About proactivity and putting ourselves out there

  • Pro

    I've been thinking about something for several days, it's really been tickling at my brain for a long time and I thought it would be nice to open a discussion about this topic and see what you guys think about it 🙂

    I've been getting more and more work lately and I've also got signed by my agent a couple weeks ago and that really got me thinking. I'm not that exceptional.There are so many artists out there that are way better than me, some of them of course are doing exceedingly well but some of them are surprisingly not! I've been wondering about what it is about an artist that will determine if they're able to make a living at it or not. I have to conclude it's not all about skill!

    I think a lot of it is about proactivity and putting ourselves out there. Making a portfolio, sending it out, contacting people, applying to jobs. It seems evident, but as artists we tend to fall into a trap: we doubt ourselves and our own skills. We know our weaknesses and see all the flaws, so it can be easy to tell ourselves that we're not good enough for paid work yet and we need to keep practicing. While it's great to always strive for improvement, I don't see why we can't keep practicing and look for paid work at the same time. There's so much to be learned from actual jobs that you can't learn from personal art. Even building a portfolio to send out is a great experience even if nothing comes of it. You could even get some feedback from professionals, even if they don't hire you! When I think of the most valuable skills I learned as an artist, almost all of it happened while I was working at a studio.

    I graduated from film animation 3 years ago, and when we showed our films there were awards given out to the best ones, about 5 awards for 25 students. I didn't get an award, I didn't even get a single nomination! My film was, by any standards, quite forgettable. But I didn't have the opportunity to overthink it and doubt myself after I graduated. I was completely broke, I had stretched the last of my money to finish my studies.. I didn't have food, hell I didn't have toilet paper! I had borrowed 40 bucks from my neighbor to have my business cards made for my graduation. I woke up the next morning at dawn and by lunchtime I had applied to 30 studios. 3 weeks later, I had a job! While so many of my more skilled classmates did not...

    A similar thing happened last Spring when I had to leave my job to move to Ottawa. The market is so much smaller here than Montreal. There's only about 5 animation studios, and I applied to all of them and didn't get hired. Then I started to panic! I had 3 months to find myself a way to make money and move my butt to another province. I had no chance to doubt myself, I built a portfolio and sent it EVERYWHERE. Truthfully, I didn't feel ready to be a full-time freelancer, I didn't feel like I was skilled enough to get work. But a couple months later, I had enough contracts to get me started, and I've kept getting consistent work since. Now I can start picking which contracts I feel like doing, and I even have an agent...

    I can't help but think a huge part of that is putting myself out there, applying to jobs and sending out my work even if I don't feel confident. Some of the contracts I have gotten so far were ones I was sure I wasn't good enough for, while some others I thought I was an obvious choice for never called me back. I'm reminded of one of @Will-Terry 's videos where he talks about the different kind of paid work there is out there for all artists of different skill and experience level. I keep seeing amazing artists on Instagram, Facebook, even on the SVS forums, who have something great to offer that I know someone would pay for, but they say they still need to improve before they can think of sending out their work, or even build their first portfolio.

    Just yesterday a girl on Instagram was congratulating me on getting an agent and saying she'd love to have one too but she still needs to practice more before she can look into that. I check out her profile and she has beautiful work, a consistent and adorable style and thousands more followers than me. The only reason I have an agent and she doesn't is because I applied and she didn't... Or at least that's what I conclude!

    So I pass the question off to you, what do you think about my observations? Do you tend to agree, disagree? And if you are at that stage where you think you're still not ready and need to practice more before you can get yourself out there, take a moment to ask yourself: "What is stopping me? What am I waiting for?"

    Oh and sorry this is so long ^^'''''' If you made it this far, congrats you are a trooper!!

  • @nessillustration I keep telling myself I'm still a year or two away. I don't believe I'm good enough yet to be proactive and put myself out there as much. I have gotten a few paid jobs from local people/ businesses. I'm still early in my freelancing career, and I feel I need to grow and expand my abilities before I start sending out my portfolio.

    Another real issue I'm struggling with is finding my path. I'm not sure what career path I want to take. I enjoy people drawing (Will Terrell, Marcelo Vignali, etc.), but I don't think there is a way to make money with that. I have done several illustrations, but I am not sure my style works with children's books. I have a good job right now, and I don't want to dive in to freelance until I have all this figured out.

  • Pro

    @jcantwellart Interesting points! I think you're encompassing many issues and struggles that a lot of artists have. We're always looking for the right moment to start, when we're going to be the most skilled and have everything figured out. Does that perfect moment ever arrive?

    The great thing with freelance is that you can take it as slow or fast as you want. Like you said, taking a few paid jobs here and there from local people and businesses, that is a perfect way to start! And when it comes to improving our skills and finding our path... doing paid work is probably the best way to get there. It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem: you want to figure things out before you freelance, but freelancing is likely the best way for you to figure things out...

    It's such a shame that there isn't a clear cut path to becoming an illustrator, because we all end up struggling to figure out how best to go about it!

  • @nessillustration jeepers talk about hitting the nail on the head - this is exactly my issue - i keep delaying pulling the trigger cos i dont think i am at the level i need to be so instead of sucking it up and trying i just procrastinate, each day getting more fed up with my day job and wishing i was doing something I actually enjoy.
    This post may have just been what i needed to at least give it a go.

  • Pro

    @scribblesbymike I just checked out your portfolio.. WOW! I'm in awe of your art, it's so good, expressive, unique! You are good Mike, really good! Loads better than me. There is no reason for you not to succeed in illustration 🙂 Best of luck to you!

  • Thanks for posting this. This is something I constantly struggle with (today, for some reason, in particular).

    I'll waffle between 'I'm ready to get them postcards sent off right friggin' now' and 'I have no idea what I'm doing and everything I've made up to this point except THIS drawing is hot garbage'.

    By the end of December I'll have made enough content for my portfolio to send off postcards whether I think I'm ready or not.

    Nice to know others feel the same way 🙂

  • Pro

    @art-of-b You are so skilled, Braden! It's very surprising to hear that someone as good as you struggles with this too. I think we all do, to some extent! I consider myself very lucky in a sense, that circumstances in my life made it so I didn't have a choice but to jump in, ready or not. Although they were the most stressful times of my life, if I'd had the leisure to sit and consider it then I definitely wouldn't be anywhere near where I am right now... I always wanted to be a freelance children illustrator, but after my studies I worked for 3 years in video games and didn't take more than half a step towards that goal during all that time... It wasn't what I wanted but it was safe, comfortable. But life lit a fire under my butt and 3 months later I was a freelance illustrator! All this time, if I'd known I could have done it at any time... It's crazy to consider!

  • Believing you aren't good enough even when you have proven yourself to be is called imposter syndrome and it doesn't really go away regardless of what level you achieve. I have seen interviews with a number of artists who do mind blowing work but still feel this way after being a pro for numerous years.

  • SVS OG

    Proactivity is definitely a huge part of finding success. The truth is, good art does NOT sell itself, there are many other factors.

    While my work is far from perfect, I feel that I am ready to find an agent—that’s my goal this year actually. I think a big difference between me and you is situational—you were put in a situation that forced you to move forward, whether you felt ready or not. On the other hand, I feel ready, but I have a husband with a good job, and a two year old and a baby I take care of. If I really needed to I definitely would have really put myself out there and made things happen sooner... but I didn’t need to and in fact, didn’t want to miss too much of these first months of my baby’s life. Now that they’re both older, though, I can move forward and take the steps I wasn’t taking to find work and representation.

    Your story also really reminded me of my experience with teaching drawing classes actually, which I posted elsewhere in the forum (in the thread for the podcast episodes 10 things illustrators must have) so I won’t repeat it all here. The gist is this: I always wanted to teach art classes but made excuses, most having to do with my lack of skill/experience. This year I stopped making excuses and made it happen and it went amazingly well. And yeah it was hard, but also awesome. The end. 😉

    So, yeah. Stop making excuses and start taking action. That’s the way things will start happening for you and not to you. 🙃

  • @art-of-b I think your work is definitely ready for prime time. It is very polished and has a defined style. You should go for it. You also seem to know your path. That helps. I am still trying to figure out where I want to go (stay fine arts, try comics, animal books, or finish writing and illustrating my novel I stated a decade ago, or just stay a hobbyist....) @NessIllustration I think your post is spot on. People who make opportunities happen by putting themselves out there get the work. And I think that's true of most professions.

  • Pro

    @rcartwright Absolutely! Einstein, Oprah, Maya Angelou... It's very widespread and doesn't stop with success. However, what does help is acknowledging it and also talking about it 🙂 But it's also good to mention not everyone who experiences what I described has actual imposter syndrome, for a lot of us it's simply fear of failure, fear of stepping out of our comfort zone, or classic artist self-doubt! I know getting the first few paid contracts went a long way to make me feel more confident 🙂

  • Pro

    @sarah-luann Well said! We can all take steps to make things happen... If and when we want them to happen! Obviously wanting to pause progress to enjoy life and family is a different and wonderful situation 🙂 It's so great that you got to enjoy that part of your life to its fullest and now that you're ready to move forward, I know you'll move mountains ❤

  • Pro

    @chrisaakins You're right, it really is true for most things in life!
    In the case of not having yet a goal like you, it's a different situation indeed. It's much like having a bow and arrow but not having a target yet, vs having a bow and arrow AND a target in sight, but never firing the arrow.

  • Pro SVS OG

    I think you nailed a very important element of success, expressed through both your words and your experience. The feeling of inadequacy NEVER goes away - I don’t know why it affects visual artists in particular (musicians and film-makers don’t seem to feel that way all the time...but maybe they just don’t talk about it so much...). Even my totally awesome designer colleagues often start their team presentations with “I’m not a top-designer, but....” It seems we think that either we´re the absolute creme-de-la-creme, the best the world has to offer, multiple-award-winning-whatever or we’re not entitled to contribute our creation and be paid for our skills and vision.
    A doctor (or any other profession) will not withhold practice and reduce his/her fees only because he´s fresh out of school and has no experience. With art it´s a bit trickier, I guess, because many artists are self-thought...so how do you decide when you can consider yourself ready for the professional world without an easy marker as a graduation of some sorts?
    Also, we put our own inner self out there with every piece of art. If we don’t like it at some level, that´s normal - people don’t normally love every part of themselves. But if the world doesn’t like it, it´s almost a judgement of your own worth at a very deep level - I think it’s very normal that we’re scared of doing that. Getting over that fear and realizing that even if people don’t respond to your art, you’re still entitled to do it and show it, takes a lot of hard skin.
    What helps me navigate this is Neil Gaiman´s commencement speech, the part where he talks about how you’re going to be successful if you are a) good; b) keep deadlines; c) nice to work with - but the good news is, he says: you only need to have two of those. So I try to focus on (b) and (c), and not think about a) too much.

    That said, I think @Sarah-LuAnn makes a very crucial point. “Need” is a key driver of overcoming all your second-guessing yourself.
    I do make a decent income with illustration (or, at least, I did this past year), but it´s not enough to live in my part of the world and it´s only a fraction of my part-time art director salary (which, I have to admit, is horrendously well-paid).
    I could definitely make a lot more if I hustled more - be more pro-active, target advertising agencies, establish a licensing portfolio, go back to doing some animation, etc...but I don’t NEED to. I still - surprisingly - get paid well simply for choosing and briefing other artists. I often dream about what would happen if I quit or lost my day-job, and I think a kick like that would definitely help me be more successful as illustrator. Comfort is a double-edged sword....always has been. And when you have a family and a standard-of-living you’re used to, it becomes unevenly sharp....

  • SVS OG

    Ness, you're absolutely right! I truly don't think I'm there yet, because I'm still figuring out how to finish pieces, but "chutzpah" or whatever you want to call it is definitely a needed skill for success. And sometimes chutzpah is born of the uncomfortable choice between putting yourself out there or not having toilet paper.

    And I really like the point that there are all levels of work, and some things you learn on the job. Good to remember.

    Simona, just thought I'd add that my daughter and her husband are ex-Baroque musicians/aspiring filmmakers and I can tell you that there is plenty of insecurity in both fields. The one thing that might be different for musicians is that they so often perform in groups that there's a bit of a herd mentality that sets the tone. (Honestly, the pay is abysmal and late for everyone, at least in Italy.) And for filmmakers--it's like trying to get into the NBA!

    I think one special problem that visual artists have is that they tend to work alone. There's way too much time for your insecurity/paranoia to grow while you're holed up in your studio drawing. We have to do something to counter that.

    Along those lines I still think there's a missing feedback/confidence link in the "finishing pieces/consistent style" phase, somewhere between basic education and portfolio review. But that's another topic.

    So, those of you with a portfolio, get out there and do something for yourselves today. You never know! 💪

  • I agree that you need to just go for it!
    I'm self taught so I do sometimes lack confidence and I have told my self I have a year to get better before I actively go looking for work/commission (I'm only looking for small things).


    One night I had a wee glass of wine and I decided to send some art work my favourite rapper and I actually got work from him!

    This lead onto 5 other American(I'm from scotland) rappers asking me to do work (currently working on one now).

    Guess it comes down to....You don't ask, you don't get.

  • Pro

    @smceccarelli It's so hard to overcome, for all of us! You're expressing so well why artists feel that way and it's really interesting to think about. There's no clear cut path to art.. For a doctor (which is a really good comparison to me personally because my sister is a doctor actually!) it's simple: you study, you do your residency, you pass your exams, then you get your diploma and you're a doctor. You even get to change your name and call yourself Doctor! It's a very clear path with mandatory milestones and a clear goal at the end. For artists... when do we become artists? We are one when we decide we're ready to be, which is a lot trickier!

    I agree with you and @Sarah-LuAnn that need is a very big aspect of this. It will definitely lit a fire under you to get moving, but that said I can't say I necessarily recommend it. There's definitely something to be said for taking your time, keeping your day job and building your network and experience project by project. Building those systems takes time and having to expedite that process and have to become a freelancer in 3 months was the most stressful time in my life. It worked out, but easily could have not worked out... At the beginning of the summer, the stress had strung me out so much that car noises on the street would make me jump my heart would start racing for almost no reason. It got to the point it had been going on so long I didn't know if I'd ever feel like "myself" again and if this would be the new normal for me. That's not really a big endorsement for a healthy practice!

    That being said, I just hope more artists take the steps at their own rhythm to get the career they deserve 🙂 Whenever I see these amazingly talented people who aren't doing what they want to while I of all people get to every day, it makes me feel sad! There are so many people who deserve it so much and I hope they get the confidence to go after it!

  • Pro

    @lauraa That's a really good point you make about working alone! I have noticed it when I was working on a webcomic with my boyfriend - he wrote it and I drew it. The fact that it was not just my project but his too made it a lot easier to stand behind, to show off, to be proud of. No matter the doubts I can have about my own art, I didn't have the same doubts about his writing and the work we were doing together. It can be a lot more difficult to get to that point about our own art! But I hope more people are able to overcome this and send out their work even if they don't feel confident yet, because there is no shortage of amazing artists who aren't getting all the success they deserve... Because they are stopping themselves

  • Pro

    @craig-imrie That's amazing, Craig!! All the power to you, and congratulations on those amazing gigs!
    I'd be curious to hear who is your favorite rapper? (I may not look like it, but I'm actually quite a big rap fan hihi)

  • SVS OG

    So easy to get caught up in the negative self talk especially when you are isolated from a community of like minded peers.
    I think you are spot on @LauraA - there is a void out there between learning basics and portfolio review. I think mentors can help with this but finding mentors when you are already outside the art world circle (never been to art school, have no networks etc) is super tough. This online community helps but a more formalized structured relationship could be really helpful. Maybe something SVS could consider offering - could be unique in the online art class space.

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