Rule of Thumb

Occasionally I'm asked for advice from artists fresh to the field (some of you who know me far too well are shaking your heads and muttering, "Those poor, misguided boobs"). Though I'm happy to blather about any number of things, I'm always quick to point out that a career in art isn't the same as baking a cake. There's no set recipe which, if you follow it carefully, will yield the same results for everyone. What works for one person sometimes turns out to be a mistake for another.
Of course, when talking about portfolios and presentations I'm hard-pressed to come up with a more clear-cut set of guidelines than Irene Gallo shared a few years back on her Art Department blog: rock-solid advice that all artists can benefit from by reading. Donato just made a good post on Muddy Colors about self-promotion and gaining confidence through experience, Greg Spalenka is doing great work with his Artist As Brand seminars, and we're getting all manner of wonderful tips and insights both here and in other art-centric blogs on the Web (including, naturally, Jim Gurney's outstanding features).
So—as a Rule of Thumb—I tend to keep my advice fairly general, based largely on what I've learned and seen through the years. And, as with all such "rules", these aren't really rules, aren't strictly accurate, and aren't exactly reliable for every situation. But what do a advise? Well, here are a few...
Don't Put Down Other Artist's Work
It only makes you look (1) envious, (2) boorish, (3) stupid, and, in general, (4) bad. Or some combination of the four. Sure, when you're sitting with friends having beers, you can talk shop and express your honest opinions—but never forget that not everyone has the same taste in art (including your friends) and art you deem dreck others might truly love. Especially don't forget that you never know who knows who and who is likely to spread your comments—and not in a way that's to your advantage. Now, if Artist Winsor Colors ran off with your significant other or stiffed you for their half of the rent or mashed your dog on the highway, feel free to point out their failings to someone that will lend a sympathetic ear. But, as a fellow illustrator, leave their work out of it. And never—never—under any circumstances talk smack about a fellow artist to your clients or art director friends: messing with another's livelihood, even in the most cursory way, is a big no-no. Frazetta had a falling out with Al Capp after ghosting Li'l Abner for him for some years and even decades later after Capp had died he observed the fine line between personal and professional. "Capp was a miserable S.O.B.," Frank told me, "but he was quite the artist. I'd never knock his talent."
Never Stop Learning
Never miss an opportunity to watch other artists paint or listen to them talk. Never stop going to galleries and museums or miss an opportunity to see touring exhibits. Never stop looking at books or the published works of your peers to keep abreast, not only of what's being done, but of what's proving popular in the marketplace. Never stop looking at work that falls outside your area of interest. Never miss an opportunity to socialize with your fellow creatives, at conventions or openings or...wherever. (Good art can't grow in a vacuum.) Never become complacent with your skill level; always try to improve. Always—always—press the envelope. We get letters from James Bama after every edition of Spectrum comes out and he ends them almost the same way each time: "Every morning I get up and paint in the hopes of one day being as good an artist as I hope to be." Words to live by.
Your Employer/Client Isn't Your Friend
It's good to socialize with art directors and games producers and film makers and, well, everybody. But...decisions get made for any number of reasons, sometimes by people who aren't your friends, but whom your friendly art director reports to. Try to keep a wall between, again, the personal and professional. Do your work, do it on time and to the specifications of the brief, don't ask for favors based on your personal relationship, and demand the same treatment from the employer/client. If you work for a corporation don't expect them to be your family (much as they try to cultivate that impression): you're there to do a job and their obligation is to pay you for doing it. An epiphany came to me during a performance review many years back when I was a senior designer for Hallmark Cards: I was pointing out all of the extra work I had done, all of the extra time I had put in, all of the contributions I had been making above-and-beyond, all the money my art and ideas were making for them, all because I cared and we were "family" and I wanted what was best for the company (and, of course, I wanted to get a promotion in the process). And my supervisor at the time (who I had known for something like 15 years) looked at me blandly and said, "So who asked you to?" It was the proverbial splash of cold water in my face. No one had "asked" me: it was my mistake, not theirs (though they were perfectly delighted to take the "freebies," at least until I started asking for something in return). Hallmark stopped getting the "extras" from me from that point on—and they paid me quite well just the same. Not that I didn't do the work with any less care, not that I approached the job with any less professionalism, but I definitely had a much more realistic view of how things worked corporately from that moment on. I had let the lines blur between personal and professional—and I never made that mistake again.
Don't Work On Spec
That's not the same as doing pro-bono or charity work, both of which can and should be done as you deem appropriate. No, what I'm talking about is when someone has a simply TERRIFIC idea—but no money—and wants the artist to work some magic for them so the entrepreneur will have something to show prospective suckers...er...investors to make the project a reality. These sorts of pie-in-the-sky projects almost never come to fruition or, if they—miracle-of-miracles—do, they virtually never turn into a paycheck for the artist. Work for pay, get everything in writing, and don't fall prey to the shysters. Likewise, if someone wants to use your art, demand compensation of some sort. Harlan Ellison (viewable here) in an absolutely magnificent outburst in Dreams With Sharp Teeth, talks about paying the writer: it goes the same for artists.
There's more, naturally: as I say, I can blather on and on. Let me know if you'd like more.