10 Things...I Wish I Knew Starting Out
SmArt School class demo painting of Johnny Storm, played by Michael B. Jordan, from the 2015 Fantastic Four film
1. Focus the portfolio.
I thought that the best way a portfolio could become desirable is if all the pieces were in different styles, so there was something for everyone. It seemed logical to have a flexible, versatile book, but in reality, clients want to see that you are capable of doing one thing they can count on. And doing it very, very well. Hit the mark every time they ask, and on time. In a style that they like and can expect to receive from you. Every time.
They want consistency.
I knew it, but I didn’t strive for it.
2. Focus more on anatomy.
Even though I’ve always known that I wanted to be good at painting people, and I focused on doing that for my book, I didn’t realize how much more of it I could’ve used. There’s never enough training to get good at anatomy. Understanding and reproducing good figure work is critical for a career in any part of the art world.
3. Focus on composition.
One of the most intriguing aspects of any of my favorite paintings in the world is composition, and starting out, I was very weak at it. I remember most of my appalling failures and they still haunt me. But in a good way now. Those failures spur me to better and better paintings that hang on the fine-tuned note of composition.
Composition is the single most important factor of any painting of note. Even if it’s abstract. An abstracted painting that doesn’t consider this aspect is just so much pattern.
4. Treat work less preciously.
In my beginnings, I thought that in order for a work to be worthwhile I had to care for it, coddle it, obsess about it. I had to ‘get it right’ and push for perfection. After all, I was a budding genius and everything I touched would either turn to gold or I would force it to. Geniuses are born, not made, and I therefore had to live up to my own, already fully-formed, vision of my spectacular and amazing super power. I was a painter and my magic lived within me to be expressed to all the sorry masses of the world.
What I really needed to do was treat the work as if it was the best I could do in the moment, with an eye on improving in my very next attempt. That approach forces one to realize that the exercise of growth depends on failed and discarded attempts that achieve at least a little something to carry into the next piece.
It’s about letting go of that perfection in order to gain a better kind of performance farther down the line.
Let it go. Start again. Fail. Again. And again. Again. Again. Again.
I find it, and continue to find it, this way. You will, too.
5. Try more ideas.
As above, I started out thinking I had to be serious about my ideas, and so I treated them too critically. I know you are thinking this way. And I know you are reading this now and thinking you’ve done the same.
Ideas are a dime a dozen. They fall from the air like so much dust. The one thing I wish I’d been able to do early on is judge them less. Ideas come and go like thoughts. I should’ve been much more playful with them instead of judging whether they were award winners or not.
Traveling back in time, I would tell myself to listen to my inner desires and focus on that, no matter how silly or bizarre or funny or serious. And then I would tell myself to do the one thing that would give me the answers.
Get it on paper.
6. AD’s are people, too.
They are people with jobs, and they’ve hired you because they like your work. They really want to work with you, as in with you, not for you. They have their own boss to impress and they don’t need your little prima donna ego to tell them how your art will save the world.
Work as a team. It’s just not about you. And with that in mind, don’t take things personally. Be the go-to guy that can solve their problem instead of creating extra. Listen more and speak less.
7. Clients don’t care about your schedule.
They really could care less, so don’t try to make them feel like they are doing you a disservice.
You don’t need to make them feel like they are one of many companies calling you for your amazing skills. They have a deadline and they want to know they have your undivided attention to help them get clear of it.
You can make them feel like they are a special concern without sucking up. You just need to be human about it. They will appreciate your authenticity and come back for more work.
And when they’re in a bind and have to have something fast and are willing to pay for it? Guess who they call first?
8. Give the client what they ask for.
They want what you do best. It’s similar to showing the client three ideas and they pick your least favorite of the three. They will do this time and time again. And it will take you years to figure this out. So be strong and only show them the ones you honestly want to do. Yes, you just read it here, but trust me, it will take time to implement.
Even so, there will be times early on when you try to please the client so much that even though you know it will look better another way, you give them what you think they want. Most likely, if you’d have given them an image that was more within your vision of awesome, they would’ve liked it much better.
This is tough to learn: knowing the difference between when to give more of your own version when it may be going against what they ask for, and when to follow along with what they need.
You will blow this. You will give them pieces that follow what they say and it will turn out mediocre. You will know in your inner heart that it would’ve been great like this or that, but you gave them what they wanted--and they didn’t like it. Or you will give them what they wanted and they will love it. And you will hate it and never show it. Anywhere. Ever.
And then one day, you’ll know how to give your all, against what they ask for, and it will shine. That's when you'll know how to please the client and yourself at the same time.
9. Stay in touch.
Send images to clients from time to time and let them know your pulse is still active in this time continuum. Send images that are what they buy, not what you think they should buy. Unless you know the client well and have worked together for awhile, then you can be more familiar and send some experimental images to see if they might be able to use that approach.
10. Forget what’s hot.
I lost ten years of my career trying to create the hottest looking technique of the 20th century.
Bag that attitude. Worry less about looking like what’s hot, which means letting go of the need to be recognized. Produce art that clients need, sure, but find those clients that resonate with the kind of work you love to produce.
You are not ever going to get the entire industry to love you and buy your work. You are going to get the clients that love what you are doing, or are striving to do, for them and from there you will capture the attention of the market.
It isn’t necessary to create for the entire art field. I tried to shotgun the industry. Instead, I needed to be the sniper who picked his targets with care and effort.
This I learned much later, and my success grew exponentially.
11. Write earlier.
Ok, you get an extra one with this list. If I'd really wanted to expand my horizons along with my artwork, I would’ve started writing earlier. Words and pictures are powerful together. We’ve been working on that for 10,000+ years. Don’t be afraid of it. Strength of narrative in both endeavors will never let you down or weaken your skills in painting.
Intellectual Property should be one of your concerns for developing a career that succeeds.
Only--I did write early. But I didn’t take the risk to show it to anyone. I know now that I should’ve taken that risk and learned how to get better at it.