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Life After Art School: Five Years to an Illustration Career

Posted on July 7, 2011 by in Making Art | 2 Comments

The one emotion every newly-minted art school graduate experiences is anxiety. Can I really make it?  What do I do now?  All my friends are getting jobs making $50,000 a year.  Where does that leave me?  I’ll be lucky to get a job delivering pizza.

I graduated from the University of Michigan School of Art back in 1985, ready to take the illustration world by storm.  Until that moment, my life had been mapped out for me.  I had put in my hours painting, drawing from the model, and showing up  at crit time.  Suddenly, I was out in the real world with no more crits, no summer vacation, no spring break, no class-mates.  I wasn’t an upperclassman or a fraternity brother.  I was one of millions of adults, expected to make my way in the world.  Worse, unlike those folks with the $50,000 jobs, I had no clear idea what to expect.  What faced me,  what faces every student who graduates with a degree in the arts, is an undiscovered country that appears shadowy and frightening.

As the years went by, I realized that there was indeed a path through the wilderness, as clear and as straightforward as any law-student’s.  I hadn’t seen it as a terrified graduate, but looking back now it seems obvious.  The first thing to understand is that you’re going to have to pay your dues.  Every starting profession demands this step, even those seemingly wonderful jobs your friends are embarking on.  The hottest law student doesn’t leap right into a partnership, he’s expected to start at the bottom and work his way up.  And prepare yourself, because, for an artist, this step can take time. Embrace the notion that it will take five years before you’re working full time.

I can hear you laughing.  Laughing nervously, perhaps, but, honestly, five years?  When I graduated, I would have laughed right along with you.  I may have felt intimidated by the challenges ahead, but I also felt ready.  I was confident in my skills.  I had been taught what I needed to do to get work as a freelance illustrator.  So, when a successful illustrator named Richard Williams cautioned me that it could take a long time to break in to the business, maybe as long as  five years, I nodded and thought to myself:  “maybe for you, old man, but not for me.”  Over the coming months and years, I had ample time to reflect on his words, and it helped me keep things in perspective.  Five years later, literally, I got my first graphic novel commission, and my career took off.  For those few of you who will get snapped up by a game studio right out of school, give yourself a hand!  Everyone else, take a deep breath and consider the notion that this could take time.  The years immediately after graduation aren’t some horrible purgatory.  They can be some of the most fruitful years of your artistic life.  Give them room to unfold.  Have patience.  Use the time to push hard for what you want, to refine your work and build your confidence.

First, you’ll need a particular kind of job.  Remember, you’re looking for a JOB not a CAREER.  Keep that distinction clear in your mind.  Optimally, a job should be both part-time, and career related.  The importance of your work being part-time can’t be overstated.  If you’re working full-time, you won’t have the time and flexibility you need for portfolio-building, self-promotion, networking, all of the things you need to do build your career.  There are obviously secondary points to be made here, the most important of which is to live inexpensively.  Think carefully about taking on difficult financial obligations like large student loans, a house, or children.  The leaner you can keep your life during this critical time, the easier it will be to get your career going.  It can be frustrating to see your former school-mates driving expensive cars and living in big houses a few years after graduation, but keep your eye on the prize.  Your path leads to you making a living doing what you love most.

The idea of finding work that builds career-related skills can encompass a broad range of possibilities.  During my 5-years, I did some freelance spot illustrations, painted portraits, and worked in a textile design studio in Manhatten.  In their own way, all of these jobs helped me hone my skills.  The textile design studio was the least directly associated with what I wanted to do, but I was using paint, and I learned everything I know about color-mixing during my years there.  So, if you can get work at a gallery, in a comic-book store, or in a museum, that time is serving a dual-purpose.  If you find yourself working as a waitress or a garbage collector, don’t worry about it.  Every job will teach you important life-lessons, and your job is fundamentally a means to help launch your career.

A friend of mine just graduated with a degree in film-making, and is facing the same uncertainty about the future that you all are.  Rather than get a part-time job, however, he’s chosen to start working full-time as a salesman for an internet company.  He told me that he will feel much more comfortable looking for film work with a year’s earnings in his savings account.  It would have driven me crazy to “take off a year” after graduation.  To my friend, the idea of having no money in the bank is equally unthinkable.  He’s doing what feels he needs to do to move forward with confidence and security.  Though it wouldn’t have worked for me, I support his decision, because I know his strength of character, and because he has a clearly formulated plan.  My warning to him, and to all of you, is that money anxiety is notoriously persistent, no matter how much you have saved.  Odds are, the same anxiety you feel now will still be there a year from now, demanding an extension of the “year off” by one more, and then one more, until you’re looking back and wondering when exactly you fell off the train.

I’m not going to go into the mechanics of looking for illustration jobs.  Hopefully it’s something you learned in school, and if not, the internet is full of helpful advice on building a portfolio, submitting work to editors, etc…  What I want to emphasize is this:  while you’re on your five year plan, look for opportunities, and be prepared to act on them when they appear.  As master illustrator Michael Kaluta told me when I met him at a comic convention in back in 1989: “When you are where I am, you can say no.  Until then, you say yes.”  Prepare yourself to say yes at every moment.  Don’t worry about protecting yourself from unscrupulous publishers, take any job that comes your way.  I know that sounds odd, but unscrupulous publishers are as likely to be your pathway to the promised land as they are to take advantage of you. I started my career painting comics for $60 a page!  In exchange for working nearly for free, I demanded 100 copies of the printed comic to give out as samples (I still have some in my studio).  Carry business cards wherever you go.  Build a web-site and keep it up to date.  Talk to people.  That may seem obvious, but I learned as much from talking to artists during my five years as I did in school.  Go to conventions, and when you’re at them, don’t forget to talk to the artists!  It can be intimidating, but they are some of the friendliest, most helpful people you’ll ever meet.  Trust me, they all walked the path you’re walking right now and they remember how scary it was. Ask them to look at your work.  Ask them about their artwork, and their experiences breaking into the business.  You’ll be surprised how generous they can be.

Twenty-five years ago, I was in school with some incredibly talented students.  I’m only aware of a few that are working as professional artists now.  I’m convinced that most graduates drop out during the years immediately following graduation.  They’re stressful years.   It’s easy to feel forced by financial necessity into the full-time workplace, putting your dreams on hold.  If you’re serious about wanting to become a professional artist, don’t let that happen to you!  Keep your financial obligations low.  Give yourself time to build your career.  Look for ways to open the door to opportunity, and be ready to jump when that door opens.  In the days ahead, remind yourself that you really are on a path, just like your engineer and lawyer friends.  Their path is eased by fat paychecks and fancy cars.  What you’re aiming for lies farther down the road, but is better than the most expensive car or the biggest house:  a career doing what you love most.  Be brave, be persistent, trust in the process.  Every one of my illustrator friends will tell you:  it’s a life worth fighting for.

 This article was originally published on May 10th, 2011 on the Muddy Colors blog, organized by friend and fellow illustrator, Dan Dos Santos.

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