by Arnie Fenner
There's the proverb that says, "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." That sounds a little preachy for my taste and I much prefer "everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time" or the funny crudeness of "don't act like your shit don't stink" or the directness of Han's advice of "don't get cocky."
Part of being an artist is having an ego: you need one to survive. Anyone can create in private, but it takes some hutzpah to pursue a career as an illustrator or painter and to put your work out in front of an audience. You've got to believe in what you're doing and have something of a thick skin to keep to keep from being discouraged by criticism, disinterest, or indifference.
And it is perfectly understandable to feel your oats a little after years of school, study, or struggle: you've worked for your success and it's natural to do some strutting once you've achieved it. But the trap to avoid is in thinking that anything lasts forever, that at a certain point new jobs and popularity are guaranteed.
I know an illustrator who, upon winning one of the science fiction field's bigger awards, immediately contacted his clients and informed them that his rates had just gone up. That didn't go over particularly well and, slowly but surely, his commissions dried up; he used to be all over the place, but now I can't remember the last time I saw a new cover by him.
The hard truth is that trends, styles, looks, preferences, and fads go in and out of favor, and that applies to the art world, too. What's hot and spawning imitations and imitators one year is "old fashioned" and out of favor the next: nothing is perpetually popular or in demand, particularly in this day of multi-media cacophony and increasingly shortened attention spans. There's a constant search for the flavor of the month…and there's always a new flavor of the month to be discovered. Thousands of art students graduate and enter the marketplace every year…and they're all hungry. Your competition increases significantly each summer and, no matter how good you are, there is inevitably a batch of folks in the mix every year who are subjectively "better" at the game: they see things differently, their solutions have a unique wrinkle, they might be faster, their skill sets might be more accomplished, there are clients or galleries or audiences who simply respond to or identify with what they're producing.
And…memories are short.
In a recent interview, Mike Mignola said, "I did a show, HeroesCon, a few years ago, the year after Frazetta died, and an artist came up to me, a young guy. He was asking about composition in my work and I made some reference to Frazetta and all my compositional stuff comes from Frazetta, and he didn't know who he was. It was so grim and at the same time, eye opening. It is spooky to see certain guys that, to me, were the biggest guys kind of fading out."
How do you maintain your audience and client base? How do you stay "relevant?" How do you keep your edge? An easy answer is to stay competitive, to be a participant in the race. Yeah, there are those who embrace the purity of expression and decry the thought of artists competing with each other, either in school or the marketplace, and that's perfectly fine if you don't care who or how many see your work (and if you've got a juicy bank account that allows you not to worry about the light bill). Otherwise…life is a series of competitions and embracing them, of meeting those challenges, helps keep us sharp and interested. It makes work fun. Okay…sometimes fun.
And how do you stay competitive? Never assume. Never be complacent. Never stop learning and improving. Never stop networking, reaching out, meeting new people, and engaging both your clients and the public. Never be afraid to experiment. Never lose your curiosity. Never hesitate to investigate new venues for your abilities. Never become so rigid in your expectations that you close doors of opportunity. Never be afraid to question your choices or explore solutions outside your comfort zone. Never be too proud to ask for opinions or seek help from your peers. Never rest on your laurels. And never, never, never become a pretentious pratt. Pants: one leg at a time. Poop: stinks.
Certainly, be happy when a piece comes out well; take pleasure in praise and positive reactions. But keep in the back of your mind the motivating thought, "The next one will be better."
Never take your success for granted.
I was once treated with extreme disrespect by an executive in a job interview early in my career; I got hired, but wouldn't have if the decision had been strictly his. Years later I was sitting on the opposite side of the desk when this same person (who had lost his executive position) interviewed for a job with the company I was then working for. He undoubtedly thought that he'd always be calling the shots and was going through some rude readjustments: interviewing for work wasn't an easy task. I treated him professionally (remember advice #1: Be a pro) and with respect; we reminisced about the "good old days" at the other company and I didn't remind him of his abusive behavior to me when I was wet behind the ears. There was no point to (and he probably didn't remember anyway). I shook his hand as he left the office…
And immediately round-filed his resume. I could growl "paybacks are a motherfucker," but the reality was that his portfolio was only average and out of date; he was not current with the graphics software that was an integral part of the job; and, yes, personal knowledge made me doubt he would be an effective team player (incredibly important in a smaller company). Strike 1, strike 2, strike 3. If the third strike had a little pepper on the pitch, well…paybacks are a motherfucker.
Once you become successful (talking from the perspective that you've got the Right Stuff to make it in whatever artistic career path you follow), always remember how you got there. Remember the people who helped you achieve your goals, your teachers, your friends, your family, your significant others, your clients who saw something in you and took the risk. Show everyone respect and consideration at every phase of your career. When you're sitting on the peak, show courtesy to everyone, especially to those who may not have the abilities or fortitude to make it as high up the slope as you did. Treat kindness with kindness. Because everyone you met climbing up the mountain, you will most likely meet coming down. How you've treated them in the past will determine whether they extend a hand when you need one or give you a shove with the toe of their boot to speed you along the way.
All aspects of the arts goes through cycles and part of being an artist is to recognize those cycles, willingly respond to change, remain flexible, and keep working. And above all, "don't get cocky."
Above: A favorite 'The Far Side' cartoon by Gary Larson. Color by Donna Oatney. © Universal Press Syndicate.