[2014-12-04 UPDATE!] Post resurrection! I’ve updated the material in this post for a rapid-fire 13 minute long speech for the IGDA MicroTalks in Austin. While the information below is still relevant, the material in this video is much better and more current. Here it is:
I find myself in a lot of conversations with budding young artists seeking to get ahead in the world asking me advice on just how to go about that. I’ve examined a lot of individual cases and I’ve noticed a few common mistakes artists make that destroy their chances of getting ahead, and most of them stem from a lack of understanding of marketing themselves. I’ve noticed a few techniques that artist hopefuls can use to get ahead in the art field.
99% of artists I’ve seen make the same four models: Space marine, naked man, naked woman, and character from a recently released movie. If everyone’s making the same model, how is anyone going to stand out? Being an artist that creates high quality assets is important, but quality should not be the only differentiator between you and another artist.
Consider this: If a potential employer is looking for a new artist, in a “market” where there are hundreds of space marines, how likely is it that your space marine is going to be the very best out of all of them? Not very. :)
The most obvious (and most overlooked) solution for this is to choose subject matter that no one else is doing. If you create a “market” for a certain type of art by choosing something unique, who is there to compare and contrast against? Who’s the competition? It also makes it that much easier to be remembered as “the guy that paints amazing metal” or “the guy that makes incredible fantasy creatures.”
Let’s face it; managers hiring artists are going to look through dozens of portfolios to find a worthy artist. If you’re making exactly the same art as anyone else, what reason does this guy have to remember you?
Look at what other people aren’t making, and make it well. Find a niche, an untapped potential market for a new or different type of art, and become the undisputed master of that art. If you do it right, you’ll be seen as the originator, and everyone else will be a copycat. That’s the benefit of being first. If you can’t be the leader of something, find something you can be the leader of.
Let your portfolio reflect your personality, your uniqueness, your inner fire. You’re the only one that cares about you, so try to communicate why other people should care and remember you, too, through your artwork. That’s all they’ll care about.
Second, BE OMNIPRESENT.
Were you the kid in high school who sat alone in a corner, ignored everyone and filled his sketchbook with his drawings? Keep the art focus, but lose the antisocial behavior. Keeping to yourself is the fastest possible way to failure and ruin. Period.
Woody Allen once said, eighty percent of success is showing up. That’s one of the single most profound statements I’ve ever taken to heart.
Find a message board or website that focuses on art and start posting. Comment on other peoples’ work, give helpful advice, be friendly, and make friends. Build a network of friends and acquaintances and surround yourself with them all the time. Be social. Network. Thrive.
To put this in perspective, every contract and every job I’ve ever gotten was the result of having known a guy that knows a guy. No cold calls, no internships, no open assault of job applications. My career was created entirely through networking. This can work for anyone, because the more people you talk to, the more likely it is that opportunities will literally come to you.
So get out there, make friends, and create a presence. Always be there. Always have a voice. Always have a personality. Be yourself.
Never make enemies, because the guy you just said stank mightily of elderberries could be the art director of a company you desperately want to work for in the future. I’ve actually heard of this happening many times, so don’t shoot off at the mouth and hit yourself in the foot.
I’ll say it again: If you think you can succeed by being antisocial, get comfortable mopping floors. :)
Learn to qualify peoples’ opinions. Not every opinion is equal. Anyone that tells you otherwise is absolutely, one-hundred-percent wrong. They may be nice and cool and seem sincere, but if you keep listening to them, they will destroy your ability to tell good advice from bad. You’ll never know who’s trying to help you grow and who’s trying not to hurt your feelings. You’ll consider the opinion of the tried and true professional to be equal to the worthless fanboy that thinks Leonardo da Vinci was the Ninja Turtle with the orange mask. (That was Michelangelo. Duh.)
Does “Hey, that looks great, don’t change a thing!” sound familiar? No piece of art is without flaw, and rarely does an artist not have an opinion. If you want to feel good about your art, by all means, listen to these people and don’t bother improving. But if you want your art to get better and be fit for a professional development environment, listen to the people whose comments hurt the most.
The people that rip your work apart the hardest are the people that genuinely want to help you. Think about it. They took the time to look at your work, think it over and write out a response. Your mom may think you’re just the best guy ever and think you deserve all the attention in the world, but you don’t. Time and attention is respect.
Show them the same respect and never turn them away. Be grateful. Learn to face the pain head-on. The comments hurt because they are true, and deep down, you know it. Get used to being broken down, and never fail to build yourself back up, stronger than before. Getting your feelings hurt is a part of life, and successful people learn to pick themselves up and try harder next time.
As you meet these people, acquire a mentor. Find someone better than you that knows what they’re doing, is honest, and likes you. Become friends. The only reason I rose from a mewling mediocrity to a professional artist is because of mentors that invested time and attention in me. Drop your ego and open yourself to learning, and never, ever backtalk if you truly trust their opinion.
Your best bet toward getting a job making art is to simulate the job experience in every way you can. Join a mod. Design levels. Make player models. Most importantly, finish them.
Find as many ways as possible to gain experience making real, usable, ingame assets. There’s a world of difference between making a model in a 3D application and making it work in the game, and that difference is what separates the amateurs from the professionals.
When you select a mod or contract to take on, decide in advance what you intend to learn from it and how you plan to grow. Every step I’ve ever taken in my career was considered in regards to what specific experience I’ll gain from it. In my eagerness for experience, I have willingly eaten a considerable amount of dirt to get the experience I needed to move forward. Identify the gaps in your education and seek to fill them through hands-on experience. Always, always, always finish what you start.
And there you have it.
That’s all I have to say on the subject. Depending on how well this is received, I may write a guide soon on how to dramatically increase your chances of getting a job based on my experiences as a salesman and as a hapless artist trying desperately to become employed. It’s truly remarkable how simple it can be, and how so many people miss out on it.