In the last few weeks I’ve been visited by a handful of high school kids and college underclassmen asking for advice on what they should do to prepare to get a job in the art world. In response to that, I asked a bunch of my artist friends at Emerald City Comic Con what was once piece of advice they had for someone graduating high school who wants to be an artist for a living. I made a video of their responses.
Lacking from that video was my advice. I have some things to say to people who have chosen to walk the creative path. If that’s you, then settle in. If it’s not you, please share this with a person you know who’s going to art school, or recently graduated. You can read it too, or course. This advice is universal and it just might help you no matter what stage in life you’re at.
A Career in art is possible
By now you’ve probably figured out that it is possible to have a career in art. Some art careers make more money than others. Some are more stable than others. But for anyone who has the skill, the drive to improve, a healthy work ethic, and isn’t afraid of the unknown it’s possible to get to the point where you can support yourself and a family with a career in art.
I want to share with you five things you can do to help you get there. This is stuff I’ve learned over the years that has helped me succeed, and I wish this was advice that was given to me as a high school kid. I remember graduating, having no idea what to do, or where to go, but just knowing that I loved to draw and really wasn't qualified to do anything else. If someone had sat me down and told me these things as a high school kid it would’ve saved me years of spinning my wheels.
1 - Focus on one path.
“Find out who you are and do it on purpose. “ - Dolly Parton
You need to be a heat seeking missile focused one thing. A heat seeking missile works by finding a heat target and then ignoring any heat signal that doesn’t come from that target. That’s why heat seeking missiles don’t just fly straight towards the sun when they’re launched.
Picking one thing to do does not mean that’s the thing you’re going to do forever. In fact, it’s very rare to be ONE THING you’re whole life. Steven Pressfield tells us of this truth in his book The War of Art:
“As artists we serve the Muse, and the Muse may have more than one job for us over our lifetime”
That said, you have to start somewhere, knowing how to do something. So pick something and learn what you need to master in order to get a job in that discipline. Learn how other artists got their job. Study the art of people who work where you want to work. That’s the bar that you need to reach. Visit the studios, meet up with the artists, acquaint yourself with recruiters. Do internships. Insert yourself into that ecosystem. Make it so that when you finally apply for that job, it’s a no brainer for whoever is hiring, to hire YOU.
The side benefit to doing this is that whether you want to go into animation, illustration, video games, film, comics, or children’s books the skills you learn to do one of these jobs has applications for other jobs. If you get into it and realize it’s not quite for you, transitioning to another job isn’t going to be an impossible feat.
2 - Learn your craft.
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.” -Archilochus
It’ll take you about 4 years to learn the fundamentals of art and a lifetime to master it. So learn how to learn, because the most successful artists I know are continually pushing the limits of their abilities. They understand that the levels that can unfold in art are inexhaustible.
Draw things you’re not comfortable drawing. If you’re bad at drawing people, draw people. If you’re bad at drawing environments, draw environments.
Read books on the subject. There’s an amazing amount of information stored in these relics.
Find a good school that can teach you these fundamentals. You’ll know it’s good if the work coming out of the school is good. If not the school, then find a teacher who knows her stuff. Your focus at school isn’t grades or a degree, it’s skill, portfolio, and friends. Those are the three things that matter and are going to stay with you as you leave the school.
Learn from your peers. It’s not who you know, it’s who you help, so look for ways you can help others succeed, and in return you’ll be made better for it as well.
Find a mentor. A mentor doesn’t have to be someone older than you, just someone more experienced than you. Again, see how you can help them, become a linchpin in their system, so that they need you as much as you need them.
3 - Get a life.
“It’s more important that you go off and learn what to make movies about, than how to make movies.” - Advice given to JJ Abrams from his father.
If the goal of mastering your craft is to be able to show the world your vision, then the goal of every artist is to have a vision that’s worth showing. In order to do that you need to live life and have experiences worth building off of and sharing.
Cut the fat, and live deliberately. Live less online, and more in life. Make friends. Date people. Get married. Go places. Whether it’s exploring the south side of town or the southern hemisphere, there’s something to be gained from every excursion outside of your home.
The purpose of this is to fill your creative bank account with enough creative capital that you can barely contain it.
4 - Do one personal project a year.
“You make your place in the world by making part of it.” - Art & Fear
Take all your pent up creativity and use it by putting out a finished product at least once a year. Something tangible. Something you can point to and say, look, I made this thing.
Pump all your experiences, the craft you’ve attained so far, and your passion into this project.
This is going to give you a benchmark for yourself. This will give you something to aspire to beat with your next project. This will also be a calling card and something that other people can point to and say “look, this person made THIS.”
You only become known for your projects you make, not for the craft you’re privately learning. No one will know the experiences your privately having unless you share them through your projects.
5 - Share your work.
“An artists job is not to be perfect, but to be creating.” - Jeff Goins
The students I’ve talked to are a little afraid to share their amateur work. If that’s how you feel, quit thinking of social media as an art gallery with wall space reserved for your best work. Instead, think of social media as a peek into your studio. Invite them in, give them a glass of water and a comfy chair, and show them what you’ve been working on. No pressure there. Use twitter, facebook, or instagram as a way to document your progress online. Think of it as a public journal of your development as an artist.
Tell people who you are and what you’re about. Tell them what you’re going to be someday, and invite them to watch your journey.
What will happen is your audience will grow as you grow. They will be your online cheerleaders sharing your work with others, and first in line to buy whatever you make.
Lastly, I just want to share this quote from Bob Dylan:
“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night, and in between does what he wants to do.”
Remember, life is too short to be stuck doing something you don’t want to do, and it’s also too short to waste time doing something that isn’t working for you. I hope these five things give you a head start down that path of doing what you want to do in life. As the good doctor once said, “Your mountain is waiting. So...get on your way!”