Tips from the Pros: The Portfolio Review

PORTFOLIO_review

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.

  1. “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.

  1.  “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?

  1.  “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.

  1. “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.  

  1.  “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.

  1.  “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.  

  1.  “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 Fail To Make A Living

Failure is tough

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.

3. FEAR.

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!

Each Of Our Lives Are Incomparable

Shakespeare once said “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players” and he’s 100% right.  With a world that runs on Instagram, Facebook, and Tindr, we’re constantly putting ourselves on stage.

We curate what we share with the world so we can make ourselves the most appealing (or what we think others will find the most appealing).  We post the selfie when we’re at the hip art show, but not when we’re disheveled after working on a freelance project for two days straight.  We show the painting that sold, not the five paintings that lay unsold in our apartment.

This makes total sense to me as a marketer.  Obviously, whether we’re trying to establish a brand, find a date, or keep in touch with friends, we want to show our best selves.

However, when we see others, whether its peers or celebrities, we tend to forget this fact.  There’s a lot of comparing ourselves to them, wondering how they might have such great luck, or that they know so many more people than you, or that maybe they’re just naturally talented.

 

Michael Jordan, the most amazing basketball player in the world, has this message for you: don’t make excuses.

Sure, this is a commercial for your shoes, but damn, that commercial gives me chills, and I’ve watched it about four times in a row now.  Really, it’s a great reminder that while we might bemoan everyone’s good luck or talent or success, we really should be constantly looking within ourselves.  It’s not about whether or not someone else is destroying the competition, but whether we’re letting that act as an excuse to do our best.

“Someone else has already made it” is a great excuse to keep from putting your own twist on something.  “They’re too good at doing what I want to be doing so why should I even try?” is a great question to ask yourself to keep yourself from risking something.  The best thing is that art isn’t a zero-sum game – we can all be winners.  Sure, there are a finite number of jobs at any given company, or only so many galleries in the world, but that doesn’t mean we have to be all cut-throat about anything.  If we really choose to, there very little that we cannot achieve ourselves.

We all have “it” in us.  “It” being the potential to do amazing things and create amazing work.  Whether or not we want to be the best in the world, I hope we all share the common goal of making something worthwhile.  Something remarkable that changes things for the better, even if it’s making a single person a bit happier for a second.  This potential often gets buried by self-doubt, or negativity from friends and family members.  We sometimes forget because when we watch the stage, all we see is the glitz and glamour of what people are putting out there for us.

Why compare the entirety of our lives to someone’s extremely curated successes?  

While it’s hard not to respect the amazing craftsmanship of the Renaissance creators, I do hold a big grudge against them.  Because information access wasn’t what it is today, they would often burn their sketchbooks to make it look like they had some rare gift from God – they basically hid all their hard work.  Never mind that often artists were often sponsored by the church (so even back then smart artists knew how to market themselves), but their legacy is that of wonder and awe and envy and false information for generations to come.

The idea of artistry being raw talent and nothing else has plagued artists for centuries – think of how many people probably gave up on creating since they were comparing themselves to Raphael or Michelangelo or any of the other ninja turtles – I still get upset that I can’t do backflips while eating pizza.  Fortunately, artists nowadays are very generous with their process and constantly share how much hard work they put into their craft, but nevertheless we often forget and get wrapped up in chasing other artists’ lives.

Even though we may follow them for their success, something we often don’t think of is whether or not they are actually happy.  While this might seem like a good problem to have, there are a lot of trappings of success and fame.

There is the intense fear of failing now that everyone is watching you.  There is the pressure to make another big hit.  There is everyone telling you to make something similar but slightly different when you really want to go back and experiment with something completely different.  There’s the issue of equating the money you’re now making to the value of the art, when that might not necessarily be the case.  There’s something to be said about enjoying our obscurity now – mistakes are easily fixed, and no one is scrutinizing us – and who knows how happy they really are?

Take the case of an Australian Instagram model (yes, that is a job) Essena O’Neill, who recently rebranded all of her instagram photos with what it really took to get that seamless, “life of luxury and parties and fashion and a media-approved hot body” look.  After disappearing for a while from social media after a bit of a personal life crisis, she’s back with a new site to speak out against the untruths we’re told by each other.  Major kudos to her for helping remind us that what we see on the media is not 100% real life.

Remember to keep your comparing tools in check.  Don’t let someone else’s highlight reel prevent you from doing your great work.  Don’t let jealousy consume you and create unnecessary spite and negativity when you don’t know the whole story.  Keep in mind that social media, with all it’s potential benefits and allure, is still just media, and media can be spun to tell a single story.

 

So let this be a clarion call to all artists out there – don’t compare yourself to others!  You live a different life than they do, so never stop creating and as long as you’re making something you can be proud of, never give up.  Keep on creating for yourself.  Live your own life.  Whether or not you can become legendary is for shoe commercials and inspirational Pinterest boards.  What’s important is to remember that you’re already incomparable.  So stand on your own feet and let’s get to work.

Be Relentless and Go Create

As a professional creative (or an aspiring one), it’s every easy to let fear take hold of us and prevent us from reaching our true potential.  We worry if we’re not good enough, or if anyone will every buy our work.  We watch as other artists seem to effortlessly move ahead in our industries, and we can’t help but to look on from afar and say “I wish I had that sort of luck.”

In our industry, we talk about “skill-based” hiring, as usually what gets us hired is our track record.  It’s our portfolio or demo reel, or the work we’ve done for past clients that future clients stumble upon.  One of the first things I tell my students at the Academy of Art is that while I can teach you all there is to know about writing better resumes and cover letters, and how to present yourself professionally, I can’t help you if your work isn’t up to par with professionals in your field.

That said, we also are in a highly, highly, highly subjective industry.  Who’s to say who is a better illustrator, or a photographer?  What makes one piece a gold medal winner versus a silver medal?  While we can talk about things like color, composition, storytelling, subject, perspective, and all the other technical aspects of art, sometimes we’ll find a piece that, for some crazy-ass reason, we fall in love with.  How do you explain that?  Maybe the proportions are off, the use of color is unrefined and maybe garish, and it’s technically poorly executed, but we still love it?

It’s a big hairy contradiction, and what this makes for is an industry where we have to go out and sell our own interpretations, and visions, and our personal opinion on how this piece of art should be made.  Whether it’s a painting for a gallery, a website, or a storyboard frame, in the end, we’re selling a little bit of ourself.

And when our personal vision and voice and ideas might not correspond to the Gatekeeper’s, we can get rejected, dejected, and hurt.  Usually, it has nothing to do with you directly (it might just not fit what they had in their head), but it’s hard not to take a critique of your work personally when the whole point is you imbuing your essence and personality into that work.  So we get scared of sharing.  We let the fear of a potential rejection, or a potential negative comment paralyze us and keep us from letting our gifts loose into the world.

Fear is a great thing to keep us from dying, but (most of us) no longer need to fear getting eaten by a tiger or some sort of other predatory hunter.  This evolutionary throwback to the Stone Age hampers our ability to get back up and share our art and creativity and our voice with others.  One of my favorite authors, James Altucher, has gone bankrupt three times.  His wife divorced him, and he’s close numerous companies.  He’s lost millions.  Yet he still gets up every day, and keeps on at it.  He thought he was going to literally die at times, but he didn’t, and he kept on going.

At the end of the day, if you haven’t tried and failed, you’re not challenging yourself. If you’re not challenging yourself, how are you ever going to grow? Whether or not you actually are afraid, the key thing to remember is that you have to act even if you are afraid. Go past faking it until you make it, but fake it until you become it.

So if you haven’t seen Amy Cuddy’s TedTalk on power posing, I highly recommend you do so.  If anything, her inspiring story of faking it until she became it is worth the twenty minutes or so of your day.  Really, since our body language can shape the way we feel about ourselves, we need to make sure that we’re utilizing any of the tools out there (like power posing) to help us conquer our fear and really push forward.

It can be terrifying to try and make something and share it out with the world.  We often assign our value as a person to the number of likes or shares, or favorites we get on our social media posts.  While that’s all good and fine, we really need to learn how to trust in ourselves, to believe we have something valuable to share with the world and to really go out there and make good work.

Whether or not you believe it, you have to act “As If.”  Act as if you weren’t afraid, or as if you were already recognized as a world class artist.  Act as if you knew that your work was good and that there are people out there who want what you create.  Act as if you were an industry professional.  Act as if your art was on the cover of a famous magazine or website.  Act as if you are world class – because you are.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of the scared student, or the unconfident hobbyist, or the sad creator who creates but never shows anyone their work.  It’s easy because we fear rejection – and as a creative, we’ll all get rejected as some point.  But I challenge you to be relentless.  To pledge to yourself that you won’t give up, that you’ll be unstoppable, that you won’t let rejection get you down.  That you’ll take your hits and keep going.  That you’ll dedicate your life to your craft, and come to terms with the fact that everyone faces rejection – it’s the super successful who keep picking themselves up again and again and never giving up on going after their dream.

There are concept artists that have been rejected from their dream company 16 times to finally get an offer letter on their 17th application.  There are illustrators who couldn’t find work and took day jobs at copy centers for years to completely revamp their portfolio and come back and become the next hottest thing.

Every professional artist I’ve known has dealt with rejection at some point, but they’ve all worked through it.  You see, it’s how we handle that rejection – whether we realize it’s a part of life and take it as a learning experience or we let it damage our self esteem and take it personally – that will define our careers.

So please, join with me and pledge that you won’t let fear stop you from creating.  Be relentless and make something today.

Don’t Forget to Nourish Your Creative Soul

I read this story in Tim Ferriss’ “The Four Hour Workweek,” and it’s a great parable about being happy in life.  I’ve got more thoughts, but if you aren’t familiar with the story, read it first here:

An American consultant was at a pier in a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow-fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied only a little while.

The consultant then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The fisherman said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked the Mexican how he spent the rest of his time.

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American consultant scoffed, “I am business consultant and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and, with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution.

“You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American consultant replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then, senor?” asked the fisherman.

The consultant laughed, and said, “That’s the best part! When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public. You’ll become very rich, you would make millions!”

“Millions, senor?” replied the Mexican. “Then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

Great story, right?  Well, it’s a nice reminder to basically enjoy life while you’re living it – but if you’re like me when I was in school, it seems like a load of BS.

When I was going through art school, I was taking four studio classes plus working twenty hours a week at my retail job.  I was sleeping between 3-5 hours a night on weekdays and maaaaybe get 7 hours or so on weekends.  It was exhausting juggling a crazy amount of classes, projects, work, plus outside projects I would try and take on.  Add that to financial instability (hello weeks of P+B sandwiches and instant ramen*!) and I’d say it’s safe to say that I didn’t really have time to smell the roses, let alone play guitar and sip wine.

That said, even when you’re in the thick of it and working your ass off to graduate, or to revise that portfolio, or finish that new project, keep in mind that you do need to take time for yourself.

When art becomes your job, you’ll find that there may be times when you don’t even want to make art.  Often times, this is due to when you haven’t been nourishing your creative soul.

Think back to why you started pursuing art in the first place?  Why do you create?  If you don’t take time to work on art that is purely personal – that is for YOU and not a client – it’s easy to burn yourself out.  If I don’t paint for myself for a few weeks, I start getting easily irritable, and grumpy, and I generally hate life.  Once I carve out some time to prioritize painting something purely for myself, it’s surprising how much calmer I immediately become.

Really, if our goal in life is to just make art and live life, it’s important to give yourself tastes of your ideal life now, so you remember what it is you’re fighting for.  And while I obviously would love to help you get a job in the arts – it might not be right for everyone.  There’s nothing wrong with being an artist who doesn’t do it for a living, so make sure you have your priorities straight and that you’re hustling for the right reasons.

*Ramen pro-tip – get a shitload of frozen veggies, and just throw them into the pot when you cook your ramen.  It makes it much better, and doesn’t cost a lot more.  Also, a bit of sesame oil goes a long way, as does sriracha if you’re into the spicy thing like we are. Variety is the spice of life!

Quit Being Jealous – Remember The Volcanic Island

Most people don’t want to admit it (or maybe no one wants to, but does anyway), but at some point in your life as an artist, you will get insanely jealous of another artist.

Hopefully that comes earlier when you’re just some no-name art school kid, but realistically if you have the ambition and drive to succeed in this crazy field, you’re going to feel it all the way through your career.

There’s always going to be someone smarter/more successful/more famous, whatever.  If you just had a solo show, someone else had a sold-out solo show.  Get a new studio job?  Someone else has a higher-paying one, or is your supervisor.  Sell a painting for $10,000?  Someone probably sold one for $20,000.  I’ll get it out of the way now: the big take-home for the day is: Think of an island and get over it.

The reason why you should just acknowledge your envy and then move on is that really, I have yet to find someone undeserving of their success, and you can’t really blame someone for working really really hard.

“But Rick,” you might say, “I work really really hard too, but they got lucky.”  Sure, keep on making excuses.  Maybe they’re really attractive, or maybe they have rich parents, or maybe (insert reason why they’re successful and you aren’t).

But the thing is that the reality of things are that the grass is always greener, and often you’ll have no idea of what that artist went through to achieve their success.

See some artist explode “overnight” with solo shows and magazine features?  They might have come out of nowhere for you, but for people paying attention, they’ve been hustling for YEARS before they managed to reach the acclaim they have now.

See someone selling more than you at a convention (this is embarrassingly exactly what inspired me to write this)?  It might seem like they’re just lucky, but maybe they’ve built a fan base over THE PAST 10 YEARS travelling all over the country to get to the point that people come looking for their booth.  Was I jealous of their sales?  Definitely, but I also didn’t invest years and years of time creating and hustling and building a brand, and also the monetary investment of trying conventions that didn’t work out, or traveling to shows that were poorly organized, etc., etc. etc.

While I was feeling all crappy about my own slower sales, I then realized that I was still selling a lot more than some other vendors, so I should probably shut up and feel grateful that people were buying from me at all.

The point is that often we’ll look to another artist and only see the tropical island – lush with plenty of amazing animals and trees and sexy people running around wearing very little.  However, we don’t think about the bajillion of years that it took to form the island or the mass of rock that supports the island.

You see, we often don’t think of what’s under the water of a tropical island.  It’s not some floating patch of dirt that just hangs out in the same place for our easy access.  It’s actually anchored to a gigantic land mass that is completely submerged that’s formed from underwater volcanoes slowly spitting up hot lava and cools and builds upon itself until it breaches the water.*

An art career is just like a volcanic island – it takes time and lots and lots of energy to build up something magnificent that people can enjoy.  Believe me, I was an impatient as anyone to jumpstart my art career while I was in art school.  I’m still building up mine now.  But I stress much less about the timeline nowadays.  I’ve come to realize that nothing but hard work and time is going to build up my own art island and that I have my entire life to do so.

Art is all about the long game.  Like I always say, if you’re not in it for the long haul, you might as well keep it as a hobby and focus your energy on something else.  You should be focusing on doing something you love, and if art doesn’t get you juiced up enough to devote your life to it, you should probably focus on finding something that does inspire you that much.

So the next time you feel the ugly green demon of jealousy spring up from within you, remember the volcanic island metaphor and remember that your time too shall come.  Take a deep breath, congratulate the artist, and then try to deconstruct their blueprint to success and learn from it.

*Technically there are six different ways an island can form (so says National Geographic), but for argument’s sake let’s focus on the ones that are made from underwater volcanoes.

 

 

The Number One Tip to Get A Job in the Art Industry

If, like me, you graduated (or will be graduating soon..it’s that time of year) from art school with a metric crapton of student loans, you’re probably concerned about getting a job.  Whether it’s in the animation industry, or games, or whatever, you’re probably getting your portfolios all ready and your cover letters written and hoping you get picked up at your school’s portfolio night, or whatever (assuming your school even has an industry event).

However, the single most important thing I could ever stress upon any of my students is this single tip.

Always look at yourself from the company’s eyes.

There, that’s it, now go and get a job. (Drops mic).

Just kidding, dropping the mic makes a loud noise and it’s pretty rude.

Seriously (all bad jokes aside), most people forget that companies have no idea who you are.  They don’t have the intimate knowledge that you have about yourself.

If you’re looking to hire someone for a concept art position, and you see a portfolio with 9 awesome pieces and 1 sorta mediocre one, what would you think about the artist?  If you’re looking at it from an art student perspective, you might think “Well, that artist probably just had a bad day, or ran out of time and only had 9 good pieces to put in their portfolio.”  Sure, we’d all like to be given the benefit of the doubt, but do you know what an art director thinks?

“Hmm, this kid has potential, but if they can’t pull of 10 awesome pieces, maybe they have crap time management.  Or maybe they’re too slow to do production work.  Or maybe the 9 were a fluke and really they’re gonna be giving me all mediocre stuff like that one piece in the back.  Eh,time to move on.”

The sole concept of business is that your employees have to make you more money than you pay them.  It’s a very simple idea, but one that, as employees, most of us forget.  If you create $10/hour of value for the company but your salary is $20/hour, every hour they employ you, they’re going to be losing $10.  This leads to the company eventually shutting down and you being out of a job.  Thus, art directors and other hiring managers need to make sure that their art team has the speed, skills, and ability to maximize profits.  If profits are maximized, the studio stays alive and you get paid.  If the person doing the hiring isn’t 100% confident that you can make money, you’re not going to even get an interview.

Lesson: having a portfolio that is strong all the way through is super key.  Also important is making sure that your portfolio fits the studio’s style.  You should actively be creating portfolios that show that you can produce work in the style that the studio needs you to produce.

Does that mean that you need to have a different portfolio for Dreamworks than you do for Blizzard than you do for Cartoon Network?

YES.

Is that a ridiculous amount of work?  I never said it wasn’t.  But the key is that you need to tailor EVERYTHING to whatever company you’re applying for if you really want to maximize your job search.  From your resume to your cover letter to your portfolio to what you wear on your interview, you should be crafting what the company is going to think about you by making it was easy as possible for you to fit in with the company.  Remember, as a company, it’s easier to find someone who can already do the job the way they want it done, rather than have someone talented who they have to train.

If you want to work a studio that has realistic and terrifying monsters, a company culture that is super relaxed, makes MMORPGs, and is looking for a concept artist, you should be shaping your application to show the company that you really do fit in.

Your resume should feature creature design or horror work that you’ve done.  It should focus on all your concept art work, and if you don’t have any, it should focus on anything that would highlight the skills a concept artist needs (hint: you can find things like this on the job descriptions).  Your cover letter should talk about your experience playing their past games (haven’t played, you should start now), and show that your familiar with their work and the world they’ve built in past MMORPGs.  Maybe you’ve even researched the leadership team at the studio as well as the recruiter.  You should dress casually for the interview – jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt with a character from their past game, or from a horror film that’s inspired them (you know this because you’ve read interviews with the lead artists there).  Finally, your portfolio is filled with other nightmarish creatures that are rendered in the same style as the studio’s past work, but has your own unique design sense and flare of imagination.

It’s one thing to say that you’d be a good fit.  It’s a whole other level when you show them that you’d be a good fit.

You’re giving them everything they could want in a possible hire – from your personality to your portfolio, you are figuring out exactly who they want and are showing them that you can be that person.

I know this is a lot to handle, especially as you’re dealing with finals, getting ready for the commencement ceremony, and doing all that other stuff in your life.  However, if you keep the company’s perspective in mind, you’ll find yourself being more and more successful in business, which means getting that dream job quicker.

Good luck and congratulations on making it through.  Now the real game begins.

Make the World a Better Place By Being Happier

Many times we wait for permission from some authority figure to tell us that we’re good to go to start a project, or work towards our dreams. In reality, we’re really looking for validation. While I will be the first to admit that validation makes me feel all awesome inside and reminds me that my work matters,  and that external approval is really what we’re all after most of the time, it doesn’t mean that it is necessary.

It is not necessary because no matter what your dreams are- whether they are to rule the universe or to just live a quiet, simply life – your dreams matter. They matter because they are your dreams. Whether you want to be a baker or a banker, a civil engineer or construction worker, an artist or an astronaut, your dreams are important. While you might be thinking that there are no objective reason why you should follow your dream, I say that there is. That reason is that you’ll be happier.

By being happier, you’ll make the world a better place. Seriously.  I will thank you for it.

If you are grumpy and hating your work, you’ll be a big downer for other around you. No one likes the constant pessimist/whiner/griper. While I acknowledge the benefits of venting and being allowed to complain (which we all should at times), dwelling on what is not working is like dragging a raincloud around with you that gets water on the floor and makes people’s socks mushy – not fun at all, and people will ask you to leave. By following your dreams, you’ll be much happier and that will pass on to the rest of the world.

If you are happy and totally crazy in love with what you do, it will show, and it will affect how you do your work. If you love to paint zombies, your zombie paintings are going to be much more awesome than if you painted flowers or puppies. Your work will appeal to other zombie fans and they will be happier because of it. If they are happier, they’ll spread the happiness through their work, and so on and so on. Happiness is contagious, so unleash the happiness plague by doing the work you love.

Don’t wait for others to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. If you have something to contribute to the world, then do it. If your heart says make a zine, then make one. If your heart says go into corporate law, then start studying for the LSAT. If your heart says you should travel to Australia to nurse sick wombats back to health, start shopping for plane tickets (and please send me your photos – I love wombats). Know that your dreams matter, put aside all that bragging and looking for validation, and go out and make the world a happier place.

Learning Is Your Friend

There is nothing wrong with being ignorant.

Let me repeat that: there is nothing wrong with being ignorant. Whether you’re ignorant about the difference between a 401k and a Roth IRA or why they are important, or whether you’re ignorant about what the big psychological hurdle standing in your way of greatness is, it’s okay.  Maybe you don’t know anything about color theory, or who Camille Rose Garcia, or how how to screen print, it’s alright.
I don’t know about you, but often it feels like self-help books, or online courses, or going back to school when you’re forty (or thirty, or twenty five, or anytime you’re not 18) is some sort of character flaw. Seemingly, society’s rationale is that you were too dumb/poor/incompetent/drugged up/whatever to learn whatever it is you were supposed to learn the first time.
This rationale is one of the biggest lies that you can listen to. Seriously, this line of thinking will prevent you from learning and growing and really taking kick-ass control of your life.
Think about it this way: You grow up being told what to learn. You get tested on it, you learn it (short term, long term, whatever to pass), and then move on to new stuff. You graduate high school. College (if any) ends up being a big experimentation of you finding what you want to learn, but there’s still a structure that helps feed you into different classes. There are prereqs, degree programs, a bunch of stuff that basically tells you what to learn. While you’re busy trying to figure out which one of these is the best for you, you only have so much time and so much money to figure something out. So you rush, and panic, and maybe you don’t get to try everything. You’re too busy learning about astrophysics to learn how to market yourself and network, or maybe you’re learning how to network but you don’t have the time to learn how to replace your car engine or play the trumpet. Just because you learned a bunch of stuff doesn’t mean you learned the stuff that you need or want to have learned.
Our point is that there is nothing wrong with being ignorant. We simply do not have the time to learn everything all at once, so logically there is going to be tons of stuff in our adult lives that we don’t know very much about. However, there is something we can do about that.
I learned from Ramit Sethi that one needs to invest in oneself.  I developed Lift Off after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years learning about painting, art, business, etc. etc .etc.  Even now, I easily spend thousands of dollars a year on books, courses, and other ways of improving myself.  And I’m not saying this to brag, but because I’ve grown exponentially since I first put myself through school.  But it’s not just me, you’ll find that basically every successful person constantly is investing in themselves. Some might try and hide the fact so they look “cooler,” but regardless, successful people aren’t afraid of doing what it takes to learn what they need to. Granted, you don’t have to drop thousands of dollars, but you do have to take a lesson away from this – you need to invest in yourself.
Go to the self-help section in the library if you’re feeling stuck in your art. Check out a book on finances if you have no idea how to deal with your money. Watch some online tutorials on how to build a silkscreen exposure unit or how to change your own oil. Take a class on archery, or on any topic that interests you at your local city college. Some classes are even free!
You see, if you’re ignorant about something, educate yourself. In reality, we think that people at the top of their game will look down on us for trying to learn more and make ourselves stronger. The people who look down on us for reading self-help books when we know we have a problem or for spending hours reading coursework that will help us market ourselves better are really just envious and scared. They probably don’t even know it, but deep down the reason why they feel the need to be all high-and-mighty is that they are afraid that you’re going to surpass them.
In the end, who is the bigger fool? Someone with a problem who just ignores it and compounds the issue because they think they’re above getting help, or someone with a problem who learns about it and figures out the way to overcome that problem?  Don’t let fear of what others think hold you back from learning and growing.  Get out there and learn something new!
If you enjoyed this, do me a favor and leave me a comment.  If you had an extra five hours a week, what would you want to learn?  What would you want help with?

Happy 2014 everyone!

So as we close out 2013, I just wanted to wish everyone a Happy New Year (go 2014!).  Also, I should remind you all that there are still seats left in our upcoming January classes.

Anyway, if you’re the type to go about making New Years resolutions, I just wanted to encourage all of you to make them realistic and easy.  Big, lofty, super-high goals (going from painting once a month to every day, going from making jewelry as a side hobby to making $60k in three months), while noble, are the kind that most easily fall through.  Unless your plan is super detailed and well-prepared and organized, these are the types of goals that leave you a)feeling defeated, b)super burned-out if you do make them and/or c)all of the above.

If you keep your resolutions manageable and bite-sized, you’re more likely to follow through.  Remember, often times KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid, not the rock band) is better advice than we’d like to think.

If you want to paint every day, resolve to make a single paint mark on your surface instead.

If you want to start a business, resolve to create a business plan.

If you want a solo show, resolve to research potential galleries you’d want to show in.

If you want to write three novels, resolve to write a word a day.

By taking your resolutions and making them digestible, what you’ll find is that you can always go above and beyond.  If you’re up for it, write a sentence instead of just one word.  Paint a whole branch rather than make a single mark.  Quests of  a lifetime start with a single step, of even a minute of looking at a map.  Pace yourself, as art is a marathon, not a sprint.

So what moves are you going to make in 2014 to realize your dreams?