Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Word To Students Of Art

To most people immersed in the entertainment arts scene, the news that there is a growing rift in the artist community would come as anything but a shock. Concept art, and game art as a whole, are a relatively new entity, and the introduction of them to the existing scene has upset the old balance in a really bizarre fashion. In many ways, for the better. In many ways for the worse.

I want to talk to you about what it means to “make it” as a professional artist, but I want to approach it from a framework that is generally uncomfortable. Let's begin by getting some points out of the way that have been covered better elsewhere: not everybody gets good at the same time in their life; if you do it right, you get both money and passiondigital art is real art; and there is no such thing as "cheating" in creating a final piece. However, I do believe there is such a thing in cheating yourself out of knowing how to do something right. More on that in a minute.

Making it as a professional artist is, to me, primarily defined as being able to earn enough off of doing art to live comfortably. That is a simplistic view; it ignores praise from our peers and from the world writ large, it ignores the personal satisfaction of making work you're proud of, and it ignores going from surviving to thriving. If art is your full time job and you live well enough to call yourself comfortable, congratulations--you've made it. It isn't glamorous, but being an artist isn't about glamour.

The problem with most views of "making it" are that they focus on accolades, awards, truckloads of money, and the other sundry ways we evaluate success. These are not the goals an artist should have before they've even worked a single crappy freelance gig. They are the goals of people who have been working professionally for many years. Initial success has a funny effect on people, making them want more, but often it also makes them forgetful. When you've been living well for a while, it is easy to forget what it was like to starve and struggle. Keeping yourself empathetic to those on the bottom isn't easy when you're no longer among them. It's even harder to empathize if you haven't had to struggle.

When I got my first job in the industry making $40,000 a year I couldn't have been happier. I went from barely eking out a living, working at coffee shops and taking loans off my parents to help with rent, to being (more or less) financially independent. Only a year into that life and I was trying hard to make more money, find better work, keep building my career. The things I wanted had changed dramatically. But when I look back, that first job once was my definition of "making it." And in retrospect, it was probably the only definition that really mattered, because it allowed me to live a much happier and more fulfilling lifestyle. I could stop worrying about paying my bills and start focusing on my personal development.

Why then do so many students and young artists now want to go from nothing straight to making $100,000 a year and getting thousands of likes on the internet? The answer is several-fold. First and foremost is because young artists are projecting onto themselves the goals of more successful artists who they see on social media. Second, many of these artists expect it to be easy, and of course it isn't. Third, there are a lot of people out there who, maliciously or not, tell them it is easy. Some of these are snake-oil-salesmen tricking students into buying worthless advice for profit, but most probably just forget what got them to where they are now. Others are maybe naive in expecting their own rapid growth to be transferable to every student (it sucks to hear, but some people are just fast learners). The result is a frustrating and confusing mess for most young artists, myself included.

This brings me to the rift in the artist community. There are a whole lot of young artists who want to make it big right out the gate, and many of them are willing to do anything it takes to get there. The result is a community that is becoming increasingly homogeneous at what was supposed to be the highest tiers. This has created two entrenched camps: those who emphasize foundations and traditional methods, and those who emphasize modern tools as a way to get similar results faster. There is a third, less vocal camp, the camp I'm part of. This is a camp that emphasizes foundations and traditional methods as part of a continued artistic development, but which recognizes the need for modern techniques in production.

By now you probably know that I'm talking about photo-bashing and 3D. Ultimately, how you do your job is none of my business. If somebody says I have an hour to make something photo-realistic, of course I'm going to use a photo--I'm not an idiot. The problem comes when people only ever learn the production tools and never learn how to actually see light and color, to grid perspective properly, to capture accurate anatomy. The number of artists I see using these tools is at an all time high. And like the old curmudgeon I am, I keep wondering what the hell we're teaching these kids by only teaching them the tools they need to do the bare minimum. Which is weird because I'm not exactly old, and I absolutely have photo-bashed before (and probably will again).

But more than the techniques, the content of the art is getting increasingly similar. A few people lead the pack, doing really interesting re-mixes or inventing new aesthetics, only to have a flood of copycats follow after. There is a reason the artist community is beginning to turn to self-parody, and it's because many of us are becoming increasingly displeased with a tide of hyper-sexualized women and toaster-headed soldiers. The concept art community feels like a sounding chamber for machismo more than a place for great new ideas.

If your goal of making it is just to be stable like mine was, there is some value in looking to what your peers are doing to get work. If you know what the market wants, and you can fill that role, you'll probably land a job. Right now the market wants rapid production, but it also wants better artistry and better ideas. Copying your peers might seem the way to go on a surface level, but it's actually a hard way to get eyes on your work. The problem with doing the same things as everybody else is that nobody is going to take notice unless you do it better than the people already doing the work. Why look at an amateur for mech design when there are a handful of greats already out there, unless that amateur is doing something really new? And if you're doing what everybody else loves instead of what you love, are you going to be happy when you finally land work? Wouldn't you rather get known for doing the work you actually feel excited to do every day? Believe me when I say everybody can tell when you actually liked working on a piece and when you didn't.

If you photo-bash an environment but have never done a plein air painting, you aren't cheating at art. If a client needs something you've never done before, I get you'll have to jump headlong into unfamiliar territory some time. But by neglecting studies, you are cheating yourself. While it's true that I believe all art is mileage, I also believe never taking the hard path makes a person boring. If your goal in life is to trudge along doing what's easy, we may end up in the same place, but our journeys will be enormously different. You owe it to yourself to take the harder path and look to life as your guide now and then, no matter what kind of art you do. The value it adds to your work is enormous.

Especially if your goal is to reach stability, there is no better way to flex your muscles than to show genuine knowledge and craftsmanship in your work. I occasionally help hire artists for work, and I routinely recommend artists to jobs I believe they are qualified for. If you don't have any foundations, I don't care how nice your work looks. I'm not going to send your folio along for a recommendation. I trust much more the person who studies than the person who does not.

So if you're trying just to make it, don't chase the big fish until you're ready. Focus on finding stability, on improving, on building a career instead of just looking for a job. Get good first, then figure the rest out as you go. Ignoring your foundations is a terrible mistake to make when you have nothing but time to be focused on them. There is no shame in taking a day job to fuel your improvement. I've done it, most people have. Anybody who says you'd be giving up by taking a job is wrong; you're only giving up if you stop making art.

What all this rambling boils down to is this: there is no easy way to get good, but there are a lot of hard ways to get good. The temptation to buy into a quick fix for your work to get a job is ever present, but I simply don't believe any of those methods exist. If you want to make it, and get good work, focus first on making good work. The rest comes later. If you've already reached stability, studying only ever helps you get to the next level. If you haven't gotten stable yet, forge your own path and focus on developing your raw talents into something honed, precise. Later, when you've refined those skills, you can focus on how to turn them into production methods. You'd be surprised how many ways there are to work faster that accommodate unique visions.

Take the chance while you can, because once you get the jobs you want, the time gets a lot harder to find.

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