Yes, I know, forgive me the clickbait title. There's no secret to art right
? We've all heard it a thousand times—Hard work on your craft, 10,000 hours on technique, there's no magic bullet, etc, etc. And it's true, there's no shortcut to skill. However, there is
one thing you can learn that will
act literally like WD-40 to your art career, and get you further faster. It is the thing that will open doors, introduce you to the people you need to meet, get projects green-lighted, cut down on revisions, and get your proposals off the ground. From an Art Director's point of view it is the
thing that makes a good artist into an invaluable artist that everyone wants to work with…
That magic thing is empathy
. Sound too simple?
Everyone thinks they know what empathy means. It's defined as "the psychological identification with, or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another."
Doesn't sound like a magic bullet to you right? Often empathy is a happy accident or a symptom of just being a nice person, and some of the very best artists have developed strong empathy unconsciously. Very few people cultivate it as a conscious skill, and I am telling you if you do, you will be a creative ninja
From outside, an Art Director's job looks like a lot of reading manuscripts, researching artists, commissioning art, giving feedback to artists, and then getting that art onto a thing and out into the world. And while that's true, the lion's share of an Art Director's work isn't that at all, it's actually a combination of being a translator, a diplomat, a politician, and a salesman. This is a whole post in itself, but take my word for it, ADs are creatures of empathy. For example, I have to put myself in the author's shoes, the editor's shoes, the publisher's shoes, the reader's shoes — I have to try on and hold multiple points of view simultaneously — and try to find a way to get all those expectations to align. If my empathy was a muscle, it would look like Arnold Schwarzenegger's bicep. And I mean Conan
The way you use empathy consciously is simple in explanation, a bit harder in practice. What you have to do is picture the person you are trying to please (Art Director, Client, Fan, Gallery, Collector) and picture yourself in their position. As that person, what are your needs? What are your priorities? How might your experience color this interaction? And most importantly, think about who that
person has to please. You picture that person, think about their priorities, motivations, and needs, and then you do their job for them
, to the best of your ability.
Examples are in order:
• Use empathy to get jobs:
Instead of sending a mass email or postcard promo out, narrow your focus. Make a shortlist of dream clients and do some research on who they've hired before, what they've done in the past, and what they're most likely to need. Look at your art objectively. Do you see your work fitting in? Is it at the right skill level? Is your work in the right stylistic ballpark? If so, don't just send a link to your site. Pick out a few jpegs from your portfolio that most match what they need and attach them to an email. Why would that AD or company want to work with you? What can you offer them? Write a note in the email, not just a form letter. Again, think about your target, and think about how many emails a day they must get from artists. How do you make yours sound genuine? How do you stand out?
Show that you can solve their problems.
• Use empathy to make Art Directors/Clients happy:
As an artist, your job is to make good art from the details given. That is the minimum. Imagine, from an AD's point of view, how frustrating it is when an artist only does half the things in the project description, or even worse, doesn't use the right template or specs. (Hint: It makes you doubt their dependability and it frustrates the sh*t out of you, because it wastes time and now you have to be the bad guy and tell the artist they need to fix it.)
On the next empathy level, think not only about pleasing the Art Director, but think about who they have to please to get approval on your work. Is it an editor? Author? Marketing guy? License/IP approver? An AD's goal is also to get the best art work possible — but the person that AD has to please has a different priority — to sell the thing your art is on. Is your job going to be on the cover of a book? (That means it has to function as advertising.) Is your work an interior illustration, or art for a game that won't be seen until the game is already purchased? Then it has different priorities, different goals.
If you keep these priorities in mind, and work them into your compositions, you are a very valuable artist. Many good artists do this subconsciously, as they gain more experience. It is the rare gem of an artist that is doing it consciously.
Show that you are thinking about the bigger picture.
• Use empathy to grow your fanbase and sell your work:
While I always counsel artists to do what they love, and would never want them to abandon that to chase trends, that doesn't mean you shouldn't think about who your target audience is, and what their needs are. Why do people share things on social media? Because it makes them look cooler, smarter, or funnier to their friends. Why do they buy prints and originals? Because it reinforces something they like about themselves — it fits into their world, it fits into their self-image. (Even if it's a present for someone else, it still has to fit their self-image as giver.)
This can affect your choices over both content and style, and while you shouldn't necessarily give up the artistic wheel to your desired fanbase entirely, you can
use it to grow a following and widen the venn diagram of where what you want to do overlaps with what your fans want.
Show that you have exactly what they need.
• Use empathy to pitch your project:
People are always asking me how to get into publishing, and this is the place where empathy is most often left out. It's a personally-driven project, so you're usually focused on what you
want. However when the time comes to write a pitch to sell that project to an agent, or a publisher, or a movie studio, or an investor, empathy is what will make or break you. None of these people want to take on a project without having a clear idea of how they will turn around and sell that idea to someone else one step higher on the ladder. If you are pitching to an agent, try to think about what they'll need to sell it to an editor. If you're pitching an editor, think about what they'll need to sell it to their publisher. If it's directly to an investor then think about what return on their investment they would expect.
Show that you are thinking about their job, and helping them do it.
If you are not an empathic person by nature, you may find it hard to hold this style of bi-level communication in your head. Literally role-playing it out by yourself or with someone to talk it through with you is a great tactic. Often just pausing for a minute before you hit send on that email and saying to yourself "how can this be taken the worst possible way" can save you from many pitfalls.
Of course, conscious empathy is an all-around MVP life skill, not just an art skill. Empathizing with people helps you to understand them, and people who feel understood by you want to be around you more, and want you on their team, whether that team be business or pleasure.
I know the saying is about "walking a mile in another's shoes" but go deeper than that. I want you to try on their underwear. They'll love you for it.
(Disclaimer: Just their metaphorical underwear, not their actual underwear)
And thanks to Chris Gerringer, who gave his permission for me to use his absolutely perfect illustrations for this article. And thanks to Carissa Creveling, who pointed me towards them.