobs and I was just not ready yet to detach from my family out of high school.  Sure there is freelance, but for team oriented jobs, you are generally expected to relocate.

Nowadays, I’m haunted by the constant probing of doubt in the back of my mind. I am overwhelmed by choice every time I sit down to draw to the point the pencil feels so heavy, I can’t decide what to do.  I’ve decided it’s high time to empty my head. That old bugaboo, Money, will come through side jobs or temp work. If I’m bored at my current job, I may as well be bored at a better paying job and not force the art out.  I don’t expect to be inspired every minute I work at my job, but I would at least like a greater majority of inspiration as opposed to being absolutely bored, to at least feel satisfied with the proportion of inspiration and effort that goes into my work and the payoff that equals in satisfaction with money, life, and otherwise.

What’s important to me now is to follow my passion.  More and more I realize that my passion is leading me back to the original impossibilities – concept art, writing, and other such unfamiliar territory.

I can’t help but feel this is a step backwards. I have a book out already focusing on high fantasy illustration of a feminine nature. Does this mean I can’t change?  I have an established body of work completely different from what I originally wanted to do, in subject matter and even in choices of media (I am a traditional media artist venturing into a digitally dominated field. HALP!).  Does this mean I won’t be able to sell those older products anymore?  I am at level zero again realizing that if I want to switch focus to something like concept art, I will need to completely overhaul my body of work and my public identity.

I need to be at least as good as the people already working for the companies I’d like to work for.  I need to step up my game, get back to basics, and for the love of Prismacolor, I need to learn how to draw digitally!

With all this change in the wind, I have no doubt I’ll still be making art, even if it’s a bit different from what I’ve been doing before.  I hope you all will bare with me, all the same!  I have some wonderful art buddies who have been mentoring me during this transition and even the wonderful Hayley on board for a collaborative design project.  There’s hope, if I can just carve out the hours of the night enough to pull together a portfolio by Spectrum Fantastic Art Live, where it is my intention to tout my wares at portfolio reviews as a Concept Artist for the first time!

Today, I’m feeling old, tired, scared, and more overwhelmed than ever before.  So it’s back to square one, remembering my passions and moving forward, unstoppable. I’ll find where I fit in this big puzzle of life!

(Hopefully by the time I’m 40)

Confessions of an Artist: Touching Down to Earth

I started this blog 3 years ago in 2009 to document what I hoped to be a successful journey into publication, an art career, and to aid my fellow artist at the same time. After so long, I’ve finally sat down to re-assess where I am, how far I’ve come, and where I’m going as it pertains to my current career goals.

It’s important to stop sometimes and be honest with ourselves about what’s working and what’s not in business, because in the end a smart businessman needs to do this or you have no business at all if it’s not making any money. It is true that passion is key, but if you’ve made your passion your business, you still have to acknowledge these sorts of things or risk wasting a lot of time, money, and willpower by ignoring problems you could solve if you could just touch down to earth every once and a great while. So here goes…touching down with one finger!

What’s Not Working (Because I prefer to end this post with the good stuff)

The Amazon Webstore – A couple of years ago, I jumped headlong into the webstore solution because I really truly believed in Amazon as an effective marketplace for artists. I took a gamble and put up a good deal of my own money to buy UPC codes and pay the store’s monthly fees. It started out great at first. The shop was paying for itself and provided a great way for me to professionally present my products.

But upgrades do not always equal improvements and the system really went downhill for me after the first year. When year two rolled around, I only sold perhaps a total of 10 or less prints in an entire year? I don’t know what happened, but for something I was shelling out $60 a month for when all the fees piled on, I lost a lot of money. I canceled it last week even though the fact I’d put SO much initial cost and effort into the setup made me hesitant to do so. I’m only just now beginning to move my entire store offerings to Etsy and Artfire .

Sometimes we gamble in business and sometimes we roll Snake Eyes. (Expect the full story of how Webstore fails in a future blog entry).

Conventions (Both Attending and Mailing In) – I attended or mailed in to at least 20 conventions in the past couple of years, but honestly?  My average profit margin after expenses was about $20 aka. a complete waste of time.  The only convention I’ve ever done consistently well at has been DragonCon. I won’t be doing cons anymore, minus the few I know have worked for me in the past.  If I do attend, it will probably be as a con-goer/art agent and not a vendor.

I am moving on instead to targeting art fairs where I can sell my crafts or book fairs where I can sell my books.  The only conventions I plan to attend from here on out are ones that line up with my career focus (ie. Illuxcon, Spectrum Fantastic Live Art, etc). I feel they will be more worth my time and help me focus on building my career rather than pandering prints at places that just aren’t working out.

Prints – Speaking of prints, they just don’t sell for me. You would think they’d be the staple of an artist’s income, but they are not (at least not me). People’s walls are full?  Perhaps I just need better art?  Or lower prices?  Perhaps Webstore sucked my print sales into the void along with Jimmy Hoffa?

Whatever the cause, other things (craft items, post cards, etc) are selling far better in recent times.  I’ll probably still have prints for sale up at my Etsy and by request, but they’re not on the top of my list of things to put in my shop anymore.

Illustration as a Career – I have tried and tried to find art reps, have sent out to all the major Fantasy/Scifi publishers who accept art submissions, have sent inquiries to licensing reps…but have met rejection or silence or automated emails each time.  This is not whining, but merely a statement of results. I know full well what I would need to do to improve to meet the demand (ArtOrder is especially helpful for educating artists in this respect), but I find I just don’t have the motivation anymore.

Frankly, I have found myself terribly bored with illustration after these couple of years. I just don’t think I have what it takes to be successful in this route because I find the current trends that are selling terribly boring. The best among us can find a way to add their own unique flair to the trends, but I just can’t seem to get myself motivated.

You have to be willing to combine the passion for the arting with the passion for what sells and I have found that even though I have a list three miles long of ideas I could try to license, I am not excited by them nor am I motivated to resubmit to the selfsame companies I submitted to before with the current work I have. I want to be challenged, I want narrative, I want engagement, and most of all I need to improve as an artist to get where I want to be.

And that is why I’m considering a change of career focus from illustration to concept art.  Funny enough, close friends who have known me for years are confused as to why I haven’t done this the first time round.  Looking back on my most successful works, they are the ones that are character-driven or involve character design in some fashion.  I’ve collected concept art books for years. I’ve always found the most fascinating part of movies and video games to be the art books and concept art development diaries. I have my reasons for having not ventured into concept art from the outset, but that’s a whole other blog entry altogether!

Money – In the end, it all boils down to the fact I am not making near enough money to support even a small apartment. The job hunting has begun and so has a push to focus on freelance means of income in the meantime (commissions, crafting, and content editing, anyone?).

What IS Working (Just when you thought the ‘not working’ section would never end)
Being PublishedAngelic Visions has been a great source of pride for me, even though I never would have thought an art book would be the first thing I was to write (I had planned to pen my own fantasy novel in the wee hours of the night first).  My royalties from this book have been sobering, as it’s only just made back my author advance, but more sobering is the statistic that an author needs an average of at least 20 books to survive off royalty checks alone. This book is not going to make me rich and famous, but it’s an accomplishment that makes me feel I am capable of so much more if I set my mind to it!
Etsy – Thanks to Etsy’s Shop Stats dashboard, I’ve been monitoring marked improvement in sales from a meager 5 orders in 2009 to 30 so far this year. And that has been without promoting Etsy that much. Now that it’s my only shop front after Webstore’s recent demise, I expect orders to go up exponentially. I’m focusing on revamping my shop now and plan to build a wholesale orders website to match it soon, as that could be a nice consistent chunk of income, if I play my cards right. Go figure that Etsy also gets 4 times as many pageviews as my website or Webstore ever did.
Networking – The one good residual of conventions has been that I have been able to meet and connect with so many wonderful and inspiring artists! Mack and Linsner probably think I’m a stalker by now, but it’s been great to meet them and find them a familiar face in this or that event. Meeting other artists keeps me sober to the fact I’m not alone in this ‘fool’s errand’ people call art and drives me to improve and succeed. I’ve learned so much from meeting others, both about technique, running an art business, and keeping motivated.
Crafting – I turned to leather and jewelry crafting as a means to de-stress from the burnout I was feeling.  While my art and prints sat there gathering dust not selling, these craft items began to sell consistently. (A good thing, too, or I’d be buried in butterfly keychains and masks!).  I’ve had multiple boutiques come to me asking to consign or for wholesale rates and, best of all, it is something I can do without being sickeningly bored! The slice of the swivel blade and the tedious painting of insect markings is a meditative exercise for me.
Funny how we stumble unexpectedly on passions.  My dad was a leathercrafter in his younger days and I suspect I absorbed some of that passion somehow.  I don’t plan on making crafting my long term career, but as long as it’s bringing in some income, it’ll help me out while I’m seeking out that paycheck work to make ends meet.
In Summary – Skimming out what’s not working, focusing on what is. Hoping my experiences help anyone else out there who might be considering a similar path.  Good luck to us both in this roller coaster called being a ‘creative professional’!

Talent vs. Training

Da Vinci, Mozart, Durer…

We all know the names of these geniuses who exist on that level above everyone else. There talent simply is, an untouchable level of perfection that we can never hope to achieve.

Or is it?

As a young artist, I would stare at the works of Linda Bergkvist, John William Waterhouse, and Edward Burne-Jones and think to myself, “Gosh, I will never be that good. Why am I even trying?” There was something sublime and unattainable in their art that I felt I could never reach no matter how hard I tried.

As I grew older and wiser, I entered into the art program at university and was exposed to the flurry of line, shape, form, texture, and color that make up the rudimentary foundation for the whole of visual arts. It was true that there were some students who were better than others, but it soon became very apparent that even the worst student among us could be fantastic if they pushed themselves to practice and the best of us could get a failing grade if we became lazy and complacent and didn’t do our homework or strive to be more original in our thinking than what was required.

Also, it wasn’t simply the act of practicing either that led to improvement, but the combination of repetition in addition to the presence of a good teacher. An effective teacher can help translate the mysteries of the universe into a language you can understand. When we train ourselves, we are left to unravel the mysteries on our own and may not learn as quickly as we would have if we had guided direction by someone who has already been through the learning process. Teachers can show us the golden moments of realization that happened for them so that we might learn from theirs and arrive at our own realizations of understanding.

I say this because I’ve had so many other artists and friends look to me and say “I’ll never be that good,” or simply sigh and give up under the weight of what it takes for them to get from the point they’re at now to the level they want to be at. They all had the mindset that everyone was so much better, when we can be just as good if we work at it. A hard truth is that there will always be someone better than you because all artists are continuously improving, including the ones that came before and are already established in the industry.

Personally, I am not a believer in natural talent, of people who can just draw and have a masterpiece right off the bat. I define talent less as the ability to draw well and more the ability to come up with the idea that’s out of the box and to combine that idea with the expressive act of realizing it in painting, drawing, sculpting, or what have you. The true talent is in having the patience to push yourself to study and draw again and again and again until you’ve united the idea with the act of expressing it physically.

I have never seen a successful artist, or anyone in a creative craft for that matter, who isn’t 5% natural talent and 95% pure drive to succeed. If you have, than I guarantee they had an early exposure to that craft thanks to very encouraging parents.

So the next time you find yourself staring at another artist’s work and feeling insignificant while placing that artist on the pedestal of “thou has has recieveth talent without effort”, remember that they’ve probably had their own sleepless nights of staring at the art of someone they respected as well and practicing until their hands cramped.

We all have our nights of sighing and dreaming. Even now, I still sit, chin in hand, and stare at the work of Da Vinci and Kuniko Craft and think to myself “When will my time come?”

Still, perhaps it’s the dreaming that keeps us motivated to succeed?