Tough Choices

'A Slow Dream' - work in progress by Celandine, top

‘A Slow Dream’ – work in progress by Celandine, top

Spring has finally sprung, and the sunlight is making me giddy. The effect is all the greater because the end of winter smacked me with three weeks of flu so bad that I literally could not get out of bed, even sitting up was tough. The third week, when my head cleared a little, gave me a lot of time to think, since doing anything was out of the question.

The first thing I realized was that my approach to art was probably part of what wore my immunity down to the breaking point.

Besides being an artist, I’m also a full-time professional and a mom. This means time is my most treasured resource. As my mornings are family time, my nine-to-five belongs to my employer, and my evenings are ruled by a tiny three year old person who is currently deeply infatuated with dinosaurs and firemen, art mostly gets the night shift. The night shift starts when the little dinosaur hunter falls asleep – usually around 8.30 – and ends when I can no longer keep my eyes open, usually around 02.00. That leaves me around five hours of sleep, in ideal conditions.

This is not a sustainable way to live. You can push for a while on willpower alone, but at some point you’re just chronically exhausted and it’s not good for you.

So I got to thinking – what can I discard? How can I optimize my use of time?

My approach so far has been to try and cover all my bases. Share my eggs between a bunch of different baskets, as the old saying advises. Try working with a few agents, try submitting work to a few competitions, take on some commissions, work on some personal pieces. Cover most of the social media, write a blog, send out newsletters, build a new website. You know, the usual stuff.

Except, you know, that’s a crapton of work.

In order to decide what’s your most effective action today, you really need to know what’s the ultimate goal you are aiming to achieve. This is the trick – I think a lot of us don’t really know what we want to become. Successful artists, sure. But there are a bajillion different ways of being a successful artist. ‘I want to draw cover illustrations for popular magazines’. ‘I want to design fashion prints for Alexander McQueen’. ‘I want to design wallpapers for uptown hotels’. ‘I want to sell original paintings for sky-high prices’. ‘I want to create my own brand products’. All of these are legitimate ways to be a successful artist – and the paths that lead to them are radically different, each from each. So, what do I want?

'A Slow Dream' - work in progress by Celandine, center

‘A Slow Dream’ – work in progress by Celandine, center

Since phrasing my ultimate art goal into a single pithy sentence is still beyond my powers, I tried listing out all the things I think I want from art, figuring it would be easier to choose the most important ones that way.

– I want to push forward and develop my personal art style, which hinges on complex and lavish floral illustrations with unexpected additions or twists.

– I want to make money from art. (Hopefully enough to make it my day job, eventually)

– I want to grow my network, connecting with more blogs and magazines who write about artists, other artists who do similar work, fans, and potential buyers and clients.

– I want to do client commissions, when I feel they fit my style.

That looks pretty sensible, right? Probably nothing very unique about that list. Then I thought of all the things I actually do during my art time, trying to decide which ones contribute to these goals.

Working on personal pieces? Hell yes. Every piece I draw for myself challenges me to the point where I’m terrified I won’t be able to pull it off, every time. I push myself because overcoming that fear means overcoming my current limits and growing as an artist. Without that, there would be no meaning to me drawing at all. So that stays.

Working for agents who sell designs? Nope. Developing patterns for agents or studios who sell your work together with the copyright is an absolutely legitimate way to make money in the industry, and there are armies of pattern designers who make their living this way. There is nothing wrong with it at all. But I realized it wasn’t moving me towards my goals. The designs I’d make for the agents would be simpler, more mainstream and more commercial than my personal work – the idea is that you can make these patterns quickly, turn them into money, and move on. What I discovered was that I was making work that was mediocre and didn’t move me forward in any way, and even though I could produce a lot of it over relatively short periods of time, making sales still wasn’t easy. So for the time being, POOF – that’s gone.

Doing commission work for clients? I enjoy working with clients, it’s a completely different experience from working on a personal piece, but I love the challenge of interpreting someone else’s ideas and bringing them to life in a way that makes them say ‘Yes!! That’s exactly how I was imagining it!!’ It’s a high like no other. But turning down commissions that aren’t compatible with the direction I want to take with my art should be a no-brainer. I’ve had people ask me to design lots of things I don’t normally do, and when I thought I could do a decent job for them, I usually did it. From now on I really want to focus on clients who want the unique flavor of Celandine. And in order to reach them, I need to display that unique flavor loud and proud – and there we goย again concluding how important the personal work is.

'A Slow Dream' - work in progress by Celandine, bottom

‘A Slow Dream’ – work in progress by Celandine, bottom

Entering competitions? This is a tricky one. Most competitions want similar sort of work to what the agents ask for – popular themes done in popular treatments, with a slight unique twist. Christmas! Reindeer! Summer! Ice cream lollies! Easter! Eggs and bunnies! Pastel colors! Sheesh!!! Also, lots of competitions reward artists poorly. The one exception I have found so far are competitions held by new businesses to select their initial team of artists. I’ve taken place in two such competitions so far – one for the new US home decor brand Shibumi Home, and one for the new Finnish art wallpaper company Feathr. Both of these offered a partnership to the winning artists, licensing a number of our pieces and offering royalties on each sale. They also both had an atmosphere and aesthetic I could relate to. So I’ll say competitions are a maybe – if they seem a good match.

The website, newsletter, and social media promotion are non-negotiable in today’s connected society, but they can’t work without fuel – and the fuel is fresh artwork I produce. Without that, I’ve got nothing to share.

So when I add it all up, it seems pretty clear – my focus needs to be squarely on my personal work. It’s what resonates the most with the people who follow my art, it’s what makes me a better artist with every piece, it’s what gives me great stuff to share on social networks, and to write blog posts and tutorials about. Also, just coincidentally, it’s what I love doing the most. Lucky that, eh?

I’ve pulled together a rough schedule/ plan/ idea list for the personal pieces I want to do until the end of the year. When I’m about half way down the list I’ll have material for a very solid portfolio site, featuring a coherent collection of the work I love to make. This is the game plan at the moment.

That, and going to bed at 12.30 at the latest. Eeep, I’m running late already! Better wrap up.

Do you catch yourself trying to do everything at once? Have you found your focus yet? Let me know in the comments!ย 

If you’d like to learn more about my process, sign up for my cute monthly newsletter! In the next three issues I’ll be publishing a detailed process tutorial explaining step by step all the work that’s going into my current work in progress ๐Ÿ™‚ (It’s the one pictured in this post). It won’t be posted anywhere else, so if you’re interested, this is your chance ๐Ÿ™‚ย 

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4 thoughts on “Tough Choices

  1. Great Read! Thanks for being so open, it’s good to know that I am not the only artist going through similar situations and having the same battles with myself! It just reminds me that sometimes you have to stop and access what your goals are and to make sure what you spend your time on is pushing you closer to meeting the goals that are important to your success!

    • I think a lot of us get trapped in that thinking – that we’re alone in our struggle and that everyone else has got their act together and we’re somehow fundamentally failing to catch up. It’s not true though, and it helps that we remind each other of that ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m sure I’ll have to reassess my goals a hundred times more, and maybe what I’m doing right now isn’t even the perfect choice, but I feel good knowing that I came to the decision through analyzing my situation objectively, and if the situation changes, I know I can always reassess ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for reading and supporting my blog, it means so much!!!

  2. Excellent post. I’m in awe of your focus and determination: basically you’re unstoppable and it’s clear you’re going to make it.

    I’ve also devoured your process tutorial and found it fascinating. Good warning about tracing reference photos. I tried that a few times, but found the traced images were curiously lifeless. When I draw something without reference, the result may be crude and klunky, but even so, it’s full of energy and works so much better in a pattern.

    You write really well. Thanks for sharing all this stuff with us internet people!

    • Thanks for reading my stuff, Mary ๐Ÿ™‚

      Yes, tracing sucks life out of images and working with your own hand gives life, even if it comes out less perfect than the lines in the photo reference. So glad you liked the tutorial! I’m writing part two this weekend, looking forward to it already!

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