When I was a student in college working on my skills as a character designer, I’d had periods where I would sit at my desk working as hard as I could but having little to show for my efforts at the end of the day. I remember sitting there surrounded by blank pieces of paper, trying to come up with an amazing style that nobody had ever seen before. I would do one drawing and not be satisfied, so I would lay a new piece of paper over it, re-draw it with slight changes to features here and there. This would still not be good enough so I would put another piece of paper over my revision, make more minor adjustments trying to perfect this new style I was searching for.
I did this for weeks on end, tweaking and polishing over and over, working hard every day. But in the end, did I come up with a brand new style, something amazing that nobody had ever seen before?
No, unfortunately I didn’t.
And how much did I improve from this experience? Not much at all.
Spinning my wheels like this made me a little depressed and I thought to myself, “If only someone could tell me what to do to become a great artist, I would do exactly that and do it with all my heart.”
That’s what this article is about: seven key things that I would tell the 21-year-old me, which I’ve found to contribute the most to having a successful career in art.
1. “Focus, Bobby. Undisturbed focus, 90 minutes at a time.”
It’s actually really great to work intensely for short segments of time and take regular breaks. I’ve found that when I split my work into intense and focused 90-minutes sessions, not only do I have a good sense of urgency as the 90 minutes expire, but the regular breaks also give me wonderful, fresh looks at my work multiple times throughout the day.
2. “You have to practice, Bobby. There’s no way around it and there is no substitute for good, purposeful practice.”
There are many different ways to practice but I have found that practicing as a way of trying to learn has the greatest impact. What I mean by this is, I don’t practice drawing something just because it looks cool—I always have an objective in mind. What am I trying to learn?
Am I studying how an artist does a certain technique or achieves a certain look?
Am I learning muscles and other anatomy?
I didn’t practice simply how to copy what I saw but rather I practiced fully understanding what it was that I was drawing and painting to the point that I could do it out of my imagination.
If I had only practiced how to copy things, then I would have become a great copier. But by striving to understand what it was that I was referencing and trying to create something with the same essence and feeling, I worked multiple parts of my mind and skills.
3. “Embrace your routine, Bobby.”
I used to be against routines.
I used to think routines would take all the fun and excitement out of my life and lock me down. I started my own studio because I wanted to be free.
But I’ve since discovered that I looked at it all wrong.
Freedom isn’t necessarily a result of having spontaneity, it’s the result of having time.
I feel the most free when I have time to do the things that I really want to do, and the best way to have a lot of time is to be better organized. Having a great routine allows me to be more productive, which gives me more time to do the other things I love to do.
Routines are also extremely powerful for creating momentum but they only work if we make them a priority. I became better at drapery and drawing people by sketching for a few hours on the subways of Toronto every Sunday. This was part of my routine for five years and I did it consistently even if it was raining, Christmas, or my birthday. And even though subway sketching only took two or three hours every seven days, the routine helped improve my skills dramatically.
Try it yourself! Start off with something small that you know you can commit to. Do that thing consistently and you’ll quickly see the benefits of a great routine. Once you get used to it, add something new and soon you’ll have a great routine that will improve your skills and save your time.
4. “Cultivate a love for what you do, Bobby.”
As a student, I was afraid to really, truly love doing art. Some artists get too obsessed about their art, and I didn’t want to go that crazy about my work.
But what I found was that loving what I do doesn’t automatically make me crazy about it, and that’s a good thing. Loving art not only helps me get through the day, it makes me eagerly await the next day because each day is another opportunity to get better at doing what I love.
Most of us who call ourselves artists love art, but like with any relationship, we have to put in the effort in to make our love affair strong and lasting. So we should all try to cultivate our passion, enthusiasm, and love for art; these can only help us on our artistic journeys.
5. “Build a network of like-minded people, Bobby. Everything is easier when you have a group.”
I could never do as much or go as far alone as I could with a group of like-minded people.
I think part of the reason that I’ve had a successful career over the years is because I’m naturally curious about people. I love learning their stories and, in turn, making friends. In this way, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many of the artists that I look up to and admire, and today, call them my friends.
Because art is typically a solitary pursuit, many artists are naturally shy individuals, so building a network can be daunting. Nevertheless, I cannot overstate the value of having people. To get over my natural shyness, particularly when I first met my heroes, I had to consciously dig around in my mind for that little tiny piece of me that is not as shy, and expand it even if it’s just for a short period of time. I let this little piece steer the ship for a while, and that was how I got myself out there to meet interesting people or people that I didn’t know.
Think of it this way: not meeting one person doesn’t mean missing out on that one person that you could have been friends with; it means missing out on that one person and every person that that person could have introduced you to, and one of THOSE people could have been the one to give you your dream job, been your best friend, or your wife or husband.
Take every opportunity you can to get out there and talk with people, in person or online. Who knows where it will lead you.
6. “Discomfort and fear can’t hurt you, Bobby. By challenging and overcoming them, you will always continue to improve.”
I have learned to challenge challenges, to be comfortable in discomfort, and to overcome my fears. By doing so, I constantly push my limits and therefore expand my potential and possibilities. I love doing things that are challenging, even when I might not know where to even start. These are the things that I live for and they have helped me to push my limits further and further.
When I’ve been too comfortable for too long, I get unsettled. An alarm will go off in my head, compelling me to get up and do something challenging.
Comfort is one of life’s traps and many new professionals fall into it, preventing them from continuing to learn and improve every day. The moment this happens will be the exact moment that you start to fall behind.
The whole world keeps evolving and learning every day, so to stay relevant and to have the best chance at a successful career, we must continue to learn as well.
7. “Exercise your willpower, Bobby. When the mind is willing, the body has no choice but to follow.”
We are not born with willpower. As babies and children, we have to be taught (and taught and taught again) to resist urges, wait for rewards, and basically do the things we know we should do but don’t particularly want to. This challenge doesn’t end at adulthood, either. In fact, I’m sure we all know grown men and women who still have trouble resisting that extra slice of cake, hitting that snooze button one more time, or doing that uncomfortable and inconvenient thing in order to get the reward that they want.
Willpower is something that we can develop, like a muscle that we can grow and strengthen. To exercise it, do things that are challenging or which you don’t want to do but you know are good for you.
Willpower drains as we make decisions such as resisting what we want to have, waiting for a reward, or doing something we don’t want to do. For example, perhaps you can decline a piece of chocolate cake, but what if it was followed by brownies, ice cream, French fries, and potato chips?
This is why I always prefer to make will-draining decisions the night before so that the following morning, I don’t have to make ANY decisions and can just jump right to the first item on my to-do list.