This is part 4 of a 6-part series designed to help you decide which type of personal project you want to pursue and how you might make money from it when you do.
“Projects are the new résumés.”
…but the prize of a successful Showcase project is a steady stream of better gigs.
Showcase projects are about showing-off.
They’re audacious, unwieldy and exhausting because they must be worthy of the spotlight.
Above all else, your Showcase project must make one thing clear…
…that you are the best person for the job.
Pain now, paid later.
Shawna (whose work is featured at the top of this post) will share the three lessons she had to learn to make her most recent Showcase project shine…
Go Ninja, Go Ninja, GO!
Dave Rapoza‘s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles portrait series transcends fan art.
The idea is simple: ‘Fan Art Painted Like A Classical Masterpiece.’
…and it started small: Just two portraits of secondary characters. (Bebop and Rocksteady for those of you who are curious…)
Those first two portraits were very nice. They started a wave of increased attention and it wasn’t long before Dave realized he was going to have to paint The Turtles…
Maybe it was the sense of responsibility that comes with true geekery, but the quality of Dave’s work reached new heights once he directed his attention to the main characters.
Dave won the intended prize of a Showcase project – a steady stream of better gigs.
It also triggered a massive wave of attention that will last for years.
…maybe his entire career.
…but this project didn’t just catch on because the Turtles are popular.
There’s a LOT of TMNT fan art out there. Why didn’t any of those projects go viral?
Dave did LOTS of Showcase work before the TMNT portrait series. Why didn’t those blow up?
I think it was the pressure of his rapidly-growing audience, combined with his love of and respect for these characters that led to what I believe will last among their most definitive incarnations.
You can see Dave’s entire TMNT series and read more about the project here.
Lessons From Dave Rapoza’s TMNT Portrait Series:
- A series can exponentially increase your skills and your fan base.
- If your work doesn’t catch on, keep practicing.
- When your work catches on, keep practicing.
- Pay close attention to the audience you already have.
- Combine the familiar in new and surprising ways.
- Prints actually sell when they’re this amazing.
Look! Up In The Sky! It’s A Blur, It’s A Pain…
A convincing argument could be made that Robb Pratt’s animated Superman shorts are actually pure Geek-Out projects.
I even think Robb would agree.
He didn’t sleep for a year while making the fan-fic-tastic Superman Classic and then started the Bizarro sequel pretty soon after.
Yes, it was a labor of love. Yes, it’s a tribute to a classic character. There’s no doubt that Robb is a passionate fan through and through.
…but his animated Superman series isn’t just a Geek-Out, it’s a Showcase.
At the same time that Robb thought he was going to be laid off from an animation gig, he decided to make an animated short.
I haven’t asked him directly, but I’m sure he was at least subconsciously aware of the professional benefits of a remarkable project like this one.
Robb‘s snappy directing style, his character development, his elegant, traditional animation skills and his ability to bring fresh perspective to the familiar are all on bright display in these films.
I don’t know if this project has led directly to any of Robb’s recent gigs but Superman Classic is definitely a hit. Although he finished the film a couple years ago, it keeps bringing in fresh waves of attention.
…and the animation industry now knows what Robb Pratt The Director is capable of.
Read the Robb Pratt interview at Animated Views for more about Superman Classic and his upcoming Flash Gordon project.
Lessons From Superman Classic:
- Impending doom is inspirational.
- Your thirty-minute speed painting probably won’t ever get the attention that a focused, year-long project deserves.
- Some characters don’t need to be “re-imagined,” the audience needs to be reminded of their passion.
With Great Projects, Come Great Responsibility:
Now I’ll pass the mic to the effervescent Shawna Tenney and she’ll explain the evolution of her current Showcase project…
In the past, when I wanted to expand my portfolio with personal projects, I would ask my art rep.
Then I would illustrate the things she suggested, based on her knowledge of what kind of work was currently available.
The problem was, those weren’t really personal projects.
I was still working for someone else.
I was working for my agent, not for me.
I am now doing a personal project that is already successful.
“Brunhilda’s Backwards Day” is a children’s book that I wrote and am in the process of illustrating.
I plan on showing it to editors and art directors, but I am not solely relying on the publishing industry to determine whether the project is a success.
- This time, I’m not doing it just with the intent to get published.
- I took the time to learn the craft of writing, and thus have a much stronger story.
- I am sharing my process on my blog and getting great reactions from people around me.
- I am not relying on my past way of doing things to inform how I should do this project.
I am planning on publishing the book in ebook format whether or not a publisher chooses to publish the book. And if I don’t find a publisher, there are other avenues to get the book published in print form.
Here are some valuable lessons I have learned from my personal projects, past and present.
1. Take Responsibility for Your Design:
In the past, I thought that having a “style” meant that everything in my illustrations needed to look the same as they did in the illustration before.
Color, design, characters.
All the kids needed to look the same. All the bushes and trees needed to have the same sort of shape and the same type of leaves throughout all my paintings.
I was not taking any risks.
I was playing it safe.
In my current project, I decided to really push myself with the character design.
I worked hard to find the right look for my main characters by sketching and sketching until I found the right shapes.
…but when I got to the kid characters (who are a small part of the story), I just went into autopilot, and drew them the same way I have always drawn kids in the past.
I didn’t push any shapes, or give the characters any special features that would make them stand out.
I was in, “get it done fast, the client is waiting” mode.
I showed my drawings to my husband.
In the nicest way possible, he told me that it looked like a book I illustrated 8 years ago.
After fuming for a few minutes, I realized he was right.
I quickly changed things up, did a bunch more thumbnails and filled up pages of my sketchbook with character designs. The result was 100 times better in the end.
When working on your personal project, It’s important to get out of the mindset that “I am working for a client” and “things need to look the way clients have told you they need to look.”
Many clients and deadlines have squeezed the creativity out of me, and I need to leave that behind.
It is important to set goals and deadlines for yourself.
…but it is also important to remember that your passion project is going to take some time and patience if you’re going for the best results.
2. Take Responsibility for Your Project:
At one point, I decided that maybe writing and illustrating my own book would be the way to get the kind of jobs I wanted.
So wrote a quick story based off of an old drawing, worked up some sketches and made a dummy book. I asked for a couple critiques, but ignored most of them, believing that my story was great.
Then, excited that this was sure to be my “in”, I sent it off to my agent via express mail and eagerly awaited her enthusiastic reply.
What I got instead was a long letter explaining why most of the book was not working.
Discouraged, I put my story into a file and wrote myself off as a “bad writer.”
Why did this “project” fail?
I did not take the time to learn the art of writing picture books.
There is a very specific way to write picture books that is different than writing novels.
I just needed to take responsibility for my entire project and learn how to write a children’s book.
So I read books on writing. I joined local and online writing communities.
I threw away my first draft and completely rewrote the story. Then story started to work.
If you’re going to start a personal project, you have to take personal responsibility for every aspect.
3. Take Responsibility for Your Career:
Earlier, I told you a little bit about how I used to think my personal projects should be based on what my agent or other industry professionals said they should be.
I did end up with lots of jobs that brought in money but I was miserable.
Now when I am tempted to follow what is trendy, I make projects based on what I love to draw – and what makes me happy – instead.
It’s important to follow directions and do things to the liking of a client when you are working for a client.
But when it comes to personal projects, stop trying to work for other people!
Make the subject matter of your personal projects personal!
A note on critiques…
When you listen to portfolio critiques from industry professionals, know the difference between the format comments, versus subject matter comments.
Here’s an example of a format comment for a portfolio in the children’s book industry:
“It’s good to show the same character in more than one illustration to show you are able to draw the same character in different poses and with different emotions.”
Another format comment would be:
“It might be good to separate your watercolor illustrations from your digital illustrations.”
Here’s an example of a subject matter comment in the children’s book industry:
“You should put more animals wearing clothes in your portfolio.”
When you hear subject matter comments, I give you permission to ignore them.
You are the gatekeeper of your own destiny.
You decide what subject matter goes into your personal projects.
When it comes to personal projects, you can make your own personal choices, because your personal projects will ultimately shape your career.
…and why not make your career into something you will really enjoy?
A Final Word From Chris:
You’ll notice that her ‘Brunhilda’ work is the best work of her career.
The Showcase projects by Robb Pratt, Dave Rapoza and Shawna Tenney are all very professional.
…but they’re shareable because they were fueled by an intense passion that only a personal project can spark.
The result is a “WOW!” factor that both audiences and employers respond to.
…but they didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be passionate. Their passion was challenged, stretched and tested over countless hours of practice and failure.
If you’re trying to attract the attention of a big studio or better, higher-paying clients with your Showcase project, your passion is no guarantee.
…but if you lack the kind of passion, audacity, enthusiasm and bravery that these three artists display, your work might remain anonymous.
What are some other impressive Showcase projects you’ve seen?
Please share in the comments!
…and if you have questions for Shawna or me, we’ll be responding all week!
Next in this series: The Fan Base!