Are you a creative who would like to break into the industry? Would you like to make more money from your art sales? Does starting at a blank canvas intimidate you?
If so, then Lift Off Art is here for you!
Creating art is hard. Creating art for a living is even harder. Artists and creatives are weighed down by crippling self-doubt, fear of rejection, and impostor syndrome. Add on a lack of solid business advice for artists and even less information about what it's like to be a professional artist, and even attempting to make it as a creative professional can seem like a Herculean effort. No wonder people believe in the myth of the Starving Artist.
Despite these obstacles and the downturn of the economy, in 2007, Rick Kitagawa and Eve Skylar made the best decision of their lives and decided to go pursue art as a career. After meeting each other at UC Berkeley at a theater club (Rick was studying Biology and Asian American studies, Eve was studying Narrative Theory and Acting), the two graduated and promptly decided to enroll in art school. While in school, they started vending at local art and craft fairs as Monkey + Seal. To keep in touch with fans, they started blogging.
At first, the blog was mainly about their art, but as they developed as artists and professionals, the content evolved to the emotional hurdles that plagued them as creatives. From artist's block to business mistakes, from fear of failure to the fear of the blank canvas, Rick and Eve began to shed light into the challenges and obstacles faced by artists trying to create and live off their craft.
Fast-forward to 2015. Although he couldn't paint when he started art school, Rick holds down sponsorship deals from multiple art material companies, paints for gallery shows, runs a successful screen printing business, and teaches business and entrepreneurship at universities across California. Taking inspiration from the animated films of her youth, Eve's artistic talent bloomed as a successful visual development artist, working in both the game and film industry with clients such as Paramount Pictures, SEGA, and Nightwheel Pictures to help create award-winning, internationally acclaimed films.
After unfortunately taking time off from blogging to build their careers, this dynamic duo is back. While there are many venues to learn the technical aspects of creating art, Rick and Eve found an absence in solid, research-based, tactical advice on dealing with the psychological demons that prevent artists from being their best selves. Just as sparse was any specific, tactical advice for breaking in and making it in the art world and how to present oneself to the industry.
After mixing first-hand experience with research in business, psychology, biology, and personal development, and sprinkling in an emphasis on intersectionality, identity politics, and empathy, Lift Off Art was born. We honestly believe that everyone is an artist at heart, and whether you want to create more or if you want to be a professional artist, we're here to help guide you. So join up today and let's change the world with your art.
If you'd love to learn more about the upcoming class that helps you break into the art industry, sell more art, find the success doing what you love, and more,sign up for email updates and you'll never miss out! Thanks!
Join Up! Get inspirational and tips delivered directly to your inbox!
The Portfolio Review. Maybe you signed up at a convention, or some industry day at your school, but the portfolio review can make a huge impact in your career – if you do it right. That said, unfortunately, many art school graduates totally screw it up and lose out on valuable advice and, more importantly, potential job offers.
I recently talked with an art director who was invited to visit a portfolio night at one of the largest art schools in the country. She told me how frustrating it was to meet all these kids who made the same mistakes that she (and I) made early in our careers, and how although the art was good, the student’s interview skills were so terrible that she wished they had just taken my class to improve on some of the most basic skills that would have made their experience a lot more fruitful for everyone involved. So I asked her for her feedback about the event, and it was like a textbook case of everything a student could do wrong. So with her help, I wanted to create this to help ALL artists (but especially new grads) avoid these opportunity-killing pitfalls.
- “Students were so wrapped up in getting their portfolio ready and fixing their tablets or laptops that they never even introduced themselves.”
Okay everyone, first thing you do when you go into an interview or a portfolio review: introduce yourself! Studies have shown that the most crucial moments in an interview are the first and last impression. My AD friend told me that students would just sit down and immediately start fidgeting with their laptops, trying to bring up their portfolio and never even said “Hello.”
Not only is this extremely rude, but wtf are you doing? I know that you’re probably nervous, and scared, and your stress levels are probably shooting through the roof, but there are a lot of things you can do to prevent that.
Besides power posing , you can also lower your stress levels by preparing before you even get to the venue. Successful interviews are 50% doing the work before the interview even begins. That means rehearsing with a friend, doing your research about the company you’re interviewing with, and making sure your portfolio is in order ahead of time.
An ideal situation that would have solved this issue is simply this: When you’re in line waiting your turn, open your laptop or tablet and get your portfolio ready. Don’t be playing a game or sending a text or whatever – you’re here for business so act like it. I know you’d probably rather be catching Pokemon, but what’s more important, a new Varporeon or a job? (FYI, The answer should be “job.”) By the time your name is called, all you should need to do is open your laptop and click a single button.
Even if you’re not 100% ready, you always introduce yourself first. Tell them who you are, and ask how the interviewer’s day is going. Be friendly. Make it a conversation. As you talk, you can use that time to load up your portfolio. By going in and being flustered, not only will you panic and make mistakes, but you’re also showing them that you’re not really professional enough to work in the industry yet. So practice with a friend so your opening introduction is nice and smooth and you can make a great first impression.
- “For the few that did come in and introduced themselves and shook our hand, they gave us the wet fish handshake. I wanted to die.”
I shudder just thinking about this. I know that not everyone is raised to shake hands – it’s a cultural thing – but if you’re looking to work in the United States, you need to learn how to properly shake hands. Please, you want to avoid trying to crush a person’s hand, but you also need to give it a firm shake. Letting your wrist go limp in what’s known as the “wet fish” handshake, is possibly the grossest, lamest thing you can do.
People HATE getting a wet fish handshake. I could go on and on for another four paragraphs about how terrible it is, but please, just don’t do it. Use the concept of mirroring – if the person shakes with a lot of force, squeeze back. If they shake gently, shake gently but firmly. But never, ever, ever, just let your hand go limp and have them move it around. Once again, if you don’t know how to shake hands, find someone who does and practice! This may sound stupid, but is it more stupid to practice shaking hands, or losing a job because you don’t have your act together?
- “I would ask them about what their inspiration was for a piece, and they’d just say ‘well, it was for an assignment.’”
This makes me think back to the line in the original Ghostbusters film, where Winston Zeddmore says “Ray, if someone asks if you’re a God, you say YES!” Truer words could not have been uttered. In this case, if someone asks about your inspiration for a piece, don’t just say “it was for an assignment.” That’s basically the worst thing you could ever utter. Even if it was for a class project, you must have put SOME thought into it.
If you had to make a layout for an ancient evil temple, you still had to make choices. Was it an ancient evil temple inspired by the ruins of the Mayan people? Or is it Arabic, or Chinese, or Tibetan? Or is it Lovecraftian? What KIND of ancient evil temple is it? WHY did you make those choices? What’s the mood? What were you trying to say?
The interviewer is looking for a few different things when they ask you about your inspiration. The first is that they’re looking for your creative thought process in design – that you know how to use reference appropriately, can do research, and can come up with interesting solutions within confines of an assignment or brief. The second, is that they’re actually interested in who you are. Are you a cool person? Are you even a human at all? They’re really looking to see how you respond and if you’re going to fit in with the existing team.
It’s 100% okay to say that the portfolio piece was for an assignment, but do not just leave it at that. Talk about what made you excited about creating it. More and more, artists who just create stuff are commodities. Sure, if you’re great technically, I’ll definitely hire you for a freelance position, but for people who want careers and job stability, you need to also show that you can think for yourself and can be a creative problem solver. Especially as we get robots that can create art for us, it’s more and more important that you bring something more to the table.
- “I would ask them about their future aspirations, or their ideal job, and they’d mention they wanted to work for a company that wasn’t the one I work at. Really?”
Facepalm. Why would you do this? If you are applying to work at Pixar, why would you tell them you really want to work at Dreamworks? If you’re applying to Blizzard, why are you going to tell them you want to work for EA? Sure, that might be your dream job, and you’re just being honest, but it’s really an insult to whomever is taking time out of their day to interview you.
Also, if you only want to work for that one magical company, why are you even applying to other jobs? Probably, because you’re not 100% sure you are going to work at that company in the first place.
Let’s be real. Out of every thousand of you readers, I’d honestly think that maybe ONE of you might get a job at the place of your choice right out of college. And that’s a big maybe. Whether it’s the company you want to work for just isn’t hiring for your position, or perhaps you’re just not ready yet, or it could be that someone else with much more industry experience is applying for the same job you are, it’s very very unlikely that you’re going to get your dream job as soon as you graduate.
I’m not telling you this to discourage you, but I don’t want to sugarcoat things just to make you happy. I’m telling you this because a vast majority of professionals end up working at companies that aren’t their ideal jobs to start out with, and that’s fine. It takes a lot of things to line up to get your dream job, and while there is a blueprint for that, there’s a lot of factors that are out of your control, like global economics, cultural shifts, and much more. What I want to distill in you, however, is that you want to play it smart. I’m all about helping you find your ideal job, but really, a majority of you are still going to have to pay your bills and student loans in the meantime.
So, what does that mean? It means that when someone asks you what your ideal job is, you don’t say “Character designer at Company X.” You say something like “I’d ideally like to be creating interesting character designs and being able to work on feature-length animations,” or something like that. EXPLAIN your ideal job, don’t limit yourself to some childhood, unresearched fantasy of where you want to work.
You also never know if that smaller, unknown company might even be the more creatively fulfilling job than the big studio you were initially eyeing. I know a lot of artists who actually prefer to work in smaller studios because they get to have more individual say in the creative process. Rather than just painting rocks (as a rookie environment artist would be tasked with) in a big studio, artists at smaller companies get to create full worlds. Sure, you might not have the big-name credit yet, but if your company is a hit, you’re going to be the one who was on the ground floor of a new giant. After all, when John Lasseter started working at Pixar, it was only because he was laid off from Disney – now he runs both companies.
I’m not telling you to settle, but do your research and figure out what’s important to you, and learn how to articulate that in a non-threatening way.
- “Also, only one student asked any questions, and that one student then never followed up with any other questions.”
Rule number one of interviews: ASK QUESTIONS. Please, for the love of all that is good and right in the world, make sure you ask questions.
I know this might also be culturally strange for you, but PLEASE ASK QUESTIONS. Studies have shown that just by watching how long an interviewer speaks in comparison to how long an interviewee (you) speaks, one can determine whether or not the candidate has a good chance of being hired. Basically, the more you can make the interviewer speak, the more likely you are to get the job.
Please don’t take this the wrong way and speak less – the point here is to turn the interview into a conversation where they speak more because they’re answering questions. You want to ask thoughtful, interesting questions to help drive the conversation. Think about every awkward conversation you’ve ever had – it’s awkward because the conversation constantly dies abruptly.
You can avoid this by asking questions and not just answering them. If they ask you something like “what’s your ideal job?” You can answer and then ask them – “so that’s really what I’m looking for. Can you tell me more about your ideal candidate for this position?”
Not only does asking the interviewer more questions make the interview go smoother, but it also does something really subtle, but really powerful as well. When you start interviewing THEM, it sends the signal that you’re not some desperate artist looking for a job, but that you’re an artist looking for the RIGHT job. I guarantee you, once you start asking questions, the interviewer is going to start trying to sell you the position. It’ll psychologically raise your status and you’ll be seen as more valuable and important.
Please don’t aggressively grill the interviewer. You are not an interrogating them – you want to be pleasant and friendly while you do it, but asking them about their individual roles in the company, how they like working with their supervisors, what sort of work culture the company has – these are all things that can be done with cheer and genuine curiosity. Your goal is to be their professional friend – think a good waitress or waiter at a restaurant. Friendly, yet professional. This goes a long way in the hiring process, so be a cool person, and watch your interview success rate rise.
- “Some of the students also didn’t know when the let up. After the portfolio review, they’d keep dragging it on. It was excruciating.”
When the interview is over, please, let it be over. Some students apparently, even after they shook their hand and told them to have a good day, would go “Oh, wait, I have this other project I was working on, let me show it to you” and then would start digging in their backpack for a different piece.
Why would you do this? Do not do this. If you want to show someone something, have it prepared (see the first point again). Once the interview is over, politely ask for a card (and be okay if they don’t offer one), and ask them if it’s okay to follow up. If they decline, thank them for their time and leave. You had your shot, and it’s time to move on, do not drag it on awkwardly.
If you have their contact, follow up with a short and polite thank you. If they offered to give you more feedback, ask for it. But do not drag the interview on longer than it naturally goes on for. Be respectful of their time and let it end when they seem ready for it to end.
- “I was actually going to potentially hire this one kid, but when I went to all of their websites, the pieces that we were looking for couldn’t be found. So we ended up not hiring anyone.”
I know it’s hard to update your portfolio site. I get it, and I’m guilty of this as well. But please know that when I’m applying for new work, what’s in my physical portfolio that I take to interviews is ALWAYS going to match my website.
Often times, interviewers are talking to tons of people. While you might meet with ten to fifteen people in a day at a convention (and that’s really high), they’re probably talking to hundreds of people. They’ve seen thousands of pieces of artwork, so don’t take offense that they can’t accurately match a face with a name with a specific piece of art.
You always want to make it as easy for them to hire you as possible. Sure, in an ideal world they’ll just remember your name and face and portfolio, but it’s not an ideal world. Interviewers might be hungry, or they might be distracted about their own deadlines they need to hit, or they could just be tired and overworked. You need to make it easy for them. Your business card should have examples of your work that are in your portfolio, and are on your website. Don’t show them a portfolio where not a single sample is on your website.
Imagine you were going shopping for a new bath towel. Now spend a day shopping online, then go to every single place in town that has bath towels. Now wait a week. Do you think you’d be able to find the exact place that had the towels that you want on the first try? Now imagine that you even remember that it was at one of two stores, but when you go online to buy the towel, neither store has the towels listed. Do you think you’re now going to buy that towel? Nope. That store just lost a sale. Don’t be that store and lose an opportunity for a dumb reason.
So all you art students out there preparing for the next big con or interview, please keep these things in minds as things to avoid – don’t shoot yourself in the foot before you even take your first steps into the professional art making world.
Do these tips make sense? Have your own killer interview/portfolio review tip? Share your thoughts below!
The 3 Reasons Why Artists Don’t Make a Living Off Of Their Art (and how to avoid them).
There are really only three core reasons why an artist fails to make a living off of their craft. You might think there are more, but all of them all boil down to three things, and chances are, if you’re unhappy with your career as an artist (or don’t have one yet), you can probably blame one of these three reasons.
1. Not enough practice.
The hard truth is that maybe you just haven’t put in the mileage yet. Most “successful” artists (and I put that in scare quotes because success is really in the eye of the beholder) have put in that time and effort. It may not seem like it, but remember the volcanic island — it takes a while to form anything that solid.
Good art usually takes time. And if it doesn’t take time now (like an artist who can paint very quickly), it took an investment of time. When I do a demo for a company and paint a full portrait in maybe 40–50 minutes, while that looks easy, the hard part was the years I spent practicing before I could get my speed up like that. And that’s not to say that all good art is representational.
Good art, whether it’s due to technical finesse or color theory or composition or any of the above, comes from an investment of love and time and practice. If you’re not happy selling enough art, you may have to look hard into the mirror and figure out if you really have the skills to execute professional level work. Unless you’re going into modern art (preserved sharks and the like), there’s no amount of business savvy that’ll save an artist who hasn’t spent the time to fully develop their skills.
That said, remember that you don’t need to be a superstar to get work. A mom and pop sandwich shop doesn’t hire Oglivy and Mather for their advertising — they probably can’t afford the advertising giant for one, and plus they don’t need a world-class ad agency. They probably need some advertising student who can build them a website and run a local promotional campaign to bring in more foot traffic.
As long as you can provide value, you can work. If you’re not a 9 or 10, but a 4, you still have more skill than a 1. So while I know that myself and everyone else will tell you that you have to master your craft, that’s really if you want to work for the biggest in the industry. You have to be a 10 to work for another 10. You’ll get to be a 10 eventually, but you need to put in all that time and effort working for 4’s, and 5’s, etc., etc. before you get that 10.
2. Lack of knowledge
This one is what most artists think they suffer from. Ignorance of the art world, business basics, and how to present and sell oneself and one’s artwork can be a huge barrier to commercial success. There is such a plethora of information that is available online, in books, and in free workshops and seminars and events all over — there really is no good excuse for not learning this stuff.
Okay, so this part comes a bit easier to me, as I really enjoy learning about psychology and sociology and marketing and all that sort of thing. But even if you don’t enjoy it (and even I don’t enjoy ALL of it..cost-benefit analysis…shudder), you have to realize that it’s crucial to really standing out from the crowd.
There are so many artists out there who are talented and have put in the mileage to really hone their craft, you need something to stand out. Whether that’s knowing your niche and understanding how to speak to it, whether it’s creating a snazzy look book and price sheet for wholesalers, or whether it’s as simple as knowing how to do your research before applying for a job, learning the business skills can help you make a living off of your art.
This is why I teach business and entrepreneurship at the Academy of Art. As an alumni, I know how amazing the art instructors can be. They took this smart-ass 22 year-old who hadn’t drawn for 10+ years, and turned me into a painter, printmaker, illustrator, and draftsman who gets paid to fly around the country and talk about making art. That said, a lot of the really skilled classmates I had aren’t really working in their field.
There are super talented artists, but their complete ignorance of how to present themselves shoots them in the foot again and again. And this kills me, because I know they have a unique gift to share with the world, and it’s being stifled because of a lack of knowledge of how they should showcase their art.
That said, this is also a relatively easy problem to solve. There are a lot of online resources, and learning to take some time on the weekend or in the evening or whenever to read a new book or watch some videos online can do wonders. Ask your friends who you look up to what resources they recommend.
Don’t forget, however, that you could just be overly critical of yourself. Maybe you already know what you need to know, and don’t let yourself sink into a self-improvement spiral, where you’re constantly chasing new information just to chase it.
Yes, Fear even got itself written in all-caps. I would argue that this is the reason why upwards of 75% of artists give up or never pursue their passion. This is the reason why artists don’t get the opportunities they deserve, or the rates they need, or the clients they want.
Are you an artist who procrastinates? Either that’s actually your internal compass telling you that whatever it is you’re doing isn’t what you NEED to be doing, or it’s fear. If you’re looking at your blank canvas and you think, “Ugh, I should paint,” but then you go play video games? That’s fear. If you’re procrastinating writing that paper, it could be you should just be doing something else, but it could be fear also — fear of having to go outside of your comfort zone, of having to write in academic English that you never were really taught, of potentially “looking dumb.”
Conveniently forget about that deadline for the Call for Entry? You made yourself too busy to focus on the application, and then you figured “well, the application isn’t strong so I won’t get in anyway?” That’s probably fear of going after what it is you really want.
Fear is the bane of all artists everywhere. It’s the voice in our head telling us that we’re not good enough, or that other people are better, or that we’ll never be able to make it as a successful artist. Fear is what keeps us hobbling along, too scared to ask for help, or find a mentor, or even from making art.
Rejection is scary. I get it. As an artist, I know that every piece you put out is personal. When you upload that new painting to Instagram or Facebook or Tumblr, you’re just DYING to get more likes. We don’t stop to think about the nuances of social media, or how likes and hearts and upvotes and whatever don’t correspond to good art — they correspond to popular art. No one wants to feel like the misunderstood artist. We all want love and affection and for people to like our art. It’s okay to want people to like your art — art is such a personal creation that we can’t (nor shouldn’t) disconnect our art from who we are. That said, we have to remember that while it’s always okay to sell your art, it’s also okay to create art that doesn’t sell.
The tricky thing about creating art is that even though we’re scared, we have to keep putting ourselves out there if we want to make a living off of our art. We have to keep selling, to keep creating, to keep posting, and after time, you will find that audience that cares about your work.
In sales, it’s often talked about that you have to get at least five “no’s” before you get a sales prospect to say “yes.” However, 80% of sales people give up after four “no’s.” This is why resilience to rejection is so important. It’s artists applying more than ten times at an animation studio before they get hired. It’s artists applying to a juried, annual show every year regardless if they ever get in. It’s artists who are willing to go the distance, work really hard, and never give up, even if they have to work two retail jobs to pay the bills in the meantime.
So the trick with fear is that even if it’s scary, you just have to push through it. You can try and acclimate yourself slowly — if you’re scared of talking to new people, just try to strike up conversation with a cashier when you go grocery shopping. They are supposed to talk to you, and there’s a time limit on the conversation so if it doesn’t go well, you just pay and leave. If you’re scared of submitting to the biggest illustration contest in the country, maybe try submitting in a local art contest. Baby steps, everyone, baby steps.
What about circumstances outside of my control?
Well, that’s just it. They’re circumstances outside of your control! You can’t force a book publisher to publish you, or a studio to hire you. No one can guarantee you’re going to win an Oscar, or have a sold-out gallery show at a certain gallery. But what you CAN do is take hold of what you DO control. Make good work and share it with the world. Be open to learning things that are foreign to you. Read books. Watch tutorials online. Never disqualify yourself before entering the race. Try new things. Put yourself in scary (not dangerous) situations that push the boundaries of your comfort zone.
Before I take on any coaching clients, I always ask them one question. “If I told you that you wouldn’t be successful for the next ten years, would you still make art?” If they love their craft enough, they’ll say yes. And it’s the people who say yes that I know are the ones who are NOT going to want for success — because if you love your craft enough to keep doing it regardless of the external motivators, then that resilience is what is going to keep you going year after year, through the ups and downs that every career has.
So just keep on working. Keep on putting yourself out there and dare to challenge the world and learn and play and make some cool-ass shit. I can’t wait to see it.
PS – If you’re really interested in building your career as an artist, check out this Kickstarter we’re running through April 2nd!