Sunday, September 18, 2011
Monday, September 5, 2011
I started drawing at a young age but then again, all children draw. I never really took the accolades to heart, due less to insecurities in my own drawings but more because I never looked at artists as having an inborn creative dexterity. Rather they were people who worked diligently at a skill that they found gratifying. And while the kind words were nice, it was disorienting having the wonders of my talent extolled by family and friends, while simultaneously being shamed for not similarly excelling at more ‘practical’ subjects. At 17, my options were not plentiful. A lacrosse scholarship was out of the question after playing in six junior varsity games and dropping almost every pass that came my way. I had no ability to commit to memory the rules of chemical bonding. And after eight scholastic quarters, I could barely slosh my way through trigonometry and pre-calculus.
There is only a handful of instances in our lives when we can look back and see ourselves standing at a crossroads. When a singular moment, though seemingly trivial at the time, conclusively alters your life. I vividly remember sitting at my kitchen table with my mother after school one day in September filling out my applications to Pratt Institute and Ringling College of Art & Design. When the form asked me to declare a major I deferred to my mother. She offered, “Well you love to draw so why don’t you put down Illustration?” And with a short check in a blue ball-point pen I decided my future right then and there.
After college I took a staff job at an animatics studio and continued to work in the field for the next six years. Initially, I was delighted to have a chance to work as a creative professional. New York is flush with illustrators and designers creating new visual languages that inform the rest of the world. But after years on the periphery while all this dynamic work was being created all around, the urge to contribute became overwhelming. I enrolled in the MFA Illustration program at the School of Visual Arts and for the next two years I reinvented myself all the while working full time. After graduation I continued to work my day job but after being exposed to so much possibility at SVA my position there began to feel incredibly stale. My need to remain financially secure with a moderately creative staff position was overtaken by a much more intense desire to work solely for myself on projects that spoke directly to my sensibilities. So with a small handful of clients and some money saved up, I took the jump.
The idea of generating my own income was and still is terrifying. But looking back on my first year as a business owner, I can honestly say that I am doing much better than I expected. By far this past year has been the most defining of my life – for the first time I feel a total responsibility for my success or failure. And if that requires getting up at 7 in the morning and working until 11 at night, then so be it. For the most part, I have spent the past twelve months working on a very diverse and engaging bunch of projects. There have been some very long hours and some absolutely insane deadlines but the freedom to bypass the traditional chain of command and go it alone with clients has been magnificent. As a result of this liberation, I have my fair share of sleepless nights. Waking up at three in the morning and not being able to go back to sleep because of ‘the fear’ which ranges from little things like “I don’t know InDesign well enough and I need to draw looser like so-and-so,” to grander, more abstract worries like “Have I made the right choice and where will I be in five years?” Yet, I try to remind myself that everything is exacerbated by the darkness and silence of night, and with the morning light I’m usually less plagued by these demons. In the daytime, I take a much more pragmatic perspective in regards to my career choices. When the responsibilities of the day are laid out in front of me I am able to shut out most of the discord in my head and hunker down on the work that is actually the key to generating a career worthy of pride and hopefully prestige. There are so many components to being a successful entrepreneur but getting tangled in the technical aspects of business leaves little time to generate the quality ‘product’ that is required of an artist-for-hire.
Creating art professionally puts one in a rather precarious position. Let alone the difficulty of commodifying one’s art, any dismissal of an artist’s work can be perceived as not only a disapproval of visual idiom but also a renunciation of the creator himself. It is akin to the viewer saying to an artist: “You have nothing to offer.” And since we are obviously such a temperamental and sensitive bunch, you would think that we’d all be better off taking our Series 7 tests and painting on weekends. The most favorite of existential subjects discussed over many a cheap beer amongst my fellow aspiring illustrators is how to find that balance between professional and personal satisfaction. How can I receive financial remuneration all the while staying true to what comes naturally to me? Perhaps the reason that balance remains so elusive to most in this field is because it is no small feat to create unique, multi-faceted work that belies no influence, while also being a marketing director, accountant and contributing member of the artistic social community.
The truth of the matter is that no illustrator is a master of all of these. It’s healthy to be inspired by the abilities of our heroes but we must be mindful not to get mired in social comparison. The illustrators that we admire most display a disproportionate amount of talent, vision and/or business savvy. The rarity of perfection looks quite imposing perched atop the mountain. Still, it is important for every artist to remember that his or her stories are worth telling. Particularly for those mere mortals who haven’t been blessed with genius it is essential to pick up the slack in other areas, ensuring that their trumpets resound from the valley below. For example, I know unequivocally that I will never be James Jean (if you are not familiar with him – DO NOT google him; save yourself a broken spirit), so where I lack his virtuosity I compensate with hard work, consistency and good decisions. As professional creatives, we need to simultaneously exist as practitioners of realism and as unabashed idealists in order to carve out a workplace for us to thrive.
And yet, though we have chosen a rather difficult and highly specialized field to work in, the rewards are infinitely plentiful. There is something intoxicating about having your work exist within a specific, albeit temporary, context and knowing that there are thousands of people out there interacting with it. The prevalence of tight deadlines prevents quiescence and the opportunity to work on many different kinds of projects over a short period of time. Unlike performing on stage, our art can exist solely on its own and it is up to us if we want to step forward and make our identities as creators known. The field of illustration is a warm and nurturing place to exist in, and the giants that hover high above the rest of us scrambling about below, remain approachable and benevolent. And while each of us tries to leave an individual imprint on illustration, the business continues to twist and morph. In many ways it is daunting, as the familiar model fades. But I truly feel that illustration is in the early stages of a renaissance, with a seemingly renewed interest in hand-created imagery reappearing for the first time in many years. With the expansion of digital media platforms, new avenues are ripe for illustrators to explore and exploit. Where magazines fold, interactive agencies are born. While editorial commissions stagnate, media companies create new opportunities for illustrators to help bring their visions to the masses.
Over a decade ago, a blasé decision set me down a path that I did not fully understand at the time. It was not until very recently that the realities and requirements of that decision came into my full view. In all honesty, I don’t have enough self-doubt or even sensibility within myself to walk away from this thing now.