Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Life After Art School: Five Years to An Illustration Career

-By Chris Moeller

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.

FIVE YEARS
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.

THE RIGHT KIND OF JOB
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.

CAUTIONARY TALE
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.

SAYING YES
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.

THE PAYOFF
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.


Thanks to Chris Moeller for the wonderful guest post today on Muddy Colors!

67 comments:

  1. Amazing! Thank you Chris and thank you Muddy Colors! As an artist in this EXACT position, this post sheds light onto the hard road that even the most accomplished artists have had to tread!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. article highly qualified friend .., thanks for sharing information, if interested please visit my blogs there is a lot of articles that may be read friend, Main thing is that you need to seo work If do seo for my blog http://variasiblogger.blogspot.com/ as my blog have 2000+ visitor and I want 15000

      Delete
  2. So helpful from an illustration student on the brink of graduating from school (forever). Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rich Williams does have quite a way of describing the hardships to face as an illustrator. It definitely seems like you're right about the 5 year mark too. Every once in a while you there are prodigies who just bolt right out of the gate, but it seems like most of my favorite illustrators took a while to get to where they are today. I'll be graduating in a few days and I'm really pumped to start my career, but I'm preparing for the fact that it may take a while. Thanks for all the advice and insight! This couldn't have come at a better time.

    ReplyDelete
  4. This is SUCH a great post, Chris. Really poignant considering how long ago all of this was relevant to you. It's so easy to forget how you got where you are. I assume having a daughter in college has brought it all back for you.

    ReplyDelete
  5. DEAD ON, Chris! Fantastic! You nailed the sentiment, as well as the facts.

    I could repeat all of what you said, but in a different sequence, with slightly different results, yet the principles are the same. The principles of what you said, and how one becomes a pro never change.

    The same fears, the same intense competition, the same amount of willing clientele is no different now than for the Golden Age illustrators. The scene changes, but the principles still apply.

    To build a career instead of getting the perks from an imagined career is key.

    GREAT post! Thanks so much!

    Greg

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm coming up on graduation in a few months, and really needed to read that now. Thanks so much for the post, Chris :).

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm very thankful to Chris and quote every word of his post.
    I had exactly the same feelings, doubts and toughts along my career. It took me ten years -not five- for many reasons: lack of money, lack of opportunity in my country, and such...
    I worked on everything from 3D animation to shop assistant, secretary and PHP programmer. All those jobs gave me precious lessons.

    This year I gathered all my experience and saved money and started my life as a publisher: my own comic series will come out in July. Plus, we already signed a deal with a national comic delivery company, since issue 1!

    In the end, I don't regret a second of those 10 years behind me. I would never be so close to my goal without them.
    Chris put it all out: stick on your goal, plan carefully, be patient.
    You'll get there, definitely! :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. For someone who is graduating in literally FIVE DAYS (aaaahh!!) this post is extremely encouraging and perspective-lending. Thank you so much, Chris, for taking the time to share your personal insights with us, and Muddycolors, for being consistently awesome!

    ReplyDelete
  9. This sounds eerily familiar. Both from experience and in the advice I pass on, myself. Thanks for sharing, Chris!

    ReplyDelete
  10. spot on chris, ultimately what i always say is that it is always a struggle between freedom and security , the freedom to do what you love comes at the expense of financial security , in the short term. hopefully in the long term that is not he case, although keeping that perspective in mind for the rest of your career/life, is what keeps your sanity in check . you cant opt for security and then bitch about freedom , paradoxically you cant opt for the freedom to do what your love, and bitch about lack of financial security. keeping your reality as close as possible to your expectations out of life is what keeps me sane. i think. great post chris.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm wrapping up my last college class today, so this is exactly the sort of thing I need to read. Thanks so much for sharing, Chris.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Great advicew. But what to do when you don't have an Art degree and already have children?

    ReplyDelete
  13. I also needed to hear this. I'm in year two of post graduation and I've been wondering at what point I should get a "real" job.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Thanks for the kind comments. You know, it didn't even occur to me when I wrote this that many of you would be graduating right now! Good timing. Good luck to all of you! You're embarking on a real adventure!

    And as a funny aside... today I heard that my friend the film graduate is quitting his full-time job at the internet company. He worked there for two weeks, heading out to work at 6am, coming home at 7pm, exhausted, feeling sick that he had no energy or time left to pursue his REAL goal. He was good at the job, that wasn't the question. It just wasn't him. Makes me happy, he's going to do fine.

    -Chris

    ReplyDelete
  15. Great stuff Chris. It takes the right person to get people to listen. My guys will love to read this.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I needed to be reminded of this too. I'm an illustrator who had worked in the educational and science field for 20 years, got bored, and decided to switch genres into fantasy/ fiction. Changing one's portfolio and building a new client base takes time.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I thankfully had VERY honest teachers in college and came out knowing it would take 5 years. I'm at the 2 year mark and this post is just helping reinforce my persistence. I never question whether it will work out or not, just what shape it will take in the end.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I just finished college yesterday, and having teachers with no advice on how to find work didnt leave me with a lot of confidence, but this has made me feel a lot better, thanks so much.

    Mike

    ReplyDelete
  19. A great post. Thanks a bunch for this - I'll be sharing with many newly struggling friends.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I just graduated 3 days ago, so this was a very helpful post. Thanks much for taking the time to write it out!

    ReplyDelete
  21. *Think carefully about taking on difficult financial obligations like large student loans*

    Advice like this is great for kids that are 17 and 18 years old and are looking at colleges. Unfortunately a lot of the commenters and my peers have already mounted worlds of debt. People that are graduating now haven't even seen their first bill. They're in for a big surprise.

    I talked to an alumnus this weekend who's making a great name for himself in the comic industry but he's crippled by $1300 a month student loan payments. Even if you're live on the cheap, it makes paying rent difficult to say the least.

    The reality is that it's too late to avoid debt for graduates

    ReplyDelete
  22. Chris, I think it also bears noting that it's super-important to also make sure that a spouse/significant other is supportive (emotionally, if not financially) of your decision to be an artist. This goes double if you're female. It's more uphill for women in the art field because child-rearing/ laundry/ cooking/cleaning duties seem to fall automatically to them. Women artists aren't taken as seriously because they are perceived to be able to "fall back on" a career as a mommy with art as a part-time thing. Just saying it's important to make the right choices in all cases.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I didnt just graduate art school, I didnt even go to art school. I am a self taught artist that has been working in the animation field for the past 15 years. Then I lost my job. So much of what I do is being done overseas, but thats another story.

    So because I lost my job, i decided to do what I always wanted to do, paint. I found your post relates to me also because I know I'm going to have to start all over. Thanks for sharing your story. I find that hearing another artists struggles is more inspirational then their success.

    By the way, I'm so glad this blog exists, it keeps me motivated and is full of helpful posts.
    Thanks

    ReplyDelete
  24. Thank you very much for your words of wisdom. I graduated a while ago and got caught up doing a full time job that was totally unrelated to illustration. Now I have re-focused myself on my true passions. I definitely feel better doing what I love as opposed to settling. Not easy, but completely worth it.

    ReplyDelete
  25. A post of epic proportions. I can't thank you enough for this post. I've printed it out and it's going on my wall. I've needed to hear this from an industry professional for years. You are amazing for sharing that. I'd like to also mention to other readers here who are also interested in becoming freelance illustrators, the other gems that can aid in this beautiful post.

    ILLUSTRATION VIDEOS by: Dan Dos Santos, Donato Giancola, Gregory Manchess - which are some of the names on an INCREDIBLE set of videos that take you step-by-step through a real-time industry freelance contract job. Invaluable information at an incredibly reasonable price and hours of watching them paint are simply amazing!

    DVDS: http://theartdepartment.org/dvds
    DOWNLOADS: http://theartdepartment.org/downloads

    They have helped me incredibly and are the most relevant and current collection I've found yet!

    A world of thank you's Chris!

    -J

    ReplyDelete
  26. Just wanting to let those artists trying to get back on the right track a few years of bad decision making that the 5 years is still about right. I'm 4 years into righting my career path and it wasn't until year 3 that things started to move, although slowly. It helps to have a support network or a significant other being your biggest supporter, literally. I would not be able to do what I am doing without my wife's support.

    ReplyDelete
  27. great stuff Chris. The say "Yes" part is fantastic. I remember the stuff I did in the beginning. I colored artwork fro others. I once colored an advertisement for children food. It was fish as a paste meant for spreading out on bread. Seriolsly; who would eat that? Who would paint that? Well, I would. I said yes to everything.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Wow, that's such a helpful and inspiring post, Thanks for taking the time to write this Chris!

    ReplyDelete
  29. This was a very interesting post for my husband and I to read--I've been out of art school 5 years and him for 6, and things are finally starting to take off. My first children's book is being released by Simon & Schuster in two months (called Dinosaur Discovery), and I'm hoping that it brings in more illustration jobs.

    We've found that the hardest part of starting an art career is when you actually start having success, because squeezing in time for a growing amount of freelance while still holding down the job that's paying the bills is a real struggle. Having a marriage with two artists has been interesting, but we keep each other motivated. Having a supportive spouse means everything.

    Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  30. As someone who enjoys both science and illustration a great deal (and will graduate from university in about a year for my science education), my future career has been a source of interest and worry for me. This post, while not specific to my situation, is encouraging for both my science and illustration ambitions. Thank you for writing it and sharing your experiences!

    ReplyDelete
  31. This brought back strong memories and emotions - it would have been great to hear words of wisdom like this when I started out. Very well said.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Amen to everything you said Chris. My experience was almost carbon copy except that it only took 2.5 years after school for me to be illustrating full time. Mostly because I was laid off from my staff illustrator position at a software company (the day after my 1st son was born no less). It took another 2 years until I felt like I had a grip on my career and that things were going somewhere. Can't stress enough keeping your "financial obligations LOW". The only way we made it was because our first hour payment was literally $450 a month- I wish I still had that mortgage!

    ReplyDelete
  33. Just remember, getting a "real" job doesn't necessarily equate to "selling out your dreams". If being an artist is what you are, then you are an artist regardless of what you do to pay the bills.

    The whole truth is it can be very difficult making it financially as a freelance artist (or freelance anything for that matter). It's ok to take on a regular job because you decide you like paying your rent and maybe taking your girl (or boy) out to dinner once in a while. Maybe you'd like a family or a house or just the surety that comes with a steady paycheck. You can still paint and develop the artist in you on the side. True, you wont grow as quickly as you would if art was you main gig, but everything comes at a cost. I think the main point should be to figure out what is important to you FIRST, then prioritize accordingly.

    Whatever you decide, dont fall into the myth that having a regular job means you are destroying the artist in you. I think that fallacy has killed off more potential Rembrandts than we'll ever know...

    ReplyDelete
  34. Great post Chris - We all go through this in one form or another.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Great helpful post. Inspiring! Hard work and persistence *will* pay off, eventually.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Thanks so much for this. I'm a year (almost to the day) past receiving my MFA, and I have been stressing and in tears (literally) about how long it's taking to get any sort of work.
    I was planning to focus on children's books, but over this past year, I have realized that I need to expand and work on whatever suits me, including fantasy art. I figure the more genres I can work in, the more avenues will open for me.
    So thanks for putting my mind at ease. I'm no longer feeling the need to rush and wondering what's wrong with me. I'm going to take this opportunity to do the work I WANT to do, before I have to spend my time working on things OTHERS want me to do.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Wonderful post! Thank you for the insight. I graduated a year ago and have already started panicking and pressuring myself for not being a successful freelance artist yet - I think it's time to cut myself a break, and just enjoy the ride until it works out. I really like that you emphasized the sentiment about living inexpensively, and being ready, willing and able to take work whenever it comes - important points!
    Good luck to all you graduates. Let's make our dream careers reality! :)

    ReplyDelete
  38. I'm graduating in a few days as well, and this is exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks so much, great post.

    ReplyDelete
  39. As a U of M undergrad this gives me lots of hope.

    ReplyDelete
  40. If nothing else, know that your post is highly appreciated. Thank you for your sensible and honest words of encouragement.

    ReplyDelete
  41. Five years has been my mantra to students for nearly twenty five years now. Whether it is in industry or out of it, the five year mark is the reality. I have my students in the Artist As Brand workshop create a five year blueprint, so they are looking into their future.
    That is the truth folks.

    ReplyDelete
  42. I'll be honest. I'm not a degree student; I just take continuing education classes at an art school. That said, I actually enrolled in a class last summer to learn how to market and promote yourself. The instructor, an oil painter named Matthew Archambault, explained that a lot of people fresh out of art school expect to hit the big time right away. What's more, they are taught little about marketing themselves. They're just taught to throw together a portfolio, have a static website, and get some business cards - that's it.

    Seriously, art schools need to actually teach more about marketing to their students.

    ReplyDelete
  43. I needed this. Thank you for this post. I didn't get into art school and I know I'm lucky that I got a job related to art (gaming industry), but It's never at all that fulfilling. I'm quitting my day job as well and I've been kind of lost after I decided to. I'm not sure what to do after it's time to go, except to keep on doing what I love the most, illustrating. Time will truly tell and reading this helped me ease my anxieties. I'm now optimistic about what happens next.

    ReplyDelete
  44. This is so true my friend. After twenty years of sacrifice struggling through this job and that. You really do appreciate all you absorb on the artist career path.

    ReplyDelete
  45. amazing ...best article l have read in years..and 100% true!!!

    ReplyDelete
  46. this blog is becoming my art bible <3 wonderful, inspiring advice, thanks :)

    ReplyDelete
  47. Thanks a million! Was a great read /Emma

    ReplyDelete
  48. Hey Chris, I think we need to temper the advice to "take any job that comes your way" with a warning to be careful about undervaluing what you do just because you love doing it. That can be a dangerous trap.

    ReplyDelete
  49. Hi Chris,

    As Grand Master Michael Kaluta said "When you are where I am, you can say no. Until then, say yes."

    I think, for someone breaking in, that's the right emphasis. Later on, of course it's important to become more careful, but in the beginning, it's important not to let caution be your guide. In my view of course.

    Chris

    ReplyDelete
  50. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  51. I have to disagree with the part on *Think carefully about taking on difficult financial obligations like large student loans*

    Some graduates are lucky and don't have loans or bills. But for the rest of us who pay our way through college with loans, "living cheap" is an understatement, its a reality.

    Great advice regardless.

    ReplyDelete
  52. Heather, my daughter is a sophomore in college, and is taking out large loans. We thought VERY carefully about taking that step, knowing what it would cost her after graduation, but decided to take the plunge. Honestly, the amount of debt kids are expected to take on to go to some schools right now is horrifying. I had debt coming out of college but only a fraction of what my daughter will have. $600 a month is a heavy load for a young, aspiring freelancer to carry (on top of health insurance and rent). In general, any obligation that increases the pressure to get a full-time job is something to avoid. So, I'll repeat, think carefully. Student debt may be impossible to avoid, but to the extent that you can minimize it, you make your long-term goal more achievable.

    ReplyDelete
  53. Nice paintings. These paintings absolutely describes the real time experience of ones love life. Great job. Keep it up.

    ReplyDelete
  54. This is really a great painting. I really like it.

    Business Degree Programs

    ReplyDelete
  55. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  56. I love this entry. Definitely one of my favourite MC posts. I have reread it many a time. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  57. After reading this I really really want to go part-time, but I still have obligations with rent until September :( I fully understand the ideas of fulltime work putting one off. I was one of those who wanted to feel as safe as possible, so I chose to work fulltime in a call centre. But I am dying in there and its also draining my motivation to create. I will plan to change toi Part-Time soon, just have toi be patient.

    Thank you for the post. It gives validity to my ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  58. Nice blog....if you want to get job then use Free Job Posting Site

    ReplyDelete
  59. Nice blog........If you want to get good Jobs then use this site Fresher Jobs.

    ReplyDelete
  60. Nice post .........
    Thanks for share....

    Keep sharing
    graduationinoneyear

    ReplyDelete
  61. website testers needed earn $25 - $50 per hour from home (11726)
    as a website tester. huge online companies such as google, yahoo and msn are now hiring people to work from home testing sitesin their database for full details visit:(http://tinyurl.com/6j53ne6) ids (11726) and select website tester link

    ReplyDelete
  62. info untuk para pengguna Massage Jakarta yang sedang mencari Pijat & SPA Panggilan 24 jam Jakarta bisa mengetahui info lengkapnya di Aries Spa tinggal telpon langsung diangkat gan... khusus pria dan wanita lho... Pijat Panggilan Jakarta langsung check aja deh untuk menikmati Massage & SPA Panggilan 24 jam Jakarta ini

    SPA Jakarta || www.massageariesjakarta.blogspot.com Massage Jakarta || Pijat Panggilan

    Kami melayani massage panggilan 24 jam, massage khusus pria & wanita dengan tenaga kerja muda, trampil dan profesional.

    pijat keluarga datang ketempat ,trima panggilan rumah,aparteman,hotel dijakarta dan sekitarnya.

    ReplyDelete
  63. looking for jobs?? Visit this site.. It might help
    Jobs

    ReplyDelete