Marketing for Artists

[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:


[/UPDATE!]

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.

First, DIFFERENTIATE.

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. :)

Third, VALUATE.

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.

Finally, FREELANCE.

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.

14 thoughts on “Marketing for Artists

  1. Wow, you have some real winners hanging out here. Anyways, that sounds like some great advice, and most of it is probably applicable to more than just artists in the video game industry. Networking is very important in any feild, as well as never burning your briges.

  2. Deleted those comments. I know who it was, and he’s been slapped. :P

    And thanks for comments! Glad it looks useful for more than just game artists. I’m thinking of ways to refine this post further and starting to spread it around a bit and get more comments on it.

  3. Tnak you for this pointedly true article- and sorry about the previous “mispost”.

    What this all leads up to is persistance as it is applied to each area in your pice. As I was growing up, my father said persistance was everything- he was definitely spot on.

    I am a a 10 year vet in the gaming sector, and have practiced everything you mentioned, and then some, and not just once or twice. This is solid advice for newcomers and up-and-comers alike.

    For me, the goulash, or “special mix” of what makes for a successful foray into the world as an artist would be to coin the term, “consistantly persistant” and apply that to every day…

  4. Good advice, Jon. In particular, the parts about being able to take advice, and then to place a value on it, is critical for people who want to improve. I generally avoid message boards where industry-hopefuls reside, largely because so many of them want to hit up pro’s for advice, only to later “explain” why something they submitted looks lacking or, worse, attack the person giving the advice. Some people are just not ready to play with grown-ups yet…

  5. Hi, I am a recent graduate and currently seeking work in the gaming industry. I have read this article and found it to not only be inspiring but, interesting. I appreciate the advice laid out here and plan to apply it in the near future.It is hard to hear that your work is not perfect but, I agree the way to grow and become successful is through hard to hear true advice.

  6. Thanks Micah!! :) I’m glad you liked the article and got something out of it. I’ve always felt that this is one of my best articles since it’s such an important subject, but I’ve gotten very, very little response to it overall. Glad someone gets it!

  7. It’s hard to know when to stop doing such things as networking but becoming a presence on an actual web-community is actually tougher than it sounds. You really need to pay attention and speak smartly without getting away with yourself and sounding like a babbling moron.

    With so many great, huge art forums its hard to know where to begin.

    Great article and very necessary advice.

  8. The third is one that definitely needs to be learned by a lot of artists. I’m fond of writing critiques and I write seriously detailed ones, I’ll give suggestions, books to check out and will even link reference materials and discuss things down to the tiniest minutiae.

    Yet without fail, there will always be a couple of people out of every group I give critiques to who go ballistic and flip their lid at the very idea that their work might not be absolutely pristine and perfect.

    Of course they always insist on “critiquing me back” this seems to consist of calling names, telling me that my work “sucks” so I have no right to comment on the art of my “betters” and generally abusing me left, right and center. It’s sad that a small percentage of artists apparently believe that the person who write “kewl” on their work is someone who cares about their progress and that anyone who spends up to an hour on actually writing something detailed and considered about their art is just a big meanie out to hurt their feelings.

    Most of them usually accompany the huge fit over the critique by pointing out how many fans/other marks of popularity they have and insisting that some arbitrary number of people liking it means it’s perfect.

    Of course such people make people like me not want to help anyone.

    What are even more baffling is the odd one who asked for critique then goes ballistic at getting it. I don’t get people who ask for something they don’t really want.

  9. Thank you for great advice Jon. I feel really good about myslef right now ’cause it seems I’m doing many things right :)

    I just want to address all the pros out there – please don’t stop giving adivce because some of the people don’t appreciate them. I know the feeling of trying to help out and then being crapped on because of it. But I can tell from my perspective (a guy who’s giving it all to improve and make it in the industry). Thanks to all advice I get from selfless people on different art sites/forums I continue to improve on daily basis. Without them I’d be dead in the water.

    Now – I’m not an expert by any stretch of imagination, but the way I see it there needs to be a certain “disconnect” between a person and his work. In a sense that you need to be objective about it. Recieve a criticism and don’t take it to heart. I know it hurts when your’re proud of your work and someone comes and takes it apart, but that’s exactly what’s gonna happen if you ever get to play with the big boys. So bite through it and try to work on whatever just got slapped :)

    Also I can’t tell how many times I thought “Yeah there’s no way it’ll look better if I do that, but the guy seems to know what he’s talking about so I might aswell listen”. In 95% of the cases I end up saying – “Yup, he was right, and it’s a good thing I listened”. Sometimes it’s not in the mood or direction you want your piece to go in, but very rarely, and even if that’s the case you still end up learning something.

    Sorry for the long rant, I just wanted to say it would be a sad day if people with skill and the know-how gave up on us newcomers because of idiots that publish their work just to stroke their ego.

  10. #11 Dawn, I know exactly the kind of people you’re talking about. Some people are small-minded and insecure, and generally they won’t go far professionally. I’ve always had good luck making friends with people that’ll take the time to help me improve, and leaving the others behind. :)

    #12 Ryan, thank you! :)

    #13 Vice, thanks man! I’m in agreement with you on all points. Being able to remain objective about your own work while listening to constructive criticism is a mark of a professional.

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