Above: Notes taken during a really important meeting I no longer remember.
One of the chief obstacles many creative people face is how to cope with the intersection between our creative and our professional lives. Is drawing, painting, photography, music, whittling, just a hobby? Or are we serious about it and wiling to throw ourselves over the cliff’s edge and base our livelihood up on it? Anxiety over this issue is what derails a lot of us when we are young. Do we go to art school or a “real” college? Do we spend the rest of our lives in a split-level ranch or a garret? Do we break our parents’ hearts or become accountants?
Like most things in life, it’s not that black and white. People who make money doing creative things usually reap a varied harvest. It’s never 9 to 5 and the paychecks are rarely steady but there are more and more ways to sell your creative products. It’s not about getting your slides accepted at a New York gallery. And your patrons may be people just like you, not just investment bankers looking for investable art. For example, the internet means you can show and sell posters of your work and never leave the farm. You can sell drawings and jewelry and t-shirts and greeting cards and zillions of things.
And most importantly, you can call yourself an artist, regardless of how much money you make or how many pieces you sell.
I make a smallish percentage of my living from my personal work. I write books, I write articles, I do illustrations, but the lions’ share of my income is from my job in a company, working for the Man. I am pretty comfortable with this arrangement. It means I don’t feel desperate, I do the projects I want to do, and the extra money keeps me in 24 karat fountain pens and hand-bound unborn-calf-velllum sketchbooks.
Recently, I asked two successful illustrator to share some of the details of their lives, particularly to explain this issue of commitment and financial survival. First, Penelope Dullaghan, whom you may know as the originator of Illustration Friday. She took the leap from advertising into full-time illustration a Notes from a really important meeting I no longer remember.
A few years ago, I temporarily detached from the ad teat. It had been a good run. Ad agencies had provided a good steady income, kept my family health-insured, taken me on some all expense-paid junkets to interesting places. But the experience has often been depleting, humiliating, demoralizing, and I had to see what it was like it cut loose. Eventually I got sucked back in but I still question the wisdom of succumbing.
I’m not alone in wondering. Most advertising creatives would like to break free. A few brave ones do. A couple of weeks ago, I asked some pals who had jumped ship to tell me what drove them to do it, how they did it, and how they feel in retrospect. I was going to gang them together in a single post but when the first one arrived, from Trevor Romain, it was so good, I had to get it to you right away.
Have you had a similar or completely different experience? Please let me know, either by posting a comment below or by writing me a longer description. And stay tuned for more in this series.
The Very Moment by Trevor Romain
I’ll never forget that day.
It was the morning after I had pulled an all-nighter creating an advertising campaign for a client. The campaign was a good one. I felt great about it. With a number of Clio awards and dozens of Addy and One Show awards under my belt I felt confident that the client would love the ideas we were presenting.
The cigar-chomping, excessively-sweating client – who I created the campaign for – was reviewing the work. He was looking over the ad campaign with disdain.
He said. “This is bad. I hate it. Why don’t you just take the logo and fill the page with the entire thing? Now that would be branding.”
My heart sank. Then I felt anger. Extreme anger. Not at the client, but at myself. I remembered a promise I had made to myself twenty years before. A promise I had not kept.
It happened when I was in the army in South Africa. I was walking through a field hospital filled with kids from small rural villages who had been brought to a clinic for treatment from the army medical corps. The conditions were abysmal. There were almost six kids per bed, it was nauseatingly hot and there were flies everywhere, especially around the corners of the children’s eyes and mouths.
As I was walked down the center aisle I caught sight of a little boy who was about five years old sitting on the edge of one of the hospital beds. I looked into his huge brown eyes as I walked by and then noticed with shock that he had no legs. Instead I saw dirty bandages wrapped around two stumps. The boy had lost his legs in a landmine accident on the Angolan border.
As I walked by, the little boy put up his hands and said “Sir, can you please hold me.”
I will never forget the haunting look of sadness in his eyes. Huge tears rolled slowly down his cheeks and dropped to the floor, their significance lost in the dust and grime of war.
The Sergeant Major, who was walking alongside me, grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the child.
“Romain,” he grunted. “Leave him alone. Don’t get emotionally involved. We’re here for security, not child-care.”
As the Sergeant Major pulled me away the little boy, in a broken chocked-up whisper, spoke again. His voice tugged at me from behind.
“Sir, please, please can you just hold me?”
Something happened to me that moment that I will never forget. My life changed instantly. It felt like a hand came out of the sky, reached inside me, and flipped a switch that turned on my soul.
I pushed the Sergeant Major’s hand away, turned, walked back and picked up the little boy. I have never been held so tightly in my life. His trembling little body clung to me for all it was worth.
He put his head against my chest and he began to cry. His tears ran down my neck and inside my shirt. I held that little boy with my arms, my heart and my soul and every ounce of compassion in my being. I never wanted to let him go, ever.
At that second I promised myself that I would never waste a second of my valuable life. That I would use my creative talents to change the world for children.
But I didn’t.
I went into advertising because it was safe and the money was good and everyone told me that it was almost impossible to make a living writing and illustrating children’s books.
I believed them.
I got sucked into the advertising vortex. I allowed client after client put my work down, destroy my exciting ideas and turn me into a cynic, who spent every day, using my talents to convince consumers to buy things they didn’t need.
The inner explosion had been building for months. The cigar-chomping client wasn’t the reason I quit that day. He just lit the fuse.
My wife and I discussed the situation and both decided that I HAD to follow my dream.
I woke up the next day, sat in front of my yellow pad and started my new job as an un-published children’s author and illustrator.
Although getting started was difficult and sometimes frustrating, the sheer passion and joy of doing what I love was there. And it still is. I have been hungry, rejected, under-appreciated and often ignored but I LOVE what I do. I have been writing full time for ten years now and I am one of the happiest people I have ever met.
During my journey, after every book rejection I received, I heard the little boys voice in my head saying, “Sir, please can you just hold me.
And in my heart and soul I did.
And I still do.
I now have 30 books in print with over one million copies in circulation in twelve different languages.
And I’m not done yet. I still hear the little boy’s voice.couple of years ago and I remember how suspenseful but ultimately very satisfying the whole process was for her.
Second is Torontian Alana Machnicki. I like her drawings a lot and am inspired by the broad range of ways she applies them. I have learned a lot from both their stories. I hope you find them useful too.
I think that leading a creative life is both rewarding and really really hard. It’s not just creative painting and being messy all the time. It is a real business, like any other. (Well, maybe not like any other. I think this is way more fun.)
To manage a creative life, I think first and foremost you need to be a good planner. You are not guaranteed a paycheck or steady income, so sometimes it gets really thin and you have to adjust accordingly. If you have a bad month, you better have some money left over from a good month to float through it. The people who work at the phone company and the power company have steady jobs and will not understand if you tell them you’ve had a bad month. :) So you need to budget!
But planning goes beyond financial. Time is also yours to plan. A good balance of work and gathering inspiration and personal time is important (I struggle with this a lot). Being an entrepreneur is hard. No one makes the rules for you and no one is there to tell you to work (or to stop working). If you decide to take time off and accidentally miss a deadline, you’re in trouble. At the same time, if you work around the clock and burn out, that’s no good either. Balance is in planning.
Secondly, I think it takes faith. Faith that the next job will eventually come, even if it sometimes feels like no one will ever call again. If no client has called with a new job or assignment, it can be really scary. Self doubt creeps in and you start to wonder if you’re really cut out for this. Working at the mall starts looking really appealing. But this is something to be waited out…and not sitting down. If you are bored, you’re doing it wrong. If no paid work is coming in, do something for your business. Start working on a new image for self-promotion. Update your website. Write some thoughts down about avenues to get your name out there. Work on personal work for yourself, while at the same time, bettering your skills. Give yourself an assignment…challenge yourself to think conceptually. Read a business book to hone that side of things. There’s always something you can work on. Always room for improvement.
Or, if you are a workaholic like me, try to relax and take some downtime. Go to a movie (a matinee to save money) or go for a walk in the park. Fill your well. By the time a client calls again (and they will!), you’ll be ready and inspired to do the project at hand.
And thirdly, it takes a lot of plain, hard work. I have a lot of things going on all the time (maybe too much) to help me pay my bills as well as keep the creative fire burning (for both me and others). But it’s work I enjoy doing. I get a lot out of having fun little contests (just finished up a “Draw a Witch” contest for Halloween) and doing free things like Paper Doll Mix n Match to help promote my new tshirts. I have an online store to sell prints and stuff to help financially and just for fun (I like thinking up new tees and postcards to print).
I also started Illustration Friday as a way to challenge myself…to grow my portfolio and force myself to think conceptually. Then I opened it up to others because I figured they would like the challenge too. And now it’s a huge, fun thing that many people participate in each week. I love seeing all the new names pop up in the column and checking their illustrations to see how their minds work. It’s also become a great form of self-promotion… even though that’s not why I created it (I think of it as a perk for running it!). The site was recently named a HOW Top Ten Website, which I thought was cool not only because it’s good promotion for the site, but because it kind of speaks to the creative community at large… maybe we’re not all isolated artists, but we seek to be a part of something bigger by supporting each other and talking to each other. Illustration Friday helps with that.
I’m also a part of a local illustrators group. I look forward to getting together with them once a month to chat about the industry, ask questions, give answers and just be with like-minded people. Part of a community, again…
I’m going to be honest and say that it is sometimes really hard to have so much going on. I get stressed out and unbalanced. Keeping up with my normal workload, Illustration Friday, doing self-promo, creative-community things, running an online store, gallery shows and trying to maintain a personal life… can be a bit much. I sometimes miss having a regular job with regular hours and regular paychecks. But I really can’t imagine giving it up. I feel like it’s kind of built itself…each thing I do is a part of me. It’s good for my creative spirit and hopefully feeds my business, too.
More on Penelope here, here and here.
As a creative I’ve always found it important not to put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak. I like to have a little going on in different aspects. I have a tendency to get bored really easily and having a cornucopia of outlets to choose from keeps me happy.
I also find it much easier to live as a creative when I’m not under financial pressure. Because of this I’ve come to accept that having a part time job in the background is essential for me. Also, having the foresight to keep the job, even when I’m having a particularly profitable month, is even more important. I never know when a dry spell is going to come along and leave me scrambling to pay the bills.
I try to promote myself as best as I can. I hand out business cards at every opportunity, even if it is to someone who will never need my services. There’s always that chance they’ll pass the card or my website on to someone who does. I also travel to Comic Conventions with my fiancé where I sell prints of my work. This has lead to jobs, commissions and sometimes the print sales add up to more than what I would have made selling the original. It’s also a great way to expose my work to the masses and hand out more business cards.
I also sell my prints online, but I’ve found people are quite wary of the whole system. The orders I have processed have been through email and the “I’ll mail you a cheque” method, rather than Paypal. I guess people prefer to deal with a real person.
I rarely turn down any job that comes my way, unless I’m totally swamped. Even those with a lower budget could be seen by another art director who wants to offer me my dream job. I’ve also done a couple “sample” jobs where I’ll work on a piece just to show them what I can do for them. Sometimes I get the job (this is how I got my Absolut Vodka ad) other times I’m left with another piece in my files. A few of these filed samples have lead into other jobs.
I do a little graphic design here and there. I design websites occasionally. I used to even have a part time job where I altered travel photos to make grey skies blue and erase trash from the street. I think it’s just a matter of being open minded and knowing what you’re capable of. I’m also a very quick learner, so I usually know if people just give me a chance I’ll pick up on the skills needed.
A lot of artists have issues with being labeled a “sellout,” especially when working commercially. Personally, I think I’m very lucky to be able to do what I love and get paid for it.
Currently I’m trying my hand a sculpting my wedding cake topper (maybe this could parlay into some kind of wedding topper business), and have plans for a line of t-shirts. I’ve also been thinking of different things to sell at the comic conventions, such as smaller pre-framed prints. I’m also working on a children’s book for Scholastic that features intricate paintings of carousel horses, as well as 400 spot illustrations for a Kitchen Dictionary.