Working Class Artist

When I was starting out, work-wise, I was inclined to doing everything and anything. There was a bunch of reasons for that.

First, ironically enough, I was desperate to be validated as a ‘real artist’. For me, that meant that people were willing to pay for my art.

Second, I had a very bad case of ‘people-pleasing’ which meant I often promised what I couldn’t deliver.

And last but not least, I had a very vague idea of what kind of artist I was. I didn’t really know what I enjoyed doing, so I wasn’t picky and when the work felt draining, I blamed my working ethics and not the simple fact that I was working on something incredibly dull and uninteresting (to me).

Take my first ‘real’ work for instance. It just screamed ‘student’. The label was loud and clear and not just because I was doing it while I was still at Uni and school was the reason I got it in the first place.

First time never the charm

There was an email going around that a boardgame company was looking for an illustrator to illustrate their new card game. It was visually based on Egypt, so a lot of Pharaohs, pyramids, mummies, you know the deal. I was super excited and applied immediately. The first quite obvious red flag was that the client was asking around for workers at Uni. Not that students can’t produce high-quality work, but there are certain… notions.

In the client’s mind, student translates as ‘cheap’. They are not looking for a hidden gem, a flower just before the blossom. They are looking for artists who will accept ridiculously low numbers because they a) aren’t obligated to pay all of the ‘adult bills’ yet and b) don’t have enough work self-esteem and experience to ask for adequate pay.

Beware of all those ‘competitions’ and ‘for exposure’ jobs which are often aimed at students and artists fresh out of college. The best possible case? You undersell yourself big time. It doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that you just paid someone to give you work. Don’t be misunderstood, that’s exactly what’s happening. You are basically a financial grant, subsidizing the work the client can’t or don’t want to pay for.

Getting there

I don’t think there’s anything I can do to make you ‘skip’ this part of your work-life progress. In the beginning, you will accept low offers, you will work long hours and out of that frustration, a healthy work system eventually emerges. Don’t worry. Just keep in mind that the frustration you feel the first time will not go away the second time nor the hundredth, no matter how much you rationalize.

What can make it easier is a clear idea of what kind of artist you actually are. As I said before, when I was starting out I was doing a bit of everything. I thought I learn new skills and use them to create something great, I’ll be this freelance swiss army knife, capable of covering every client’s need. In reality, I was not doing a single thing properly, which resulted in art that lacked unity.

Back to that job of mine. What was meant to be a series of illustrations, in a blink of an eye turned into the preparation of all digital data for print. Now then, does that sound like a job for a student of illustration? I think not. It was quite too late when I realized I was supposed to do not only all the images but also the graphics, typography and basically product design as well. All that for the fixed price I agreed on (and was paid) in the start.

Nevertheless, this story has an unexpected happy ending. The two guys who were running the company (and were the company) got stuck at choosing the right print shop. This postponed the game first for a month, then for two and in the end, I guess they kind of forgot about it and I have never heard from them again. I came across a photo of one of the owners on facebook a while back. Apparently, he and his girlfriend became digital nomads and were spending their days swimming in the sea and decorating their vacation photos with questionable filters.

Good for them.

I sincerely hope that this is where the story ends because I have truly no idea what I signed up for in the contract and I have no way of finding out, as I lost the documents long time ago.

What kind of artist you are?

If you an artist who has just started freelancing, consider this: you can never make a high-quality work if you don’t like what you’re doing. So, ask this question and ask it thoroughly.

What kind of artist you are?

Are you a…

Commercial Artist

Do you see art more as a craft than, well, art? If you’re one with your tablet or Cintiq, you probably find it easier to be a prolonged hand of your client. Ideally, they have a very clear idea of what they want and your creative input is not needed. You’re there to fill in the blanks and that’s okay. You can keep your creativity and mental space for your own projects, while your bank account grows bigger and bigger, as this provides the best pay.

Storyboards for ads, commercial visualizations, TV work, you name it. It needs to be digital, it needs to be editable and it needs to be done in five minutes.

This is a rare occasion where you can find a 9-5 work, as studios and movie sets usually require you to be there in person.

Book Artist

Did you get into this because of your love for books? Does your favorite childhood book automatically open on the page with the illustration you liked the most? Being a part of telling a story is wonderful and fulfilling.

You get to be the one to visualize the magical words and you know that if you do it well, you can be part of somebody’s childhood memories forever.

This might seem like quite a utopia, but it is not so bad. Even though it takes some time to break into the industry, magazines and newspapers are in the need for illustrations as well. Many of them still keep their covers illustrated, so do a little research and send out your portfolio. And don’t forget! As impossible as it might seem, publishers do still accept pitches so that children book or graphic novel in your drawer might just see the light of the day eventually!

Graphic Designer

Ideally, we all would have at least a slight notion of what’s going on in this field. Way too often you see a beautiful piece of (comics) art, just to get your experience hindered by ugly lettering.

This is probably the easiest field to find work in and it can serve very well in the beginning, especially if you need to make some money while working on your personal projects.

It’s not just about being a pre-print data-correction machine! It takes skill to prepare a good layout for a book and nice clean digital illustrations are always in demand.

People’s Artist

As derogatory as this may sound, this is one of the most fulfilling jobs you can come across. You get to be a part of someone’s very personal moment in life, as this usually includes wedding invitations, gifts, tattoo designs, family calendars and yes, the feared pet portraits too.

The downside is that this requires a certain style, as most people would like to have something ‘optimistic’ on their walls or weddings, whatever that means. Keep in mind that you are in danger of being ghosted, as there’s usually no habit of signing a contract.

Art can be a very lonely job, as you sit your workday away by your desk at home, but this job provides a real and often touching human interaction and that’s why I take it anytime over another ad of smiley people with beers.

Final pondering

There are no strict walls among these work directions and I am sure you are already coming up with more. Most artists I know are a combination of two. We have limited time to learn (and master!) after all, but this in no way is meant to discourage you from trying new things and learning what you lack in. Just make sure you’re doing it for the good reasons!

Author: Štěpánka Jislová

Štěpánka Jislová is a Czech Illustrator and Comics artist. Born in 1992, she resides in Prague and apart from numerous illustrated books and two stand-alone graphic novels, she enjoys doing tattoo and cloths designs, teaches, writes and gives talks and presentations. She participated in the comics symposium The Superheroes of Eastern Bloc (2015) and was awarded a prestigious Getting to know Europe grant at Wilkinson College, CA. She’s a co-founder of the Czech branch of Laydeez do Comics. Main focus of her work is storytelling via symbolism and archetypes, which she explores through carefully crafted compositions and precise line-work.

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