Monday, December 3, 2018

'Should I Pursue Illustration?'

Chinese art factory workers copying Repin's portrait of Stasov

J. S. asks: 
"I'm currently 27.5 years old, studying Computer Science at my local university but feeling quite miserable. Though the pay will be great once I'm done, life has to be about more than the money? 
     I've read various posts on following your passion though I lean on the pragmatic advice given by Cal Newport on not following your passion but instead to choose a highly valuable skill, get really good, and make a living that will allow you to support your passions so to speak.
     That being said, if I'm miserable in my current path and quite honestly the situation I've gotten to (mainly just being 27.5 with no real skills, no degree, never really finished anything...etc) perhaps pursuing something that has a little bit of spark to it (from my point of view) is worth while?
     My biggest fear is choosing to pursue illustration, not being good enough, being broke, and then being just a little bit older maybe 30, 32, and being in the same situation I am now.
     I know this email is quite heavy, but do you have any advice? Any hurdles you've faced in life that turned out for the better?

James Gurney responds: 
I want to answer your question because I wrote "Follow Your Dreams" in a lot of peoples' books, and I feel that advice might have led a few people into your predicament. I don't know enough about you to give you really personal advice, but I'd like to offer a checklist about how to to be successful if you do choose an art career.

1. Decide what kind of art you like to do.
Make sure you like the subject matter, the materials, the scale of the enterprise, and the way it's marketed. In other words, if you want to paint murals, make sure you like ladders.

2. Develop your skills in that area.
You're going to face a lot of competition from people who know their craft. Learn yours. You don't have to go to art school, but if you're going to teach yourself, you've got to be really focused and organized. You've got to DO it, practice it, get your hands dirty every day. You won't learn to draw or paint by binge-watching art videos.

3. Find out what excites your audience.
If you're going to make a living at art, you've got to create art that people want to buy. That means experimenting with variations on what you do, and seeing which sells best. Social media can give you analytics, too, but you really need to test it in the marketplace. 

4. Build a business plan around it.
If you get this far, you've got to channel your energy and build a business. You can't sell one painting alone. You've got to build a body of work that stands out from the rest.  

5. Stay flexible, because things will change.
The technology for creating and distributing art will continue to change. And tastes will change. That will cause some doors to close and other doors to open. Almost anyone who has been a professional artist for more than a decade has had to reinvent their business, moving from illustration to gallery art, or from what they thought was a secure studio job to something else.

So yes: follow your dreams, and find your passion. We live in an image-hungry world, and the world is waiting for a person of vision. I think the advice you quoted from Cal Newport is good too: It's OK to have a day job and do art for your personal fulfillment in your spare time. 

But if you want to be an artist, don't do it for the easy money. It's a rocky and narrow path. Be ready to work hard and work smart. It's great to want to fly, but you'll have to build your own airplane and learn to fly it.  
Book review:


Tryggvi Edwald said...

Why not combine both? There is a lot of demand for computer-aided graphics designs, for all kinds of uses. And there is "pure art" generated by artists using computer tools, too.
There is a whole spectrum here - on the one end, more computer/code and data heavy, such as scripting to generate graphs from complex data sets for easy understanding (not at all a simple task) over to the other end of purer artistry, using the computer tools, but be driven by the artistic muses, so to speak.. Once you get good with the tools, you can slide back and forth on the spectrum as you want, using activities on one end of the spectrum to support your activities on the other. This goes both ways. Artistic insight enables one to present data graphically in better ways; the graphics design work pays for the traditional art.
I'd see this as a win-win situation.

James Gurney said...

Tryggvi, thanks for adding that very helpful suggestion from a very different perspective. And it reminds me that in my travels I've see programs at art schools that combine art and programming skills that prepare people for all kinds of interesting jobs. Programming is just as creative as painting, just in a different way.

Roca said...

JS, Yes, do both. Even if it isn’t computer related! Finish your degree. Get a job that makes money. Also follow your passion. It’s hard to be happy doing what you love if you can’t make your car payments.

mj said...

Check out this great interview with Yuko Shimizu, who made a career change to illustration in her 30's.

Unknown said...

J.S. hit close to home. I'm in the same boat, pursuing the same degree, with the same thoughts and fears (except about 5 years older). I've made up my mind that I will finish no matter what and try to move the technology jobs in an artistic direction as suggested above. The ability to persist in whatever you decide will be your most important skill (I speak from experience of not persisting). J.S. good luck

Unknown said...
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Ked said...

J.S.--I HEAR YOU! I was about 27 when I decided art/illustration was the direction for me. My degree: communications. My emphasis was journalism. I decided that wasn't what I really wanted. Where am I at 35? I am not a professional artist, but I continue to pursue art. I took art classes for several years and now have a job at a university where I can take art classes for free. It has been hard, but amazing too. I have met amazing art students and full-time artists.

Starting a little later than many traditional art students, you will face challenges. You will question your path over and over and over. Friends and family will question your path over and over and over. You may doubt yourself a million times. You will have successes in drawing and painting, but your failures will tend to be loud and make you think "Why am I doing this?" Doubt will slow you down and cause you to become less confident.

When I am actually creating art I can't imagine doing anything else. It is a gift. It is an adventure. Even if I never become a full-time career artist my life is so much better because of art. I can never give up art now. Even if I only become a career artist by the time I am 50 I think it will still be worth the pursuit. Many people don't feel that way. If you don't feel that way then think twice.

Like was said above, you will have to work hard and smart. I have frequently not done that. My skills still need a lot of work. If you really want this--don't give in to distractions. A world class musician once said that success could be summed up into one word: focus. There's so much more I could say, but I think I'll leave it at that for now.

Unknown said...

Alright hopefully this doesn't end up as a double post, having technical issues here. This will be the third time I've rewritten this post x.x
I'd like to add a few suggestions to this. 1) If you decide to pursue the career in art, use the skills you have already paid to learn to support yourself while you do, for as long as possible. 2) Look for ways to use your skills to actually help people. Not necessarily for free - make a living at it - but as an alternative to doing something completely meaningless to you. 3) Dig deep on figuring out what you don't like about your current situation. What makes you miserable now and why? What appeals to you about a career as an artist and why? What makes you happy now and why? Ask yourself why to the answers to these questions too. Dig down. The better you know yourself, the better you can design a life that you will find satisfying and make a plan to obtain it, and the more you will have purpose to your actions instead of just feeling bad about things you don't like.

Peter Drubetskoy said...

Lots of good discussion here. Also remember that when art becomes your job it might lose a lot of its current appeal for you. Instead of creating what you want you might have to create whatever will sell and pay the bills (IF you're good and lucky enough to be able to do that). Still might be better than working at a job you hate but something to keep in mind. For myself I find that any job where I need to create and solve problems is motivating, even if it sounds really boring on the surface. Having art as my personal activity divorced from living-making concerns is very valuable.

Roberto Quintana said...

One of the things I like about doing murals, and especially murals for schools, is I get to talk to young people about being an artist, and they get to see a mural being painted by a working artist.
When I speak with them, either casually or as a group, I usually talk about the usual motivational inspirations like: practice, practice, practice! or following your bliss, and all of that.
But… while that is all very true on one level, I still can’t help but feel that I really should be discouraging them, and the ones that do it anyway, because they are so focused and stubborn and turned on by the sheer act of making 2d magic, that they are the ones that will wind up succeeding, and the ones that are sort of iffy about it, or on the fence shouldn’t be encouraged, because it’s a “tough row to hoe.”
There will be many sacrifices, and the pot isn’t always full of gold. The adventure is in the doing... but the adventure is not for the timid or the easily discouraged. -RQ

(p.s. to James: Thanx for not allowing anonymous comments! -Roberto Quintana)

Unknown said...

Game design! Often times creating textures using tools like substance designer or ue4, concept design or modeling characters or environments call for a developed technical and creative skill. Competition is high, though