This is the transcript for the podcast episode Why Freelance Artists Fail :: ArtCast #72To listen to the podcast click here.
Chris: Chris Oatley’s Artcast, episode 72 – Why freelance artists fail with special guest Sean Hodge, editor for FreelanceSwitch.com and TutsPlus.com. Part 2!
Hello my friends, and welcome to another episode of Chris Oatley’s Artcast, the show that goes inside the hearts and minds of successful professional artists. I’m Chris Oatley! I was a visual development artist at Disney until I quit and started my own online art school – The Oatley Academy of Concept Art & Illustration. You can find more art instruction, resources, and career advice from some of the most inspiring voices in animation, games, comics, and new media at ChrisOatley.com. That’s ChrisOatley.com.
Even the most successful freelance artists will tell you that bad clients and boring gigs are common roadblocks to a fulfilling creative career. The popular blog knows as Clients From Hell posts a new true and hilarious freelance horror story almost every day. Even the legendary Drew Struzan struggled with the client side of his now famous career. In the recent documentary about his life, he told a story that was actually painful for me to hear. But bad clients are so common and the stories so egregious that it’s easy for artists to remain blind to a hard truth, that we the illustrators, are often part of the problem. I’ve worked with many freelance illustrators and designers over the course of my career and I’ve noticed three common problems that sabotage freelance success. In this second half of our two-part interview, freelancing expert Sean Hodge shares insight into how you can avoid these common problems and attract better clients with better business practices.
So let’s talk about why freelance artists fail and the first question that I have for you Sean is really not a question, it’s more of an idea and I just want to get your thoughts on it. But I hear from frustrated freelance illustrators all the time and they’re frustrated often because they can’t get the gigs that they want, the clients that they want, and occasionally I have time to click their link and see their portfolio, and all too often what I find is a portfolio full of to put it bluntly the microwaved leftovers of an illustrator or a style that is currently in vogue. Do you find this to be true and if so, what are your thoughts?
Sean: Yeah, well first of all, I think that’s a hilarious metaphor. I think it’s particularly true for illustrators more so than other professions and I’ll give some reasons why. Graphic designers typically live in this fear of microwave leftovers. I mean we’re all sharing, and we’re all pursuing trends and we all have a feel for different trends that happened in the last two years or what fits a certain client look. We kind of have to live in the skin of other design work whereas it doesn’t mean that you don’t have some level of voice because certainly a lot of your personality that goes into it and can go into it but if you were put on Google’s team as a designer, you would adjust to their voice. I mean that’s part of being a designer, a graphic designer. Whereas an illustrator, people approach illustrators for their style and vision, so if you’re just trying to be just like some other illustrator, like you’re saying microwave leftover of what they’ve created, you’re not developing that unique thing that is you. I mean you haven’t gone deep enough into that hole of developing your own style. But as a student, you should copy other people, I mean outright copy, just until you can draw in that style. And then do it a million times, just do that and then develop that nuance that feels like it’s you but in that style and then eventually try to pull it together man, like pull these threads and what does that thread create plus you, plus what interests you? And that’s where you come up with something that’s interesting you know, and that’s why people will search you out. And at the same time, as you’re developing your business savvy, it doesn’t mean you don’t pay attention to trends, I mean ideally your style and what you do, it meets with what the market’s looking for, you know? So you kind of have to pay some attention.
Chris: Oftentimes I’ll get these portfolios that are torture, bleeding from the eyballs, and I’m going – maybe there’s an industry for that, but I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve never seen that industry. And maybe that’s just because I don’t hang out in places where people are into that kind of thing but it is possible to be so doing your own thing that it’s not relevant to anybody, or it’s not relevant to enough people to be able to make a living.
Sean: Yeah, don’t go off on a desert island and just make your thing and then expect it to be relevant in the marketplace a year later. Yeah, there’s that line between commercial appeal and companies, what they’re looking for, and then what you can produce and that line where you’re unique but you’re also working a certain vein and there’s a certain demographic you’re looking to hit, a certain type of work. So if you really want to work at Disney, then you’ve really got to produce stuff that’s in line with that.
Chris: During the renaissance, we had the master apprentice model for art education and you as the apprentice would go work under the master craftsman, and at some point you would attempt a masterpiece. And then, that masterpiece would be evaluated by the guild of master craftsman and if you won their approval, they would allow you to join the guild of master craftsman and then you got to go set up your own shop and have your own apprentices and so on. There’s a lot to like about this model and although I’m sure it was full of frustration for the apprentices and the master craftsman, anyone who’s been to graduate school knows what it’s like to try and convince a group of traditionally minded master craftsman of the validity of your own new ideas. But what I like about this model is that there’s a clean break, a right of passage, a point at which you are birthed into the world of creative professionalism. Nowadays, I think there’s a huge problem in that getting your career started is in a tbone collision with study and creative growth. Now we should always continue to grow and we should always continue to study, but when you’re in what should be sort of this cocoon phase, the student phase, the art school phase whether you’re actually in art school or not, it’s hard to get good enough to be professional when you’re already worrying so much about being professional, and you’re already worrying…you shouldn’t worry about your portfolio freshman year, do you know what I mean?
Sean: Oh yeah, definitely. That’s another issue, not worrying about your portfolio freshman year but this idea of this master apprentice…my dad’s a machinist, that’s part impartial to the trade, it’s changed because it’s gone digital and everything. But for the hundred years of manufacturing and C&C machines out there, and lays, and drill presses, and mills and all that – I mean, that’s how you learn. You did a couple years of trade school and then you were taken on as an apprentice, and that’s how you operated for two years until you were considered a…I don’t know what the term is but maybe a master machinist or something like those terms. But yeah, most professions operate that way, and they do to an extent I’m sure once you came on at Disney, there was like a period…I’m guessing, I’m sure there was a period where you were kind of an apprentice. For me and blogging, it was kind of like that. I was running sites but running them with Calista, the main guy behind Envato, being able to reach out to him and ask questions and really doing things his way for the first few years before I started doing things my way. And then we’ve grown our own team that’s like that and now we have kind of a team way plus everyone’s got their own experience to bring. How can you emulate that now I think is the big question because it’s not necessarily required. Something like the program that you offer is awesome, I mean you have the experience, you have done it, you have walked that path, and people can come on and get all that experience from you. And it’s not the same as being in your studio but it’s the closest you can get right now by doing it over the internet, by whatever you offer on all those videos or…