The trick – the secret – to being a successful artist is that – and I’m going to tell you right in the beginning and not make you wade through pages of text and links – and that’s good because no one has time for that because the secret of artists everywhere of all kinds and shapes and sizes is that, first and foremost, you have to MAKE art.
And keep making art.
And follow the thread of your art making to the nth possible degree of beauty and craft and expression. And then follow it further. You have to make art even when you’re tired and want to do something else. You have to make art even if you feel you don’t have anything left to say. You have to make art even when you don’t feel like making art (which is more often than most artists want to admit). You have to make it and make more of it. You have to find a new facet, and a new facet, and a new facet. You have to keep practicing. Keep making. Keep working. Keep doing. This is how you become successful at anything. This is how you become a successful artist.
However, what a ‘successful’ artist is, is up for debate. Does it mean getting to make art as your sole occupation? Having all your bills paid? Having your name in lights? Recognition? Fame? Comfort?
I believe that success is getting to make your art simply because that is what you do in the world. It is an ever unfolding journey. And it is a journey which every artist undertakes.
“Sometimes when I don’t post enough progress shots, people begin to say I’ve lost it– Maura is washed up. This is never the case. I work diligently, every day, motherf***ers.”
Some time back, I came to a pivot point in my work and my understanding of the well from which I draw my inspiration.
I look back at the artist who I was, 24, 26, 21 and I wonder: where was that work drawn from? How much is it the hubris of youth, the hedonism of my 20s, brain chemistry and music and movement pushed to the most nth degree I could perceive? Where did it come from? How much was the ego saying I AM.
This is true, I think, for so much great art. There is an excitement in the artistic youth that drives the discovery of the new and the exploration of this creative drive. It is a force that unlocks door after door of creative fires within.
Yet, as we get older and we have ten thousand burning flames within us, a deeper knowledge of our possibilities but also a distinct understanding of our limitations, we either pull back, stick to safe and solid ground or we push ahead and say ‘OK. What’s next?’
A few years back, I had a distinct moment of coming into my very present age (as in: I’m not 24) and truly understanding that the person who paints now is coming from a different place and a different perspective. While my patience has increased, my attention to detail refined, and so on, my awareness of the world around me has also grown. My awareness of my place in the world has expanded as well as my awareness of who I am and what I’m doing with my time here.
And, as time passes, the value of that time increases. With every painting, I examine ever deeper what I want to say, how I want to say it, and, most importantly, why. I’m fine with painting simply another beautiful painting but even that has to have a sense of purpose to it.
So I bend myself back to my work and toil onwards as I ever have. As I did when I was 21. As I do now that I’m 41. There is still music. There is still a pot of tea. There’s a cat now. A studio I can call my own. But the place I’m going hasn’t changed, only the sense of ‘going’. I found a spark when I was young that ignited a flame of inspiration that will burn for as long as I keep fanning it. And probably longer still: even when I feel ‘done’ it makes me rise again to keep working.
Sometimes tho, I release a new painting that is met with… meh. Just meh. O, it’s another painting, people say. As Maura said, people begin to think I’ve lost it, that I’m washed up. These thoughts are what every artist deals with all the time. And as I’ve gotten older, the desire to spend more time on each piece increases while the attention span of the masses seems to decrease and our multimedia extravaganzas are consumed in smaller and smaller bites – each moment seeming to bleed into the next ever quicker while my paintings take ever longer to create and, like a nice wine, ever so slightly longer to open up.
See, the older you get, as an artist, the more you realize you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. It is a dance, a conversation, a lineage, that has gone on long before you showed up on the scene and will continue long after you’ve signed your name to your last piece.
At some point, you realize you have a whole lifetime of actual work ahead of you. So, now, what’s the next painting going to be? And why. And what of the next? Or the next? And so on. How will you stay inspired?
It is up to you, up to me, up to ever artist to figure out how they will carry that precious flame of inspiration through it all so that, ten years from now, twenty, it burns ever brighter, ever stronger, ever more luminous.
As an artist, they say, you should always be producing. And, the older you get, the more this adage echoes through your mind. Does what I’m doing have value? Is this worth the time I’m spending on it? How long until it’s done and will it compare to previous works? And so on. The questions, the inquiries, the pressures, the doubts – they’re endless.
If I go back to my early days of my artist career, I see a person who found value for the sake of the thing. I just knew I wanted to make it. I had nothing to compare it to. I had no previous sales. I had a small collection of work but not enough that I had a spectrum of pieces to compare anything to. I had only pen and paper, brush and canvas and paint. And a will to simply push forwards.
I remember spending half a winter in the early 2000s (while working on the painting Limits, amongst others) learning Adobe After Effects. I spend hours and days creating rudimentary animations, visual smorgasbords of psychedelia, and the like. It had no real ‘value’ and I certainly wasn’t going to sell it. By today’s digital standards, it was all pretty basic stuff. Which is to say: I spent a lot of time fucking around with it. But it brought me joy and provided me with this other creative outlet. Along the way, I learned a useful skill (After Effects) and had fun.
Similar things could be said for nights spent turning chalk pastels into piles of muddy dust. Or bottles of ink into splattered vistas of no real use or value to anyone other than myself. Maybe I was just beautifying a corner. Or expressing a momentary emotion. Maybe I was just exploring how a thing worked and letting the chatter work itself out.
Whatever story I tell myself of ‘why’ I’m doing the thing, the fact is, I’m sometimes spending my time on things which likely have no tangible value within my body of work.
The job of an artist is to LIVE CREATIVELY. Every square inch of that time and space is a place to drop in and make or do or explore. This isn’t to say every waking moment should be this endless act of conscious creation. Sometimes, sitting in the sun and reading a book is the only obvious next step.
On the other hand when the heart says ‘Hey I want to explore this thing’ then go ahead, I say, see where that thread takes you or where that tangent leads. My own personal creative tangents create space for a kind of creative processing that allows my painting practice to be all the more clear and in tune.
The avenues and outlets I follow – allowing the muse to unpack itself in various novel and creative ways – are like the branchings of a tree. In this metaphor, I never know when one branch might bear fruit or even what that fruit might be. Many of those fruits are, for the most part, nourishing only to myself. Maybe it is a tea stand I made or a side project website that gives me a laugh. But that nourishment – those breaths of creative fire – inspire me to move forwards in my creative flow. That inspiration invariably seeps into my work and actions.
As we creative types get older, we hopefully learn to discern between distraction and inspiration, between fucking around and fucking off (although the latter has its value as well). I have a sketchbook I draw in. It’s a place of lots of fucking around. It’s dorky mental lines that maybe turn into a sketch into a painting into something truly noteworthy. Maybe. 99 times out of a 100 it’s just ramblings.
What I’m trying to say is:
The world is heavy lately. It’s no joke. And we artists have this sense that we have to do things that are ‘meaningful’ and make things ‘of value’ and so on. It is all very serious. And then, on top of that, you have got to hustle your work and maintain your brand and make sure you adequately engage with your social media platforms and run a business and heft your burdens and don’t forget the personal stuff – there’s got to be room for that – and so on. Phew!
Look: It’s ok to just breath for a moment. And, more so, it’s ok to just play sometimes. If you can make that space for yourself, revel in it for a bit. Give some paper over to random drawing. Paint over a canvas you forgot about with just who knows what for the sake of it. Remember that feeling? You were seven or ten or you just were lost in your creative flow, just messing around, making the most meaninglessly important thing ever. You didn’t even need to ‘give yourself permission.’ You just did it. Treasure that part. It’s still in there just waiting to play, to explore, to dabble, and to dance.
Even artists should have hobbies.
It goes like this: You have made or saved or borrowed a nice chunk of money and have decided to invest in yourself. After all, people have told you to invest in things you believe in and YOU believe in YOU!
In any case, people have been telling you they would love to see your art on _______. Those several or a dozen resounding voices start to sound like a whole lot of resounding voices. Everyone you’ve told thinks it’s a great idea. It’s ambitious but so are you! You look into production. You visualize yourself calling up retailers and people handing you money for the _______ that you now offer. It will be an enormous success! Nagging doubts be damned!
So you make the thing. You are reasonably if not totally stoked with your new product. People are going to love them! You make your labels and marketing materials, prepare your media campaigns, and so on. It’s on your website in your shop. You’ve invested almost (if not entirely) your last cent into it. Maybe you even borrowed extra funds to push through the final stages. You are proud of your hard work, as well you should be. It’s been nerve wracking and a bit hand wringing. You usually don’t spend so much money all at once, it’s like your hemorrhaging it, but you’ve got to spend money to make money, they say.
Then GO day arrives. You release it. You have the big show. The event. The moment. You sell a smaller percentage of what you thought you would… Returns are sparse and a large portion of your costs are still outstanding. It’s a bit unexpected but that’s ok! There’s mail order! Wholesale! Retail!
But that doesn’t go the way you’d hoped either… It’s a tough game and a rough road, trying to create or start a business – if even a side business to the main business. You find yourself calling or emailing people to sell them stuff they’ve never seen and trying to still feel confident in it and maybe you can hire someone to do it but hiring someone seems like another money drain when really you want to go back to making your art, when you’re done curling up and crying, and you start to feel like a very small and lonely fish in a very big and lonely sea.
Those people – o those finicky people – who said they’d love to own that thing… they buy a few but fewer than you expected. In the end (but lo, this is just the beginning) little money remains, you’ve got a bruised ego, dashed hopes, feelings of failure, a sense of embarrassment, questions about your life decisions, maybe you should never have gotten into this business at all and by ‘business,’ I mean following your dreams. Maybe you should have just been a carpet salesperson. Or an accountant (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those endeavors).
Why, we ask ourselves, did we make this big mistake…
I share all this because I’ve been there and I imagine that, if you haven’t been already, that you might be there at some point or another too. Recently I was packing up my home and finding detritus of past projects. It’s like, at best, one in ten rocket ships make to the moon of our dreams. The other 9 endeavors never took off and some crashed and burned before even arriving at the launching pad.
First, I want to tell you this: IT’S OK. There really are no mistakes. Mistakes are this: we stub our toe, fall in a pit, whatever – and we DON’T GET OUT. We walk around cursing. It is imperative that we keep moving forwards. One of the tough parts of being an artist is that we really are on our own quite often. We are making up a thing and then ascribing a value to the thing and then hoping that other people will pay us the value we’ve ascribed. We are the ones who make ourselves get up in the morning and look again at that half-finished mess of a masterpiece we are creating, even if sometimes that mess feels like our own lives.
I’d like to address a few of those pieces of the inner emotional response to some of the bigger mistakes we make and share some thoughts on how to address them.
We look around and it seems, in our more self-loathing moments, that everyone else is doing better, is more successful, has it all together, is all dialed in. Everyone looks happier, healthier, more fulfilled. We are, we imagine, the only failures left in the world and we don’t want to share our current experiences lest we be judged. We want to hide that failure away and not tell anyone.
There is more to be gained by reaching out to others, your community, friends and family who are have been successful even, than you might realize. Most people have been there. And there are more people who believe in you than you realize. If you have a partner – a significant other – you might find that their support in these times is the golden salve, it’s the thing that says “it’s ok, we’ll figure this out.” They are your dance partner. Or your community is your dance partner. Your world. It is a dance. And this is just part of it.
This is the antithesis to the pride we felt earlier. It’s the bottom of the roller coaster. We start cursing our blatantly prideful hubris. Pride goeth before the fall, we tell ourselves. Such is karma! But this is just looking for a reason to hate on ourselves – to be that inner judgmental critic to be the mean boss to ourselves who punishes us for messing up. The truth is though, it doesn’t help a thing. In fact, it only hurts and will lead us to other possibly more self-destructive behaviors.
So the thing to do is look lovingly at yourself and say ‘it’s cool, it’s ok, we’ll work it out.’ That thing about being the one who has to get up in the morning and look upon your half finished mess of a masterpiece? You also have to be the one to put your arms around your own shoulders, to lift your own chin up, to push aside the social constructs of what ‘success’ is, and keep moving forwards. That’s the best, the very best thing you can do for yourself.
Fear is the mind-killer, fear is the little death, to quote Dune. Fears: we all have them. These mental constructs are a deeply ingrained part of our social conditioning. Having or not having enough. Losing that which we do have. Running out. Failing. Limits to our own success. There’s a lot of people who have written and spoken at length about money psychology and the mental ceilings we create to limit our own success. I highly recommend seeking some of them out if only to shift the perspective from ‘how did I fuck up’ to ‘how can I make this work’.
Beyond that though, when it comes to the moment – the NOW – it’s important to always be looking upwards and downwards at the same time. Keep your eye on the prize as well as the defeat. Want a life and lifestyle that allows you to create your art? Focus on that. And focus on what it might look like otherwise. And then continue to arrange your life in such a way that allows for that dream you are moving towards.
If in that flow, there’s a thing that seems like a pit, see how you can turn THAT into gold. What’s the emotional content? How do you find inspiration there. And so on. Be patient with yourself and what you’ve done. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Being an artist is a long-tail game. We are alchemists: turning raw materials into gold. Life gives you endless raw materials to work with (to put it the nicest way I can think of) and it really is up to us to churn it into something MORE.
It’s all just grist for the mill, to quote Ram Das.
There’s no magic button. If we experience hurt or pain or failure, it’s best to feel it all the way to its deepest core. Read about the lives of other artists, musicians, and writers – the failures in every person’s life are many while the accomplishments, sometimes, are few. This is why the accomplishments stand out so much to us, when we make it. But be warned: there is no real making it. There is no ‘end goal’. There’s no moment of true security or stability. Everything is built interrelationally and the only stable and secure thing we can expect is CHANGE. So be willing to change – directions, gears, perspectives, goals, outcomes.
If you fail at something, it’s ok. I’ll be the first to tell you: I’ve failed so many times. It’s part of life. Often though, we only think it’s failing because we have these preconceived notions of success. The same is true for success. Success too is a social construct. Next time around, I think I’ll give a few words to that aspect of our artistic lives.
In any case, failures and successes bleed into the other on this continuum. It’s best to just keep moving forwards, creating the biggest, boldest, most beautiful vision you an imagine.
PS: The video clip is from “Meet the Robinsons” – highly recommended :)
Let’s talk about fonts because HOW you say something is nearly as important as WHAT you are saying. Rhetoric, – speaking and writing in a persuasive manner – goes far beyond simple word choice. Our choice of fonts in the branding of our message offers subtle clues to observers of how we think of ourselves, the kind of image we are want to portray, and the audience we hope to connect with. When we read a text, we are reading it in the tone the speaker wrote as much as the tone it is packaged in.
When choosing a font, some ideas to consider:
We’ll talk about a few different and important aspects of fonts. I think anyone who steps foot into the self-directed world of the self-employed should have at least a basic understanding of the psychological impact fonts have on their audience. That understanding gives us a greater ability to convey the message we have to share with the world.
You’re driving down the highway and you pass one of those strip malls that has everything from Party Central to Michael’s to Best Buy to Nordstroms and so on. We’ve all seen those tall signs with their lists of stores. Best Buy is in thick letters. Michael’s is an italic serif font. Party Central is jaunty and thick. Nordsrom’s is rather thin.
The tl;dr is this: thick fonts are used when deals are being offered. Thin fonts are for the finer fare.
The thick fonts are selling themselves to a segment of the population that wants more for less. Best Buy, Big Lots, KMart, Target – these are all thick fonted brands offering the best value for the dollar. Even Dell vs. Apple: Dell is a thick font while Apple is a thin font. Apple is considered the ‘finer’ product while Dell is considered an entry level computer brand. On the other hand, Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, JC Penney, and many more are seen as offering a finer product and the thin lines of their branding intends to convey that. To the masses, the thin-fonted brands are generally considered sleek and refined.
So: thick fonts connote a sensation in the mind of being a good deal though possibly lower quality and thin fonts are considered more refined and of higher quality.
For those that don’t know, the serif is the little curly cue at the end of a letter: Times, Garamond, Baskerville – these are serif faces. Optima, Helvetica, Arial are your sans-serif fonts.
The sans-serif conveys a sense of modernity. Most tech companies – Android, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft – all of them use sans-serif fonts. They are seen as efficient, easy to access, easy to read, very straight forward and user-friendly. Even though Sony uses a serif style font, it’s still as refined as possible. Sans-serif fonts are great for smaller text on a flyer or blocks of text on a website as it’s easy for the eyes to parse the information that is being presented.
Serif fonts on the other hand feel ‘classic’. They are the fonts of literature and learnedness. Serif fonts are great for books and titles. Serif typefaces have been shown in research to engender a feeling of greater trust in the reader. They feel comforting and relaxed – the serif font is something that has been used on some of the most revered books, titles, and texts since the dawn of the printing press.
If you are printing a book, say, then this it is most often better to choose a more ‘classic’ font. There’s a reason people stick to the classics. Garamond (my personal favorite) has been in use since Claude Garamond developed it in the 1500s. Baskerville was designed in 1757. There’s new serif fonts that arrive now and again, but many of those are based on older designs. For instance, there’s Garamond, Garamond Pro, and Adobe Garamond – all versions of Garamond but redesigned and refined for modern use and tastes.
If the serif fonts that we love arrived with the introduction of the printing press, then the sans-serif fonts primarily showed up in our vernacular with the advent of our modern technological world. Helvetica – the most over-used font of all sans-serif fonts – was developed in 1957. It rode in on the crest of the nuclear age and our retro-future 1950s. By the same token, Optima – my personal favorite for all my personal stuff – was designed in the mid-50s as well. There’s countless others that have been designed for our modern use – for screens and interfaces, street and subway signs, and so on. Apple recently released a new font they fittingly call San Francisco that is the de facto font for their Yosemite operating system. It is designed to be shrunken down to a very small point size without losing legibility, something that serif fonts don’t do very well.
Decorative fonts are tricky. Here’s the thing: the decorative font you choose will probably be out of style in a few years. How often have you seen a typeface that instantly conjures up a specific decade? That 70s font. Or that 80s font. That raver font. And so on. The best thing to keep in mind is that decorative fonts become dated easily and, as such, they are usually best suited for posters, flyers, etc – anything that has a specific one-time use. Decorative fonts are passing so use them for things which also are passing.
I talked a lot about stores and mass-market consumer brands. But then, what if you DON’T want to hit the mass market? What if your market segment is, say, the London Punk scene or New Jersey rockers or people who will sew your patch to the back of their denim jacket? I think this image sums up that entire discussion. The Beastie Boys? Street punks who don’t take themselves very seriously – hence the lower cased letters. AC/DC? KISS? Thick easy to read font for the working man – if the working man likes electricity. Sex Pistols? If you’re into dangerous ransom notes, then you’ll be into them. Bruce Springsteen? He’s a no nonsense kind of guy and, I guess, that’s what he’s trying to say with that boring no-nonsense font? I think that bands in particular get to flaunt font choices. Afterall – if the music screams, then why shouldn’t the logo? Or, as in the case of Led Zeppelin: their music is an amalgamation of all sorts – metal and sitars and pretty songs and crazy songs – so their font is both reminiscent of Charles Mackintosh and art deco and sharper more electric lines.
Bands are artists and they’d want the rhetoric of their fonts to SAY something – it sings along with the music, just as your own text should sing along to whatever your own art happens to be.
So maybe you want to be quirky or zany – there’s a font for that! It’s not Baskerville. Maybe you want to be seen as austere and refined. There’s a font for that too. You can’t use Fiesta and then expect to be taken very seriously. Our minds have been wired through constant visual conditioning to experience the world in a certain way. Sure, you could try to upset the status quo and write something incredibly serious comic sans, but, unless you’re goal is to sow confusion and not actually be taken seriously, you won’t be communicating your message clearly.
Personally, I figure there are places where I can push the boundaries – as in my art – and then there are places – like in the title branding of my website – where I’d rather play into the norm because it is inviting and feels safe for people who might otherwise not stick around. On the other hand, if you go look at the Misfits logo… well, they WANT you to feel uncomfortable. They would rather turn away people who won’t like their logo. That works for them. There’s an audience for everyone and there’s a way to reach that audience. It starts with what we say and then how we package it.
The next time you’re out in the world: take a look around. There’s a whole lot of people in our consumer culture trying to get our attention – from billboards to bus stop benches to packaging to web banners and so on. All of them are trying to present information in such a way to draw us in – to trigger an emotional response, to buy our trust, to earn a living. Think about the fonts that are being used and how they make you feel. Then think about what YOU yourself are trying to say and how you fit into that dialogue – and how you stand out. The truth is: when we go into business, we ARE a part of that dialogue, whether we want to be or not. So making clear and intentional choices of how we want to engage in that dance is imperative to creating a solid business container for ourselves.
I hope you enjoyed that little font-diatribe. We’ll talk more in the future about the rhetoric of our design choices and how it frames our respective art.
Businesses run on products: product conception, product development, product sales, product redevelopment, and so on. Information products. Plastic tchotchke products. Useless and useful products. Products products products. If we aren’t buying a product then we’re producing a product or selling a product or discarding a product in order to replace it eventually with another (theoretically) superior product.
We keep producing these products for two reasons: to make money for the creator/sales person (and all of the attendant jobs that they create) and to satisfy a utilitarian need that some aspect of our human existence has necessitated. Sometimes that aspect is basic: a shirt to shield us from the sun or warm us in the cold, shoes to protect our feet, a roof over our heads, and so on. Other times – and this is often the case – the desire goes much deeper. We buy products to satisfy a desire to be attractive or feel beautiful (based on the current cultural paradigm of beauty), or to reflect some part of our perceived identity, and, very importantly, the desire to be loved by others. In the end, it seems difficult to decipher the difference between ‘basic need’ and ‘desire’.
Artwork, at its purist, at its most whole, is born from the desire – an inner urge – to simply create. It is born from a desire of self-expression. We want to bring something new into the world. That urge drives us forwards – compelling us to always do more – because that which we have already made is never fully satisfying.
From this act of expression arises a piece of work which can drive into the deepest parts of our humanness. The more we make our work from the desire to make a product, the more we lose the initial inspiration that drives it. So we have to let go of the need to show people up or prove ourselves or tout our skills or impress our friends or loved ones. If we can let go of the desire to make a new product, to fill up the shelves of our proverbial store… If we surrender instead to that creative flow and just drown ourselves in the act then the work which arises from that pool is a thing of authentic expression. It may be nightmarish. It may be the heavens unfolding. It is the all and everything. It is always at least some point in between. It is, at that point, merely an act of creation, and, at that I think, an act of love.
Art in and of itself is not a product. It can become a product and go on products. It can be housed with products and ultimately, it does become a commodity. But its own blossoming into the world and subsequent creation is the art, the vision. When we sit down to do our art, it is best to lose the idea of that creation being a means to an end. It is not the basic utilitarian urge driving it. It may put food on our tables and clothes upon our backs but it is not and should not and CANNOT be done as a thing merely to make money. Thinking ‘how much am I going to make from this piece? Is it enough?’ limits the expression. Then we are putting it in a box with a set of conditions and value structures that our brain constantly folds into it with every brushstroke or thread we weave. We forever limit ourselves in our act – wondering if we put ‘enough’ in for the value it is supposed to have.
True art making is an unconditional act. You may be making a painting, a drawing, a jacket, a dress, a book… Whatever your art is that you choose: you know that when you are in it, you have surrendered to the act itself and therefor want to make it the best it can be.
And yet, as an artist, there is no real end product because the minute we finish one thing – hopefully to the very best of our ability in that moment – we move onto the next. All art making is the detritus being HUMAN. Art is the expression of living. Of breathing. Of seeing. Of one’s own personal vision. Art speaks to and from this act in some way (and this is ultimately why art can be valued so highly but we’ll get into that another time…). Ultimately, though, the end product is the Self Which Has Created The Work. That is Art as Path.
One, for lack of a better word, curse in that is that we artists often do just enough to create a space for ourselves to make our art and hope that everything else will fall into place, just as it does in our work. This is why it can be difficult sometimes on our own to also be marketers and promoters and sales people and so on. The business of art can fill up the schedule. We start commoditizing our act. It can feel constricting and limiting.
In a world that is constantly pushing consumption with a thousand and ten flashing ads, how do you stand out anymore? How do you even share your creation?
So we go back to square one: art as an act of love. So first and foremost: always just concentrate on making great art. It takes time, but it will shine through. The first painting, the first bit of writing, the first moment… May slip under most radars. But then there is the second, the third, and so on. You are playing a symphony all on your own. It takes time for others to pick up on that tune. Each piece is a note of a song you will play your entire life. And it takes some patience on your own part to learn to dance with all the moving parts.
We are playing a symphony all our own so it’s best to learn to play all the instruments to some degree. You are the conductor moving this musical piece of your life forwards. Think of your art as the lead violin or the grand piano – it is the instrument that sings – the one that all of the other instruments are framing. Perhaps the webmaster hat is the oboe and the accountant is the kettle drum and the archivist is the cello and so on. These other hats, these other modes aren’t in opposition to your art, they are also creative acts and they support that lead. This is learning to play your art and wear all of those hats as a symphony united, rather than as separate components. In the symphony, they all support each other.
This still brings us back to the actual creation of the thing while living in a commoditization-happy world and how we can best foster that so the authentic voice shines through. I have sat with business leaders and motivational speakers and all sorts of people. They tell me the steps I can take to build my email list and get more Facebook followers and create affiliate programs and so on. All of those steps continue to define me as a product, a commodity, with an ideal, a soundbite, a public image, easily consumable and digestible for this fast paced world we are told we live in.
And, sometimes, all of those steps look to me like they lead away from the raw unfolding vision. It’s like piloting our ship through a narrow rapids, making sure our delicate boat makes it through uncompromised.
I consider this painting on my easel. It is a painting commissioned by someone. Certainly there is a desire for the client to be pleased with it. Of course I want that! But I can’t let that be a driving force: ‘gosh, I hope this reflects the value we have ascribed to it!’ And so on. There are all sorts of thoughts that arise: how many hours am I putting into this? Is it enough? Am I working hard enough?’ All the stories and the product outcome and the chatter and nonsense. All the self-image and ego and drama and dreams and clutter of am i good enough? is it enough? – detritus of a consumer culture that echoes through my psyche from countless ads, commercials, social norms, and societal structures and, who knows, is maybe just part of the human experience which I am working through in my own way.
I return again and again to the driving force, that driving urge. It is that reason I or you or someone else is hired. It’s that thing that people want. When we become formulaic, when we create work merely for profit, I think we lose that. It’s important to remember: we can talk all about it, we can display it all we want, but in those moments in our studio, the swirling pool of creativity is what we have to surrender to again and again and, hopefully, with practice, we draw something forth that is inspiring again and again.
Would we make and give away our work for nothing? For no return? There are projects I engage in like that – where the cycle of returns has a different value structure. But in the end I do have bills to pay and rent and phone and all the other trappings of modern life – not to mention personal goals. Our time is of value and we’ve spent hours practicing and practicing what we do. And, in the end, we have a thousand other creations to make. So we create value systems and exchanges in order to support growth: in ourselves, in others, in the world.
Because of exchanges like that, people say that it’s money that makes the world go wrong. I think that’s incorrect. I imagine that it is love that makes our world go round. Without love – this lifelong connection and devotion to the authenticity of our work – we are useless empty shells, just consuming, never-endingly consuming. We are mere product creators, at that point, lining the shelves. Without love feeding this urge to create, I could never bring this painting on my easel to the place I want it to go – or the place I was hired to make it go, and I say this even for the darker pieces I’ve made. Even if this emotion of ‘love’ is in our imagination – even if it is merely a story we’ve conjured up to make life feel more meaningful, then it is, to me, the most worthwhile driving force I’ve found: this love of creation, a desire to bring it into the world and create from this place. The sensation of dancing with the creative act – this sensation that, when followed, seems to conjure up, for me, my most ideal self. When I turn away from the canvas, it is what drives me to be more compassionate, to make smarter decisions, to care for others, and to give of myself. It is having that entire symphony playing all together in harmony. The tedium doesn’t feel so tedious. The side projects feel more inspired. The work – all of it – in my eyes, shines.
There can only be the awareness of the present moment when making a piece of art and, to find that core passionate creative force – whatever color or shape it may be – to create from that place in the making of our art – whether it be painting or writing or baking bread or driving a truck or helping others in whatever our paths may be – and whether our work be light or dark, sweet or otherwise – it enables us to create something that ultimately feels like a worthwhile pursuit. I imagine that a thing made from a place of loving-kindness is ultimately more nourishing, more valuable, more beautiful than it would be otherwise. It may take a while for the world to catch up to you. You may sit in silence, alone and wondering if there’s anyone out there and I assure you, there is. But to play that note, that instrument, that symphony will, ultimately, allow you the happiest most fulfilling life you can imagine.
Were that the place from which all things were made from, I imagine we would have a happier and healthier planet.
In my “career” as an artist (in quotes because when I was 20 it didn’t seem so much a “career” as simply a need – a drive – a thing I was compelled to do) I’ve found that there’s three main components of my work life:
We can never do any one of them all the time and remain happy and inspired. Instead we constantly cycle through them all. The quantity of time that we spend within each sphere is up to our own personal taste and need – some people find more satisfaction to weigh the scale heavier towards ‘Work for Hire’ while others towards the ‘Work for Me.’ And at times, the ‘Work for Free’ seems to take up TOO much time. However, all of them have their value and it is worth understanding how they support us.
When I was younger and immersed in any one of those facets it often seemed like it would be forever. I hadn’t experienced any pattern yet – seen any flow within them. Like the beginnings of some jazz song, it felt like a disjointed mess. Too much on the drums! Not enough horn! And so on. I felt a longing towards one or the other or, conversely, perhaps that I’d reached some perfection of my work life and I could now relax. But each period always ends and, in that constant cycle, I’ve come to better understand and be patient with my flow.
I’d like to talk about each of these three things and then talk about striking a balance between them – how to listen to the inner drive and creative urges without being overwhelmed.
Work for hire is what it says on the tin: this is the work that someone else pays us to do and, preferably, that work is within the range of our creative pursuits and responds well to our own creative vision. Inevitably, as an artist, someone else sees what you do and thinks to themselves: “how can I apply this to my own needs?” That is perfectly fine and it’s up to you to learn to capitalize on those needs of others and on your own skill sets that can satisfy those needs. All through time, artists have been multi-tasking in this manner. Throughout the Renaissance, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and others were constantly immersed in commissioned art. In the early 1900s, we can look to Alphonse Mucha – the king of Art Nouveau posters and imagery. William Blake illustrated books. Dali made perfume bottles. And so on. Today’s artist might be part graphic designer, part fashion designer, part sculptor, part installation artist, part musician, part programmer, amongst other things. It behooves you to wear more than one hat and be open to working with and for others.
To me, the joy of work for hire is, at least, two fold. One is simply the fact of getting paid to make art. Even if you are doing graphic design that seems a few steps from your personal vision, it still asks you to apply your creative vision and offers supplemental income which can afford you the space and time for your own work, as that part doesn’t always pay us consistently.
I think a second and even more important aspect of working for others is this: someone comes to you with a vision and asks you to apply your own unique style to it – and, by extension, the world. Along the way, it entreaties you to learn more about yourself and your craft. If it is commissioned painting, it is perhaps an ideas you may not have painted otherwise. If it is a fashion project, maybe it pushes you to you materials you’ve never tried to work with before. If it is web design, perhaps you learn something new to apply to your own site. Whatever it is – whatever your craft – you have been asked to leave your unique brand of inspiration for the patron. From this perspective, the more you understand about what you do – the whys and hows, the techniques and processes – the better you can understand WHY someone would ask for YOU and then what you have to give back.
Yet, work for hire can be wearying. There is always the moment when we look up from whatever project we are toiling away on and we see our own work languishing. Or the client is doubting and that doubt seeps into you, happily mixing in that well of self-doubt all artists work with, and you wonder if you’ve ever been any good at all. All I can say there is: patience. Be patient with yourself and your work and always see what you can learn from the current project. Even if the lesson is ‘I don’t think I want to do this again’ or ‘I need to do this differently next time’ – that’s a great thing to know and understand about yourself.
When it comes to work for hire, some go off and simply get jobs with, say, a design firm or the like. Others, like myself, maintain their freelance status in order to always have time for their own art because that is what drives them. For me, I’ve always seen everything else as ‘supplemental’ while painting is my main focus – even if other things have eaten up the bulk of my time. Many times, I’ve had to take other work in order to create the time and space for the painter in me to do his work.
Like I said in the beginning, we each weigh the various facets differently and I weigh this facet very highly. The work for ourselves is one of the biggest challenges though. For starters, if we don’t do it, no one will. It is up to me to get up in the morning and stand in front of the canvas and diligently caress each little line and curve to it’s fullest potential. It is up to me (because that’s how I prefer it) to update my website, to take care of this project or that project. They are all part of the machine that is my own business and each requires patience, momentum, drive, and a willingness to see it through. It takes self confidence and an unflagging belief in yourself and your vision. We have to see ourselves through the times when no one calls and no one writes and we’re on our own, just making what we believe in your heart to be the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen.
If you can find joy in that, then you have found the thread that will drive you onwards. Sometimes, we pull ourselves up, tugging on it. And sometimes we are pulled along by it – happily or begudgingly – but it is your personal thread. Take joy in that. Many of the more famous creators – even those in the sciences, in engineering, and elsewhere – have workshops at home. They tinker and putter and make things and do things on their own following those personal creative inquiries. Maybe they just make a wind chime. Maybe they make a hobbyist particle accelerator in their basement (it could happen!). It is in this murky pool of self-driven creativity where your vision flourishes independently.
If your other work pays well, perhaps your ‘work for you’ doesn’t need to pay – but it DOES need to happen. Every creative person requires self-involved creative time to explore their own personal creative process.
There’s a reason we tell children they have a ‘gift’ when we see those that seem to shine a little brighter in some pursuit or another. Perhaps there is no life other than this one. You are just one star amongst the millions flaming bright for a moment – you arrived and you will again depart. Somehow though, you – out of all the millions and billions – ended up with a particularly gifted creativity, sense of purpose, and personal vision. You didn’t ask for it. It just happened. This is why it’s a gift.
As with all gifts, it’s important to give back. With both working for hire and working for ourselves, we are doing those things to simply support US. We are working to be paid, for self satisfaction, to further our own vision, etc. Working for free is giving away your skills for some cause or thing that you support for the sheer joy of it.
(Side note: I understand that perfect altruism is hard to come by but we all clearly know the difference between doing something for a paycheck or for simply ‘ourselves’ and doing something that is for others. It can be found, I think, in the sensation of how open our heart feels. It’s healthy to do things without the carrot of renumeration.)
It is important to note though: we can’t work for free all the time and so it’s important to strategize. Do things that uplift you. Do things that bring joy to others. Do things that really are good exposure. If you have never done the thing before, maybe it is a good portfolio piece – you have to start somewhere.
Violet and I painted a huge mural on the side of a building in Venice, CA for free. We even bought the paint. But it was incredibly satisfying and it brings so much light and joy and life to that corner of the world. I’ve made a number of posters for Conscious Alliance – an organization that raises money for food banks – completely for free because I appreciate what they do. Then there’s Burning Man where I just dig making art – and often spend way too much money doing so – but it’s fun and brings people joy.
Incidentally, there is a handy flow chart that can be found here – Should I Work For Free? and it is well worth the read.
It is easy however to give too much of ourselves away – to cut deals because we want to be loved, needed, accepted. The longer you work for cheap or free, the harder it will be to maintain your own basic needs. Those basic needs are important. They are how you survive in this world and how you maintain your space to create. The better you take care of yourself, the easier it is to give yourself away. It is a beautiful thing to want to make the world a happier and healthier place, but that happier and healthier place starts with ourselves.
There’s no middle spot of this venn diagram where your work is for hire, for yourself, and for free all at the same time. The middle spot – the hub around which it all spins is this: the vision. That point of light: THAT is the thing to build and nurture and grow. EVERYTHING stems from that. That is YOU.
From there, we move outwards in a constant dance between all of these facets. The overlap is intended as well. All free work satisfies our work for ourselves in some way – and perhaps leads to work for hire. Work for hire always supports our personal work and maybe we give a little bit extra. Working for ourselves… well that is work for hire and for free!
I’ll also point out that the arrows in the image – they’re just to give an idea of the flow. There’s no linear direction to this sort of thing and, myself, I’m often doing a little of all of them at once. In that way, I’m moving in and out of each of those spaces – the work for myself, for others, for free. It’s simply a dance.
There’s no real borders and boundaries in life – just like any idea of a venn diagram is necessarily limited by the definitions of its elements. We just happen to be concentrated more highly in one area than another at any given moment. If you are in one quadrant, that doesn’t mean you’ll be there forever. Everything changes – you, your work, your inspiration, your life. To be happy as an artist – which, I think, is as good a benchmark of success as any – is to find balance within that creative dance.
In the future, I’ll talk more about these individual elements but I hope for now that this helps offer some perspective to your work and your work life and how to find a balance amongst your various creative endeavors.
If you are self-employed then you understand that it’s up to you to secure your own proverbial ship. What do I mean by this? It’s up to you to take care of your financials, work with clients, keep track of your stock (if you have any), know your tools, and maintain your contracts. I’ve done all kinds of design work for numerous individuals and businesses on projects ranging from web to print to logo to book design. Over the years, I’ve worked out my own contracts and other peripheral bits that have helped establish a good flow when working with clients. Along the way, I came up with two very useful tools that I’d like to pass on to you.
Before you start any work for anyone, you must have a contract. The contract is a signed and dated legally binding document stating the agreed upon terms. (Pro tip: Don’t ever work with someone who agrees to the terms but won’t sign a contract.) The contract is important because it…
At first, it may feel awkward presenting your contract. In fact, one of the failings for many artists is the ability to confidently ask for what you feel you deserve. The paradox, however, is that you, the consultant, stating your terms is expected. Let the contract be the doorway through which the client enters into your world.
I’d like to mention however that there are instances – painting a mural or a commissioned painting – where simply stating the terms in an email is suitable. In other instances, the contract is veritably required – especially if the work has a particularly tedious scope.
Note: ALWAYS send a PDF contract. The contract can be mailed back with the deposit or they can scan the signed version. However, sending a PDF is the most professional approach and ensures that nothing is altered in the document.
Once the contract is out of the way, it’s time to get to the artsy making fun part and your client will have a bunch of ideas (or none, depending). But where to begin?
Quite often, as a designer, you’re working with someone just starting out. Often their business has existed in the wordless world of their mind and you are the first person that is really engaging with that vision.Your task is to distill their ideas down to a manageable template from which to build your (and their) masterpiece. This is where the Questionnaire comes in.
I created this questionnaire in order to simplify the beginnings of the creative process. I gleaned ideas from other designers and artists and came up with a suitable 2 page set of questions that drill down to specific nuts and bolts understanding of the project. Sometimes people are a bit stunned even by the straight forward nature of the questions. Questions such as:
This questionnaire will save you so much time! It helps both you AND the client get clear with what they want. If they say something different down the road then, just as with the contract, you have their words in writing to refer back to. More importantly, as you work, you can refer back to these notes.
After many years of working on various projects, I established for myself a general workflow template that I apply to just about every project. That process flows like this:
From there, we get started. Once they return the questionnaire, I stick to the deadlines set out in the contract and make sure we stick with the agreedupon number of revisions. The work gets completed in a timely manner. Everyone is happy! Establishing a good work flow will help you to be a saner and more efficient artist and business person.
DOWNLOAD CONTRACT AND QUESTIONNAIRE HERE (.zip file)
I want to give you a tool that will help you stay more organized and have a cleaner backbone for the business side of your art career. At the end of this email is an Excel sheet with a set of formulas designed to provide you with a pricing format for your prints.
First off, I’d like to just talk business in general. Microsoft Excel itself is seen as one of those ‘businessy’ things with a certain mystique around it that ‘artists’ don’t want to associate with. That’s a hump in the road to success that you get over it you’ll never achieve the level of success you desire. So I urge you: get in there – learn the tools! One of the things we talk about a lot in my Artist Mentorship Program is the business of art – marketing, branding, self-organization and self-motivation, and a host of other aspects that are important elements to the business – and LIFE – of being a self-employed artist. These are things I think about when I’m painting but also when I am creating the container around my work – the container that helps me to guide this ship through the world.
Consistent pricing is a key to the business side of art. Knowing how you came up with that price will help you when you are selling your wares and it will be much easier to feel confident in how you came up with your prices. Many people who are starting out set their prices somewhat arbitrarily and most artists tend to undervalue their work because the joy of selling it – of making someone happy – seems to outweigh the need to pay the bills (at least in that moment). Some years ago, I grew frustrated with my own inconsistent pricing because I wasn’t clear on where that price was coming from so came up with a system that I think you will find to be rather solid.
In any case, I was driving home quite late one night and, realizing I needed to codify my pricing strategies, I started imagining Excel functions that would allow me to input certain variables and come up with a clear understanding of a product price (yes, sometimes I daydream about Excel spreadsheets. Nothing is off-limits in daydreams!). There are instructions in the spreadsheet regarding which variable to change. In general the multiple columns of the excel sheet work like this:
The purpose of this is to give you a clear idea on how your money is being spent, earned, and shared. This was an a-ha moment for me when I sat down and made it and I hope that as you try it out, it is an a-ha moment for you as well.
DOWNLOAD THE EXCEL SHEET HERE and give it a try!
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