Super Obvious Secrets That I Wish They’d Teach In Art School
I get a lot of emails from illustration students and young cartoonists. Sometimes they ask to interview me for a class assignment, sometimes they’re recent graduates looking for advice on how to transition from art student to professional illustrator/cartoonist. I get emails asking about how I promote my work, how to “break into” illustration or comics, how to find clients, how to gain a following on the internet, etc.
I usually laugh a little as I read all these emails because I myself am still really struggling to make ends meet as a full time illustrator and cartoonist. I’m still figuring out what works and what doesn’t. But things are definitely improving and getting easier, slowly but steadily.
I understand the daunting feeling that comes with the end of college or the decision to leave a day job and take those first steps towards a career as an illustrator or cartoonist, having gone through it myself not that long ago. It’s good to talk to people and learn from those that have been at it already for a few years. I myself have learned a ton from emailing and talking with more experienced illustrators and cartoonists. I still ask colleagues for advice all the time. I’ve also learned a lot of things the hard way, by trying and failing. I don’t have all the answers yet (I never will), but here are a some important things I’ve learned so far. Most of it seems like obvious, common sense stuff. And it is. I hope some of you find this useful!
If you don’t enjoy drawing enough to want to do it every single day then you should probably find another line of work! I don’t know about other freelancers, but I work seven days a week.
Creativity is a muscle. If you want that muscle to stay strong you’ve got to use it every day. If you fall out of the habit of drawing every day it can be really tough to pick it up again. Muscles weaken much faster than they grow. So don’t stop drawing ever! Take a sketchbook with you everywhere. Keep a sketchbook next to your bed. Keep one in your backpack or hand bag. Delete Angry Birds from your phone and spend your time doodling while you’re waiting in line at the bank or riding the subway from 181st Street to Union Square. Drawing is your religion.
Draw something that you don’t think is within your ability to draw. Try drawing a comic without penciling anything first, go straight to ink. Pick up a cheap set of watercolor paints and play with them until your eyes turn into little hearts and you love them and they love you back and everyone is crying happy watercolor tears and embracing. If you don’t think you can draw a motorcycle then draw a motorcycle every day until you’re good at drawing motorcycles. Go to a life drawing session and draw some naked people (it’s fun!).
Again, creativity is a muscle. You won’t end up with gigantic tough guy muscles if you’re afraid to try lifting more than five pounds.
You don’t grow by staying within your comfort zone. You’ll be a stinky stagnant little pool of moldy potential with little insects buzzing around and having desperate sexy times and laying eggs all over the damn place. You need to get your creative juices flowing like a big majestic waterfall! Force yourself to draw something that you know will be difficult. Force yourself to draw something you have no interest in at all and find a way to make it interesting. I used to suck at drawing backgrounds and scenery. I was more interested in drawing people and I avoided backgrounds as much as possible. I decided to spend a year really focusing on drawing awesome backgrounds.
Now I love drawing scenery just as much as people and I’m a more powerful, versatile illustrator than I used to be.
A lot of the opportunities and jobs and exposure that have come my way have been a direct result of talking to people and being a nice guy. There have been a number of occasions where illustrator friends have been really busy and have sent assignments my way that they had to turn down. I’ve befriended cartoonists who have gone on to find incredible success and was then lucky enough to have them link back to my work sending loads of new readers my way. Don’t be dismissive of people who enjoy your work and definitely DO NOT take them for granted. It really stinks when you get to meet an artist you admire at a convention or a book signing and they can’t even make eye contact or smile or look up from their sketchbook to show that they are appreciative of the fact that you enjoy their work and would like to give them your money. When working with a new client do your best to accommodate their needs and to be a pleasant person. They aren’t going to send more work your way if you were a pain to deal with. Say “thanks” a lot. And mean it! Be thankful that someone is paying you to sit at home and draw pictures! If no one is paying you then be thankful that we weren’t born without arms.
Don’t trash talk other people’s work even if it really does suck. I can think of plenty of cartoonists who are way more successful than me who, in my opinion, consistently produce dumb, boring, crappy comics. But talking shit about their comics and comparing their success to my own isn’t going to benefit me in any way. It would only be self destructive. It doesn’t matter how many twitter followers you have. But be nice to the people and spam bots that do follow you.
My best work, the work that I get most excited about and that other people seem to enjoy and respond to the most, is usually stuff that I draw purely for fun. My big mental art breakthroughs usually happen when I’m mindlessly doodling. Sketchbooks are where you get to draw whatever you want and where ideas are born. Set aside a little time every day to doodle and explore. Draw for YOURSELF.
Did you ever sit on the floor and draw as a kid? Most kids do it. Do you remember how fun it was? It was really fun. It didn’t matter what the drawings looked like when you were done. It was just a fun thing to do. I remember drawing monsters and spooky castles with my brothers. It was one of our favorite things to do. We could sit and draw monsters and spooky castles for hours. We were drawing them because monsters and spooky castles interested us and because the act of drawing is super fun. Don’t forget how fun drawing can (and should) be. Do forget about impressing anyone. Just have fun. Don’t pressure yourself into thinking you’ve got to draw something amazing because if you sit down and think “I’ve got to make an amazing drawing” then you’re just going to end up staring at a blank sheet of paper. Just start drawing.
Want to draw a graphic novel? Then do it. Stop talking about it and do it. Don’t wait until you have more free time or more drawing skills. As you get get older you will find yourself with less and less free time. And the only way to improve your skills is to draw a lot. Like, several graphic novels worth of drawings. So set some deadlines for yourself and draw a graphic novel. Deadlines are CRUCIAL. Right now I’m working on a project that at first seemed extremely daunting. I sat down and figured out that if I draw three pictures every day the project will be done in about a month. So every day I know I’ve got to get three drawings done and if I fall behind or miss a day I’ve got to make up for it the next day. Being organized and tracking my progress is helping and actually makes being productive kind of like a fun game. I made a spreadsheet to map out my progress. I get to fill a little section in with color every time I complete a drawing or finish coloring a page. Being able to visualize my progress is awesome and gets me excited about finishing a big project. Also I tell myself that if I don’t have this project done in a month I’ll have a mini freak out and then my face will shrivel up super fast and I’ll disintegrate like that Nazi fellow at the end of The Last Crusade. DEADline! Eh? Get it? *nudge nudge*
Whether you’re digging for treasure in the yard or hunched over a drafting table, it’s important to take breaks every so often! Breaks help keep your mind (and body) fresh.
I like to take short breaks often. Draw for an hour and then walk around the block or have a quick snack or just sit and stare out the window for a few minutes. Reward yourself for working hard!
We all have particular artists that we love and have been influenced by. But one of the worst things you can do is to get stuck on those artists or to try to imitate them. Yes, it’s good to study other people’s art and learn from it but don’t just hone in on one or two artists that you really admire. Study LOTS of people’s work. If you only allow yourself to be influenced by James Kochalka you’ll just end up as a poor man’s version of James Kochalka. No one draws like James Kochalka better than James Kochalka. Why would anyone care about your work when they just go look at a James Kochalka book? James Kochalka is an awesome cartoonist and you can learn a lot by studying his work BUT make sure you learn something from a lot of other artists too. If you’re drawing comics, try ignoring other people’s comics for a while. Find inspiration in novels or nature documentaries or old videos of Etta James on Youtube or poetry or newspaper articles. Your comics will be much better if you do this. You won’t find success if your only sources of inspiration are other comics that are already popular. A thousand other people are already trying to make something just like that one comic you love and chances are most of them aren’t going to find much success either. It’s also important to go outside and experience new things and interact with people. The world will feed you new ideas and new sources of inspiration. If the only thing you are able to write about or joke about is video games then may the good comics lord have mercy on your soul.
If you want people to respect your work, take you seriously, or pay you to draw things then do not trash talk your own work. Why would you expect someone else take your work seriously when even you, the person that created it, are openly talking about how much it sucks? If you want people to get excited about your work (and to hire you to draw things) then you need to show them that YOU are excited about your work.
Here’s a little story about how I learned that you should be excited about your own work: When I was 20 years old I had one of my comics published for the very first time by New Reliable Press in the first volume of You Ain’t No Dancer. Some of the other artists in that book were Jeffrey Brown, Nicholas Gurewitch, Hope Larson, Jim Mahfood, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Lilli Carré… Dave Cooper did the cover. I was in very good company. The book debuted at SPX, which I attended that year for the very first time. I was lucky enough to meet and talk to a lot of the other artists in the book, artists who I really, really admired. I was understandably a little nervous (my first convention! My first published comic! In a real book! With some really, really great cartoonists!). I met Bryan Lee O’Malley and asked if he’d sign my copy of You Ain’t No Dancer. He was happy to do so. As he was doodling in the book I sheepishly mentioned that I too had a comic in the book. He perked up a little. “Oh yeah? Which one is yours?” he asked as he began to flip through the book. Feeling totally intimidated and terrified I looked at my feet and said “Oh… uh… it’s… um… it’s not that great…” When I looked up I immediately knew I’d said the wrong thing. Whatever interest he might have had had in my work had completely disappeared. And so a creator who’s work I admire and who I’m sure would have been a good person to be friendly with probably thinks very little of me and my work if he even remembers me at all.
Everyone has off days or stretches of time where they just aren’t happy with any of the work they’re producing. It happens! And it’s okay! But just because you’re going through a bit of a rut that doesn’t mean you should stop drawing. You aren’t going to beat the rut by not drawing anything. Just accept that not every drawing or comic you produce is going to be awesome and keep working. Spend some time with your sketchbook. If you’ve lost excitement for a project then ask yourself why it’s not exciting anymore. What can you do to make it exciting again? Change something!
I’ve tried many different methods of self promotion. I’ve sent out postcards in the mail, I’ve tried shmoozing at conventions, I’ve sent cold emails and have considered cold calling art directors (I’m still considering it). The most effective thing I’ve done has actually been the simplest: Draw awesome stuff and put it on the internet. Do this for a while and good things will happen.
Wow! This is a long blog post. I’ve got to go catch up on all the drawing I should have been doing instead of writing this! I hope someone out there finds this helpful.
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