We have a rather warped ethos for how we look at and deal with art and artists as a culture. There are roughly two camps of art-making, those who do it for fun as a hobby or are lucky enough to have married well or receive a trust fund or live in a hut, and those of us who make a living out of art and must navigate the treacherous waters where the profit motive and the creative motive meet, clash and dance together. That’s what this week’s post is about (suck it, hut-people).
When we’re kids, we don’t do it for the money. Art is a playground and a wonderscape we’re encouraged to utilize as much as possible. No one complains that their kid draws too much, or likes art too much. That comes later when you’re a grownup and you’re supposed to have gotten rid of this childish habit. Those of us who wish to or in my case, have codified this act of play as a career have a rocky road to navigate. Really much of the issues that will come at you in terms of balancing your need to feed yourself/your family are only struggles you’ll have to wrestle with when you make it your full time gig.
That’s the real tipping point. Most of you will do this on the side of a real grownup job, at least at the outset, but that doesn’t mean the early stages of this won’t start nibbling at you. Finding and traversing the landscape where love and commerce intermingle is a tricky dance and one, in my twenty years of doing this, I have yet to master perfectly. But I did pick up a few things. Here are nine of those things:
1). When you’re starting out, it isn’t about the money, it’s the opportunity the job can bring.
That first original art sale or that out of the blue cover job, or getting into Spectrum really lights you up. It’s the carrot in a world of sticks, and that’s awesome. But often it takes a lot of pro-bono work to get there. Many professionals will caution against chasing low paying or free work, and with good cause. But early on it’s about getting your chops honed and getting out there. Don’t expect to come out of school with a full time career as an artist. You will have to get a job, and hopefully one that encourages your after hours art career-in-waiting. (For me it was home repair and carpentry, working at night on comics). So the currency starting out is the inroads and exposure a job can bring. The money comes and goes, but this stuff is GOLD. Case in point: Make sure work you take on contributes to the total path, not just getting rent paid that month. Sometimes we don’t have a choice, and we have to pull a short term straw, but that’s okay. Just don’t get caught in the short term sugar-high at the expense of the a long term career. Doing free or cheap work upfront is part of that. Free today can mean big bucks tomorrow.
To this day, the work I have done on my own without an inherent up front profit motive or as one off work for others has through backdoor routes brought more work than pay than any work for hire job to date. The three years of The 52 Weeks Project and its Kickstarted book including gallery shows, commissioned work, a music video and a children’s book illustrating President Obama’s first inaugural address. In the end, do the work you love and if you can play your cards right, it can love you back so you can do it all over again. This is the goal, and the ultimate achievement.
2). Working professionally will corrupt your art.
There is no avoiding this. Breathing and living will also do this. It’s not about avoiding the change it brings, but about making sure the change is for the better. Money changes how you take on projects or ideas other than your own. It changes your work in terms of its content and what you end up chasing down. But as a basic principle, that’s a good thing in all respects. How it changes your work is the tricky part. Bringing the profit motive into your art is often damaging—but let’s face it: working at Starbucks for the rest of your life and keeping your art “pure” hurts too, and probably more so. Thing is, just because you take on paying gigs doesn’t mean the changes they bring aren’t beneficial. I am a thousand times better as an artist to today because of the variety of work for hire and creator owned partnerships I have taken on. Jobs are like school assignments: the good ones force you into an uncomfortable place where you learn about yourself and grow. Buy a house, have some kids start looking down the barrel at college dues and the rest, well it can bring on the collywobbles. But that’s okay because this is the life, and few get to live it like that.
It’s not for everyone, by any means. I can honestly say I am not hardwired for this kind of thing and am still trying to cope with the distortive pressure of it. Luckily my years in this field no render me utterly unqualified for any other work. Sometimes not having the choice makes you jump to interesting place. If you’re lucky and you manage to coordinate it all well, the money begins to become rewards for the work you want to do. Do it wrong and you’ll only get paid to do work you hate but take on because you need the money. It’s a tricky road and no path is the same, but be the reed and bend. You will not be poisoned by taking on a job just for the money, but you well could be if you repeat this for a year. This is the difference between swimming and drowning.
3). They are offering a lot amount of money and incentives for a job you don’t want to do.
This is a tough one. I have made this call in both directions more than once, and been rewarded with sacred knowledge from both. Conan: Born on the Battlefield was never and is still not in my wheelhouse of comics I read or think about. But in the end it was a tactical decision that was made against the gut feeling in my heart. It could have gone terrifically wrong, but it did not. Quite the opposite in fact. Kurt was incredible to work with, the book did very well, I got to learn to really enjoy adventure tales in comics in a way I hadn’t for a long while. I learned to do things I never would have tried to learn otherwise. The work and other opportunities the book continues to bring is immeasurable—my current book, Indeh, is a direct result of my doing Conan, and it has been one of the most tremendously rewarding projects I have ever worked on. So you never know.
But the other side is the more common one—where the job taken just for the money ends up being a horrible no good very bad thing. Short efforts are one thing, however rough they are they are finite. I do still stumble into a bad cover job or whatnot, but for all their darkness they only last a week or so. We get through them and we learn. Other jobs, film work or ad work I have done that can run for a month or more can be hellish. Whatever money they tend to offer upfront never seems enough at the end when it goes bad. And there’s always the imminently true Jeff Jones warning: “Never take on a job you hate just for the money, for you will be rewarded with having ten other offers for the exact same thing after.” Too true.
4). Selling your craft or your art is not “selling out.”
Many people will not understand this and will use the term once you start taking on commercial work. They are wrong of course, and here’s why: Most confuse selling out with selling. These criticisms are of course irrelevant because the accuser simply needs to spend more time with a dictionary. Ignore them. The other end is those who accuse based on your taking on work for money as a job alone. Again, ask them how the earn a living and if their current job is what their heart desires… most of the time their answer means going back to the first solution: ignore them.
Thing is, selling out is something only you can understand or judge. Where in your artist’s soul the Rubicon lies for going to far, is yours alone to ponder. It’s no one else’s business but yours, but it is an important issue. If you devalue your work or your vision solely to make a dollar, your work will likewise devalue. It’s like a plant that you water or pour gasoline on. Sometimes a job is a selling out that leads to an opportunity to do your own work, so is it selling out after all? Sometimes you need to earn a paycheck to pay for your kids braces, is that selling out? Making the work and then selling that work isn’t selling out, it’s making a living. Making work just make a buck, then gets trickier, and where that river crossing lies is your business and yours alone to map out. Get it right, though. Find your boundaries and guard them. The temptations to compromise will always try and find a way across. Whatever happens, make sure it’s a choice you have made, not someone else or for someone else.
5). You take the job, you do the job the best you can. Period.
No matter how terrible it is or turns out to be, how crappy the clients are to you, or the editor or AD, you need to stick it out and get through it. I have been in this place many times before, (though less and less these days as I have developed an improved radar system for spotting these land-mines), and it is THE WORST. Still, like losing a ball game gracefully and going down fighting, coming through it and knowing you did your best is the only currency that matters.
Learn to pick up on the cues next time to avoid the situation, but don’t quit or run off or self sabotage if you can avoid it. Even if it was terrible and violating, don’t run off to air it all out on the internet either. You are then not a survivor of the experience, but its victim. And you have become an internet troll to boot. It’s an increasingly small world and how you deal with a bad situation can either go down as a leg up to better work and brighter horizons or can mark you as a difficult pain in the ass that no one can rely on. Take a breath, a night’s sleep, a long pull on a tall whiskey—whatever you need to do to avoid making rash emotional judgements is the best policy to avoid most of these messes. Folks will remember you better for calm in a crisis or a deadline crunch, than the other way around. And really even the worst project ever won’t actually kill you, but it can make sure you learn to dodge doing it again.
6). Every career path is different, and you’ll have to find your own way. Get help where you can.
Ultimately even if you work in a crowded studio with others, you are working alone. The choices you make must be yours, the rewards and punishment yours as well. Getting to know yourself is a path all of us arty or not must traverse, but with art you have a unique forum for which to come to this sooner than most. I think this is true of all creatives and why I think creative people are, despite being mostly crazy, the best people around. The act of making work is an act of isolation, but that doesn’t mean you have to be lonely. Get out there, meet colleagues, join online forums, share and participate. It’s a great time for artists now in regards to this, and through your peers you can learn a lot both about yourself, and about how your own work is resonating.
7). Share war stories with friends and colleagues.
Not only is this the best form of therapy, it also can act as a community warning system against bad clients. I have managed to dodge an infinite number of land mines thanks to the warning cries of the battle wounded who have gone there. I won’t name names, but I will happily do so privately. Try to encourage this kind of function amidst your peers—the other side is already doing this. Publishing is a small world—and frankly thanks to the internet, it’s all small worlds these days. If you’re a difficult person to work with, or go trolling on the web, or blow deadlines, not only will you poison yourself against whatever imprint has hired you, they will share your issues with their peers, and it will show up at other publishers in a matter of days at least. They do this for the same reason you should—to avoid getting into be with bad partners. If your friends have all had a terrible time with a particular editor you probably will too.
But like reading online reviews, you must contextualize the complaints. Sometimes what you’re being warned about has nothing to do with what you may want so the complaint isn’t relevant. Or if you’ve already signed the contract the complaint can be a helpful tool to have on hand should similar bad behavior arise. Sometimes it’s just about getting a sense of how a certain client works, and making yourself ready to take that on as a maze to navigate. Either way, share, discuss, but keep it off record. Going on the internet and barfing about a bad deal or a a bad client will only makes you look bad, no matter how good it feels in the moment you’re doing it.
8). Don’t confuse self worth with self importance.
Standing up for yourself in a contract negotiation or at a show feels like a crazy-person’s level of hubris sometimes, but it must be done lest you get run all over by everyone. Value what you do, and fight for its value. If you don’t do this then how can anyone else? Don’t wait hidden in some ancient cave like a treasure to be discovered one day, get out there and make yourself present and get discovered. That said, you don’t need to be a dumbass about it. There is a tangible difference between ego and self-worth. Fighting for a better page rate reasonably is different than refusing to do a book tour unless you get a limo. Being an artist is a natural declaration of hubris, and you will be reminded of this by friends and family more than you’d like. Don’t take it too seriously, but don’t undervalue it either. It matters because it matters to you—it doesn’t need to matter to a million others to have value. But don’t presume superiority or power you may not have. Know the difference and live it.
9). Ignore what’s popular.
One of the things you may consider doing to make your career, is find out what’s in fashion and then do that. Please don’t do that. It doesn’t really do what you want, and chances are, by the time you show up with it done, the fad is waning or already over. If you’re really into say… werewolves and suddenly werewolves are the THING, then great. Take this turn of the wheel to your best advantage. it’s what you love after all, so go for it. But even so, if you really love werewolves, chances are you’ve already been doing them for a while. The time it takes to catch up to an existing trend makes matching and exploiting that trend nearly impossible. You may be able to pull it off by having something already in your pocket, but really, the material responding to the fad is already in the pipeline.
Some of you may get wind of some early indicators and be able to mount a fad before it lands, and good for you. It’s smart business and good for the dollars/fame thing. Basically my advice is to not worry about it. Fads tend to be designed by the lucky (or unlucky) creator who sparks it. Thing is, if you’re going to tap into a gestalt, you’re going to do it anyway. I don’t know if it’s fate or destiny or what, but you can’t tie a lasso around it and make it poop out success for you. If you nail it, be prepared to deal with what that kind of attention will do to you, brace for it and try to stay grounded. But remember, like the first paragraph—this is the sugar rush not the career. Even if you grab hold of a fad, it will end just as assuredly as it begun. You maybe have a year maybe more if you’re lucky, and it will mark you forever for both good or ill. It’s like lightening, it’s dazzling and full of a lot of potential… that can literally toast you. Keep it about the work and the work will reward you for it—I promise.
All images by Greg Ruth. Click any image to enlarge.
This post originally appeared on the Muddy Colors art blog.
Greg Ruth has been working in comics since 1993 and has published work for The New York Times, DC Comics, Paradox Press, Fantagraphics Books, Caliber Comics, Dark Horse Comics and The Matrix. He has shown his paintings in New York, Houston, and Baltimore, and he also exhibited a series of murals at New York’s Grand Central Terminal in 2002.