Take It or Leave It - Advice For Your Artistic Journey
This road we’ve chosen is a tough one. It’s filled with lots of struggle and only moments of success. We share this road with countless other artists who are aspiring to something, pushing themselves to their absolute limits. How can we find our way on a path that takes a lifetime? By learning and sharing with others who have also chosen this journey. Here are a few things I have decided to take with me and a few I’ve decided to leave behind.
Things to Take
This journey is a marathon, not a sprint. We would do well to listen to the tortoise - slow and steady will get you there. Establishing a routine that makes work automatic will pave the way.
Looking at the routines of a few of the greatest minds we see a pattern. They all get plenty of sleep, in most cases 7-8 hours. They all make time for leisure and for loved ones and they all have long periods of uninterrupted work time. Two major takeaways here are consistency and sustainability. You need to establish a routine of working so it becomes automatic and build that routine around your life in a way that ensures you’re taking care of yourself and your loved ones.
It can be very difficult to put all of the weight of supporting your life on your art and it can be devastating to our self worth when we can’t make enough to cover our responsibilities. Here’s the truth - being a good artist does not insure success and being a financial success does not insure being a good artist. Making a living with only your art requires compromises that you might not want to, or be able to make. With a slow and steady mindset sometimes we have to take a step back and take the financial burden off our art. I want this to be very clear - It does not make you less of an artist if you don’t earn a living with your art, it is simply one of many paths and freeing your art from the binds of money can open up your mind and work to new possibilities.
The procrastinators mantra - Why do something today, when you can put it off until tomorrow. Sometimes this is the exact advice we need when we’re looking at things that waste our time. When our self doubt is at its peak, we will find any excuse to not sit down and do the hard work. At best we take care of things that need to be done, but could wait until later; At worst we spend all day scrolling through Instagram or chatting with others who are also in a similar state of mind.
Give up on your dreams and they’ll come true
Sometimes our idea of success is getting in our way of succeeding. Before I ever tabled at a convention I was hellbent on working for Wizards of the Coast. I was forcing myself to paint realistically and smothering my style. It took the advice of my mentor to break that mindset, “Stop trying to force yourself into a mold that doesn’t fit you, because the stuff you’re making when you’re not is way better.” My narrow vision of success was keeping me from growing and abandoning that goal eventually enabled me to make a living with my art.
I often see a lot of artists dealing with similar struggles. Does ink come more naturally to you, but you feel to be a real artist you have to work in oils? Are you forcing yourself to table at conventions, but you dread heading out the door? Are you trying to create a vast personal IP, when all you want to do is paint landscapes? Playing to our strengths is what makes us all unique and harnessing our uniqueness is what leads to success.
Comparing ourselves to other artists can lead to crippling self doubt. “Why are they successful and I’m not?” can be a common thought. When we’re feeling this come back to a long term mindset. This is a moment when they have passed you on the road and sometime in the future you might pass them. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, redefine what success means, look at what you have achieved and the circumstances of your life that have lead you to where you are now. Always remember social media is a highlight reel and what you are not seeing is the years of their journey they put in before this moment and/or possibly the privilege that allowed them more time to focus on their art.
Learning to Learn
You got the degree, you went to the right workshops, checked all the right boxes, and yet you’re still not where you want to be. There are no guarantees, there is no perfect path to success. The best we can do is develop our own compass - this takes time. We need to try lots of things, look at what is working for others, and think about how to apply it ourselves.
Here is a simple depiction of different thought philosophies - the most dangerous are highlighted in red. “What we know we know” is a mindset that leads us to ignoring other possibilities and closing our minds - always remember that what you think you know might be wrong. The other area is “what we don’t know we don’t know” - these are the things we don’t even know to look for and revealing them can often be painful for a time, but is essential to growth.
Praise can be a great thing for an emerging artist, it can instill a confidence that wasn’t there before and remove some self doubt. However, it can lead to ignoring the work that needs to be done to improve and putting you solidly into the “What I know I know” category. Praise can come in many forms, winning an award, having a very successful show, getting a lot of social media attention, in these moments we should celebrate. Over the long term we have to keep a mindset of being happy in the moment, but always strive to be better.
For better or worse you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. If everyone around you isn’t interested in improvement it can be very hard to blaze that trail on your own. A supportive community takes time to build and maintain. Being respectful and humble is the first step to ensuring a supportive community that celebrates each others successes and picks each other up after failures. We should always strive to encourage others and gently guide each other back to the path when we’ve gone astray.
What To Leave
Talent is a myth. The idea that we are born with an innate ability to draw or that being an artist runs in our bloodline is absurd. Could you read and write when you were born? Not a chance. You learned it from parents who read to you every night and from a school system that taught you over a period of years. Some of us had a similar experience with art, some of us were told to be garbagemen (thanks, Dad). If talent is anything it is a manifestation of circumstance and coming from a position of privilege.
Before you get upset at someone outside of the art community complimenting you about how talented you are, pause for a moment and realize this is a reflection of their feelings. Either they don’t know another way to express how your art is making them feel or they are explaining away their shortcomings by saying you are talented and they are not. Inside the art community, if you are looking at another artists work and thinking they are more talented remind yourself that they got there through hard work and/or privilege.
Giving up everything for your art
Looking at the routines of great minds, they all made time for leisure and family. The idea that in order to succeed you must devote every second of your time to achieving your goals is extremely unhealthy. There are periods of time when you need to focus hard on your work, but if you’re not careful this will swing back in the other direction and you will burn out or worse develop life-long health issues. Devoting time to relaxing is necessity and taking care of our bodies is something you can only ignore for so long.
During that leisure time we need to become an active consumer instead of a passive one. Take time to play video games, watch movies, go for hikes, whatever your thing is. In those moments think about what you’re experiencing. Why do I like this so much? What feelings can I take from this and bring into my art? The things we do outside of art shape who we are as artists.
Being an artist does not give you permission to ignore or exploit others in your life. Some of us have chosen a life of solitude that allows us to focus solely on our work, but this choice comes with its own responsibilities and consequences. Those of us who have chosen to have partners and/or children have to realize that these relationships also take effort and investment. When you’re spending time with them be present in that moment, your art will be there when you get back.
Reading Bad Self-Help Books
Sometimes on our journey and we need help finding our way. We open the latest self-help book to learn what we’re doing wrong or reaffirm that what we’re doing is right (“what we know we know”). The issue with most of these books is they are written by people who are successful because they wrote the book - which means they write something people want to hear.
The prime example is the book “Think and Grow Rich” written by Napoleon Hill. This book puts forward ideas that have become commonplace in self-help and business success books: If you want something badly enough that you would put your life at stake then you will get it. Quitters never win, and winners never quit. That we must give up our personal relationships to achieve success. These dreadful ideas have been repeated ad nauseum and build a toxic way of thinking - one that reinforces individualism and if you don’t “succeed” you didn’t work hard enough.
Make no mistake I am in no way claiming that you don’t have to work hard to achieve your goals. But someone’s shortcomings should never be explained away as they just simply didn’t believe in it enough, didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t sacrifice enough. The idea that we can all just pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and achieve anything doesn’t take into account that some of us had all the tools we needed handed to us and others had to find their own. No matter where you are someone has it worse than you and someone has it better - don’t write yourself off and don't get an ego.
This road we’re on is a tough one, the world doesn’t owe you success and there are no guarantees. Keep climbing, but make time to stop for a moment to appreciate the view from where you are. Sometimes you’ll pass others and sometimes they’ll pass you, but the most important thing is how we treat each other, and ourselves, along the way.