Saturday, February 16, 2013


There have been escalating incidences of artwork intruding upon reality, or as is more often the case, the reverse. That always seems to be the yin/yang, but with a bungee cable, or some internal Ouroboros. How many times do we get home from a long day at work, at a job which may or may not be neither particularly fulfilling or enriching, and turn instead to the drawing board, only to discover we've effectively reached the limits of our capacity for creativity. When does the well run dry, when is it that we are each as individuals tapped out? The "day job" might be taxing in physical labor, or spent in constant conversation - as in teaching - or even been a brain-dead nine-to-five of nothingness, all will have the power to undermine or neuter any spark of inspiration carefully coaxed throughout the day, or week, or month. Eventually all those "when I get the time" moments develop a slowly crushing weight of their own, which can eclipse any opportunity that does present itself, say in a day off, or a few extra hours alone.
That's not just the rub, it's the literal breaking point, the edge over which dreams are thrown overboard to drown, abandoned in the face of expediency or for the better part of prudence.

Just... one... more... like an artaholic, there's a small voice in the background that's dimly protesting the insanity of starting yet another drawing when one knows full well that there'll be hell to pay in the morning. It's waiting for that second, third or even the fourth wind... and what happens when it never comes, and you still need to "keep on keeping on," regardless of the consequences. Because one very real and immediate consequence is pushing a project farther and farther back until one very bad day it's too late to harvest anything and it's withered on the proverbial vine instead.

Recently, while I was in the midst of jotting down stray thoughts on this very subject, an unsolicited query was emailed to me on this very topic. The question was "what advice would I give to a teen who was thinking about a career as a professional artist?"

It’s a question that deserves a detailed answer, one that’s as serious and honest as possible (*note: here's some sage advice on "When To Give Up" - and an interview - that's been making the rounds as of late, by Calista Brill, senior editor at the publisher First Second Books). Or at least one that isn’t being facetious or cynical, like some of the (arguably just as valid) perspectives, like... work all your life at a 9-5 job until you can retire with benefits and then pick up a brush. Or inherit/marry into money. And so on. I actually have been taking a series of notes on this very subject for an upcoming blog post on this exact subject, so I condensed some recent thoughts here. Hope it’s of use, as it’s worked for me. And thanks for asking.

When the word “professional” is used the assumption is that you simply get paid for your (art)work. Which means your work is really, really good, and so is valuable, and sells enough to earn you a living doing it. And that takes lots of practice, like any other profession, be it as an athlete, cook, accountant, mechanic or teacher. That experience means discipline and devotion to one's craft, and exposure to a wide variety of techniques and different methods, which is where education and networking might come in. It also means exposure through marketing and exhibition (here the internet represents a crucial tool as opposed to the traditional gallery system).

In the commercial sense it also means possessing a diverse range of skills and a consistent body of work (ie a portfolio), which demonstrates the breadth, and depth of one’s talent. Acquiring technological knowledge is also a crucial component: case in point being how the vast majority of majors within my own specialized discipline (sequential art) support themselves by using the same set of skills that are also employed for creating their artwork. That means computer/digital skills, multimedia, printing, layout, editing, writing, photography etc. – it’s a skill-palette, or a toolbox, and the more stuff you know about, collect and have experience using, the more you’ll simultaneously enhance and cultivate a marketable level of attractive qualities in a related field for gainful employment.

Because the odds are not good enough straight out of the box to pull it off for most people, it’s relatively rare to achieve instantaneous rock-star status without putting in the time and paying your dues – another analogy that bears watching are musicians and the music industry. So more often than not, many of us have to split their time and energy between pursuing their passion and paying the bills, at least until the two worlds eventually, hopefully converge. Which in turn requires even more of the same discipline and devotion to keep at it and not lose focus or passion. This is where many, if not most, will begin to fade away and/or bail out, because life gets in the way. Whether it’s disaster, financial hardship, an illness or otherwise, children, etc. there is a long list of speed bumps that will conspire to keep you away from the drawing board. Even friends and family can be either an asset in such a situation through their support, or a detriment and a drag when everybody always wants to go out and party or do something else when you stay home and draw.

And lastly – but perhaps as much as, or even more importantly - like any other professional, the common-sense basics still apply in being an artist: being one of the best certainly helps, but even failing that, also being prompt and never missing deadlines goes a long way, as does being courteous and polite. Same with building a good reputation, part of which is doing quality work, and not ripping clients off - and conversely also getting fair compensation for your work, which can also be another set of challenges as artwork is often undervalued and unappreciated.

Look around the local creative community and see who does what, and how they do it – then study and emulate their methods to achieve similar results. And don’t be afraid to try something new that noone else is doing or has done before. And never, ever listen to anyone who tells you that you’re not good enough, or that it can’t be done. Yes, in many ways it’s a gamble, but there are choices and steps to take that will significantly improve the odds in your favor and demonstrated ways to achieve it. It’s also not easy, but even the smallest and simplest rewards are awesome.

Mullings like this post this aren't intended to be mindless cheerleading self-help sessions - there's no shortage of books on the topic of why to make art and why it's so important, socially, psychologically, etc. *Update: see here for a rare and sobering insight into the flip-side of success from the perspective of a well-known cartoonist who has been effectively wrung-out by the exploitative industry (hat-tip to John Platt). It's also closely woven in with teaching: while the role and responsibility of an art teacher is foremost showing how to draw, there's so much more to it, like not just the means but the meaning, and the maintenance and the motivation. Past the beginning stage, it becomes less and less a question of how but why, as in now that you can make art, what are you going to about it?

"The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing." – Walt Disney

As with other professions, the motivation behind creating works of art range from because it's something I'm good at, or something I would like to learn how to do, or do better, because it's fun, I like sharing (including the artworks themselves, and a sense of belonging - community with others creators - and also with those who appreciate them), I'm bored, it's an escape, an outlet, a release, a paycheck, it gets attention, it defines me, gives me a sense of purpose and place, I can say things that I otherwise wouldn't be able to, it calls attention to that which I think is important, it's sacred act that reaffirms what it means to be a human being, it's nobody's damn business and let the art speak for itself, and because I can.
Or, to varying degrees, a mix of all of the above.

"We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities." - Walt Kelly


  1. Make art to please yourself. Maybe you will sell some. Probably not. But if you don't even start until you think you can make something someone will buy you'll make very little and it probably won't be very good.

  2. Thank God he covered his nose before he 'drew' it!

    The answer my friend is 'drewing' in the wind, the answer is 'drewing' in the wind!

  3. Gesundheit...
    I mean,
    "How many doodles must a man draw
    before you call him a cartoonist?"

  4. Wow, it looks like you blew a seal.

    Happy 22nd,

  5. ... gag ...
    No wait, nevermind...