By April of this year, it will officially be five years since I graduated from the American Academy of Art in Chicago and began my career as a professional artist. On the morning of graduation, my art school friends and I were wandering around Chicago while we waited for the ceremony, all sipping on coffee that was unashamedly spiked with whiskey. In that moment of slight intoxication, both from the alcohol and the excitement for our future as artists, there seemed to be very little to worry about. Although I have gained a moderate amount of success over the last five years, if I would have known these things earlier, I may have found success much earlier and with less anxiety.
Experience is more important than a degree.
This was easily the most painful realization I made after graduating. During my four years in college, I also worked a full time job so I could avoid being the stereotypical “starving artist.” I turned down opportunities at unpaid internships because getting money was more important to me at the time. While I understand that there are many people who need to work through college in order to survive, one of the best things you can do as an artist is gain professional experience while you are still in school. Even if you snag an internship for only part time work, that is all real world, professional experience that can bolster your resume immediately upon graduation. Most of the jobs in the design or illustration fields require, at a minimum, two years of experience. While I do think it is completely asinine to need two years of professional experience to even be considered for an entry-level design job, that is the crushing reality. The jobs you apply for will, most likely, not care that you have a bachelor’s degree in your field. They will react positively to seeing two years of internship experience on your resume, however. Gain experience as quickly as you possibly can.
Playing the game is NOT selling out.
Fuck. While the last one was frustrating to realize, this one was just goddamn painful. All throughout college, and well into my first few years of my career as a freelance artist, I adamantly refused to sell out. In my eyes, social media hashtags, self-promotion, or any sort of push for attention just felt wrong and cheap. It took far too long for me to appreciate the need to “play the game,” at least in the realm of social media. I believe that Instagram is the best platform for artists to use to grow their brand, hands down. Their hash tag system is one of the most beneficial ways to boost reach and grow an audience on that platform. The general structure of Instagram is tailored for artists of all kinds. If you only use one form of social media (hint: don’t do that), but if you must only use one, choose Instagram, and quickly learn how to make hash tags work for you while building relationships with other users.
A perfect transition into the next point, no matter what means of social media you are using to build your brand, interacting with other users is a must. Here’s where things can get a little tricky, however. You need to make other users want to look at your page without explicitly telling them to do so. This is where you need to put in a little work. Look around Instagram or Twitter or Facebook for other users that share a similar passion as you, or simply find other artists who create content you enjoy. Drop a few likes on their page, make a comment on something you particularly enjoy, maybe share something they have posted. The most important thing is to be genuine, obviously you are attempting to extend your reach and grow your own audience, but these interactions still need to feel genuine so you don’t just end up looking like a dick.
Self promotion is an incredibly tricky thing to pull off well, but it is possible. If you are just trolling reddit or Instagram posting your link on every fucking post you can find, you will most certainly find little to no success. However, on websites like reddit that exist more as a forum, it is possible to self promote without pissing off the majority. One rule I have lived by is the “nine to one” rule. Simply put, for every one post you create that is self promotion or even just about you, you need to post nine things that benefit someone else or progress the community as a whole. This does not have to be some fully fleshed out article, even comments on someone else’s stuff will allow you to look like an active member of a community. Once people believe that you are genuine, they will be more receptive to your self promotion. Seems like a lot of work, right? Well, that’s because it fucking is.
The vast majority will NOT find employment in their field straight away, even though your school probably said you would.
This should be a given, but I feel like all art schools feed their graduates this promise that they will help you find employment right out of the gate after you graduate. This is simply not true. Now, I am only speaking from my personal experience with my college, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this happens all over. Now, I’m not shit talking my school, because while they do make efforts to show what jobs are available for a particular field of art, that is really the extent of it. Like I said earlier, the degree is significantly less important to potential employers, if you want a chance at a job in your field after graduating, look for internships and part time gigs as soon as you possibly can. This usually starts being available your sophomore or junior year, essentially when you declare your major. If you have the means to do so, jump on these opportunities, get the experience, and thank me later. Unpaid internships are not fun, but they will provide a better chance at a pretty nice salary later on.
Losing that discount on art supplies really fucking blows. Stock up while you can.
This may not apply to everyone, but most art schools have deals with stores like Michael’s, Blick, and Utrecht that allow students to get supplies at a discounted rate. I remember my student discount was something like, 25% off, and that was on literally everything in the store. At the time, I only bought supplies when I needed them, either for projects or homework or if I absolutely needed to restock on something. I wish I would have just hoarded supplies like I was about to go into a doomsday bunker, because paying full price now just sucks. For some artists, this obviously won’t work all that well, considering some types of paint definitely have expiration dates and stuff like that. But stock up on those pencils, brushes, erasers, and most importantly, paper and/or canvas. It may be a hefty cost up front, but you will be happy when you have a whole mess of your favourite pen or pencil or sketchbook and got it on the cheap. Oh, and for all of you designers, just fucking buy the Adobe Master Suite when you are a student. Adobe makes it mad cheap when you are still in school, so do it. I copped the Master Suite in a way that may or may not blur the lines of legality, and now I can never update past CS5. I mean, I love CS5, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I wonder what it’s like to be up to date.
Your friends might become total fucking assholes during the last semester of senior year…
…and you most assuredly will be a prick during that time. Senior year is a nightmare for art students, and the last semester is even worse. Portfolio reviews, finals critiques, over caffeination, and a completely decimating lack of sleep all attribute to people becoming the worst versions of themselves. There is not much to really say here except that, if you had not already grown a thick skin, now is definitely the time to do it. You might think you hate your friends during this time. It will be fine. I would suggest not letting someone else’s stress exacerbate your own. It will all fade away once the semester is over. Then you will all graduate and say how you will always stay in touch, but you all know you will probably only talk once every six months to exchange pleasantries.
You don’t HAVE to get addicted to coffee and cigarettes to be an artist.
Like, it’s as simple as that. I know it’s the a e s t h e t i c, but your life will probably be a lot better if you don’t drink three extra large coffees throughout the day and smoke a pack of cigarettes. Just trust me on this one.
Don’t take every freelance job that presents itself to you.
This might be my biggest piece of advice for recent graduates and even current students. You obviously need to build a portfolio of freelance work to show that you can work with a client, but you should not feel obligated to accept every single job that is offered to you. You will learn how to begin pricing your work, and hold true to that, especially after graduating. At that point, you are truly a professional artist, so you should no longer be doing any favours for people. Price your work accordingly, and be resilient to people trying to take advantage of you. Do not do free work for some Tumblr famous idiot because “it’ll be great exposure for you.” You build exposure by being good at what you do and working with real clients that respect your craft. The other big thing to realize with freelance work is finding the balance of knowing you will not necessarily enjoy every job you pick up, but also not doing something that you just despise. Being pushed out of your comfort zone is a great way to explore new styles and become a better artist, so sometimes it is good to pick up a job that you would normally not do on your own. However, if you work in an abstract style that exaggerates features and pushes boundaries, you may want to rethink taking that job to create a hyper realistic portrait of someone’s entire bloodline. You will hate yourself, and the client will most likely not be happy either. Freelance work is all about finding the balance and creating a mutually beneficial environment.
Finally, overprice all of your work.
I am not going to really dive too far into WHY it is a good idea to over price your work. Considering clients and customers may read this, it’s probably not the smartest move for me to fully elaborate on it. But artist to artist, just do this. Just think about how it could help you when a client wants to barter with you on the price, to have a price that even you think is a little on the high end. It’s marketing and sales tactics, just think about it rationally and it makes sense.
There are certainly plenty of other things that would have helped me survive art school with a little more sanity, but remembering these main things should at least slightly help. Stay evil, my friend.