I’ve been actively pursuing an illustration career for two years after a 15 year stint in corporate America. How am I doing? I’ve never been so busy or felt so creative in my entire life! In fact, I'm managing so many different creative projects at the moment, that I forgot to eat lunch yesterday. What? That’s huge. I have never forgotten to eat in my life. As I reflect on the past two years, it occurs to me that there are some shiny golden nuggets of advice that have consistently helped me in my new career. I practice them all the time, and they have all led to great things for me. Maybe they will help you too?
Here are my 8 solid gold nuggets of advice I have received as an artist:
1. Create/Sell Your Joy: I have loved drawing all my life. One of my first memories of how art saved me happened when I was 5 years old. I won 100 dollars in a drawing contest sponsored by Zales Jewelers, my Dad's employer in the 70's. I’ll never forget it. We were so poor at the time, my parents started crying with joy when they read the award letter that I received in the mail. Wow. We really needed that money. I guess Zales didn't pay all that well. Ha-Ha. Here is the award winning masterpiece. The judges must not have been very discriminating as I drew my dad with only three fingers on his left hand. But, check out those groovy duds.
In high school, my advanced art history and studio classes created an escape for me in the midst of a tumultuous home life. In college, I got my BFA in illustration and then, naturally, promptly took a job in retail upon graduation. To my credit, I did spontaneously move to San Fransico, the most creative town I’d ever been. And eventually, through "on the job" training, I carved out a career for myself in the visual merchandising/marketing world.
While I had a creative role at Old Navy for a very long time, as often happens, I faced major burn out in my final year there. Retail moves at the speed of light, and if you "can't hurry up and be creatively brilliant," it's going to be a struggle! Before leaving my design gig at GAP, Inc. in 2013, one of my last ditch efforts to recapture the excitement that brought me to marketing in the first place was to start sketching every day. Instead of working on the computer, I drew by hand. At home, I sketched my greatest joy, my precious English Bulldog Cookie.
To my surprise, I ignited a spark that I knew I needed to hold on to and fuel. I attribute this nugget, "Create your joy" to one of my favorite ladies on the illustration/educators circuit, renown artist and agent Lilla Rogers. One of the questions Lilla addresses in her book, I Just like to Make Things, is: "Why should you create your joy?" The answer is "Because people WILL BUY IT." I believe that. Last year I started a side business drawing and embroidering custom pet portraits that has been quite popular and just the most fun, rewarding and meditative art practice in my repertoire. Because DOGS = JOY. At least for me they do.
2. Create Art Everyday: Creating my joy is how I began the practice of creating art everyday. Drawing just makes me so damn happy. Sometimes at night, color combinations swirl in my head and keep me up thinking about all the great stuff I want to draw. Sometimes I can hardly wait for the morning so I can put that pen to paper. I haven't had a passion like that in a long time. And, maybe it's because I always have art on the brain, but I noticed a funny thing happening: I began to hear this mantra everywhere from successful artists and coaches alike. Sometimes in the form of "Put your art first" or, "Make time for your art",or "Create a daily studio practice that you love." It's so powerful to make that studio time work for you. It will also make you a more well rounded and skilled artist. Clearly my studio practice involves wine.
3. Use Cheap Paper: This simple piece of advice that I use every day, again, comes from Lilla Rogers. She encourages us to just be crazy and free and uninhibited and messy. Use up that paper. Because ideas will flow and things will happen. It’s true. If you are a perfectionist like me, you want to get everything perfect with no mistakes. That first page in your new sketch book is precious and will set the precedent for all musings to come. BAH!! I say tear it out and scribble on it!
Here is a snapshot of my first ever sketches from my Lilla Rogers 2014 MATS BOOTCAMP class. I used bond paper and nice markers. I cut out the mistakes and glued the "good" sketches to a board.
I'm surprised I didn't frame this for display! Here are the sketches I did outside yesterday with some old brushes, some scrap paper, and cheap watercolors.
They are now in a pile on my studio table. I will scan them and use them in my new series of abstract patterns. I like both sets of doodles the same, but I definitely had more fun with the loose brush technique. I recently created my best work from loose sketches like these.
Here is the very first pattern I created from those super stylized precious drawings from 2014.
I know more now.
4. Talk, Talk, Talk: Well, this one is a doozy. It’s very hard for artists to talk about our own work. For me, I don't want to inundate people with my world or seem boastful. But, I think there is a right way to "spread the word," and this is tied to the concept of creating/selling your joy. Simply share your excitement! Lisa Congdon talks about this in many of her classes and her essential guidebook for artists, Art, Inc. It's good advice that I think about almost everyday. And it works. When I started creating art again after two decades, I was so jazzed about what I was doing that I began sharing photos of my work with friends and family on social media. I wasn't trying “sell” anything or direct people to my portfolio because I didn't have one yet! I just posted things like, ‘HEY GUYS, LOOK WHAT I DID TODAY! I’M SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS (diorama, collage, painting, bulldog shaped cupcake).”
Excitement and joy is contagious. I’m interested in what makes artists tick, or inspired! Why wouldn't people feel the same way about me? PS. Thank you to all my friends and family who have supported me and my work over the past two years. I’m glad you all love dogs as much as I do.
5. Network /help others: I've heard this advice from so many artists, and coaches. It's hard to credit it to any one person. I used to hate networking. But it's not that awful or hard! You don't even have to leave your couch now with the internet. I began joining virtual art groups everywhere! Linked in, Facebook, and Instagram. What I learned is that there is a lot of crossover in the community. Not only did I learn about new opportunities like classes, and competitions, but I made new like-minded friends. My brave move of "joining the party" opened up several doors of opportunity for me. Here is an example: Because I had been a fan of the blog at PatternObserver.com (of which I learned from a fellow designer in the Make it In Design summer school class user group on Facebook), I subscribed to their newsletters. When there was a call for entries on new designers, I contacted them. And then, when I was featured in Pattern Observer, an old college friend of mine who also subscribes to their blog recognized my name and we began talking again over email.
Guess what? He’s contracted me to design a series of typographic t-shirt designs for the very cool company he works for. Super thankful to the universe for that one, and also proud of myself for putting myself out there.
Conversely, I recently received an email through my website from a very nice young woman who wanted advice on how to get into editorial illustration. I really thought about her question a lot, and I hope my email response helped her. Kindness is not hard. And it always comes back around.
6. Never stop learning. Continue to evolve your talents: I credit this nugget to Lisa Congdon, a fabulous artist, educator, speaker and fellow dog lover. She’s a real nice lady too. In her classes she talks about how there is always more to learn, and how we are always developing as artist. Even the most experienced artists continue to take classes to evolve their talents! Lisa has inspired me to take classes whenever I can. In all sorts of mediums. Two of the most memorable classes I took this year had nothing to do with drawing: a pom-pom making class that my friend and I attended as a fun afternoon social gathering, and a FREE watercolor class taught by the famous John Muir Laws…..I don't think I have made pom-poms since I was in 3rd grade, and I surely haven't watercolored for decades! Both were a lot of fun and I enjoyed my self so much, that…guess, what? Through the beauty of "spreading the word" on Facebook, a design teacher friend from the Gap days suggested that I try my hand at teaching at the Richmond Art Center. Huh. Never thought of that. This October I will be teaching a pom-pom making workshop at Richmond Art Center for our community's annual Day of the Dead celebration: Skeletonfest. B00-yah!
My name is spelled wrong, but still! I'm so excited for this event. This winter, I will be teaching some studio classes at the Center as well! Who knew!?!
7. Buy this book: The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines
This one is so easy. I credit this piece to multiple people as well, but it's my sister who convinced me to bite the bullet and purchase this book as an investment in myself. You must own this if you are a working artist. Because artists must diversify their skills in order to make an income, this is the bible for us. Since 2013, I have earned a (small) income doing everything from story boards, to logo design, to licensing, apparel design and production work. I now know how to write comprehensive contracts, and price my work for what it is worth. The handbook recently saved me from setting a really bad precedent in a tempting offer from a well known media entity. PURE GOLD I tell you!!!!
8. You are ready now: Why wait until you are skinnier, richer, more experienced, (insert adjective here). Eff that. Do it now . If nothing else, you will get practice and, as I alluded to before, practice makes perfect. This summer, following this tidbit of advice from many people (including life coaches, artists and the POTUS), I decided to reach out to agents. I was nervous — I wasn't quite sure I had my style down, and I had no published work. But, what I did have was a decent portfolio and a white knuckle fear of remaining in the research phase forever. In the end, after receiving numerous rejection letters, I met the right agent at the right time and now have representation and a big boost to my confidence.
I will persevere! SIDE NOTE: rejection never gets easier.
So there you have it. Take it if you need it. None of these nuggets have brought me a fat wallet or fame. Only hard labor will do that and I am still very much working overtime. But, I feel richer for having remembered these bits and I wanted to share the wealth with you. Have a great weekend, you guys!