That's Dutch for 'Nobody ever said it was going to be fun'. Always nice to start off an article on a cheerful note! And, I'm afraid, this week's article might not be all that cheerful. I'd like to talk about the brutal nature of the difficulty of becoming an artist. Now, this is mostly aimed at art aspirants but also the people around them. So, if you are in that category and don't hate my guts after this feel free to share this with your friends and family to show them that what you're doing isn't easy!
There are a couple of character traits that are absolutely vital when you want to become a artist:
- You have to be smart
- You have to be tenacious
- You have to be honest with yourself
That's really all there is to it. Pretty simple when you put it this way, but, like everything else that looks easy on the surface it actually isn't.
Now, there are many types of smart and in this case it refers more to problem solving than raw intelligence, although that never hurts of course. Growing up as a kid my parents encouraged me to do whatever I wanted as long as I could justify why. Always asking why. Why I wanted that Lego set, why I wanted those marbles, why the branded super soaker was better than the knockoff and why I should never have to eat broccoli (miserably failed there). If I managed to do that, I got my way, if I didn't, well. Safe to say I learned from an early age that doing your research is incredibly important which tied in beautifully when I started my path to becoming a concept artist.
One of the popular sayings among concept artists / illustrators is that if you manage to be the most boring person at a party because of all the useless stuff that you know you know you've made it. And I'm not talking MTV real world road rules challenge. I'm talking about knowing the difference between albino and albedo.
One of the bigger parts of the job of an artist is doing truckloads of research, especially concept artists. Being hungry for this information and being able to retain it and build on it are key factors. So if you are not doing that, start. If you are not into doing that, maybe (concept) art isn't for you. Here are some tips:
- Get into a habit of reading first, then looking at images when looking for reference.
- Talk as much as you can to other people about the things you have learned, challenge yourself.
- Listen to audio books, podcasts, science channels etc.
- Verify your sources, make sure you get your facts straight.
- Go beyond the matter you are dealing with. Need to paint gold? Maybe look up silver, platinum and every other precious metal. Then how they are formed, then where they are, how they are mined, what they are used for, how prices are derived, what the gold standard was and so forth. You catch my drift.
- Listen to other smart people and ask them questions
- Learn how to do research, and yes, this is a skill and no, this isn't easy. The art of asking questions is a difficult one so start early.
Another key factor on the road to becoming an artist is getting a thick skin. In Dutch we would say "eelt op je ziel" which translates to "calluses on your soul" (So dark!). You will deal with a lot of adversity which can come in a whole host of different ways. Whether it's critique on the work you are doing, or on you as a person, or personal circumstances, you name it. Life is amazing at messing you up and seeing if you can get back up on your feet again. A big way this presents itself is through the principle that you mostly teach art through failure. The more you fail and are made aware of those shortcomings the more you can learn. Most other aspects of life operate under the same principle but with art it's easy because it's a visual medium. You can literally point out stuff that's not up to par.
Getting back up on your feet also costs a truckload of energy. The first few hits are, generally speaking, free but after a while it starts to take it's toll and you need to let it. When I was looking for a job in 2010 I sent out 178 applications over the span of a few months and I either got no for an answer or no reply, save 1. Reading your twelfth rejection email in a row on a single day wears you down. Being able to internalize what rejection means to you and how to get back up on that horse is extremely important because it might just happen a lot!
The safety net which allows you to take the risks upon which you build the foundation for your tenacity consists of two parts. One is that which you build yourself and the other is what your friends and family give you in support. Not everyone has this, partly due to the fact that artists are not always taken seriously because it's 'just a hobby'. It's a hobby if you let it. Making it as a artist is about not quitting and that's pretty much it.
So here are the highlights on tenacity:
- You have to get a thick skin.
- Knowing what makes you tick will allow you to get over setbacks and get back on the horse.
- Setbacks cost mental energy, let it. Acknowledge this so you can recharge.
- Learn to be flexible, don't always push through. Sometimes you just need to let things be for a while.
- Make sure to get support from friends, family and peers. Not everyone will understand, this is part of the above.
- The difference between a professional artist and a failed one is that the latter quit.
This is the most important part of all, being honest with yourself. Here is the straight up brutal truth of it, not everyone can be a professional artist. They can't. You might not be able to achieve that goal. There are many reasons for this and all of them are valid. And it's OK! This is the thing most people forget. Sure, it might be shitty but it's OK. Life is so much bigger than art, or work for that matter. Take solace in the fact that the human experience is greater than our means of making our livelihood.
The main reason people don't make it as a artist (just to be that guy again) is simply because they quit too easily or are not truthful with themselves about their capabilities. (You know those stories of artists who make despite people telling them they can't? This is not me telling you you can't. This is me telling you not to listen).
Art is working countless hours. Every single day without fail. Becoming good means sacrificing. Sacrificing going to parties, hanging out with friends, playing games, sitting in the park, you name it. It doesn't mean you can't do these things but it means you have to compromise. Did you do any art today? How long? What did you learn? How tired are you? Getting to know yourself in this way is very important because it means you can figure out for yourself whether or not you'll be able to make it, if you can push that extra hour today. It also means being honest, I hear this all the time "I'm good at perspective so I don't need to practice it anymore or take advice on it" but then when I look at the work it's all wrong. Don't be this person. Please. Be the person that's open and asks others for help and then actually listens! Be stubborn only in your desire to succeed and not about how much you think you already know.
Here's the thing. I'm writing this blog to you now having made all those sacrifices. I've missed a lot of family events. I've missed parties and I stopped getting invites from friends. I've lost friends and I've lost family and I missed most of it because I was busy working. Busy trying to become good at this one skill in a endless sea of options and it pains me. I often feel deep regret. Is it all worth it? I'm not sure. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't.
I also got to know myself. I got to know the family and friends who stuck around and what they mean to me and perhaps not unimportant, I got to know what art means to me. Funnily enough, art has become my escape. From the world, my guilt, the sun and a social life that a man of my age (30!) should have.
When people say art is about expressing yourself this is what they are talking about. Because the road is so long and difficult it's worth showing that and showing the spark that has kept you going through all the shitty things.
Art is equally over valued as it is under valued. As easy as it looks as difficult it can be. Small triumphs can come at tremendous costs. Where one sees a image they may or may not like the other sees the culmination of years of work, sacrifice, personal growth and a thousand yard stare aimed right at the future. When you think your loved one shouldn't pursue art because you think it's a hobby it demonstrates perfectly how little you know. If you think artist shouldn't be paid because 'they do what they love' or 'it's just drawing' stop and think about how much you had to sacrifice to get where you are now.
To all those on that road now I wish you the best of luck. The road is long but you are not alone. Stick with it. Don't give up. Don't quit.
Also, this tiny demon better known as 'Shiva' is celebrating her 10th birthday today! WoopWoop! She is by far the least supportive cat I know by constantly dragging us away from our work but we love her to bits anyway.