One of the most successful illustrators in the world recently published a blog post that contained what I consider to be philosophical poison.
From what I can tell, this artist means well.
When I met him in person he was very kind to me and very encouraging. He is widely respected within the field of illustration.
Personally, I respect his work, his talent, his many years of experience and his passion. …but sometimes he just says crazy stuff.
This isn’t the first time he has shared bad advice with thousands upon thousands of fans. This artist often makes sensational, illogical and thus: irresponsible statements.
In fact, there is an epidemic of good-intentioned but bad advice spreading across the Internet.
Some successful artists unwittingly lead young or inexperienced artists in intellectual circles, into creative dead-ends, off of philosophical cliffs and into emotional ravines. (FYI: That last one’s a real doozy.)
In this post I’ll provide you with a list of questions that you can use to test the creative advice you receive so you can hold onto what’s good and ignore the rest.
Great Artist = Great Teacher?
Many successful artists are not also good teachers. …and that’s okay!
Bad advice is everywhere: blog posts, books, podcasts, tutorials, DVDs, classrooms and convention panels. And the more successful the artist, the more widespread their advice, regardless of its authenticity.
Today, anyone with a blog or a Twitter account can become a thought leader but few are actually qualified. So don’t forget to turn your brain on when you read or listen to professional advice.
Many artists are not self-aware enough to understand why they are skilled or why they make the artistic choices they make.
Of those successful artists who do understand their own process, few possess the ability or patience necessary to clearly and accurately communicate that understanding.
For scientific proof of this concept read Blink by Malcom Gladwell. (Buy the book through this link and a percentage will go to support ChrisOatley.com)
It takes a gifted teacher to be artistically skilled, self-aware and able to communicate creative concepts in a way that is accessible and relevant to anyone listening or reading.
Many successful artists don’t know how to do this because many successful artists are not good teachers.
(Side Note: It is for each individual member of this community to decide if they want to listen to our advice. We certainly do our best to maintain the standards I express in this post. But we are all merely human.)
Some artists who are not skilled teachers wisely share their own processes and practices in a “This is what worked for me.” kind of way. That kind of insight can be very useful to us if we can figure out how to apply it to our own work. But that is our responsibility.
We should not expect every successful artist to also be a successful teacher. One does not have to be qualified to teach in order to share their own process and practices. However, in those cases we must take the artist at his or her word, understanding that his or her processes and practices won’t apply to all of us.
The “Advice Authenticity” Test:
1.) Ask “Why?”
If you can’t understand (or at least sense) the “Why?” behind the advice, it might be bogus.
If the artist is there in person, ask them “Why?.” If you’re worried about being perceived as stubborn or skeptical, ask this way: “Thank you so much for sharing your insights. I’m hearing you but I don’t think I fully understand. Why exactly do you believe this?”
They will probably be delighted and inspired that you want to know more but if they can’t or won’t answer you clearly, just be polite, thank them and forget it. If they talk down to you or act indignant, warn your friends.
2.) Ask “How?”
Do they speak in generalities? If so, you either have to ask them to be more specific or you’ll just run in circles trying to follow the ambiguous advice.
EXAMPLE: “You just want to try to get the perspective right.” or “Work on getting more of a sense of storytelling into your work.” or “You need to network.”
If you receive frustratingly general advice like this you can ask them to give you one specific next step.
You can ask: “Okay, I’ll make a note to focus on that. But before I go, what do you think is the one thing, the one next step, I should do to work on that?”
If they can’t give you one clear action to take, bail out.
3.) Ask For Historical Proof.
Has this kind of advice been true for centuries?
Has it worked for many artists over and over for generations?
Ask the artist sharing the advice for historical examples. If the artist is not available, then try to find some historical examples on your own.
If there are no historical examples to be found, the advice is probably B.S. The artist sharing the advice is irresponsible and doesn’t respect your intelligence. Warn your friends.
EXAMPLE: A lot of “inspirational” content fails to pass the historical proof test. Some artists blurt out statements that seem inspiring on the surface but they break down under scrutiny. These kinds of statements are illogical, shallow and unrealistic.
Don’t trust any advisor who acts like a superhero or tells you that you can become one. Do trust advisors who live in reality and provide realistic, balanced, grounded advice.
4.) Does The Advice Apply To You?
Some advice might be true in essence but what if you can’t figure out how to apply it to your own work?
EXAMPLE: I recently heard from an aspiring Story Artist (we’ll call him Dwight) who is being mentored by a Story Artist at one of the big animation studios. Studio Guy gave Dwight some advice that put Dwight in a frustrating situation.
Studio Guy said something like “You shouldn’t talk about the story ideas for your personal projects with other people because it will make you tired of your own ideas and you won’t finish them.” (It should be noted that this advice does help some people.)
What Studio Guy failed to realize about his own student was that Dwight is a verbal processor. To give this kind of “Keep it all inside.” advice to a verbal processor is like sentencing him to a creative prison inside his own mind. Dwight absolutely needs to talk out his ideas.
Dwight wrote me to express his frustration and ask what I thought about Studio Guy’s advice. We talked about it and he’s okay now. He feels free to dismiss Studio Guy’s advice in this area and he’s feeling good now. …but that was a close call.
You can attempt to apply advice that doesn’t seem to fit by talking it out with friends or your circle of trust.
…but only do that if you really think the advice is vital to your own artistic growth. If not, you probably have plenty of other things to work on. I wouldn’t sweat it if I were you.
5.) Is The Advice Actionable?
Is this something you can actually DO?
Some artists with blogs and Twitter accounts never apply their advice or they just parrot popular mantras just to sound like they have something to offer you. But if the advice doesn’t empower you to take actions which lead to noticeable results, it is completely useless.
“Parrot” EXAMPLE: People are always telling young or inexperienced artists that “You need to network!”
But there are at least two major issues with that advice (which is why it makes me livid when I hear people give it:
- What does “networking” even look like in the real world? Nobody seems to teach that.
- “Networking” can be a huge, intimidating, awkward, controversial concept. Hardly anyone ever breaks it down to actionable steps. (But Lora and I will – very soon.)
This kind of advice is like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. It’s not going to be very clear because of the law of diminishing returns.
“Lacking Application” EXAMPLE: I used this example earlier but it applies here too. There’s a bit of portfolio feedback that has been popular in the animation space lately and it makes me feel crazy.
“Try to add a greater sense of storytelling to your work.”
But HOW does one DO that? It’s so open to interpretation that frustration and overwhelm is an almost certain result.
Beware of meaningless “parroting” and advice that lacks any real application. There’s no way you can take action with this kind of advice. Don’t waste your time with it.
Focus on goal setting and taking action.
Almost all human beings have what I call our built-in “B.S. Detector” amd almost everyone’s is very accurate. Heed your B.S. Alarm when it goes off in your head (or your heart). It might not be insecurity or paranoia or trust issues. It might ensure your artistic survival.
Don’t assume that every artist who is perceived as successful is qualified to teach. Many are just sharing “What worked for me” and some are just full of B.S.
You have the freedom to decide for yourself. Yes, you need to be humble and teachable in order to grow as an artist and storyteller but beware of people who advise irresponsibly.
Comment and Share!
Have you ever been led astray by bad advice from a successful artist? What broke the spell?
NOTE: This post was originally created for my other website, Paper Wings. Thus, some of the comments are refer to both Lora Innes (my Paper Wings partner) and me.