If I was going to put a title on this next piece to sort of summarize it’s content, I think it would be “Knowing what you’re getting in to.”
There is a short conversation that I generally have with most of the people who try to talk to me at shows in order to learn more about being a professional artist. Commonly I’m told that I’m very lucky to be able to get to do what I love for a living. I’m always happy to correct this common misconception. I didn’t start doing this because I love doing it. I started doing this because I lost my job in management during a down economy and had little other options. After nearly a year on unemployment trying to find another job (seriously, trying really hard to), I realized that I needed to get more creative in my efforts to support myself. The thing I was best at in my life at that point, aside from management, was drawing. I started doing research on sites like eBay to see if it would be possible to provide for myself by selling my art. That’s when I found out about sketch cards. I saw people selling full sized art pieces in the range of $50-$100, but then there were these other people selling little trading card sized art for anywhere between $10-$50. I thought that to be genius, so I started drawing sketch cards. The first batch I did was all terrible, and I was able to sell them all for a minimum of $10 each. I didn’t look back after that. I got good at it. I got to where I was making at least a minimal living off of it, and I branched out from there. That’s when I started doing conventions.
The point of all of that is this: I don’t do this because I love doing it. I do this because it’s what I’m currently best at. That’s what you should do for a living. You should do what your best at doing. That’s the easiest way to make the world a better place. Contribute to it in the way that you’re most capable. Are you a great cook? Be a cook for a living. Are you a neat freak? Clean for a living. People forget in today’s sort of dumbed down, internet influenced world that it’s okay to have a hobby. A hobby is what you love doing. A job is what you’re good at doing. Isn’t that simple? Doesn’t that make sense? I’m not saying not to follow your dreams. Everyone should do that. Just be smart about it. If you can make it, then good for you. If you can’t, then find a good job that you can be successful at and have a hobby. Having a hobby is a good thing. Trust me, it changes how you feel about what you do once you have to support yourself by earning money doing it. A hobby is a blessing. Doing what you love with no pressure behind it? That’s wonderful. There’s no shame in that.
If this is your best shot, do it. Okay?
Now that we’re clear on whether or not it’s a good idea for you to do this, let us assume that you’re going to do it, and move on from there.
This is a business. It’s a constantly competitive, cutthroat, evil disaster of a thing. That’s what I consider it to be, anyway. Once you are sitting behind a table at a show, you realize things that you didn’t before. Everyone else who is sitting behind their own table at the same show secretly hates you, no matter what they say to your face. They might like you, and they have a lot in common with you, but they still hate you. They will comb over everything you do in order to learn how to keep you from threatening their stake at that show. If you do anything better than them, the next time you see them they will be better than you at that. If you have a new idea, they will have a new idea the next time you see them. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this. They’re not villains, they’re just people like you, trying to make a living. People learning from each other in order to succeed is called progress. Be a part of it. Everyone out there pushing each other makes everything better for everyone. It’s like playing a game with someone. If they don’t know all of the rules, and they aren’t very experienced in the strategy of the game, you won’t have very much fun beating them, and you won’t grow as a competitor. If you play against someone who can match your skill and knowledge, however, it’s rewarding to win, and you grow by learning to beat them. That’s better for you. Embrace it, or let it ruin you. Your choice.
THE FACTS: YOUR PORTFOLIO
As we’ve discussed before, ever so harshly, nobody attending shows really cares about you. They do, however, obsessively love meaningless fictional characters. That’s the world you live in. If you’re going to build a portfolio that is going to be successful at shows, you’re just going to have to sell out. That’s all there is to it. You have to create a catalog of what people care about, because you need their money. As a reminder, you don’t really have to be that good, or that imaginative with the character. If they recognize the character, you have a shot at selling it to them. Let’s study this concept for a moment.
I went on to deviantArt and looked up Harley Quinn, who is arguably the most valuable commodity you can have in your portfolio at a show. I wanted to see what the most popular art pieces were of her. Here is what I found:
Those are the 6 most popular pieces of Harley Quinn art currently on the website. Now, obviously, there’s nothing “wrong” with any of these pieces. Art is subjective, right? People like what they like. You can say that you don’t like art, but most of time time criticizing it is just a waste of time, because it all comes down to personal preference anyway. So we can all agree that these 5 pieces of art depicting Harley Quinn are not bad. Would you buy any of them? I might buy one of them, if I was a fan of the character, and I went to a show, and these were the only 6 pieces of Harley Quinn art I saw. I would probably buy one. They’re at least good enough to fill that need I would have if I was a fan.
Now, let’s look at 6 more.
Do you see any difference between these 5 and the first 5? If you don’t, then I suppose that my point is already made. But you should see a difference. The second set of six pieces are done by recognized, professional artists. Stanley Lau, known by many as Artgerm, designs statues and draws covers for DC. Mahmud Asrar drew Supergirl for DC. I could go on, but you get the point. The second set contain what you can at least fairly say are more technically sound art pieces by professionals with more experience and credibility than the first six, and yet the first set outshines them. Do you think it’s any different at shows? It isn’t. People like what they like, whether they can even explain why or not. Get used to this. The best shot that you have of making a living out there is to offer people the simplest representation you can offer of what you know that they love. My own portfolio is proof of this. What is my most popular art piece I’ve ever carried?
This. This simple, but elegant bust of Poison Ivy. For about two years, nothing else I did could compete with this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy about that. I’m proud of this piece, but when people tell me that it’s my best, I think it’s comical. It’s far from my best piece. Is it my most marketable piece though? Well, obviously, yes. That’s why it was so popular. Not because of what I though, but because of what they thought. You get the point.
So what does all of this tell you, anyway? It tells you that if you manage your portfolio properly, you don’t have to struggle to create art that is better than the artists out there who are better than you are creating. Again, that’s good news. You can sit right next to them and outshine them without even providing your best effort, for no conceivable reason. It just works like that. Seriously. You can sit right next to one of the most popular artists in the world, who draws that character for a living, and you can compete with them. You can, because as we discussed earlier, that artist is still unknown by most of the people who will be attending any given show. Strange, yes, but true.
Here’s what you do. I recommend this system. Have a portfolio of 48 pieces of art. It’s just the perfect number, trust me. 48 fits perfectly into a portfolio book, and it makes a perfect presentation behind you. It’s perfect. Don’t argue. =P
Be smart with those 48 pieces of art. Have something for everyone. Don’t assume that you know what people want. Do the obvious. Out of 48 pieces, I think it’s smart to divide them equally between interests. 24 characters from the two most popular comic brands, divided equally between male and female, choosing the most popular characters you can. Then you have 12 television/anime characters, then 12 video game/movie characters. That’s a really good balance. Trust me. It will blow your mind when you spend a week drawing the perfect picture of MiracleMan that nobody cares about, but then you spend 15 minutes on a lame Adventure Time piece, and everybody loves it. That’s just the way it is. People at comic book conventions are not art connoisseurs. They aren’t qualified critics. They are people who just paid money to walk around and spend more money because they are so obsessed with the things that they love that it actually makes sense to them to pay money to walk around and spend more money. That’s a good thing for you. If your design fundamentals professor at school hates your art, listen to them, because they probably can tell you a lot of things that can help you. If a person in their early twenties in a Deadpool costume who’s suffering through a materialistic identity crisis hates you art, IT DOES NOT MATTER. Now, if you’re unable to move any art, you have a problem, and you need to readdress your portfolio plan. If, however, you’re doing okay, despite occasional snide comments from attendees, then don’t sweat it. That’s just going to happen.
In closing, I’ll answer a very popular question in the simplest and most non-incriminating way that I can think of. “Jon, if I try to sell prints of characters that I own, won’t I get in trouble?”
Here’s the simple answer I have to that problem. Currently, there are thousands of artists touring the country doing exactly that thing with zero consequences. Do you expect that to be any different for you?
Anyway, if you need help, I hope this helps you. I forgot to say this in the last post, but if you need to ask me anything, your best bet is my public facebook page. You can also fill out the contact form here on my website.
Thanks for reading.