Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Career Choices

by Donato

Christopher Moeller had a wonderful post two days ago about what it was like to begin his career in the arts after school. I thought I would follow it up with advice I have given to artists seeking direction on the path of learning, before they get to school. A bit late for those of you just graduating this coming month, but hopefully still applicable in the developing years after...

I just graduated from high school and I'm wondering about college and such. Is it worth attending an expensive university or should I just go to a smaller school? I'm very serious about my art and I'm very dedicated... I want to be an illustrator. I want to do everything from magazine covers and book covers to concept art for games or movies.Is it possible to be in debt and be an illustrator?

These are some very tough questions which could take a life time to answer. My Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Syracuse University (and previous three years in the arts and electrical engineering at the University of Vermont) was very important in laying the foundation in developing my character and beginning my career, but equally important to this education was the drive to be creative, prolific and open-minded.

It has taken many long years of practice, patience, and devotion to attain the level of quality now found within my work. I am sure you have all heard this before, but it is the truth.Every artist must seek their individual path to success. The paths I took cannot be duplicated, nor should they! - like dropping out of engineering classes mid semester, or losing detailed sight permanently out off one eye two weeks before I was to move to New York City to begin my career as a visual artist, or moving to New York City and finding work at the Society of Illustrators as a coat-check boy (ok., that one can be duplicated). All of these events, and more, contributed to the drive and insights I developed to become a successful creative individual and challenged my assumptions about who I was and what direction I was determined to take as an artist.

Pursuing the arts is an admirable and challenging goal, but you have to be willing to make great sacrifices along the way to achieve those ends.

One of the greatest changes I struggled through was learning to detach myself from the hobby work, drawings, and paintings I had loved to create in my youth. To take art seriously I learned to study and find validation in all art forms. I am the artist I am today because of my ability to shrug off the old subject matter (comics, realism, and science fiction and fantasy) and embrace something new which my teachers and professors were exposing me to: abstraction, post-modern theories, deconstruction, gesture drawing, impressionism, surrealism, cubism, sculpture, print making, digital media, etc...Without stepping into the unknown, I would have never truly challenged myself nor experienced anything new. I would have never learned what it felt like to fly, content to spend my time walking. I see many artists who, while technically proficient, are grounded far too much in their youth and the content they find comforting there.

Obviously I have revisited the passions of my youth and mine them deeply for the art I now create. but I could never have become the artist I am now without seriously sidelining the content of what I thought was a direct pathway to creating the art I wanted to. Only through the passage into other venues could I discover what was truly in my heart.

I can tell you I am very happy with my career and would not trade it for another. I make a comfortable living, being able to support my family and travel and vacation when I wish to do so. But on the other side, if I had know how few artists actually make a living at this, I might of had second thoughts about pursuing this career. The burdens of financial debt weighs heavier on this new generation than they did on mine. I have taught at schools in New York and lectured at a dozen others across the country. Of the hundreds of students I have known, few are practicing in their chosen field as successes. Many of those artists/students were excellent, hard workers, but have not made it yet, or more likely, will not ever. The visual arts is a highly competitive field with only the most driven and talented surviving to make a career of it.

My suggestions are, if you wish to pursue this career, you must take it very seriously and be willing to work seven days a week. I’m not kidding here. You have to love it down deep - really deep - as in the reason for existence is to express yourself through art. Next is to take many courses and nurture interests outside of the requirements of the art major - history, philosophy, sciences, etc.... If you don’t learn about life, what will you have to say in your art? Many of the greatest minds in art were not ‘educated’ in art classes, the schools were a kind of ‘polishing’ wheel to their minds which helped them learn how to express themselves. This is not to say you cannot learn great things in an Art college, just realize there is a much greater world to embrace than what is in the class assignments. Most importantly chose a major which focuses upon content, not just technical skills. While almost all commercial art programs teach worthy technical skills, you can learn much of those skills through a few additional classes with hard labor, practice and perseverance on your own, or through an apprenticeship with another professional, or at a multitude of Atelier studios across the country.

Learning a specific technical skill to become an illustrator now is like learning to use a whip and spurs to get around town; the needs of the industry will be different by the time you graduate and in the decades after, change is constant in the freelance marketplace. What you want are classes and teachers that open your mind to another way of seeing and interpreting the world, these skills can be used across media and fields, not limited to illustration. Major Universities have programs and offer classes far outside the traditional arts fields and supply your mind with a well rounded and stimulated education. The art I create stands out because I attempt to provide a different view on the characters or places involved in the stories, something not typically found in science fiction nor fantasy, something from my life experiences.

This advice may not address the issue of finances directly (none ever can), but hopefully it will provide a way to justify and motivate decisions in your best interests.

I love what I do and I wish all of you luck in the pursuit of your dreams. As Chris as mentioned, it is worth it! Finally, my studio door is always open to those who wish to visit and learn (just call first!) If you happen to be in New York City the weekend of June 4th and 5th, I am hosting an open studio both days from 1-6pm. Stop on by!




  1. This is perfect. It's so easy to say that so and so, my hero, did it this way so I'm going this way. Learn to learn and a lot of doors will open. Thanks Donato.

  2. " Next is to take many courses and nurture interests outside of the requirements of the art major - history, philosophy, sciences, etc.... If you don’t learn about life, what will you have to say in your art? "

    I believe in this 100%.

  3. Last week's New York Magazine has a great article about the high costs of college and argues whether it's worth it or not. I've been out of school for 9 years now and I still have a hefty chunk of my college loan to pay off. What makes this most painful, is that with an art degree (unlike other professions), you are not guaranteed a job after getting that shiny (overpriced) piece of paper at the end of your 4 years. Had I known this when I was an 18-year-old kid going off to college I probably would have opted for another option. There are WAY more options available now than when I was in school.

    On the other hand, art school was one of the best experiences of my life. I grew leaps and bounds as a person and my skills as an artist grew as well (even if by hops and skips). I don't think I would be where I am today had I not gone.

    The main factors in the successes of Donato and the rest of the Muddy Colors gang (and every other successful illustrator out there) is their drive to succeed and the great sacrifices they make to reach said success. And no art school, atelier, vocational school, etc. can teach you that.

  4. I agree with almost all of your advice, including staying out of debt as much as possible. It's much easier to launch a career when you have minimal debt. Through hard work, I was able to graduate with no student loans, which gave me many more options.
    I do take exception to the idea that you must work seven days a week. Don't get me wrong, if that works for you, then go ahead. I tried it early on and found that the never ending pressure of deadlines and work hanging over my head was too much. Not to mention the resentment from my wife and kids that I was ALWAYS working. I decided that Sundays were my days off and I took the time to relax, recharge (both physically and spiritually) and reconnect with those I love. These days I try to take most Saturdays off as well. It has made a world of difference for me and my mental well being. I find I am more productive and energized with a day off and I get more accomplished in fewer hours. Could I have had more success if I had chosen the 24/7 route? Maybe. But being an artist takes enough sacrifice without submitting literally every waking hour to the art mistress.That said, everyone must make the choices that work for them.

  5. What happened here? Was I dreaming? I know I and many others posted here.

  6. Blogger went down a couple days ago and my comment was lost in the mayhem as well. I'm not going to try to recreate it, but the essence was:

    1- stay out of debt- I got through school working 30 hours a week and took out no student loans. I don't regret it as I was able to live on much less while getting my career going.

    2- I take somewhat of an exception to the advice that you must be willing to work 24/7 in order to make it. I tried that early on and it didn't work for me. The nonstop pressure to get work done and the nagging deadlines were too much. Not to mention the resentment from spouse and kids that "Dad is ALWAYS working". I now take Sundays and most Saturdays off to recharge, reconnect and rest. It has made a world of difference for me and I find I get more done in fewer hours as I am more focused and productive when I am in studio. Not saying it works for everyone, but it does for me.

  7. Sorry about that, guys!
    It appears everyone on Blogger lost Thursday's post for a while, and once they were restored, the comments were gone.
    Here at Muddy Colors, we place as much importance on the comments as we do the actual posts. So if you have the time, we'd love it if you re-posted them.

  8. Well I'd be happy to thank Donato again. Different systems of learning help to learn how to learn. That is a benefit of a well rounded education. But particularly important is that we all learn and work differently. And the only thing that will reveal that how you learn is hard work.

  9. Thanks Donato. I wish I could vist your studio in NY. Love your work, it's inspiring to me.

  10. Great point about outgrowing the content and imagery of one's youth, Donato. It's easy to conflate passion with comfort zone.

    I also applaud the point about finding validity in all forms of art. I often hear artists (particularly realist illustrators) say that the "old masters" have all the answers one needs, ignoring quite a lot of art that is important and useful regardless of what "style" or genre one works in.

  11. When we are under studies our expectations are too high with our career but scenario is different when we go to practical life. You may get resume writing services by some professional who could not only provide you resume but also guide you about actual situation of market regarding jobs in your field.

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