AO’s Pre note: Writing critics beware … The article you are about to read was written by a really strong “C” student, non-trained writer, and rejected art student all in one – basically a failure in most peoples eyes. So the content below may not be for you and your high journalistic standards, but don’t get me wrong, I do understand the need for the high level of work quality, but for me, that comes with time and practice, or a budget to pay a writer. Unfortunately, I am not there yet. So please take note, I write this article with the hope that it will be useful to readers who are artists, any artist: painting, graphics, web, comics, ceramics, singing, sculpture, acting, writing, etc. – and especially if they are students, if they are entering the field of freelance, or they are older artists re-entering the field for the second or the twenty-second time. So if you are a critic of some sort, this piece is not for you. So please don’t read this. I just want the audience it was intended for, and those who would like to take a peek at my view to read this. I want to hopefully inspire – because for many artist and designers – inspiration helps us immensely. Thanks – ao
Hey AO – How Do I Become A Working Artist? (Part1 of 2)
by Anthony “AO” Oropeza – 12/26/2020
Before Covid I use to get asked a handful of questions on a regular basis by both young and older aspiring artist. One of the most popular questions was – ‘Hey AO, How Do I Become a Working Artist?” And I am always humbled that they would ask me because I still consider myself a rookie in the game, I am still learning the ropes on how to become an artist myself, and above all, this painting and art thing for me is like my third job. My first job is trying to be a decent level headed, do the right thing single dad, my second job is as a graphics guy for a local park and recreation organization, and my third, well, you know, try to design and create some amazing original paintings – mostly sports painting.
So if they ask how they can become a working artist and they are 16 or younger, it is pretty simple – I tell them to just keep drawing – everyday – follow a few awesome artists and learn from the free video tutorials on social media and draw your favorite characters over and over. Simple. Done.
Now for the 17 year old and up group, my answer is a bit different. First, I usually think, “man, you should probably ask someone who is at a higher level and a more established artist than myself …”, but I can’t leave them hanging like that, so after a second or two, my answer usually comes out in the form of a couple questions. I usually ask them – “What kind of artist do you want to be?” and “How much time do you currently spend creating projects a day/week?”
Why do I answer these questions with questions? Because the question of “How do I become an artist?” is just too general of question for me. Sure, I could say just draw or paint everyday like I suggest for the 16 year olds and younger artist, but for the older group, there is so much more.
… nothing worth anything comes easy, and everything worth anything comes at a cost …
So I feel that if that if older or future creatives gather the courage (like I did at so many comic cons back in the day) to come up and ask a question, I figure a few extra minutes of my time and a couple answered questions could, even in the smallest way, help that fellow artist-to-be take a few positive steps forward toward something really awesome in their creative future.
And yes, I am one of those weirdos that believes that no matter what age you are, you can start learning or re-learning an art form – (and here is the kicker) – it just depends on you as a person and how serious you are toward your interested craft. Heck, I started taking my painting – seriously – around 2012/2013 – and I was 44/45 years old.
Now there are questions I DO NOT ask because I really do not know their level of seriousness – but if I did, some of my in depth questions would be something like … Are you a whiner when it comes to rejection? (Its kinda harsh but I value honesty within ones self). Do you cry or become extremely depressed when people/organizations do not want or do not buy your work? Do you quit after the first 15 times your work is rejected by say an art dealer, gallery, publishing or retail company? Do you feel that since you put in about or over 1,000 hours of work that the world should accept your work when you post it a handful of times?
If anyone of those hit home – I am sorry to say, you may need to work on yourself a bit first or you may need to just put the paint brush, pencil, pen, sheet music or the laptop down – because you may be in for an extremely bumpy ride full of disappointment – and believe me, it can hurt at times. Actually, it hurts every time.
Believe me, I still have major bumps on my current path, both career wise and personal, and I know I’ll have bumps the farther I go – both for both my artistic and personal roads I believe when you hit those bumps they are there for a reason. What reasons? That’s the tough part, I don’t know exactly, but what I do know – is that suck. Believe me – they really suck. All of them. They sucked back in the day, they suck now, and they will suck in the future. So be ready.
But what I do know is that if you can keep yourself from falling off the edge when things don’t go your way, and if you can avoid things like – feeling sorry for yourself all day – everyday, partying all night (drinking/drugging), hitting the clubs or bars all the time, blaming others for your failures, hanging out with not-so-positive people – and if you stay home and work your butt off – you have a better chance at success – some kind of success – maybe not the level you want at that moment – but success is success.
So Break It Down
So if and when you decide to go down that road as a serious artist, if you can take on the challenges, or if you’re one of those artist that has to work 3 times harder than the next artist, like me, you have to take a few things into consideration about that leap to determine is you are possibly ready …
1 – Be Specific
Pick your poison. Pick the road (area of work / the field) you want to head down. Now you may have to try about 4-5 different roads (fields) until you find one that works for you. I attempted graphics, web design and comic books for many years and right about the time I started to get the comic book process down – my sports art started to take off – so I jumped on that wave and have been riding it even since (2013). Now I work as a graphics and web guy for my full-time job, so I still get to enjoy that kind of creativity, and I am always up to consult on a web site from time to time.
I do still work on my own comic book projects from time to time as well – but I do not have people emailing me about comic book projects and willing to spend a few bucks for the comics like they do my sports art – at least not yet.
Being specific will help you figure out your path. You do not want to be, for instance, that writer who attempts to write for teens because it is a popular genre, but deep down inside is a really good writer, who loves to write, but to a for a different say more intellectual audience. If you believe that’s the audience you are suppose to write to – write for them.
It was like that John Mayer lyric – “I’m done with broken people, this is me I’m working on…”
2 – Be Basic
Just like everything that takes skill – sports, cooking, martial arts, web design, and even blog posts – you have to learn the basics. (I am still learning to write. In the past I wanted to hire writers and they just didn’t seem to work out – so I am kinda forced into learning as I go.)
In comics, painting, and animation – There is one common basic denominator – it’s drawing. Now, you don’t have to be an expert at drawing (believe me, I can attest to this) but you do have to have a good foundation of it to be worth anything in any of those fields. Nevertheless, be specific and figure out what art form you want to be an “expert” at, what art form you think about during the day, what art form you say to yourself, “Wow, this is cool, I want to do this everyday!” Then, you’ll have a good idea of what specifically you’ll be spending a ton of hours on per day and week to get to the next level.
Tom Bancraft, former Disney animator, mentioned a few things on his The Bancroft Brothers Animation Podcast, episode #124 – “Your Art, Animation, Career and Business Questions Answered“, in terms of what was needed in becoming an animator, he said, “This art tip right now is the one thing that could change how you are as an artist … if you start doing this I guarantee that 80% of you are not doing this at least enough … “drawing rough”. Here’s why, every master artist does multiple sketches at every design that they do … whatever that job is, as an artists, if you’re not doing multiple iterations before hand in a quick loose drawing style, called thumbnails, then you’re not getting your best account.” Truth – from a pro.
3 – Be Honest
First and foremost, you have to be honest with yourself (and of course, with others). You have to honest with yourself it terms of deciding whether if you want to be a paid artist or a hobbyist.
Years back, I wanted to be a paid artist for my work, but I put in hobbyist time and effort – maybe some weekends, a few nights per week, and a drawing here and there. I was not consistent and not focused – and definitely not honest with myself.
Being honest with yourself will help you in so many ways, not just in art, but actually also could help in your personal life – at least it did with me. Being honest at how good of a painter, comic book artist, writer, designer – and most of all as a person, parent and partner you are will open your eyes to so many things about you, your world, personal life, and your artistic talent. Once you see where you are and where you want to go, you can then make your adjustments and you increase your chances in getting to your goals faster than you think.
In my younger years, I had to decide if I was going to be a partier and hang out with my no-good friends (who I still love til this day) all the time and potentially ruin my life, ruin my chances of graduating college and ruin any chance of making anyone proud of me (as well as prove to myself that I could achieve a college diploma) or if I was going to try to put in the work to make something of myself even with no parental example or mentor. I was lost much of the way.
So I attended a few classes outside of my regular college courses that taught me a few things – the classes were grounded in brutal honesty and taking ownership in my actions. Yes, it took a while but I was soon convinced that being honest with ones self would get me where I wanted to be in life – but it would be difficult, sometimes very very difficult. It also taught me that nothing worth anything comes easy, and everything worth anything comes at a cost – some small, some large. But at the core if it all, I believe that work and personal determination can get you there.
One of the toughest truths learned was that my friends (my circle) can determine the potential of your personal growth. Was my circle positive and encouraging? Or was my circle about being negative, putting people down, partying and possibly causing trouble?
Then I took a step back and looked around. I determined that I had to deal with hard truths. Yes, I use to stay out all night, party with my friends, felt horrible the next day, gave a low quality performance at work, made excuses as well as made apologies for my mistakes the next day. It was a vicious circle (and that was just high school and early college).
… if you can keep yourself from falling off the edge when things don’t go your way, and if you can avoid things like … hanging out with not-so-positive people – and if you stay home and work your butt off – you have a better chance at success …
Later after dropping out of college and getting rejected from advancing to upper level art courses – I found that I had to became honest with myself. It was like that John Mayer lyric – “I’m done with broken people, this is me I’m working on…” I started playing rec-sports with some really great guys, continued my college courses, worked full-time, hung around new friends that knew I didn’t drink any more and didn’t want to get myself in stupid situations any more – and you know what – they understood and respected that, and most of all – they never attempted to make me feel bad for not drinking. Those guys I love so much today, 20-30 years later, and they have no idea how much they inspired me to be a better person both personally and artistically.
Now to be more specific – when it comes to your art – the same principles can be applied. I believe you have to be brutally honest with yourself and with the level of your art and your commitment in relationship to the truth. This sounds corny but the brutal truth will set you free.
See there are so many good artists, athletes, writers, etc. out there who could, in my opinion, be better at their craft, if they just committed more to it. More commitment could take you to the next level. Of course its not guaranteed, but you increase your chances of getting to the next level by working than not.
Now I would like to add, your partner has to buy in on your commitment to your craft, and you into theirs. If there is not support for each other – the boat will eventually sink – or at least float around the ocean for years with holes in it until it eventually sinks .
Also, if you did not know, there are levels of art and design, levels of artist and designers, and to me, the extra time working at home and especially on weekends and nights could determine where you are and where you could possibly go with your work – but its all about the work (and then there is marketing and self promotion, but that’s for a future post). Your good looks and smile will only get you so far – believe me (actually for me it has gotten me no where).
4 – Be Failure Ready
In Bob Iger’s intro from his book “Ride of a Life Time”, he says, “fear of failure destroys creativity”.
So in 2013, I created a piece of Salvador Perez, the KC Royals Baseball Club’s multi-year and 2015 World Series champ All-Star catcher, and even after using a number of techniques I borrowed from one of my painting idols, who now I can now call a friend, my piece turned out mediocre. Flat. Why? Because something was missing.
The layout was good, it had balance and structure, but it fell short. To me it was a huge failure. At first, to me the piece was a waste of time, I was angry at myself – for about a minute (actually many minutes). And from past experiences I have learned that crying about my artistic failures doesn’t help – and if I want to get to certain level – I have to shut-up with the negative talk in my head (which is difficult) and figure out what made it not work, and then how to make it work.
So like most problem solvers, I had to figure out why the piece was a failure – in my eyes. My friends thought the piece was fine or good. But to me – it was not great. My goal was “great”. It was not even flirting on the edge of great. So my determination to figure out what made the piece a failure or a waste of time helped me move forward creatively. It was that failed painting, that opened my eyes. Most artists may have gessoed/painted over the painting and started a new one. Others may have thrown it away in bit of a frustrated rage. Me, nope. Why? Because I was in pursuit for making better work as an artist. I saw the failure of the painting as a path to possible better work.
Like a bad breakup, it was a necessary evil that I had to deal with knowing something better was around the corner. But before all that, I had to figure out what I could do next time to make things better (if it was my fault). A bad break up, believe it or not, can lead you to a better partner – believe me, since my 20’s, after each of my last 4 long term break-ups, I found someone more compatible and solid – so if my theory holds – my next girlfriend is going to be amazing – (watch out wedding bells!)!
Nevertheless, so, through my frustration with this piece, I asked myself, “what the heck am I missing”? I knew it was not a good piece and I was missing something (there’s the honesty). I knew I could do better work and that I would have to spend a ton of time figuring it out (more honesty). And so I eventually placed on the wall a print of my friends work – and next to it I placed my work – I stood there and studied them. I compared them like a TV detective starring at that white erase board of photos, names, etc. hoping to find the bad guy. Well, I hoped the answer would appear to me. Then believe it or not – it hit me!
So my desire to figure out that problem made the piece a not-so-much-of-a-failure or a waste of time.
Like a ton of bricks – it hit me. And after that moment, I had a better idea of how I could possibly take my work to the next level! So with that excitement I looked at all of my other pieces. I looked at all of my friend’s work and there it was – he was so consistent as he was excellent in his work – I was so glad I took the time to figuring it out. I could have easily cried, pouted and quit forever – but you know what – that ain’t me. I know I have and take a ton of jabs from people who say they care about me and from the world in general, I even drop to my knee from time to time – but ask anyone who knows me – I get back up. Why? I am not a quitter.
So once I realized where I needed to go with my work, I was off to my next attempt (painting project) in hopes to take the first step towards the next level – and guess what – the next painting was much better – and they have been getting a bit better project after project (shameless plug).
End of part 1 of 2 …