10 tips for developing artists
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If I were titling this honestly, it would be called: Advice I would have given myself 5 years ago when I had no idea what I was doing with my life and flitted from one state of panic to another but sort of secretly and not so secretly hoped to work creatively in some form without slowly starving...but obviously that title was a little long. Somehow things have sorted themselves out much more neatly than I ever hoped for. My silly gif making obsession helped me pay off my student debt, purchase my first home (with considerable help from family and my husband) and build up my savings.
The last 5 years have included some stumbles and countless anxiety-filled evenings but overall I’ve managed to land on my feet. These are 10 bits of advice and confirmation I wish I could whisper to my past self to provide a self-confidence boost and a few ounces of caution for some of the avoidable bumps.
Years ago, I knew a guy that was in that grey area between being an enthused amateur and a professional photographer. Over a couple of months, I saw him slowly transition into being a professional photographer and the whole time I kept thinking to myself, “Hey! I think I could do that too!” I’ve seen others face the same moment and it goes one of two ways.You either buckle down, do the work and “progress,” or you talk about how you could do this or that if you were given the opportunity. In the beginning, unless you’ve somehow been magically sprinkled with fairy dust from lady luck herself, no one will just give you an opportunity without some indication that you can handle the work. Creative success doesn’t happen magically without some work.
Creative work is occasionally maddening, often fun and at its best fulfilling but it always requires a considerable amount of diligent work. Step one is always to do the work. The work is the goal, the journey, the reward. Do the work.
These days, when I take a photograph or create a GIF from video footage, things happen quickly and the creative process feels organic. I’ve moved through the process of vague idea to completed image or GIF so many times now that it feels like second nature, a muscle memory activity. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be baffled about exposure and shutter speed.
When I started this 10 tips project, one of the reasons for it was to practice my hand lettering and animation. Working in a new medium has reminded me of how hard it is to acquire a new skill. Everyone sucks at the beginning. My lettering designs don’t feel organic at all. For each design, I spent days struggling over every curve and then cursed Illustrator’s pen tool. Each color choice caused me considerable consternation. I don’t ever want to know how much time I spent looking at typography inspiration on Pinterest.
As an adult I rarely feel completely incompetent and it’s difficult to remember that learning and mastery are a process. It’s only by delving into the details that you can begin to master a subject or an art medium. To move from amateur to professional, from incompetent to capable, you have to consistently sweat the details until things become second nature.
As a creative, there is no threshold, degree, award or piece of gear that will signify that your work has value and has been a worthwhile use of time. For me, that has lead to many of moments of existential panic and occasional dearth of motivation.
Creative pursuits often feel like a steep hike, each peak looks like the final one until you get to the top only to realize that there’s another uphill climb. Except for creatives, there isn’t a clear path or a functioning toilet anywhere in sight so no matter what, you’re gonna get dirty along the way. Occasionally, I crave the stability of a well-trodden path towards success or the crystalized motivations that come with being a doctor or a civil rights attorney (if it sucks, don’t tell me).
In all of this, I’ve found it important to believe in myself and more importantly to believe in the work. Whatever I create is an expression of who I am and what I experience. Not believing in the process of creation is ultimately not believing in myself. It’s possible to become successful without being a cheerleader for yourself but in my experience that can be unnecessarily painful. Make life a little easier and more pleasant for yourself and be your own cheerleader.
A few years into freelancing on the side, I decided to make a career jump for what I hoped would be a more creative position. I ended up working for a guy that demanded I submit work promptly but couldn’t be bothered to make sure my paychecks arrived in a similarly timely manner. I realized that I had spent so much time worrying about the creative demands of the role, I hadn’t really thought about the logistics and benefits of the job and didn’t make sure that my interests were written out. Thankfully, I had the contract looked over before taking the role and I hadn’t leapt head first into career quick sand. Still, unwinding myself from that role wasn’t a particularly fun exercise.
The beginning of a creative project is often exciting and moving into the negotiation phase can feel like bursting the romantic, creative bubble but avoiding important discussion can lead to pain down the road. I’ve found it helpful to write out and clarify expectations for all parties. Generally, I try to make sure I understand the logistical constraints of a project, the creative boundaries and then clarify points that are important to me. Will I own the final work? Who is my point-person throughout the project? What are the payment logistics? Making sure that your interests are written out in a contract or even in an email will save considerable pain and misunderstanding further into a project.
At this point, I’ve been on both sides of the fence creatively. I have been hired for my creative work and have hired other creatives. Having perspective from both sides, there are certain things I’m glad that I’ve been a stickler about. Sometimes when opportunities present themselves, I find it difficult to turn down projects when I’m stretched thin. This can occasionally drive people close to me a little crazy as I shut down every aspect of my life except for work. I always want to be sure that I’m creating at a 100% and holding up my end. Deadlines are concrete to me and I work incredibly hard to never miss a deadline.
Having worked with artists on the other side, I find flakey artists maddening. Creative projects can enter a state of peril and misery because of missed deadlines and that’s exacerbated when people don’t communicate.Following through on promises and deadlines makes it so much easier to create a foundation of trust that will support a creative project.
This is a two-for-one because I think about this point in two ways. First, you can’t always work alone. No matter what medium you work in or how successful you become, other people will play an important role in your work. Whether they inspire the work, support your art or help out logistically, it’s important to stay open to the people around you. Connecting to people around you in a real way is an important aspect of creative work.
Second, in my experience, many of the best ideas happen when I connect different mediums or different ideas. For me the process of creating happens by absorbing something new (a movie, an experience, a new song), taking some processing time and then making something. I enjoy tracking the things I consume and when I take the time to look back through on the things that I was reading, listening to or thinking about, I can often see the impact on my creative work. Connect the dots between people and ideas.
If someone tells you that your work is shit and says you’re just a ________ girl (social media, design, photography — go ahead! Fill in the blank! Like insult mad-libs!), walk away, quickly. Don’t spend years, weeks or hours pouring your hope and effort into a situation that isn’t right. In my experience dismissiveness rarely evolves into appreciation. Time and energy are precious and it takes a lot of work and effort to create something new or interesting or beautiful.
I only learned how to walk away in the last year. It’s extraordinarily difficult and I’ve mentally wrestled with myself on it endlessly. Is walking away giving up? Am I the problem? If I was better at communicating, creating or a man would this still be happening? Now I realize that being mistreated isn’t a reflection of skill or value. Don’t let someone steal your fire, walk away when you have to.
One of the best things I did in college was to take a personal wealth management course. It helped clarify for me the steps toward financial security. Out of college, I prioritized paying down debt and then on building a savings safety net. That net has allowed me make riskier choices as a creative even though I’m incredibly risk averse. I’ve turned down well paying projects that I felt no excitement for. I’ve walked away from jobs that weren’t a good fit for me. All possible because I knew that I had enough saved up to survive without work for at least 6 months.
I hate the sort of advice that says leap and a net will appear, sometimes that’s true but other times it would only work if you have parents or a partner with enough savings and patience to tolerate your risky shenanigans. Creating savings requires some budgeting, you can’t have more going out than comes in. When I had a salary, I divided my take home pay by 365 to get an exact number for how much I earned each day and I did my best to stay under that number. For me that was the easiest way to track things but how you budget isn’t so important as long as you are budgeting somehow.
Once I was debt free and had some savings, I started focusing on purchasing equipment that would allow me to push forward with creative projects. Gear lust is a real thing and if someone gave me $50k with the explicit instructions that I had to spend it (not save it), I could have that spent in an afternoon. To keep from living in a perpetual state of brokenness, I’ve used two general rules of thumb. One, if I rent something more than 3 times, I add it to my buy list. If something can earn me 3x times its value, I add it to my buy list. From there, I pull the trigger on purchases when my savings account reaches certain goals. Financial security isn’t exactly a hot topic but it makes life and creative pursuits a lot easier.
Unless your last name happens to be Trump, chances are that taxes will kick your ass every now and then. As an employee, at tax time I hoped for a small return. As a freelancer, at tax time I hoped not to walk away bleeding money. The tax burden on a freelancer is considerable and before you get used to quarterly payments, tax time can be a brutal shock. It takes a while to figure things out so find freelancers, small business owners and financially savvy friends when you’re starting out because it can get rough.
I’m not sure if being pleasant to work with will increase your chance of success but it will make the experience or working with you, considerably more pleasant for everyone else. So please, don’t be an asshole. Thanks!