Things I've Learned Working As An Artist

I turn 45 today. It's been making me reflect on a few things, stuff I thought I'd share here.

I've been working professionally as an artist since 1997. Sure, I've been doing art for as long as I remember, and even had a few paying gigs in my late teens and early twenties, but it was when I was 27 that I was finally able to do it full-time. From 1997 until 2003, I was working as a digital artist in a studio, colouring and inking comic books, working on poster and t-shirt designs, all kinds of things. Since 2003, it's been life as a freelancer, and the sorts of work I've done has expanded dramatically since then.

During all this time, I've met and worked with a lot of very cool people, been involved in some great projects, and learned a lot about what it is that I do and what it is that I continue to want to do with my artistic life. This is a brief list of some of the things I've learned and would like to pass on.

Never be afraid to take chances with your art. I mean that you should be open to trying new things all the time. For example, I had only ever used photography as reference for my illustration work, never as the 'final product', until the summer of 2009 when I was asked to do some cosplay photography with some models I was working with. While I didn't stay with the cosplay aspect for very long, the experience of spending several months taking photographs where the photograph itself was the final product was a great time, and led directly to the whole gothic project that I've been involved with ever since. None of this would have happened if I hadn't taken that chance and tried something new.

Challenge yourself periodically. Several years ago, I came to be very unsatisfied with my approach to anatomy in my pencil and ink work. I started to feel that all the detail I was putting in was actually hiding flaws in the basic anatomy, preventing me from moving forward. So, I decided that the next few pieces I did would have absolutely no shading detail in the lineart at all. Essentially, all of those illustrations would have the simplest lineart possible, just outlining the figures, which I would then paint later. This forced me to improve my anatomy, as any and all errors in it would be glaringly obvious with no cross-hatching or anything else to hide them. It ended up working very well for me, as the anatomy I was drawing improved dramatically in a very short period of time.

Place value on your own work, and only work with people who also value it. Essentially this means that you shouldn't work for free, but that's a bit too simple a definition. One of the things I spoke about at a recent convention here in Winnipeg was about when it is appropriate to work for free, and it really just came down to only working on things that matter to you, preferably for a charity. I have found that people who aren't willing to agree to a value (whether monetary or some other form of compensation) for your work also don't value you, your time, or your work. Absolutely never let yourself get bullied or pushed into doing work for free, and certainly never 'for exposure'. Honestly, the only reputation you will ever get for doing free work is that you will do work for free. That's it.

You aren't working 'for free' when you are adding to your own portfolio, you are working for yourself, and the payment is a better and more diverse portfolio to show prospective clients and potential fans. If someone approaches you and asks for you to do artwork for free for them, claiming that it will be good to add to your own portfolio, you should be doing that already.

Okay, I don't want to get this to be a rant about never working for free, so let's change the focus a bit. Look for opportunities to work with other artists, most importantly artists that you respect and appreciate the work of. And I don't just mean splitting art duties on a piece with other people (although that can be a lot of fun and a great learning tool as well), but simply working in a studio environment where other artists are working, each of you involved in different projects, is a fantastic experience. I personally don't get to do this nearly enough, which is too bad as I used to really enjoy my time working in a studio environment.

Never stop learning about the world around you. It's far too easy to get so focussed on your own interests and work that the rest of the world falls into unimportance, but continuing to discover new things will only improve what it is you are trying to say and do with your art. At the very least, it will provide inspiration for new stories to tell.

Work on artwork that is your own and keep developing your own style and voice. Don't simply attempt to emulate the work of others, but try to find some way to show the world your vision in a way that nobody else can or has done. There has been a lot of controversy about some artists who do line-for-line recreations of the work of others and selling it as their own without even a credit to the original artist. Setting aside the legal and ethical ramifications of these sorts of actions, I just can't imagine that this sort of work is in any way satisfying to the artist. Copying others while learning is all well and good, as it is an excellent way to discover why certain decisions about that art were made, but it never feels as good as creating a drawing or a painting, looking at it after it is done and saying 'I did this, this isn't a copy'.

I'm certain there are may more things to say, but I'm getting all rambling now, so I think I'll just close this for now. I guess the most important thing to say about being an artist is just keep at it, respect yourself and your work, and keep trying new things.