My daughter is a watercolor artist, and a pretty damn good one if I might add. The painting above is hers. It’s not only technically and aesthetically beautiful, it’s also striking, thought-provoking and begs the viewer to look deeper into themselves. This is her art. Yet, as creative, free and passionate as my daughter is about creating her work, she worries about it. One afternoon while driving home from school she asked me a question I wish I had been better prepared to answer. It wasn’t about how to improve her grades, or how to resolve an argument with one of her friends, or even about boys.
“Mom, how hard is it to support yourself as an artist?”
Oh Luv, Sweet Pea, my little Mini-Me, let me begin by sharing some wisdom by one of my favorite authors Seth Godin from his book The Icarus Deception. In it, he says Art is not a gene or a specific talent. It’s an attitude, available to anyone who has a vision that others don’t, and the guts to do something about it. To work like an artist means investing in the things that scale: creativity, emotional labor and grit.
Did you catch what he said?
1) Artists have a vision driven by curiosity and originality.
2) Artists use every tool and hue on their emotional palette.
3) Artists invest time, energy and personal courage.
But there’s more, hun. You will always be hungry for the next idea. You’ll be tired and sore from pushing your talent against brick walls then become easily distracted or bored practicing the skills needed to get over it. Well, get over it. You have to respect the struggle, see focus as your ally and failure as your compass. You have to get comfortable talking about your work, build a solid reputation with strong integrity and maintain trusted relationships with fellow artists who have your back. You’ll also learn how to attract and recognize clients who see your value, then fiercely protect yourself and your art from those who don’t.
Speaking of Art…
Your art won’t be found on some crowdsourced website or stock library. You will neither automate nor assemble, duplicate nor commoditize. You’ll take great risk to step outside your comfort zone and rise above the expectation of others to create art that is both memorable and inspires conversation. You’re being trained in the use of line, color, melody, harmony, shape, movement, value and rhythm to speak what words alone cannot.
You’ve seen how art shows up in my design work too – in my sketchbook, on classroom blackboards and in brainstorming sessions with clients. But there have been times when I’ve had to take a stand for the value of my work, and for the “ease” (after 35 years of practice) that it sometimes appears. When hundreds of logo designs are sold every day at fees ranging from $5 to $50,000 I know the value of my art is the time and stress I save a business by being good at what I do. And, when a business doesn’t want to spend more than “necessary,” therein lies the rub. If necessity is the mother of invention and invention is the process behind originality, then a business who doesn’t value originality, won’t understand nor value the creative process and will be perfectly happy working with one of the following:
The Hacker dissembles and re-assembles. He is self-taught, uses outdated software and prides himself on his ability to add bevels and rainbow gradients to swishy stars. There isn’t an original Idea bone in his body.
The Hoarder downloads hundreds of “free fonts,” collects photography on Pinterest and regularly “borrows” lettering inspiration from her Instagram feed. Her idea of business marketing is learning how to take a selfie.
The Poser wraps himself in the latest fashion trend and wears it like a sandwich board promoting the daily lunch special. Driven by website hits and Facebook ‘likes’ he regularly bites off more than he can chew then spits out regurgitated work just to meet the deadline.
The Vendor automates, prepackages and easily dispenses her work for quick consumption. Her pixel pushing service provides few options, no customization, and is cheap enough that if the supply runs low or the customer isn’t happy the next vendor easily replaces her.
These are not artists. Artists are driven by the desire to author, to create and to problem solve, not to collect or assemble. We are not motivated by a soaring bank account, flashy titles or accolades. Some days our work is filled with fear and failure, but mostly we are drawn towards an illusion, sparks of inspiration and the knowingness that we will create work that matters. We seek originality, not novelty, and our art is protected under law.
When is it time to take a stand?
You will do your best to give people the benefit of the doubt, other times you will be called upon to protect your art, your integrity and your livelihood. Years ago, I canceled a lucrative contract with a major motion picture studio when I was asked to purchase awards for their art director while struggling to meet my company payroll. I’ve hired attorneys to collect on invoices far overdue and walked away from many “potential clients” when something didn’t feel right. More recently, when a life coach used my design to direct a crowdsourcing competition without my permission, I was ashamed that I had made what has taken decades of practice and tens of thousands of dollars in education “look easy.” Not only had she taken my work, she also stole from my livelihood and, quite frankly, food out the mouths of my children.
You will learn never to assume that you and your clients value
creativity, originality, and confidentiality equally.
You will learn to never openly share your creative process
unless you are willing to give it away.
You will learn it’s okay to fire a client, big or small when they cross the line.
So, to answer that question again, Luv, How hard is it to support yourself as an artist?
In the words of my other favorite author Elizabeth Gilbert…
Creative endeavors are always freaky casinos. You cannot go into any creative field expecting or demanding satisfying worldly rewards. The joy and strangeness of the creative process itself is your reward — MUST be your reward.
Supporting yourself as an artist is possibly the hardest job on earth, second only to being the mother of that artist. Seriously though, the artist is in YOU as much as it is in me. She will never let go. She will never abandon you. She will follow your every turn and cling to your every move. And just when you think you’ve found a “real job” she will claw and gnaw from the inside trying to get out and shout…You have so much more to create.
You’ve got this, Luv. And I’ve got your back!