Bill's conundrum

From a recent email exchange with Bill, a reader:

Hey Danny:

I have a real conundrum.
After a few years pursuing other dreams (but still keeping my artistic feet wet). I ramped back up my freelance illustration pursuits. With my website up and loaded with samples I began sending out my promotional material. It has been a year now and I have received only a few nibbles. That being said my portrait business has really picked up.

Here is my dilemma. To me. portraits have always felt like an artistic parlor trick. Sure I can render a portrait to look like your photo but why the heck do you want me to you already own the picture. I just feel like if I let the portrait business take over I will lose my illustration goals.

My problem is I owe it to my wife and son to make more money. I know it sounds odd but my illustrations make me feel like an artist and my portraits make me feel like a whore. What should I do?


Dear Bill:

I think your issue is less about practicality and more about how you define yourself. The reality is that there are illustrators who feel like whores because they are working for big corporations and making art that will be trashed at the end of the month and wish they could do work for people who would cherish and frame their art.

Not to be harsh, but I urge you to get over your self and focus instead on being as productive as you can. It doesn’t mater if you’re an artist or an illustrator or a hack or a genius. Just take it day-by-day, make art for those who want it and keep moving. While your drawing someone’s portrait, see if you can leverage the connection and make more business for yourself. Then think of who else you can send promotional stuff to.

And think about the promotion stuff you send out. Is it really special? Is it something an art director will just toss in a drawer? Are you giving them something that’s of value and memorable? And are you …

getting back to them to remind them who you are? Is your illustration outstanding in some way? Are you targeting the right people? You seem to work mainly in pen and ink. Have you targeted newspapers? Can you get a regular gig in a local paper? Does your website showcase your work as well as possible? Did you just put it up and figure it would have to do? Do your refresh it? It seems to me that it’s a little passive and asks the visitor to do the work with tiny thumbnails. It also keeps reminding me that your work is for sale. Woo me a little first before waving the’ for sale’ sign.

You are a creative guy. Apply that creativity to leveraging every possible aspect of what you do. Forget about your own label (artists, illustrator, diaper changer, whatever) and do all you can to make other people yearn to work with you. Maybe you should do cartoons, Christmas cards, a children’s book, and give them out free to prospects.

You have a lot going for you. Don’t limit it in any way. Embrace opportunities and keep making stuff.

Hope I haven’t kicked your ass too hard but I know you can do it. I look forward to hearing how it works out.

Your pal,

Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate the kick in the ass…. As for my portraits, I guess I treat myself harshly in this area. My first paid illustration was a portrait and they come kinda easy to me. They just never seemed valid from a personal artistic standpoint. My portraits are oil painted or pencil and my illustrations are pen and ink. For some reason I have always felt more valid doing the pen and ink work. It’s a strange battle that I have been dealing with since high school (I am 38 now). I guess I get hung up on the fact that most people have preconceived notions of what a portrait should be. If people were willing to accept a more creative portrait like the ones you have been doing I would feel more fulfilled. I have been watching how after you went through your creative rough patch this summer you came back with both guns blazing. If I could somehow marry my two styles to a point where both of my needs were met I would feel better. …


Dear Bill:

Portraits are endlessly fascinating. These days I am looking at lots of them and drawing inspiration from : David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon. Vincent van Gogh…

I think they refute your idea that portraits are not artistically valid or that there’s any preconceived idea of what a portrait should be. If you shake your own preconception, you will grow as an artist and as a success.

And forget trying to marry styles. Try something a lot less conscious and experiment with new media and approaches. It will put fresh excitement into your work that potential customers will respond to. Or else fuck ’em.


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