Monday, April 23, 2012

More Advice

On the heals of Randy Gallegos' very nontraditional but all around awesome bit of advice over at ArtOrder, as well as my own, more traditional chunk of wisdom from last week, I bring you a few additional spoonfuls of what some might deem common sense.  Nevertheless, I'm here to offer these tasty morsels up for your consideration.  Why?  Because we've reached the time of year where art students far and wide start sweating their futures.  With the days of their doing projects within a structured environment coming to a close, many of them begin shooting off emails and making phone calls to folks like myself, hoping to get some insight, advice or a paid internship.  While I can't do the third, I just might be able to help with the other two.

Now, some or all of what I might share herein may be old hat to those of you perusing the letters which, when assembled, form words.  But my own observations of some of the folks entering the field each year have indicated that there are certainly those who might benefit from some of what I'm about to get into.  And so, without further interruption, I shall.
Learn To Talk About Your Work
Learning to draw and paint is fine and good, but in addition to developing such fine and admirable skills, you might want to take some time out to figure out how to discuss your work articulately.  And no, I'm not talking about learning to write well for your blog and such (though that's not a bad idea, either).  I'm talking about actual, spoken words — you know, with inflection and everything!  When I was in school, I was expected to actually talk about what it is I did and to eventually get to the point where I could describe my work, style, genre and subject matter in one, concise sentence.  Nowadays, I'm guessing you'd need to be able to do that in 140 characters.  Still, it's not a bad idea to be able to chat about your process, to be able to speak about your choices and to intelligently defend them.  While such a thing as vocalization may seem obsolete now that the internet is here, like it or not there are still art directors out there who might actually want to meet you in person at some point, and if at all possible, it'd be nice if they can actually have a conversation with you.  Trust me, they seem to like that kind of thing.

Learn Humility
While learning to talk about yourself and your work, remember to keep it simple and humble.  Don't be that guy who thinks he's the second coming of the illustration god, Illustrut (I made that up, like it?).  We all know him.  He's the guy who adds pretentiousness where none is needed, the guy who inflates the importance of his work and profession.  Most illustrators I know avoid that guy, and most illustrators are the opposite of that guy — they're humble and don't buy into their own hype.  Personally, I find it difficult to take myself too seriously.  I paint zombies and dragons and such.  I churn out the odd clunker now and then that is more than enough to damage what little self-esteem I actually have.  I have loved only a handful of my own pieces, and one day hope to love another handful.  While I'm not saying you should aspire to be some self-flagellating illustration martyr, I think it's worth remembering that when Illustrut returns to us, he will likely embody someone who isn't you.

Learn to Critique
Now, I'm sure that most of you reading this will roll their eyes over this one, but it's an essential skill.  Most schools out there expect you to participate in critiques of your fellow classmates' work.  But, if managed to got through school without acquiring this important skill, then I suggest you find a group of folks you can rely on and trust, and start doing it as soon as possible.  And I'm not suggesting this because I'm some twisted mashochist who wants to shower in the tears of those being critiqued.  Critiquing the work of others trains your eye, so that when you turn it toward your own work it is more effective.  And while you might be looking forward to the end of such public critiques come graduation, I sincerely hope you don't abandon the practice altogether.  Fourteen years after graduating from college, I still regularly show sketches and finished work to several guys who I know will cut right to the heart of any visible weakness in a piece.  Work I've stared at to the point of bleariness can instantly be tidied with fresh eyes once I've lost all objectivity, and such an asset is invaluable.

Learn To Take a Critique
Think you only need to be able to give a good critique?  Think again.  If you can't take as good as you give, you have to figure out how to develop a thicker skin.  While it can be extremely difficult to have someone rip your favorite piece to shreds, you have to find a way to look at those comments objectively.  If you're getting defensive when on the receiving end of a critique, it just might be possible that in your heart of hearts you know there's some truth to what's being said to you.  I know that that is certainly the case whenever the urge to become defensive wells up within me during critique.  And, believe it or not, learning to take criticism helps make you better at giving it.  This, in turn, makes you better at receiving critiques, and so on.  Look, I know it's tough to have someone point out the flaws in a piece you've labored over and poured a bit of your soul into, but believe it or not, there's an excellent chance that whoever is trying to drive that stake through your heart is doing it to make you a tougher vampire.

Learn When Not to Self-Promote
There are some excellent resources out there on self-promotion.  I'm not going to link any, because I fail at research, but I know they're out there because people have told me about them, and I believe everything everyone tells me.  What I'm getting at is that it's a deeper topic than this post can accommodate and I think it's sometimes more valuable to touch on what not to do.  The gist is, there's a time and a place for everything.  Learn when to self-promote, and when to just plant the seed of self-promotion — the I'll-catch-up-with-you-tomorrow-and-we-can-talk-about-it, kind of thing.  This is a tough tightrope to walk, and it's something I think you have to learn through experience, but my rule of thumb is that if it feels natural to the occasion to whip out my portfolio or start handing out my business cards, then fine.  If it's going to result in any kind of awkwardness, I'll try and find a way to plant a seed.  If that still feels awkward, I leave it for another day and carry on.  There are definitely those who feel that's too passive and that you should be a touch pushier, but it's just not in me.  Figuring out what feels comfortable to you can take a while, but it's a necessary thing.  Just remember that there are times when you need to skip the used car salesman routine, and if you're asking yourself whether or not this is one of those times, it probably is.

Learn To Be Careful Of What You Shoot At
There's a lot of art out there I don't like.  There are some of my fellow artists who annoy me to no end, and I likely do the same to them.  And I've worked under some nightmare scenarios with companies I'd never work with again.  Despite all this, I try not to talk much about any of them.  At least not publicly.  Sure, I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion and are free to express it, but I try and avoid yammering on about many of my professional opinions when out amongst my peers, and especially on the internet.  Why?  Well, just as you can be fired from a job for writing the wrong thing on Facebook, you can lose a client doing the same.  As far as I'm concerned, the internet is akin to a soapbox and megaphone, only your voice carries much further online.  It's best to assume that anything said about anyone will eventually get back to them.  So, I avoid saying anything I wouldn't otherwise say publicly to a person's face.  Sure I might gripe and commiserate behind the scenes with a few people I hold as confidants (an important thing to have), but like it or not ripping another artist or their work, or complaining publicly about a client can come back to haunt you.  You never know who their friends are and how vengeful they can be.  This business is hard enough, try not to make it harder.

Learn To Feed Your Head
While I can't say this is a common thing, I can't exactly say it's uncommon, either.  I've heard tell tale of artists cloistering themselves in order to keep influences away.  They want to keep their work pure.  While I understand the mentality, I also think it's pretty flawed.  Becoming a hermit limits you to what's in your own head.  But if you take as much in as possible, you have a whole world to explore and more fodder than you could ever consume in a lifetime.  I suggest taking it all in.  Roll everything around in your mind a while, try each thing on and see what fits.  It is all going to be churned through that lovely, unique brain of yours, so you'll always be present in what comes out.  Your brain will filter every tidbit you cram in there, your hand will drive every stroke.  And weaving all those disparate, corrupting influences together will be your own sensibilities, your own will.  Feed your head, feed your heart.  It's what the beast needs to grow, and if the beast doesn't get what it needs it will whither and die.

That's it!  I swear.  If you managed to get through all that, color me impressed.  And while this advice is free (except for all the time you've spent reading that you'll never get back), it may not necessarily be any good.  Which is what I'll be talking about next time.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Lack of a Silver Bullet

A little while back, I got an email that contained the following:

I am curious as to how all of you artists are so insanely fantastic with drawing, sketching, painting, etc.  Although I love art a lot, my art (if anyone would ever call it such), is amateur at best. I was hoping to request one tip if any at all from someone that seems like a profession artist.

This is a question I have been asked many, many times, and when faced with this question without a portfolio of work to examine for a more specific critique, I typically answer with a fairly stock reply.  But I think it's a pretty good one, so I'm going to share my response.  Here goes:

I wish I could tell you that there's a magic bullet.  I wish there was a simple thing you could adjust that would take your work from being okay, to professional quality.  I really wish I could tell you that it's easy.  But it's not.

The quality reached by the many artists who work on Magic: The Gathering tends to come from a combination of two sources: innate talent and hard work.

Innate talent is something no one has any control over.  I knew guys in college who could draw me under the table without making any real effort to do so.  There was something in their brains that clicked naturally, and it was pretty clear that my brain just wasn't wired that way.  I knew I had some raw skills, but not to the level of some of these other folks.  To this day I know a lot of folks who are far better than I am at drawing, painting, what have you.  Some of my betters haven't even picked up a pencil or brush in years but when they do they create things that would give one the impression that they've been at it the whole time.  It's frustrating and awe-inspiring, but the disparity of natural talent from one person to another is something you have to accept.  The sooner you do so, the quicker you can concentrate on the second source, which happens to be the only one you actually have control over: the amount of work you put in.

The old adage that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become truly proficient at it is pretty daunting.  While I can't say that it's a universal rule, I think it was true for me.  I had to spend a lot of time doing bad work in order to get to the point where I was doing good work.  I must confess, however, that even after doing this full-time and professionally for eleven years, I'm still putting out the occasional clunker.  Still, I do make a living painting, and I got to where I am by putting in the hours.  Hours doing what?  Everything I could.  I drew during every moment I could spare.  I drew when I sat on the subway, or waited for the bus.  I drew when I watched t.v.  I drew when I hung out with friends.  I went to life drawing to draw the model, but I also drew my fellow train passengers.  I drew the trees outside my window, the washing machine at the laundromat, and even freeze frames from my favorite movies.  On top of this, I spent a lot of time putting my ideas down.  Problems to solve visually, and various ways to address those problems.  Designs for cool machines, weird armor ideas, random mythological critters.  Whenever possible, I put those ideas to use in fully fleshed-out paintings.  Many of my earlier efforts no longer exist as I've destroyed most, but the fact that I painted those paintings at all made a huge difference.

Hard work is truly what defines many professional artists out there.  I have known some who I once thought should consider hanging their brushes up and finding another way to make a living — people who I thought were lost causes and too old to be as bad as they were.  But they kept at it, put in some really hard work and have gone on to do really great things.  Regardless of how much talent they were born with, it's the man hours that made the difference.

The fact is that their success in art came down to staying hungry.  Hungry for better quality, better ideas, better work.  It's all about dedication to a trade, and the willingness to follow through.  Getting into the art field is knowing that you're in it for the long haul.  It's not a job.  It's not even a career.  To those who've been in it all their lives, it's who they are.  It's not a four years of school and you're done kind of scenario.  It's a lifetime of learning and work in order to continue to get better.

Now, I'm totally aware of how this kind of advice sounds.  To some it's inspiring.  To others it's heartbreaking.  To most, it results in a mixed bag.  If it gives you pause, it should.  It's not an easy road, and it sometimes involves quite a bit of sacrifice.  There are days where the decision to get into art feels like a huge mistake, but then you realize that you cannot even conceive of doing anything other than struggling with that piece that has frustrated you to the point of tears and taken you to the verge of quitting.  The hard, chunky bits that grate on you are a dream compared to the office cubicle that might otherwise await you.  If you're one of the ones who can't see yourself living any other life, then you'll find it in yourself to do the hard work.  Mediocre talent can be overcome.  Success can be achieved.  You just have to be willing to break your back a little.

One last bit of advice: while you toil away, remember to be kind to yourself — but not too kind.  Beating yourself up won't make you better.  Conversely, constantly patting yourself on the back and being amazed by your own success won't either.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Steve Vs. Pests

Amy and I moved into the house in January.  Judging from the range of noises in the walls, it became obvious early on that we had a mouse problem.  So I began to take care of it to the best of my ability.  I caught a few, likely poisoned some others, but found that the scritching and scratching heard nightly didn't seem to change much.  Because of this, my landlord hired an exterminator.

The exterminator was a snide little fellow who cut me off every time I tried to talk, contradicted me at every turn, and was here for about twenty minutes, the first fifteen of which he spent criticizing me for how our furniture was laid out, with the remaining five spent haphazardly throwing poison blocks around the attic.  Both his attempts at insulting me and at exterminating pests failed.  The noises continued.

So I started to look around the house to see if I could find a point of entry and maybe at least cut down on any traffic in and out of the place.  Amy and I spent an afternoon filling holes as best we could in hopes that we might get some sleep.  That's when I noticed the holes in the ground along the fence.  Now, I'm not the kind of guy who can identify the species of animal just by looking at the hole they make.  All I knew is that they were big enough for me to put my entire hand inside, so it couldn't be mice or chipmunks.  I also noticed there was an awful lot of garbage in my backyard, and not my garbage, either.  Tin foil, peanut butter jars, pudding cups.  My neighbor, upon seeing me puzzling over this new detritus quietly came clean.  My neighborhood had a bit of a rat problem.

Now, I don't want you thinking that I'm living in some third world hovel.  I live amongst the bridge and tunnel crowd — the kind of people who could afford to live in Manhattan, but chose not to.  It's extremely suburban and to say that the yards around here are immaculate would be an understatement. 

If all that's the case, how the heck did rats make this area their home?  No one's certain.  What is certain is that there's been a lot of construction in the area.  Three houses within a two block radius have had overflowing dumpsters parked out front for months at a time as additions have been put on and remodeling has occurred.  The rats could have taken a free ride in one of the dumpsters and found themselves smack in the middle of our 'hood, or they could simply have been attracted by the lunch leftovers the construction workers have lackadaisically tossed into the dumpsters each day.  Whatever the cause, they're here.  Add a mild winter into the mix, and you've got yourself a problem.

As soon as I told my landlord about the rats, she called in a new exterminator who quickly went to work the very next day.  This new exterminator was a woman who took her time to listen to everything I had to say, was willing to get dirty, and had nothing to say about our decor.  Within seven days of her first visit, Amy and I were busing dead rats out of our backyard.  And over the next couple weeks, the rat holes became increasingly decrepit and are now clearly abandoned.  Progress has been made.  While our own property seems to be rat free, it's wise to remain vigilant as many other homes have been affected.  Each time the same thing happens.  So worried about the stigma of having rats, people end up keeping the problem from their neighbors until it's too late.  It's unfortunately already had a negative affect on some neighborly relations in the area, and could also lead to their return.

All the while, the noises continued in the walls at night in one form or another.  Over time, they've stopped in all but one location: a small section of the wall immediately behind the headboard of our bed.  Like clockwork, the rustling begins just as we are trying to fall asleep.  Unless, of course, it's warm out.  Should the temperature stay above forty degrees or so, it's largely silent throughout the place.  So it would seem that our mystery critter has been coming in and huddling next to the heating duct for warmth.  Mind you, the basement and attic have been inspected very thoroughly by myself and three different exterminator techs.  While we never found any sign of rats inside, there was once clear signs of mice, but no more.  The smell of uneaten peanut butter from all the various traps fills my attic, and still nothing.  No animals caught in months, and whenever it's cold outside the noise continues.

So, if it's not rats and it's not mice, then what's keeping us up at night?  The finger next pointed to squirrels.  I honestly didn't see how this could possibly be the case as squirrels supposedly do a lot of damage and leave behind very pungent odors, and we have neither of these and no hole.  Like I said, I've spent a lot of time searching for entry points into the house, and I've never seen anything that pointed to squirrels.  Well, except that gaping hole the size of a fist in the side of the place that I completely missed after two months of looking.  It took five minutes of the animal control expert from the extermination company to see it, and I felt like a pretty big idiot.  Obviously he didn't want to close the hole up straight away, just in case something was inside at the time.  What he decided to do, instead was to stuff some steel wool in the hole and see what happens.  The steel wool plug is in there nice and loose, and he figured that if they were inside they'd push it out.  If outside, they'd push it in.  Point being, we'd see some evidence of the comings or goings, and after getting this new evidence, a one-way tunnel would be affixed to the house so they could get out, but not back in.  A week after this visit and the steel wool remains untouched.  The noise continues.

As of right now, no one is sure what's in the wall.  My landlord is game for opening the wall up as a last resort, and I feel like we're getting to that point.  In the meantime, one other action has been taken.  When we moved in, three pine trees lived in front of the house.  Each was taller than the house itself, which is two stories, and one was situated a mere eighteen inches from the facade.  My landlord felt the critters what live in our wall might be climbing those trees to get to the second floor, where the noise is located.  And obviously she was also worried about the house's foundation and such.  Two days ago the trees were cut down.  While our tree free front yard resulted in more light in the studio, thus far it hasn't affected the noise.

Between earplugs and sheer exhaustion, I've learned to sleep through the racket.  Our cupboards remain pest free, the living space continues un-invaded, the attic and basement still show no sign of visitors.  At this point I'm willing to call it a draw.  Since the trees were felled, I have not seen a squirrel anywhere on our property.  I periodically see a chipmunk or two (their burrows are on the opposite side of the property from those of the rats), an occasional rabbit or two stops by in the evening, and all kinds of birds frolic in what trees remain.  Those at least have left me alone.

Except, of course, for the chickadee that I saw fly out of a hole just above one of my studio windows yesterday.