An Email to a Young Artist

So I was in a waiting room drawing cat butts last week, and some very nice women sat down next to me. We got to talking about art, and one woman mentioned she had a younger teenager who was passionate about becoming an artist. I gave her my card, the teenager wrote to me, and… Well. I had hoped that I could just link to a few art community websites, but none of these seem safe for kids. I jotted down the following instead:

1) CONTINUE WORKING ON YOUR ART. This is the easy part of being an artist. Sorry. Take some live-drawing and figure-drawing art classes. Or just go to the mall and sketch people as they walk by. Learning how anatomy and objects work in real life will help you improve your style.

2) MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL. This is what I wish someone had told me when I was your age. Being a creator can be expensive. It has real physical costs. For example, you are most likely going to do a lot of your creation and distribution online, so you’ll need a computer. If it breaks, you can still draw, but you can’t put your work out there until it’s fixed. Learning how to fix computers yourself is an asset, because you won’t have to pay someone else to fix it for you.

Another example is that you will be handed business contracts that determine how, when, and why you get paid. If you study some business/contract law, you can serve as your own advocate on these. Or, you can learn how to handle online advertising, which allows you to promote your work at a reduced cost.

Keep in mind that while creators have to wear a lot of hats, you don’t have to do it all yourself. If you find a community of fellow creators, you can pool your resources. But I do recommend learning how to fix the most common computer problems, because those will always come up, forever and ever and ever and ever and ever…*

3) STAY ANONYMOUS ONLINE, AT LEAST FOR A LITTLE WHILE. You’re just starting out. You will (not might–will) make a lot of mistakes, but you will also go through a lot of personal and professional growth. Pick an alias an stick with it until you’ve at least got high school behind you. It’s easier to ditch an alias than a real name. Plus, people can (and will) be jerks. Even people who seem very nice at first. It’s okay to leave online communities that are toxic to your mental and emotional health!

4) DON’T BE A JERK. The creative community is very small and very huge, all at once. Your reputation is a large part of whether people will want to work with you or buy your stuff.

5) DON’T LET PEOPLE WALK ALL OVER YOU. Being nice/polite/thoughtful doesn’t mean being a doormat. If something doesn’t feel right, then it doesn’t feel right! If a business opportunity makes you cringe, it might be bad for you. I strongly recommend talking over anything that seems strange with people you trust before making a decision, because we are often too close to our problems to be fully aware of them. Other people who care about you can bring different perspectives to your situation.

Also? If someone says they like your art but they can’t afford to pay you, or they can’t afford to pay you now but the money will come once the project is done, run away very quickly. This is called “working for exposure” and it is BAD. Professional artists have value! If you get through art school with a minor in business, you will have invested time and money in your own professional development. You wouldn’t ask a doctor to perform surgery in exchange for good publicity, right?

6) STAY FLEXIBLE. What works for one creator won’t always work. Creators are heavily reliant on technology to spread our content, which means that if we get too committed to one platform or one mode of distribution, we lock ourselves down to new opportunities.

(Ask your parents if they still have any America Online CDs lying around. Back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, America Online was the social media of platform of choice. It was replaced by MySpace, which was replaced by Facebook, which is currently being phased out in favor of Pinterest, tumblr, and Snapchat. These will also one day fade away, replaced in turn by some other new platform, quite possibly controlled by our insect overlords.)
Staying flexible means that you can keep active within multiple platforms. …… and now that I write this, I realize I should probably do more on Pinterest myself …… SO MANY HATS, YOUNG PERSON. SO MANY HATS. IT’S AN INFINITE NUMBER OF HATS FOREVER.

7) NO ONE IS OBLIGATED TO DO ANYTHING FOR YOU. This is a big one, and it’s kind of confusing. Creator communities are small and there’s a lot of favors traded between their members. Do not rely on these favors to succeed. Nobody is obliged to link to your content, or respond to your emails, or promote your work on their website, forum, or whatnot. If they do this, they have done a favor for you. Be sure to thank them! But don’t expect these favors to happen regularly. There’s one person out there who’s wholly responsible for your success as a creator, and it’s you.

8) LUCK IS A LARGE PART OF SUCCESS. Lastly, none of this might matter. At all. Being in the right place at the right time is sometimes all it takes to tip you over the edge to becoming a self-sufficient artist. It’s incredibly frustrating, but that’s life. All you can do is develop your art skills, maximize your own earning potential, and develop good relationships within the community. That way, if an opportunity comes your way, you’re in the best place you can be to take advantage of it.

*Or you do what I did and marry a Sys Admin, but I’m not giving a teenager that kind of advice. Plus I was just lucky. It’s not like I was all “HEY ARE YOU A SYSTEMS ADMINISTRATOR? OH REALLY? C’MERE!!!”

What am I missing?  What do you wish someone had told you (besides Learn to Really Like Ramen Noodles and Best Get Comfy on that Futon)?


Published by KBSpangler

A freelance editor who writes novels, comics, and repairs a disaster of a house in her spare time:

9 thoughts on “An Email to a Young Artist

  1. Make your art for you. If you are going to go through all the effort of making your way as a creator, make sure that what you are creating is something that you love, and are passionate about, not just something that you think other people want to see.

      1. To add to that, if she does love it, tell her not to stop, even if she isn’t successful right away, or ever for that matter. To find joy in the creating, and sharing her work, not just in making money at it. Because people are jerks, and they will tell you your art is terrible, and you should stop and never do it again. And sometimes you will believe them. But you owe it to yourself to tell that voice in your head that says those jerks are right that it is a poopyhead, and you’re going to keep drawing and making stuff anyway.
        Even if it ends up that she doesn’t get that lucky break, and can’t make a living solely with her art, it doesn’t make her less of an artist, and it doesn’t mean she should stop. If she keeps going, who knows what might happen in the future?

  2. In college, I took a Science Fiction class that had, as a guest lecturer, David Brin. He asked how many of us wanted to be writers. Almost all of us raised our hands. Then he said something like, “If you want to write, don’t major in writing — you’re going to do that anyway. Major in something that you will only do if forced to.” I took that advice, and now I’m… a scientist and a sysadmin. But I think the principle is sound =)

    Probably a better way to put it is: no matter what you want to do, study broadly, take classes that will hone your craft, but especially take classes that will make you do things that you wouldn’t do otherwise.

    Also, I’d pick up a beret. They’re not that expensive. Couldn’t hurt.

  3. This one is for both the young artist, a bit for Otter herself, and for me!
    Learn to accept compliments.

    Sometimes (not often enough) people will tell you nice things or show appreciation.
    You might feel it is undeserved, because it wasn’t done fast enough, you overlooked this-or-that, that bit of composition didn’t work the way you hoped, you didn’t get around to that other thing yet, etc.
    If you catch yourself doing this: stop, smile and say “thank you”.
    Despite all the failings your work may have in your eyes, in THEIR eyes the thing was good enough to deserve encouragement.
    Accept the praise, share in their delight, however little, and let it fuel you to do even better, next time.

    Corrolary 1: beware suck-ups and con-people
    Corrolary 2: don’t forget to hand out as well. A single compliment, even a simple “I like your work”, can make someones day and offset thousands of negative commentards

  4. The best piece of advice for creators I ever encountered went something like this:
    The reason you think you suck is the reason you’ll be good at this: you are really good at spotting mistakes.
    Corollary: you will always be the harshest critic of your own work. You spot things that didn’t come out the way they should have that nobody else in your audience will notice.

    The flaws you see in your own work are not as noticeable as you think they are. This doesn’t mean you should stop trying to not make them. 🙂

  5. Love your comics, love your characters, love you! Sincere thanks for enriching my world in a way only you can.

    Very kind of you to take time to give kind, thoughtful advice, from hard-won experience. You didn’t say anything about having a day job to pay the bills. Creativity killer? Necessary evil? Jettison at first opportunity?

    And forgive minor O-T detour, but are you aware of how much of your comics gets blocked by the floating ads? If not, check it out- you might be surprised by how obtrusive they are. Or if so, and you’re okay with it, (maybe because they pay enough to be worth while?) then that’s cool. Mainly FYI. Carry on! 🙂

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