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.
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 CritiqueNow, 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 CritiqueThink 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 AtThere'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.