Recently I’ve received some emails from students or young artists looking for advice on art careers or technique. There is a lot of good information for art students already on the web (Shawn Barber’s and Tara McPherson’s websites and Bill Watterson’s commencement address at Kenyon College are a few sources I particularly like) and you should read everything you can find about the subject. While everyone’s path in this field is different, a few patterns run throughout. Here is some of what I’ve learned, in no particular order:
1. Work hard. This can be a brutal and fickle profession and there are no guarantees, even if you’re excellent at what you do. There will most likely be a long period where you receive little to no money for your personal work and if, after a very honest appraisal, you can’t see yourself making art without concrete deadlines, projects, or consequences, you may want to enter another field. However, if you can’t stop making art, and despite all sensible advice to the contrary, you want to pursue it as a profession –then congratulations, you have the calling. Welcome to the creative world.
2. Be honest about your personality and chose a style and field of work to suit it. If you dislike working alone all day, you may want to gravitate to a field where you’ll be working in an office or a studio like animation or design. If people bug the crap out of you, than fine art or illustration may be a good match. If you have a short attention span, develop a style that allows you to finish quality projects quickly. If you’re obsessive — indulge it, because in the long run you will be happier. Happiness in a career has more to do with what you deal with a do on a daily basis than with any romantic ideas about your chosen profession. Find work that you enjoy doing in the moment, because that is what you will be doing most of the time.
3. Do not take on debt and keep your overhead as low as possible. Sadly, student loans are a necessity for many, but don’t add to your debt load through personal spending. Also, keep your overhead as low as possible. This is hard in expensive art centers like New York, but do your best. You want to be able to work on things that interest you or will forward your career, and not be trapped in dead end situations just to pay your debt load and overly high bills. And even if you become successful, creative income tends to fluctuate wildly (I’ve read of situations where people made $400,000 one year and $8,000 the next). Keep your overhead low and pace yourself so you can weather the low periods.
4. Develop a style, not a gimmick. Your style will emerge with time and work. Don’t press it. Gimmicks may attract immediate attention, but just as quickly will lose it. And by all means, learn everything you can from your teachers, but do not become a clone of them. You will always be a second rate Mr. or Mrs. X. Try to do the work that only you can do.
5. Work all the time and treat your art like a job. Treat art school like a student preparing for a career in law or medicine. This means scheduling time to work on your art and to staying to that schedule. Don’t wait around to be inspired, though always be on the lookout for inspiration. You get better at making art by doing it, and by doing it a lot. Like anything else, practice will improve your abilities. Art is not magic. There will be some days that are better than others, and some projects you like more than others. Always try your best, but some pieces might not turn out as well as you would like. Sometimes, projects just suck. Sometimes you fail. Complete them and move on.
5. Look at art in person, not just on line and in books. Go to museums, shows, and galleries. Look at both contemporary and traditional art. Read (a lot) and educate yourself. Question everything. Reason, test, and research. Be curious. Read reputable newspapers and periodicals that still practice actual journalism. Travel everywhere you can.
6. When choosing an art school, check out what the seniors are doing. Is the work they’re producing the kind of work you want to produce in four years? As for the cost of art school, this is an problematic issue which a lot of American higher education is facing. The fact is that art is a difficult profession and you will need excellent training, competitive peers, and professional connections to even have a chance at success. Unfortunately, with the exception of a very few schools, this can’t be found at a state or community college. On the other hand, private art schools are profit-driven ventures with exorbitant tuition, especially considering that unlike some other fields, you’re probably not going to be walking out of college into a high paying job (financial success can come, but it usually does not come immediately). I do not have a good solution for this, but can say that taking on $100k in debt for art school is a very bad idea. If you haven’t left home yet, you can’t really understand the magnitude of this owing this amount of money and the years and years of your life you will have to work, sometimes in soul-crushing jobs, to pay it all back. Think very carefully before taking this on.
7. Develop thick skin. There will always be people who don’t like your work and will spare no detail when explaining why. Don’t worry about them. Target your work at the people who like it. Also, be wary of people who rank different sorts of art as high and low, and tell you you are wasting your time at doing ‘x’, when you could be doing the much more culturally significant ‘ y.’ You are a lot more likely to have success in a field you are truly interested in and will enjoy it a lot more.
8. Have fun. Remember when art was fun and not a pressure-cooker? Try and get back to that mental space. If you do not have fun making your art, no one else will have fun looking at it.
9. Do not get obsessed with technique. Only other art students care about how well you pulled out the highlight on the orange. You can be a technically brilliant painter and a terrible artist. Good craftsmanship is important, but most people are more interested in looking at an interesting picture than applauding masterful rendering.
10. Do not be difficult to work with. No matter how brilliant you are, there are twenty other people outside ready to take your place. Always be courteous and professional.
11. Exercise and keep yourself in shape. You do not need to be an athlete, but mind your health. This seems a little off topic, but your physical shape effects everything you do from brain function to over all stamina (and these will certainly effect your career). Trust me, you will save a lot of time and incredible amounts of money in the long run if you can do what you can to prevent chronic illness and conditions that could have otherwise been avoided. General maintenance is far easier than a total body overhaul in your mid-forties after a health crisis. This goes for mental well being as well.
12. Network. In the end, its far more likely that people you know or who are degree removed from those you do will give you jobs and other opportunities. It sometime seems obnoxious, but make sure everyone knows what you do and how awesome you are at it. This is one of the reasons its important to go to a good school: peers who will still be helping you fifteen years after graduation.
13. Keep in mind its a business and their are a lot of extra duties like marketing, emailing, taxes, and taking care of logistics. Take care of your business.
14. Luck matters. Be prepared for when opportunities appear. One conversation on the street can change your entire life’s course. Also understand that some people do not get the breaks they may deserve. Hard work certainly matters, but a lot of things about our lives are out of our control. Be thankful if they happen, keep making work if they don't.