I had a message recently that went something like this:
“Hey Erik, I am a big fan of your Survivor comics and YouTube videos (Outsider Interviews) and I wanted to know if you could do a video on having a successful art career. As someone who works in a creative field, I’ve had a lot of trouble making it into a full-time thing, and I would be curious to know what it’s like or how to get there.”
To the person who messaged, I first want to say,”Thank you!” and secondly I want to say,”Art careers will always be a work in progress!”. I don’t feel like I am there yet.
There are artists out there who have established themselves to the point where they can make revenue to survive on only making art. Two comic artists that come to mind (and are wildly inspirational) include Mathew Inman of The Oatmeal web comics and Kim Jung Gi the Korean Comic Illustrator. In both cases, despite wildly different styles, they have found ways to elevate themselves in the eyes of their fanbase and monetize what they create, either by publishing books of their work, attending conventions, and funding their own projects – a prime example of this is when Exploding Kittens exploded on Kickstarter in 2015. At the same time, these artists remain true to their authentic selves as they create original art and commentary (in the case of the Oatmeal). This is what I, and many artists, strive for- the dream to wake up, create art you love, and have others pay you to do it.
The struggle I have had, and continue to have, is how to reach this elusive point. For years I created art for myself, which meant I wasn’t sharing it with others online, I wasn’t trying to monetize it, and I wasn’t planning anything substantial beyond simply “making art”. As I’ve grown older I’ve realized that in order to continue to make art, I need to generate substantial income off of it, which will enable me to devote more time to it.
Most artists have an incredibly powerful and fascist Right Hemisphere of their brain that calls the shots, fueled by the “high” that comes from creating new work. The creative and free spirited side doesn’t want to create under pressure, generate recycled versions of art that has already existed, and it certainly doesn’t want to be restricted by handling client commissions. The Left Hemisphere of my brain struggles against this overpowering odic force on the Right; the toil of rational goals… to pay bills, go to class, to eat food, or to put the paint brush down and go to sleep by 2am. In the past, the creative voice always won the do-this-now debate and I made whatever I wanted to create.
In order to survive as a working artist though, the Left and the Right have to work together to accomplish a common goal; make creativity a working business model.
So then, how can you monetize your art? For one thing, art is a secondary purchase for most people. A person’s car won’t stall on the freeway because it isn’t full of unleaded art, a house will still keep water out without original paintings on the walls, and you certainly don’t need customized logo design to fill up your refrigerator. Because of this, it is difficult to get regular everyday folk to purchase art. There is also an overabundance of art out there that is likely much cheaper then commissioning an original work, and these cheaper works are marketed en mass (Paying to download music you heard on the radio, buying a canvas wrapped print of a Marvel superhero, buying a t-shirt at Target with a graphic print, etc). Why commission a virtually unknown artist to produce an original artwork, when there’s a print online that almost captures what you are feeling or wanting, and can also feature a character or brand you already know?
This is the uphill battle that all artists must climb – how do I become relevant, desirable, and marketable as a creator? Here is what I have learned so far, my hope, is that another creator out there can learn from it:
From the time I began freelancing in 2009, I have had a hard time pricing myself for others. Often, I would set a price for commissions that was too low just to get some business, which would turn out to be a nightmare. I would be working long hours on projects I didn’t want to do, and underpaying myself to do it. If I had to go back to art school and start over, I would have double majored in art and business!
Being a working artist means knowing how to run a business, where the product is yourself. Art is unique, in that there are no places to “sign up” to be an artist full time. Everything about working as an artist is entrepreneurial because you are producing something that has never been seen before – or at best, presenting yourself as a new creative force to be supported and sought after. There are no businesses out there looking to hire for “Picasso’s” or “Mathew Inman’s” or “Erik Reichenbach’s”… You have to “make yourself”!
That said, you can’t become a “Picasso” overnight. I think of all artists as aging wines – we need time to mature in the bottle. The art I produced in grade school is ages behind the artwork I produce now, and that’s because of the life experiences and artistic styles I have worked in since then. There are artists that go through periods of difficulty, stress, and hardship only to emerge as better artists with a more powerful, unique, and opinionated voice. “Making Yourself” means being true to yourself, but it also means finding yourself and not settling. This is something that can take a lifetime, or can develop quickly when an opportunity presents itself. A good example of an artist that rose to the occasion and was transformed by the moment is famous Street Artist Sheppard Fairy, who most notably created the Obama “Hope” Poster in 2008. ( I encourage anyone reading to watch the Hulu documentary,”Obey Giant” ).
A great personal example of my own development has come from working on Survivor Comics for People.com. A few years ago my friend and former Survivor contestant, Stephen Fishbach, reached out to me with the notion of adding comics alongside his Survivor recap blogs. Now going into my 8th season of comic-blogging, I’ve already seen an increase in attention for my art, improvement in my craft, and confidence in taking on other more complex projects. Without this unique opportunity I wouldn’t have seen these gains.
In high school I knew an artist named Fritz Ho. That wasn’t actually his name, since he was originally from Vietnam, and his real name had to be (apparently) replaced by something Americanized so Americans could actually refer to him as a person. Regardless, “Fritz” was an incredible artist. His proportions, anatomy, and perspective was all incredible for a kid in high school. I would see him reading and studying famous Manga artists and then produce similar quality work. I asked him one day if he was thinking of putting a book together or working on a story, which he admitted he was.
“Nobody else has seen this,” he admitted to me, as I poured over the incredible layouts and panels. “I don’t show these to anyone.” At first this infuriated me a bit, but today I have realized how many artists just don’t care about showing their work – myself included. If you are an artist today you need to start putting your work somewhere online where others can see it. Artists shouldn’t work in a vacuum, and other artists enjoy seeing and comparing their work to yours. Some places online to start posting: Instagram, DeviantArt, and Reddit.
At the beginning, I was super nervous to over-share because my mom (among others) put a fear into me that people may try to “steal” my ideas or work. I know now that there is so much hard work in actually creating anything good, that most really ground breaking revolutionary ideas take more work then most “art-thieves” are willing to put in. Share your work and be open to others who will give you feedback, critiques, and encouragement.
No matter what, don’t stop making art. This is possibly the most important thing I have come to learn, as I have gone through periods of my life where daily tasks and work interfere with creative pursuits. If you are finding yourself being pulled away from the canvas, the page, the studio (wherever you create!) fight to get back there as much as possible. If you are like me, you have to be doing something creative in order to stay sane and content.
Another variation of this, if circumstances permit, are to try and place yourself in a job that has elements of creativity or possibilities in the future. Having a day job that includes graphic design and being an artist by evenings can be a happy medium then working as a non-artistic pizza delivery guy, phone operator, or bank employee.
Not only will a commitment to creating keep you sane, it also will keep your resume and portfolio relevant and evolving.
Some people artists never need to make a short term plan because they jump in head first to a long, arduous, and usually expensive, academic art path. I have heard of other graphic artists and illustrators that put everything towards attending the Kubert School, Fullsail, or more locally for me, CCS in Detroit, and afterwards they immediately find job placement in their desired industry. These success stories look like stable and steady paths, but also are large investments of time, effort, and in a lot of ways, freedom. I contemplated taking an academic route before, but couldn’t bring myself to commit to a system that could limit my development as an artist with unique voice; and instead, force me to fill a career “role” for whatever major I’ve signed up to achieve.
Some would argue that a little restriction in the process opens you up to greater posibilities later (graduates from Kubert, Fullsail, and CCS often find themselves employed by large companies like Marvel, DC, Disney, Cartoon Network, Boom Studios, etc.). This is something I didn’t want.
Because I went to a less expensive, less specialized college (Graduated in 2009 from Eastern Michigan University, with a BFA in Watercolor!) I have had to reinvent myself and manage my own creative career path. This likely has lead to less success then someone who invested time and effort to go to a better school and reach out to better opportunities afterwards, but I feel the voice I have is unique and the art I do make is more personal because the path I walk is my own.
These are the HUGE life decisions you have to make as an artist, and it begins at an early age for most. It’s difficult to know what’s right and what’s wrong, and the consequences, opportunities, and by products of those decisions all impact your craft and voice over time. A long time ago I realized you can’t live with regrets for making a decision, when we all are evolving in our own beliefs and understanding of ourselves. That said, I always have made time to be introspective and ask myself what I want to say with my art and what I need to do in order to create that.
This is my most recent lesson, and it comes in light of further attention my art has received. I’ve had the good fortune of creating comics and art for a few return clients, and at one point I found out that I was being underpaid for art. After thinking it through, it didn’t make sense to continue creating art at the price I discovered I was being paid, and had to walk away. A few months passed, the client eventually called me back and agreed to the new terms and new pay. It felt really good to be valued for creating something I knew was valuable.
Keep improving, keep learning, and keep putting your work out there. There is always room to grow, but in the same breathe, value where you are at in your own artist’s journey.
There’s only one voice in the world that sounds like you!