Advertising and Its Discontents – Part I

adnotes.gif 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.

Penelope Dullaghan

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.

Alana Machnicki

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.

The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are


My guide to discovering and increasing your creativity. It’s over two hundred pages of essays, ideas, and watercolors. Here’s a peek inside.

Buy Now From Amazon

I got the first note from someone who has bought my new book at Barnes and Noble today and I realized it is high time I shared some more details about the book with everyone. First of all, I have put together a crude little gallery with a few representative spreads from the book, generally one from each chapter.

Next I’d like to share some opinions from people who’ve gotten their hands on it. I hope to do this less in the spirit of self-congratulation (though I am quite proud of this book) and more to just let people know what the whole things is about and hope fully to inspire some readership.

Let me also say something quite important up front. I have written this book and kept this website going for years now for a simple reason. Re-awakening my creativity and sense of myself as an artist changed my life and helped me to deal with the most horrible thing that has ever happened to me: the day Patti was run over by a subway train and her resultant paraplegia. I am not exaggerating when I say that Art became much of the reason for me to carry on with my life.

I believe that we are all born creative and that, at some point in most people’s childhoods, they lose the urge, but not the ability, to make art. This is a tragic loss. Through the history of our species, ordinary people have always made paintings, sung songs, decorated their homes, expressed themselves in a hundred ways. Today, however, we are increasingly creatures who expect others to provide us with entertainment and culture. We take for granted that creativity is the domain of professionals. We are convinced that if we cannot be perfect, we should not try.

What a loss. I believe fervently in the spirit of amateurism. I know in my heart that it is far better to do an inaccurate, clumsy drawing than not do one at all. It is better to sing off-key than be mute. A scorched home cooked meal is far more nourishing for the soul than a frozen dinner. And I want to rekindle that spirit in whomever I can.

I make a decent living at my job. So I don’t do drawings and watercolors and write essays about creativity or even publish books in order to make money. I do it because I feel that it is important to encourage others (and simultaneously myself) to give oneself permission to be the artists that we all truly are.

My book is called The Creative License but of course, I can’t issue such a license. I can’t give anyone permission to be themselves. All I can do is provide examples, suggestions, encouragement and hope that magic happens.

One of my first readers seems to be getting this. Tonight, after reading just a chapter she writes:

After only the first 11 pages, I feel like you are a voyeur in my life. You said it very well when you talked about people who just have to create. (When I see something beautiful, ugly, interesting–whatever, I don’t just want to look it–I want to get it down on paper and recreate it). But you really struck a nerve talking about those of us who put that creativity into a box and try to keep it there for whatever reason (Will my kids really want those journals that I fill when I’m gone?–yeah, they probably will.) “So with the very first chapter you have looked deep into the heart of people who know they are creative, but stifle it, and the people who are afraid to find out that they are creative. And that encompasses pretty much everyone! I realize that the title of the book is “…giving yourself permission…” but the “familiar” tone that you use to expose those thoughts about creativity almost make it feel like it’s OK for the permission to come from an outside source–the author–someone who has a grip on the understanding of the creative process. “

I hope her enthusiasm doesn’t wane and that the ensuing chapters continue to fuel her creativity and lead her to new places.

Finally, here is a very generous review from one of my favorite artists, my watercolor teacher and mentor, Roz Stendahl, one she recently posted to the Everyday Matters group:

“I was fortunate to be able to read the proofs of Danny’s new book, “Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are.” First a disclaimer for those of you on the list who don’t remember my name from my infrequent posts. Danny is a pal. We’ve corresponded, chatted on the phone, he’s visited, we have drawn together. You could stop reading this email right now because of that, expecting a bias.

But I also am a life long journaler and I teach visual journaling at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts so I read almost all the books that come out in this field. I want to provide up to date recommendations for my students.

I think these things put me in an interesting position to tell you something: reading this book is just like spending time with Danny. His sense of humor comes through. He is silly and playful, wry and sarcastic by turns, but always engaging. Something is always popping out of his brain. He’s gathered all this up and put it in a book. And he wants to encourage you to draw and tap into your creativity.

There are a lot of books on creativity on the market. Some of them try cheerleading and cajoling, some encourage you through psychology, and others practically shame you into picking up your art materials. Danny’s approach is different. Like the great pitch man he is, he creates an analogy (creative license is like a driving license) and then joyfully explains and expands until you want in. The nice thing about this approach is that you don’t end up with two dozen vegematics in your attic like Opus. You’ll end up with a visual journal that records what’s important to you and you’ll be more connected to your life.

Danny’s book is organized in such a manner that it can be read straight through or dipped into. There’s an introduction which establishes the groundwork for you to view yourself as a creative being. The driving license analogy is introduced here.

This is followed by nine chapters which deal with everything from how to draw (giving you instructions for exercises to get you up and running today) to shock (getting out of a rut), resistance (going on), and identity (self acceptance as an artist). (And lots more.)

Each chapter is further divided into smaller sections, often only a page spread or two, dealing with some aspect of the chapter topic. These sub sections read like brief meditations, parables, or pep talks.

I feel this type of organization is one of the best aspects of the book. It allows the reader to come back to the book for small tune ups so he can get back on the road (keeping with the driving metaphor).

Throughout the book Danny provides his readers with suggestion upon suggestion of things they might want to draw, examine, think about, or respond to. If you are new to drawing, visual journaling, or doing creative activities in your life, this book will help you realize how you’ve been a creative being all along. Now’s the time to reengage your life, dreams, and creative self. Danny’s book will give you enough gas to get you a fair ways down the road and the insight to be able to spot refilling stations.

If you already have a creative license and use it daily in your life, the book will still encourage you. Chances are your take on visual journals and creativity is skewed differently because you already understand your process. But a fresh view, another angle, can help you appreciate what you have and enable you to flex your creative muscles even more.

After reading the book I felt that the experience was like being swept up into a brainstorming meeting where there was a lot of laughter and enthusiasm but also serious, earnest work. I believe you’ll enjoy this book.
I’ve only seen a black and white proof, but I’ve seen many of these journal sketches in person. The book is going to be a colorful and visually entertaining book.
Danny can sell an idea and he does it clearly and with humor. I’ll be taking this book along to my journaling classes so that my students can benefit from the perspective Danny brings to the topic.
Danny didn’t ask me to write a review, but I felt compelled to because there are a lot of “creativity” books on the market and we talk about books on this list. Why buy this one? If you’ve enjoyed and found Danny’s insights on his blog helpful, if you like the supportive aspects of exchange that happen on this list, then you’ll enjoy this book which grows out of this seed. The book will speak to you in accessible ways that other creativity books might not.”

If you gotten this far, I hope you’ll check out the book. And if you do buy a copy and read it, I hope it’ll motivate you to expand your creativity. And finally, I hope you will evangelize, gently helping others to see their own creativity, helping make the world more present, more forgiving and more beautiful.Peace out. Commercial over.

Collaboration isn't just for the French


I am writing this on a flight to Los Angeles where we are going to shoot the first five commercials for the campaign I began last summer. It was July 27th when I stood at a urinal on 22nd street and was suddenly struck with the idea which, through various barrel jumps, backflips and slaloms, has brought me to this seat on American Airlines.
Of course, it’s absurd that it should have taken 200 days for three or four minutes of advertising to go from my urinal to your television. Well, actually the commercials haven’t even been filmed yet. It’ll be closer to 300 days before they actually hit the airwaves. This is certainly a long time for even advertising to be birthed, but not unheard of.
When you sell your creative work, the results are invariably a collaboration between your imagination and the processes of the person or corporation who is funding them. In the case of a new brand advertising campaign, your collaborators include various levels of decision makers in your agency, some ‘creative’, some administrative and some strategic, all of who provide input based on their own experience, ego, time and attention span.
Next, the work runs through the filter of the client company’s marketing executives. Some have long and illustrious careers producing great advertising and can often make your ideas better and sharper. Others have ended up in marketing by virtue of their success or failure in another part of the company. I have worked with clients who were former antifreeze salesman, flight attendants, bank tellers, and tax attorneys. When I created ads for the Postal Service, my client was a former mail carrier. However, their past is not necessarily an indication of their utility as creative collaborators.
As I have done a lot of corporate and brand advertising, I invariably end up presenting to CEOs and CFOs. Most of them have little interest in advertising and consider it a waste of time and money. They tend to be results oriented, I’m from Missouri, kind of left brainers, Some, by virtue of having a lot of money and a lot of power, have odd and interesting ideas about how advertising should work. They often cite their wives’ or children’s opinions. Because they are unused to talking about executional creative matters, their words are often ambiguous and hard to take at face value and much time is spent by others, parsing their phrases and trying to determine the hidden meaning behind all sorts of cabalistic executive signs. I have worked with agencies who note down the colors of executives’ ties and shirts in an effort to come up with logo and advertising palettes that will pass muster.
These creative approvals are funny things. They are so often subjective and frankly irrelevant to the effectiveness of advertising. The best clients are the ones who are extremely clear and smart about what they know best. They tell you what they want to accomplish with their businesses and how advertising can help. They couch their reactions to the work you bring them in terms of their original intent. Often they are surprisingly lucid and insightful, demonstrating in spades how they got to where they are. They respect the people they hire and assume that they will do their work well. They keep their egos in check and use their authority to clear impasses further down the food chain. They can break loggerheads with a phrase or two. As one CEO said to me recently, ‘People assume that because everyone has a voice that this is a democracy. It’s not. I want this done so let’s move on.” Someone who works for someone who works for someone who works for him and who had been our daily contact had said something equally memorable and candid in an earlier meeting:” My boss told me that my job is to tell you what you have done wrong. I can’t see anything wrong in what you’ve done but I still have to figure out how to do my job.”
There’s little question that, unfortunately, much of what we are paid for is to deal with the process. To be able to listen to someone’s incoherent rant and turn it into some thing actionable. To respond to the various thumbs stuck in the wet clay of one’s idea and yet emerge with something that isn’t embarrassing and wasteful.
There are different styles that creative people have to deal with this obstacle course. Some defend their work against every single remark and soon devolve into shrill defensiveness. Others sit quietly, waiting for the moment to insert a devastating retort. Some try to come up with constructive responses as the clients lays out his objections. Some give long rebuttals that communicate little but ego and leave the client wondering if they heard a word she said. Some sit gulping in anxiety, waiting for others to defend their efforts. Some smirk smugly, all but saying ‘ You are such an idiot”.
The most constructive approach is, first, just to listen. Particularly when there are lots of clients of various levels in a room, they tend to circle around each other, ideas canceling each other out, objections overruled, problems solving themselves. Then, if the audience has the patience, summarize what they have said and see if they agree with your summary. Then offer a solution or two for the present and withdraw and try to form a coherent plan of response. When you do respond, show them what they asked for, accompanied with a range of other solutions.
I think most clients like the creative process. They want to be wowed. When they come up with their own ideas and insist upon them, they also have a nagging feeling that they’re doing the wrong thing, buying a dog and barking themselves. In some ways, advertising seems easier than other creative forms. When I do illustration work, no one has ever redrawn my pictures like some clients feel they can rewrite my copy. When I work with composers, I have (almost) never seen a client tell them which specific notes to play. A bad and desperate client will push past agency and director and go up to an actor and tell him specifically how to say his lines but he’ll rarely get in front of the camera himself.
The key again is to listen and observe. That’s the way to get the clearest sense of what’s really going on. Then by re-presenting the client’s POV to him or her, you show that you get it, you want to help, you care. Don’t insist on logic — often the process spits up a lot of nonsensical mandates that come about through intricate games of Telephone that make no real sense. People, intimidated by their inarticulate bosses, can resort to just taking dictation and passing the buck on to you. But try to see through that and get to the truth underneath.
Then, try to take all of the comments as a new creative challenge. Be willing to sacrifice your children in order to end up with an even stronger result. I’ve often had good ideas become great ones as they were annealed on the forge of the approval process. Despairing of being able to fix your crippled creation, you toss it aside and fabricate a far more elegant solution.
Am I making it all sound horrible? Do I seem like an arrogant know-it-all who thinks all clients are boobs? Maybe so, but I don’t really feel that, not most of the time. It’s a thin line to tread between making something that fits the needs of the people who hired you to do it and something that you are proud of, that is fresh and exciting to you. I often write commercials based on events or perceptions that have occurred to me and it is heart breaking to see them mangled beyond recognition. It feels very personal. But in the end, it really isn’t. That’s what Art is for, to express the personal. The creative work we are paid to do, while growing from our integrity and values and personal aesthetic, is always a collaboration and must be respected as such. When created honestly and openly and generously, it is is the best sort of collaboration, Rogers and Hammerstein, Dolce & Gabbana. At other times it’s more Rogers & Frankenstein, Dolce & Gambino. So you pick your fights. You say to you yourself, if they want to drive this Lamborghini over the clff, it’s their dollar. I won’t allow myself to be twisted in the wreckage. Recognizing that jobs and millions of dollars are at stake, that these matters are impacting people’s better judgment, doesn’t make you a hack. Just a professional.
So the simple answer is: throw yourself 90% into what you do for money. Reserve that small part for self-protection. Be willing to stand back, to be objective and dispassionate. And channel the feelings you have, the reaction to disappointment and limitations, and put it into the work that really matters: your Art. Now be uncompromising. Insist on the highest quality from yourself. Be clear, be strong, be energetic and bold. Experiment, reach, push. Stay up later than you would on a client project. See yourself in this work, the real you. Keep working, keep fighting, be heedless of others. And keep telling yourself that you work to earn a living and that you must never forget to to do the living that you have earned.

A good thing (Nancy Howell's story)


From my visit to Martha’s trial last year. The Morning News editors were advised by their lawyers not to run it in my story. I’m sort of glad as it’s a fairly shitty drawing done in the height of nervous anxiety at breaking New York law.

My office is in a large building on Manhattan’s West Side. Our neighbor, one floor down, is the headquarters of Martha Stewart Living OmniMedia, so we expect to see the old ex-con wandering our halls and lurking around the showers any day now. Her stock has been soaring since she went into the clink, so I imagine we’ll hear well mannered caws of redemption from the many willowy blondes we see in the elevator each morning.
I like Martha (though I wish she’d lighten her ass up a tad) but I’m not going to talk much more about her today.
Instead I want to tell you about Nancy.
nancyNancy grew up in the South West, I think it was Albuquerque. She was always a creative person and, over Dad’s objections, she majored in Art at U of NM because she loved to draw. This was in the 70s when, frankly, drawing was not the thing. Instead her instructors were pushing performance art, conceptual art, earth works, that sort of thing. Before the first semester was over, Nancy, beaten, changed her major. She decided to become a physical education instructor., She figured art and PE both had something to do with anatomy, so she’d still be in a related field. When she graduated, she got a job as a substitute gym teacher. She would lie in bed each morning with the pillow over her head, hoping not to hear the phone ring and call her in. She hated being a gym teacher.
Nancy loved playing music. She was in band after band, playing the clubs and bars around town, making a little cash here and there. Not enough cash, however, so she got a job in a bank. She was the teller in the drive-through, sending deposits back to the branch over a pneumatic tube. She hated this job too and sucked at it.
One day, Nancy was on her lunch break at the TGIFridays across the road. It was decorated in that nostalgic style that blossomed in the ’60′s, full of mustache cups and barber poles and merry-go-round horse amidst the spiderplants. Hanging over each table was an ersatz Tiffanty lamp. Nancy deiced there and then that what she wanted to do was to work professionally in stained-glass. She found out that one of the country’s largest commercial workshops for stained glass was right there in Albuquerque and she soon had a job there.
Nancy’s friends were envious. She’d quit her straight job and was making money entirely through creative endeavors — glass in the day, music at night.
Nonetheless, Nancy still wasn’t happy. She realized that despite her field, she wasn’t really an artist. The glasswork she did was not original; she was just working from pattern books, filling orders from templates. And her band, good as it was, was really just a cover band. If they ever played original compositions, the audiences squirmed and the bar owner would complain. Albuquerque ain’t no CBGB and there was little appetite for true originality
So Nancy shed her job, her hometown and her husband, and came to New York City. Soon she had a job with the premier stained glass workshop in the country. She worked on St. John the Divine, on corporate headquarters. She even redid the glass in the Statue of Liberty’s torch. For the next fifteen years or so, she was at the top of her game. She had a new band with her new husband and they played the cutting edge clubs of the City. She had two kids. She seemed fulfilled.
Then Nancy reached the next crisis. She was the #2 person in the #1 firm. If she became #1 she would sit in an office at a computer all day and cease plying her craft. She’d topped out. She also felt past the age when she really enjoyed carrying enormous panes of glass into the grimy tops of old buildings. The work was more physical than she wanted. Time for a new page.
The part of glasswork Nancy had always enjoyed the most restoring or creating the hand-lettered legends that adorn big windows, naming the saints, the dates, the greats of the Church or the Corporation. So she decided to try her hand at something brand new to her. During her last year as a stained glass artisan, she spent each night taking classes and practicing calligraphy. She went to workshops, she learned materials and she worked hard at her craft. When the year was up, she opened her first business. She sent out a small announcement to editors and art directors and she was off doing work for weddings, for publishers, for all sorts of exciting and glamorous clients.
Within three years, Nancy went from a novice to the main calligrapher for Martha Stewart. Whenever you see some ornate lovely penmanship in MS Living, chances are Nancy did it.
Is she fulfilled now? More so than ever. But she tells me she’d still like to push further, to create pieces that are she writes herself, works of pure art that are not commercial but express herself at the deepest. She’s working on that now. Nancy and Mark and her kids are about to move out of the City to concentrate completely on their art, to play more music and to breathe fresh country air.
Nancy is a constant reminder to me that you can get what you want, no matter how far fetched it might seem. First off, know what it is you actually want. Then be willing to work hard, to take risks and most importantly, to listen only to the little voice in your head that first spoke the dream.
I hope Martha got a chance to listen to her voice as she weeded the prison grounds. Sadly. I have less faith in her than I have in Nancy. Or in you.


jellyfishLast night we went to a preview for James
Cameron’s new movie, Aliens of the Deep. It was pretty spectacular in
3-D Imax, all shot on the bottom of the ocean with extraordinary
critters and lunar landscapes. Cameron chatted with us just before the
screening and told us he much preferred these personal efforts to
Hollywood fare and would be continuing down this path. Here’s a guy who
made many of the biggest blockbuster movies ever (Alien, Terminator,
Titanic, etc) and won Oscars (Top of the World, Ma!) and instead of
making more and more crap full of explosions and mayhem has
increasingly devoted his creative energies and resources to these
little underwater documentaries aimed at schools and scientists.
As I mentioned a couple of days, I am thinking these days about the
balance between creativity for one’s pleasure versus creativity for
hire. With the exception of the few Damien Hirsts and Richard Serras
making big bucks, art is a business done mainly for its spiritual
rather than financial rewards. As an illustrator, one can make an okay
living, probably about the same as an experienced postal worker. One
has a certain amount of liberty in the way in which one works but, by
and large, you are executing other people’s ideas or at best creating a
drawing to accompany a story someone else has created. If you work for
publications, you’ll have decent freedom to interpret the assignment
and most of your drawings will be accepted pretty much as you draw
them. If you get one of the rare advertising illustration assignments
still left around, you’ll make a lot more money but have to redo your
work many times to fit the exact visions of the art director, creative
director and client.
Advertising is one of the most lucrative businesses for creative
people. We make double what designers do but generally get half as much
respect from our clients (most of whom make far less than we do). Our
ideas have to go through many layers of approval and then rounds of
testing but millions are spent to share them with the world.
Make no mistake. There is a fundamental difference between the work we
do for ourselves and almost anything we do for hire. Art is an
exploration, an unfolding of things that are deeply rooted in who the
creator is. It is not meant to fit an agenda or even express a message
(though much art is decoded for its ‘messages’, an aspect of the work
that is usually a byproduct of the artist’s process and not its true
purpose). Creativity that is commercial is always restricted by its
purpose. It may seem very free and loose and personal but it isn’t.
Even if one uses a song or an image that were created for personal
reasons and one puts it into advertising or design, one changes its
spirit forever. You can’t help but deform it by changing its content.
The song may sound lovely in the commercial but it is twisted to fit a
different agenda and thus loses it true beauty, a bird in a gilded cage
At the highest end of the advertising and design world, it appears that
top creative people have enormous control and freedom but I know many
such folks and though they are freer than their peers, compared with
the freedom of true fine artists they are crippled slaves.
Making the transition from one world to another is awfully hard.
I have hired artists to make ads for the first time and they are
horrible at it. I have hired movie directors to make their first
commercials and they struggle with the whole notion of shooting
something to time, to fitting a story into 30 seconds. Even Martin
Scorcese balked at it and produced mediocrity compared to directors who
are used to fitting their skills to the task. Composers, photographers,
painters, actors, all have trouble making the transition to the narrow
confines of commercial creativity.
The inverse is equally true. When I first started working with
publishers, I completely misunderstood the relationship. I thought my
editor was my client and assumed I had to follow their suggestions to
the letter. My agent disavowed me of this, pointing out that I
was the client, I was the goose laying the golden eggs, the producer of
the product that everyone else was profiting from ( which is equally
true in advertising but that value equation is rarely acknowledged as
if one’s salary was a lump-sum deal that expunges any rights of
ownership). Sure, the relationship was one of business partnership but
my vision was what my publisher wanted. That was a tough one to get
used to but enormously satisfying and liberating. IWhen I write a book
(and it becomes increasingly so with each book I do), I am out to
express myself and to find the best possible way to do so. Others’
functions is simply to help me understand how clear and engaging I have
been in doing so but the direction and responsibility are mine. That
feels a lot more like art to me. The check one cashes in such a case
may do less for one’s bank account but much more for one’s heart.

These thoughts on the value of creativity are rudimentary and a little
conflicted. I’ll keep working on them and share them as they are