Yesterday I had the privilege to talk to a group of students at the Academy of Art in Chicago. These third year advanced anatomy students raised the question with their teacher, my friend Kristin, about what do they do with this art degree they've been working toward. What does a career as an artist mean, anyway?
Initially I was as shocked as she was about this question. I mean, they are studying art and anatomy, right? They are going through this "trouble" to work in art, right? Then I remembered my own feelings at the time when I was in their shoes. Before college I just wanted to make comics. When I realized that I would get lost in the American comics indistry as a mere cog in the machine (IF I broke in at all), I looked into animation for a real job. Upon learning that it was no longer about drawing characters all day, but sitting behind a computer, I chose Illustration as my major. This felt closer to what I wanted to do, and my school said I could make a living doing it.
As I got more steeped in classes, and in the headspace that my instructors preached, I became more confused, disillusioned, and defeated. The career they preached, from my perspective, was beyond cutthroat. We would be loosed into the world to compete not just with other graduates, but other professional artists as well. We were advised to ape styles when needed, and that we should never change our style, lest art directors not be able to find us for hire again. I spent three years feeling stifled and hopeless. Where some students were praised and championed by the teachers, I felt desperate and lost.
After school I found a job as a graphic designer. It was ok, I dodged the starving artist bullet. After 5 years there I was a manager, designing less and less, but also not drawing. Not chasing any dreams to make comics. I had to drop my moderately successful career and grown-up life. I needed to play again.
I moved to Orlando to live with my college pal Joel, and make comics at any cost. I lucked in to a new job at the (ready for this?) Golf Channel. I moved from print to web, and created thousands of banner ads for golf tournaments and GC programming. I also did show pages, affiliate promotions, set design, and I even wrapped a bus. I loved it. I meant to give it a try for 4 years and stayed for 7.
After teaching for two years in Japan, I moved back to Chicago during the Recession. I was back at home, looking for a new design gig, and finding none. However I still worked the network. I had friends in Chicago that worked in advertising, publishing, and media. I started to get more and more illustration work. I had repeat clients, larger projects. I was finally doing it. I was finally an illustrator.
I shared my story with the students, even the bit about 2014; the worst year of my life that ended with giant medical bills and a cancer diagnosis. I also laid out these takeaways:
- No experience is wasted. Even the worst job has nuggets to use later. My design experience serves my comics and illustration, comics serves storyboards, my managerial experience aids in my personal and business interactions. Etc.
- Working in the creative field means you have to think creatively. This isn't just about thinking on the job, but about what kind of jobs are out there. Illustration, sure. But also design, computer games, mobile games, advertising, packaging, medical illustration, murals, social change... Keep your eyes open for opportunities, or create your own.
- You must fail to learn. It's no surprise that we learn more from our mistakes and hard times than our successes. It just hurts more for a while. Sadly, this is what holds many people back from even trying something new, or anything at all. "Fortune favors the bold." If you don't do it, someone else will. And you'll hate them for it. But you'll really hate yourself for not doing it.
- Everyone compares themselves to someone else. I believe even the biggest artists are jealous of, or wish they were more like someone else. I say this because I have become friends with successful artists, and guess what - they're just people. SAIC touts comics painter Alex Ross all over the place. He's really made a name for himself, and is one of their most famous alums. But, I told them "even Alex Ross has someone that makes him say 'that son of a bitch' when he sees their work."
- Just start. This was the advice I got when I first looked into indy comics after college, and it did nothing but piss me off. "WHY ARE THEY KEEPING THE SECRETS OF BEGINNING COMICS FROM ME?" I learned later it was that easy. One student asked who my publisher was, and I said me. I told them that I had stories in my head, and I needed to draw them. I waited through my 20s to do it, but I finally started, because I couldn't wait for anyone else to give me their approval.
- Attitude is a choice. Some people think that life is here to crap all over their Cap'n Crunch. I disagree. If you feel that way, and that life is against you, and that every good time will be called in to be paid off by a bad time, then you'll always be right. However, I argue, if it works in the negative why not in the positive? Every day is an opportunity to make something, to do something more. Sure, bad things happen, but I'm gonna try to enjoy myself, my work, and my life until it rears it's head. I'm learning to expect the good things to come my way.
I enjoyed talking to, and talking with the students, and I hope I get to do it again. Mostly I hope they gleaned some of my nuggets of experience and positivity to ease their fears, help calm their job worries, or aid them at an unexpected moment in the future.