How long did it take you to learn the “Happy Birthday” song?
…and how long would it take you to learn to sing a pitch-perfect, note-for-note, Broadway power ballad?
Because style takes time.
…and how many wrong notes would you produce in private before you gained the confidence to perform live?
Process and performance are different things.
Let’s pretend you have some real potential. Would you start chain smoking and take a day job in a coal mine to pay the bills?
Of course not.
You gotta take care of your moneymaker.
And when you’re a big hit on Broadway with crossover success in movies and pop music…
…did you make it without a mentor?
A good mentor is essential.
We can easily see the absurdity in the image of an aspiring Broadway star who expects instant results, performs without practice, neglects their throat and lungs and thinks they’ll somehow succeed without expert perspectives.
But it’s a lot harder to see – in ourselves – the illustrator who expects instant results, publishes without practice, neglects their body and brain and thinks they’ll somehow succeed without expert perspectives.
Today, Lauren Panepinto (Creative Director for the Sci-Fi/ Fantasy publisher Orbit Books) and Marc Scheff (Games-Illustrator-turned-Fine-Artist) join me to share 4 Keys To A Long And Healthy Illustration Career…
Watch The Lesson:
*The following is a transcript of the full lesson – with illustrations!
Here you’ll also find links to the artists and resources referenced in the lesson…
Hello, my friends and welcome to another episode of The ArtCast by The Oatley Academy! I’m Chris Oatley – I’m an Illustrator and Visual Development Artist currently working for Disney.
…and here at ChrisOatley.com, I help Artists create dream careers in the Animation Industry.
…and it is awesome.
If you’re interested in working with us to develop a sustainable, efficient and effective social media strategy, that aligns with your personal values, fits your specific career goals and helps you rise above the chaos and competition, join our interest list!
I’ll follow-up via email in a weeks with more information about the course (the curriculum, schedule, payment plans, etc.) and I’ll share all the details about how to join!
Now, grab a pen because you’ll definitely want to take notes on today’s lesson: 4 Keys To A Long And Healthy Illustration Career!
KEY #1: Style Takes Time
Every successful, Professional Artist is either a Peacock or a Chameleon.
(Some Professional Artists can actually switch back and forth.)
Most Illustrators, some Concept Artists and some Animation VisDev Artists are Peacocks. They build successful careers with a unique, personal and distinctive visual style.
Most Animation VisDev Artists, most Concept Artists and some Illustrators are Chameleons who work in project-specific styles inspired by the story they’re telling.
Whether you get hired for your personal style or to help develop a project-specific style, it takes time.
[Lauren] People freak out about finding their style.
They know they’re supposed to have a style. They hear everyone saying: “You have to be unique you have to be the person that does that thing the only way that you know how to do.”
…and they freak out because they think: “I don’t know what my style is and maybe it’s like this and maybe it’s like this?!”
I’ve never seen the level of anxiety…
Just… Just make work.
[Marc] You don’t wait until “The Style” finds you and then make work. You know, Picasso said, ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’
[Chris] My good friend Zi Yan – He answers the style question with a parable.
Zi says: A student comes to a mentor…
The student says: “Mentor, can you please help me find my voice?”
The mentor says: “You’re speaking, aren’t you?”
The student says: “Yes.”
The mentor says: “Now go find something to say.”
[Chris] …and I’ll add to this a story about a friend of mine who had a child – a toddler. We went to dinner and there was a little play area for the kids. All of a sudden we hear their child screaming – the most shrill, intense scream – and it doesn’t stop. It just keeps going and going and going…
[Lauren] That’s alarming.
[Chris] Just “AAAAYH! AAAAYH!” over and over.
We all look up and see the child standing by himself in the play area. But there’s nothing wrong. No altercation. Nothing. He’s just standing there with clenched fists, screaming.
The child’s mom then explains that the baby has discovered…
And last week it was [motor sound] “BRRRR!” week. And it was “BRRRR! BRRRR! BRRRR!” all week long.
…and now – congratulations to me – it’s scream week.
I saw them a couple months later – and the child was experimenting with an entirely different sound.
I realized: This is what Illustrators and Animation Artists to need to understand.
Finding your style is often just: “BRRRR! BRRRR!”
It’s like trying to hear your own voice and figure out all the different sounds you can make.
If you take time to really listen to yourself – to your own voice – You can find it by trying and discover it by doing. Move forward – make work – and your style will begin to reveal itself.
[Lauren] But people don’t let themselves play. They’re so determined that every piece they start is going to be a portfolio piece. They don’t play.
[Chris] Exactly. Yeah. That’s just bonkers.
[Lauren] So many times we’ve looked at people’s portfolios, and we’ve said: “I see you’re trying to do all this other stuff. But *this* thing, *this* is really cool. Have you ever tried doing *this* thing?”
…and she had these – she was doing these black and white pen and ink Illustrations.
[Marc] Just in between painting sessions. Just screwin’ around.
[Lauren] Just to decompress. But everyone who came around was like: “Whatever.” (About the painting.) “…but [these pen and ink pieces are] great! You should be doing *this!*”
…and she talks about going through this – almost a grieving process.
[Marc] We all go back to the IMC dorm where everyone’s staying and I walk in and she’s sitting there in a chair…
[Lauren] Like somebody died.
[Marc] …and I ask: “What’s going on?”
She said something like: “I’m busting my ass on this painting and everyone’s coming by and they don’t even notice it – and they’re like: ‘Oh look at these ink drawings.'”
And so I asked: “Dooo you thiiink maybeee you should juuust… …do this?”
…and she’s like: “Okay, okay. I’ll think about it.”
…and now she’s making these beautiful…
[Lauren] Now that’s what she does.
[Marc] And she’s committed to it.
[Chris] And it’s not like she can’t ever try oil painting again…
[Lauren] It’s not like we choose something and then we’re stuck with it for all time.
[Marc] It’s not a future dystopia, where it’s like: “You are an ink person! Go to the ink people! Forever you will only eat ink and breathe ink!”
[Lauren] It’s true that people get really freaked out. I’ve [suggested a particular focus] to people and they burst into tears in the middle of a portfolio review because they think: “No that’s not me! That’s not what I want to do!”
…and I think: “Okay, well, that’s fine. You can paint like a third-rate Donato for the next ten years, but you could be getting work doing this while you figure it out.”
People get so wrapped up in their vision of their own identity: I am this kind of Artist, or I am this kind of person. I was talking to an artist up at IMC and they were talking about how they would never be the kind of person that does personal projects. They only want do commissions. They don’t want to do any personal projects.
…and I was like: “Wow, okay. Well that’s opposite of how most people feel but, okay. But why? Have you ever done a personal project?”
“No that’s just not who I am.”
“How do you know?”
[Marc] I’ve seen it happen over and over again where it’s like: “I appreciate you trying this here, but scrap it. Because this thing – this other thing – that you keep showing up with…”
[Lauren] Is great.
[Marc] “…is really where your heart is. So why don’t you try exploring it?”
How many people listening to this really wanted to be (I’m raising my hand) “that” kind of painter, gotten halfway to being good at it and realized: “I don’t want to be “that” kind of painter. I actually want to paint this other way. That’s not what’s coming out of me.”
[Chris] Yeah. Something I’ve been saying to my students a lot lately has been: “Try on different outfits.”
They completely buy-in prior to even having tried it on for size. It’s like window shopping for wedding dresses and then you go and you spend $5,000 on a dress before you’ve even tried it on.
[Lauren] It’s almost like absorbing people’s superpowers…
Try and do a piece of your own in the style of Escher. Try and do a piece of your own in the style of Mucha. It’s ok if your influences show. They will show and they should show. (But people stop at that point.)
We teach people to career stalk.
You should have for 5 or 10 Artists that – you think you want their career. (It changes every couple of years. Everybody coming out of school right now looks like Victo Ngai. A couple years ago it was Sam Weber.)
You should not just look at their website wistfully and wish that you could be as good as them.
Go back and look at their old art. See how they got there. See what their clients said they got. Did they work in-house?
A lot of people don’t know that Sam Weber worked for The New York Times and was pretty much a black-and-white/ pen-and-ink Illustrator.
Knowing that is critical to bridging that gap between where you are and where you want to be.
So we teach people to (politely) career stalk. (Don’t actually stalk them.)
Do your research. Pretend that these are your mentors – even if they don’t know – because cause they are. Don’t just look at the finished product. Figure out how they got there.
The Internet is an amazing place for that. Go back far enough in someone’s Facebook timeline and you can see a whole career.
KEY #2: Separate Process And Performance
Social Media almost forces Artists to conflate Process and Performance.
Process (which often includes practice) is, primarily, private.
Performance is, primarily, for the public…
[Chris] Everybody at Disney has Frank and Ollie stories and though most of the people at Disney now didn’t know Frank and Ollie – but the stories are still circulating.
I can’t remember who told me this story. …or if the person who told me the story is even the protagonist of the story. I don’t remember.
But there’s this Storyboard Artist who is new and he has a pitch coming up. …and the Story Artist wants to impress Ollie Johnston who will be reviewing the Storyboards.
…and so he works night and day, making the most perfect, beautiful Story Sketches you’ve ever seen.
He’s shading everything, putting some color on there, drawing and redrawing and cleaning-up and he goes in and does the pitch.
Then Ollie stands up to share his opinion…