Monday, January 4, 2010

2009 - The year I got serious

Part One - A little about myself

A year ago I was contemplating ending my career as a freelance artist. This was something I didn't come to easily or happily. I have been working as an artist for the past 10 years, either on staff or as a freelancer. In the end I made the decision to keep at this thing called art. To much surprise, after a great deal of thinking and planning, some helpful encouragement and sage advice and a lot of dumb luck I ended up having myself an amazing year. I wanted to share what I did and what I learned from this past year because I made a lot of mistakes and learned some valuable lessons. Looking back now, a lot seems like no brainers, but hindsight is 20/20 and I sure didn't know much of this stuff 365 days ago. I will do my best to keep it short and to the point and to keep it interesting, but no promises. I figured this first post should be some back story about who I am and how I got to were I was a year ago. Just so you know where I am coming from and why I made the decisions I made. I am a bit reluctant to share so much of myself and hope I don't over share. I am hoping it all makes sense in the end.

College Days

I attended Florida State University from 1997 - 1999. I was in the Bachelors of Fine Arts program. Like many others I found myself in an environment not suited to address the genre and style of art that I created. It was not all bad, but for the most part I had to be self taught and self motivated, having to fight tooth and nail to be taken seriously. On too many occasions I was told I am making "aRT" and not "ART" (hence the mention in the name of this blog). During one semester review I was actually failed for doing too MUCH work... that's right, I did so much work one semester I was failed by an instructor (no worries, the two other instructors passed me). To this day I still have no idea on the rationale of his decision.

Print Rats - Etching - 1998
One of my few self portraits.

Durning my time in the BFA program I concentrated on printmaking and the fabrication of monster suits and puppets. I had an excellent printmaking professor and produced a great many etchings, linoleum cuts, and lithographs. One of my long term goals is to get back to some printmaking... if I ever have the time. The monster suits and puppets mostly involved loads of trial and error and late nights figuring things out myself. The faculty were no help there.

E'Lad Monster - Fabricated Suit - 1997
On the next performance of this suit I fell twisting my right knee. I can still make that knee pop.

Close to my last year I had had just about enough of the professors and their negative comments towards the subject matter of my work. Let me be clear here, if the faculty had addressed my craft, skill level or techniques and tried to helped me become a better artist that would have been one thing. As a whole, they would take one look at my subject matter: monsters, dragons, fantasy, etc, and discredit the work out right and offer no assistance. I had had enough. I started doing huge abstracted drawing of Star Wars action figures to get back at them. Making "Star Wars art" was something I was frequently accused of but in fact never did... until I decided to mess with my professors. I received much praise and many accolades for finally making "ART". You should have seen their expressions when I told them what the drawing's were actually of...

Color Study 2 - Cattle marker drawing on 6' x 4' paper - 1998 / 1999
Shown with reference photo used for the drawing.

I have talked with so many other artists that look back at their college days with a certain amount of regret and dissatisfaction. Please, don't let me paint too negative of a view on those halcyon days of college, in the end I had a lot of fun and learned to defend my work to others, which is a very useful skill. Also, for me at least, the road to Hollywood goes through Tallahassee, Florida.

When Hollywood comes to you

The summer of 1999 I was but one semester away from graduating and beginning to feel a certain degree of panic as the real world loomed nearer every day. I knew I wanted to work in the movies or in video games but had not one clue as to how to make that happen. The world was a very different place 10 years ago, unlike today where companies and information is just a click away, the internet was still getting it's legs underneath itself. On one rather panic filled day I was leaving the computer lab and noticed a hand made poster on the wall. There was an open call for people to work on a low budget vampire movie being filmed in Tallahassee later in the summer and they needed artist and other talented folks to help with makeup effects and story boarding. Faster then you can say "PICK ME PICK ME!" I was making phone calls and was soon in touch with a special effects makeup artist in Los Angeles who would be coming out to work on this film.

I threw myself headlong into the filming and gave 125% to everything I did. I learned more in a few weeks of working on set then I had in all my time at FSU. I took my first step into a larger world. I knew then what I wanted to do after leaving school. I played my cards right and was offered a position at a real Los Angles special makeup effects studio when I graduated at the end of 1999. You need to know when the opportunities present themselves and you need to grab hold and not let go. I finished up my time at FSU and before the end of 1999 I was living in Los Angeles working on television shows and movies. I had the time of my life though it was hard going at best. I was working freelance at the shop and work was sporadic. I quickly learned the phrase, "Feast or Famine". Since a lot of what were doing was low budget I had the opportunity to get in front of the camera as well as behind. Fun fact, I played three separate characters in The Bogus Witch Project (Bigfoot, Leatherface, and 'acid burned hand guy' - all uncredited I think).

Demon from The Doorway - Design and performance.

I lived the dream just short of a year. When the Internet bubble pooped in 2000 it hit the entertainment industry pretty hard - at least from where I was standing. I decided it would be best if I headed back to Florida and reevaluated what I wanted to do next.

Bigfoot from The Bogus Witch Project - Designed, sculpted and painted the makeup as well as performed the character.

In the lair of the mad scientist

I had heady dreams of living as a starving artist and building up my portfolio when I returned to Florida. Surprisingly, within days (literally) I found myself working for a scientist making 3D models. I had some 3D experience from college so acclimating to the new software was a smooth process. With all my jobs I try to do the best I can and try to make them my own by finding aspects to challenge myself or to push myself to the next level. Over the next two years I made a lot of 3D models of microscopes and science related graphics... A LOT.

Olympus STM6-LM
© 1995-2010 by Michael W. Davidson and The Florida State University

I also worked a lot of hours. It was not uncommon for me to work 6 sometimes 7 days a week. It was also a rarity for me to only work an eight hour shift. My boss worked 7 days a week through all holidays and really expected no less from all the employees. Needless to say I had little time for my own work during this time. I would like to think I learned a valuable lesson from this.

Olympus CK-40
© 1995-2010 by Michael W. Davidson and The Florida State University

I am proud of the work I did during my two years with the scientist though it has little use in my portfolio today. The best thing about returning to Florida for these two years is that I met my wife and five days after proposing to her I got the call from Hollywood again.

There and back again

As I said before, know when the opportunities present themselves and grab on. Things were much improved or my former employer in LA and he wanted to share his good fortune. Three days after the wedding my wife and I were on the road to LA. Boy was I in over my head. A lot had happened in the two years I was away from LA and my skills had dulled due to inactivity. I had to really get my game up to speed quickly. As always I tired to make the best of it and learn and grow as fast as I could. We were working on some high profile productions and I had many opportunities to do some really fun work. If I had to pick the one thing I miss most about working in LA I would have to say being on set. The vibe and excitement of actually "making movies" is hard to replicate and always so much fun. You can't beat craft service either - which might explain why I was 3 sizes bigger when I lived out there. I designed a lot of monsters and painted even more of the makeup applications, masks and suits. When the opportunities arose I relished to get back in front of the camera.

Demon makeups - Buffy the Vampire Slayer / Angel - Design and paint.

The great part about living and working in LA is being able to meet and interact with other working artists. I had the chance to work with some really talented folks. Nothing beats one on one demonstrations and critiques from established working artists. I learned so much by simply being out there in the thick of it. You can't put a price on that kind of experience. I am the artist I am today because of this time in LA.

Background masks - Angel - Design, fabrication and paint.

Work was good and steady and the feast lasted for good while, but the famine did return. We made the best of it but I was only ever able to get work with the shop I had moved out to LA to work for. I can come up with any number of reasons and excuses but when it came down to it I was really bad at promoting myself. We took on managing the apartment complex that we lived in to help make ends meet during the lean times. Managing 40 apartments was again a very important learning experience. We learned a lot about the many peoples of the world that lived all together at those apartments. We also learned taking on the job as manager was a mistake. To this day if our doorbell rings we jump. We enjoyed a thrilling three years in LA and miss it still to this day. In the end though, life has shown us time and time again that leaving was the best thing for us.

Bloated Choppers Zombie - All Souls Day - Deign, paint and performance.

The long view

At the beginning of 2005 we were about at wits end with LA. It had gotten harder and harder to endure the apartment situation and I was having some issues with work. I was approached by some folks I knew back in Florida about a possible art position at Florida State University. They were reluctant to even offer it to me since they figured I would never take it. What it lacked in "excitement" it made up in stability. Every day I am thankful for my current job as a graphic designer, illustrator and animator. I do my best to make every job better then the last. It might not be as exciting as LA but it has allowed my wife and I many opportunities we just didn't have in LA. Many people questioned our choice to leave but I stand by it. I have decided to think about the long term and that meant leaving LA.

What about the monsters?

While I was in LA I had several opportunities to attend the San Diego Comic Con. Each time I tried to take advantage of the portfolio reviews and critiques to possible find additional work within the related industries. I wanted to get into gaming art and at the time there was only one company that made gaming art (no really, that is how I thought) and that was Wizards of the Coast. In July of 2004 I had the chance to interview with an art director from Wizards of the Coast. They had Magic the Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars titles. Why look anywhere else? I thought the interview went well and hoped to keep up with the AD as I made new work.

Bloated Parasite - Dreamblade
This was one of the pieces I sent along to the AD between 2004 and 2005 that was later acquired for the Dreamblade miniature game.
© 2005 Wizards of the Coast

2005 roles around and we leave LA. I was leaving my job making monsters but promised myself that I would continue to keep up my passion of making them, even if it was just for myself. Which I did. Much to my surprise in the summer of 2005 I get an email out of the blue from the AD at Wizards wanting to know my availability to work on a new miniatures project. Though I was filled with much trepidation and fear that I was not good enough I grabbed hold of the opportunity and didn't let go. Life was really good. I had the stability of the day job and I had the excitement of the freelance monsters. I worked a lot but I enjoyed every moment. The AD kept me plenty busy and I had no complaints. This all lasted until near the end of 2008 when the AD I had been almost exclusively working with was laid off. All at once I found myself rather lost.

Dragon Ambassador
© 2006 Wizards of the Coast

I realized I had done nothing in the previous three year to prepare for this set back. I had simply sat on my butt and let others do all the heavy lifting when it came to me working. I hope by now you see a certain pattern to my jobs and the choices I made in response to the jobs. I was faced with two options, give up or fight. The only problem was I didn't even know how to throw the first punch.

So, one year ago I was faced with a hard choice, to get serious about what I consider my passion or give up. A year ago I decided to get serious and in my next post I will discuss how I went about it.

For more samples of my work or to contact me regarding my availability head over to my website:


  1. definitely not over-sharing! Looking forward to part two :-)

  2. Crossing my fingers part 2 will be along on Wednesday. Glad to hear I haven't over shared... yet. Was a little worried.

  3. This is good stuff Chris. Not over-sharing. I think it's important for us to self-evaluate and for people to see that so they can do it themselves. Everyone always want to know how a person got from point A to Point B. Thank you for sharing man.

  4. Thank you for this! It's definitely very informative.

  5. Thanks guys! Good to hear! Thanks for stopping by and having a read.

  6. And an excellent read it is too! :D

  7. An ongoing story definitely worth sharing! Thanks :)

  8. Great read man! Thanks.

    This is my first year doing the art biz and I have come to realize that I really suck at it.
    I'm glad to hear that the "art of self promotion" can be learned.
    Heheh. :)

    Keep up the good work.

  9. Great post Chris. Open and honest and very very familiar.. Thanks mate!

  10. I always find it very interesting to hear "origins" stories, particularly for illustrators. It makes you appreciate someone's art even more, because you begin to understand what the person went through to get to that point.

    Thanks so much for sharing. I look forward to part two.

  11. Again, thank you all for stopping by and taking the time to read this and post a comment. I really appreciate it!

    Part 2 will be up tomorrow. It is all written and ready for posting. ...and a wee bit bigger then I meant to make it.

  12. A great read, Chris! Thanks for posting.

  13. Thanks for sharing. New Year is always a time that prompts reevaluation and planning, and I enjoyed reading your biography. Seizing the opportunites is great, but to continue to push oneself is always the challenging part :)

  14. You are very correct Ralph. I decided I had finally found work that really clicked with me and decided it was finally time to fight for it and make it work. Meeting so many people this year that have shared this same experience is one of the main things that has kept my pushing forward.

  15. Thanks again Chris for sharing your story!

  16. your post is so interesting that's why I enjoy reading it.I'm seeking for your updates.