Part Two - Getting serious
Last time I shared with you the main events of my career that led to 2009. At the beginning of 2009, I was faced with either giving up freelance fantasy art or really knuckling down and getting my hands dirty, taking an active role in my career. It is hard to explain how lost and useless I felt a year ago. I had experience and skill but not the foggiest of ideas of how to even begin looking for work. To be honest, I didn't even know what my options were for other gaming companies. As I said last time, to me, the gaming industry was Wizards of the Coast. I wasn't completely clueless, but the rest of the sector was hidden in a thick fog. Beyond not knowing who to approach for work, I didn't really know how to approach them. I had a website, and I knew how to write a professional email, but self-promotion was never a strong point. I consider myself VERY lucky when it comes to job opportunities in my life. I am very aware of my skill at being at the right place at the right time... maybe that is my superpower. I will try to put all this in some sort of order, but it might not necessarily be chronological to what I did... but close to it. Starting small and worked out from there, even though I might not have realized some of the small stuff till recently.
To be upfront, I am a part-time freelance artist. I have my day job that I am happy with and have no plans of leaving. I have worked as a full-time freelancer before, and it was not for me. I have nothing but the most profound respect and admiration for anyone that makes a living as a full-time freelancer. I understand I give up a great deal of my "free time" to pursue freelance work on top of my 40 hours day job, but it is something I do willingly. Having worked as both a salary and a freelance employee, I know that the uncertainty of being a full-time freelance causes a certain amount of additional stress and anxiety that threatens the quality of my work. The monsters help satisfy me creatively, so the day job can't, so I work two jobs, which is my decision. All this aside, I feel the steps I took should be helpful no matter where you see yourself in the industry.
- Know what you want to do and do it. If you wish to work on monsters... JUST WORK ON MONSTERS. I have gotten a lot of feedback from many different people on this topic. Some say that you need to have a diverse and varied portfolio showing that you can do anything. If you want to do anything and everything, then do it. On the other hand, if you HATE to paint elf chicks and just want to paint cool monsters, then you better not give ADs the impression you can and will paint the elf chick with the same skill and passion as you would the nine-faced tentacle beast. I have had artists and ADs on good authority tell me that artists MUST make the art they want to make and put that in their portfolio. There is lots of work out there, and if you can do one aspect better than the next artist, you will be the artist that gets the work.
Arise - I like monsters RAWR! © 2009 Christopher Burdett
I like monsters, and I try to make sure I get onto projects that involve making monsters. It was a hard decision to just work on monsters, and I have not always been able to stick to it. I received a lot of mixed advice about this, and in the end, more people that I trust said specialization was okay. I know I get better results when I am dealing with just monsters. I will gladly do more than just monsters, but monsters are my passion. This is something I will be trying to better address in 2010.
- Know how long it takes and how much that time is worth to you. This is a big issue and needs to be addressed first. This is where I made some of my biggest mistakes this year. You NEED to know what your time is worth. I can not stress this enough. I got myself in way over my head trying to figure out this stuff on the fly and not having a game plan when clients started asking my rates. I under-sold myself on projects and took on work that, in the end, was a lot more headache than the payment compensated for. We are artists, and our skills and talents are worth something. Do not give your time and talents away. I will be upfront. I did, in fact, work on unpaid projects this past year. I did so willingly and enjoyed it, but I made a choice to do so as favors and for the chance to work with a particular person. Will I do so in 2010? Hard to say, but as of right now, no. To be honest, the jobs that paid very little were a lot more frustrating and, in the end, unrewarding. I learned a great deal from this. I knew my time is worth a certain amount (you need to find your amount), and if the project doesn't pay your rate, pass on it. It is tough for me to say no, but I am learning it is one of my choices. I am not saying to be inflexible when taking work, but know your worth and get a fair wage.
- Managing your time. Yet another massive issue and something I am still addressing in my own career. We can't do every job, and all work and no play makes an artist GO CRAZY. I hit the wall myself a few weeks back. I did not manage my time well and designs. You and your work both suffer. You need to make sure you have time for yourself, your family, your other interests, and like me, your other job. This goes hand in hand with knowing what your time is worth. Is the toll on your body and mind worth taking on an extra two trading cards? Are the late nights worth what you are being paid? Can your time be spent better elsewhere? These are questions you can only answer yourself and need to be addressed before taking on that first job. I made the mistake of going into projects blind without taking these issues into concern. I survived, but I would have done much better, having given it all some forethought.
- And lastly, if you will pardon my French, don't be an asshole. If you think you might be an asshole, you might want to reevaluate your life choices. I have heard on more than one occasion from art directors and artists that if you are a jerk, you will not make it. The AD will not contact you again, and another artist will not suggest your name to ADs. Sounds simple, right? You might be surprised. Does it really take any more energy to be nice?
This is your first and last chance to prove how awesome you are. FACT: You will be judged by the worst piece in your portfolio. FACT: All your work will be viewed as if you had all the time in the world to refine, tweak, noodle, and otherwise make it perfect. Your portfolio needs to be clean, clear, and well organized. All your work should be aligned the same way, so there is no rotating back and forth from horizontal to vertical. One of my portfolios this year switched back and forth... a big mistake, which has now been resolved. And yes, I have had several portfolios this year. You should keep it up to date with the work that best illustrates your direction, focus, and skill level. The portfolio should say who you are as an artist and what you like and want to do. You tell the story of who you are as an artist, not just showing off your newest pieces. Again, this is something that I have spent the year working on. The number of pieces is one of the big debates. I have my portfolio separated into two unique portfolios. I consider them each to be stand-alone portfolios. Each is about 10-11 pieces plus a resume. One is my color illustration and the other consists of my black and white miniature and armor turnarounds.
Sample page from my current portfolio © 2008 Wizards of the Coast
All of this translates to an online portfolio. Ease of navigation is a must, and it is okay not to have a bunch of bells and whistles. You have the opportunity to show more work online, but remember, all the above criteria are still in effect.
Website and blog
One of the first things I did was utterly retool my website. I am actually in the early stages of retooling it entirely again. I immediately took a lot of work down. Less is more, especially a year ago. This made sure that the best of the best was up, and it gave me the incentive to work making newer, better work that would illustrate my direction, focus, and skill level. Your website is the manifestation of you as an artist online. The website might be all that a client looks at before deciding if you are suitable for a job. The website needs to convey who you are, what you do, and most of all, HAVE A WAY TO GET A HOLD OF YOU. Email, phone number, something, ANYTHING. If the AD can't quickly and easily navigate your website, look at your galleries, and then send you an email, you need to reevaluate your website. This website is not for your mother or friends; it is for the AD or other interested parties. If you want to cater to fans (if you are lucky enough to have some), that is fine too, but that should be secondary to the needs of the overworked, short of time, constantly bombarded art directors. The blog is a different creature altogether, for me at least. While my website is 100% professional and streamlined, my blog is more relaxed and looser in format. Starting my blog was step three or four in the scheme of things. I use the blog as a beachhead, if you will, for making contact. The blog allows me to take about and show off work that would not necessarily fit into my portfolio or would be redundant. I may have designed 74 miniatures for Dreamblade, but I don't need to show all 74 on my websites' portfolio, but my blog is the perfect place to do so. I can also talk about my work and have a conversation in a way that wouldn't be appropriate on my website (in my opinion, at least). A blog is also a great way to meet other artists and fans of your work.
Custom Derby Helmet Good for the blog, not so good for the website © 2009 Christopher Burdett
The key to all this is that you need to update regularly. I had an art director tell me that when looking at an artists' work, they make a point to look for a blog and see how often they update. It has been six months since an update tells the AD that the artist is not very busy with work. Needless to say, constant updating can be a tough one. Luckily I have been working for many years and never shared a lot of my work in a public manner, so I have work to pull from when I get into a pinch. I have been posting (most of the time) three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Will I be able to keep this up forever? No. But it motivates me to keep working and thinking about things I can share. I even share work from the day job, which is, in some ways, the antithesis of the monster work but still valid in the bigger picture of my life as an artist. Not relevant to the website, but relevant to the blog. One thing I can suggest, make sure to clearly name all image files and tag your blog posts. I am amazed at the amount of web traffic I get to my blog from people searching for things like "Dragonborn," "armor," or "Dreamblade art." More eyes looking at your work is never a bad thing. Don't forget those ownership and copyright notations.
Friends, communities, and networking
The big ones. Up until about 10 months ago, I didn't really know anyone else that worked in the fantasy genre. I felt like I lived in a cave all by myself, and there was no one out there that shared the same feelings, thoughts, ambitions, and fears. Boy, was I wrong. Getting out of my cave was one of the most important things I did this year. Knowing that there are other like-minded people in the world going through all the same trials and tribulations was so important to me. I was not alone after all, and in fact, I was in excellent company. 99.99999% of fantasy gaming artists are the nicest people you can meet. For me, it all started with a blog you may have heard of, called
Artorder (Sadly, the site was hacked, destroyed, and lost forever). I had given Jon Schindehette and Artorder a lot of praise over the past year for being there when I needed some direction and guidance. Jon just happened to be talking all about self-promotion and getting your name out right when I needed advice. Artorder also provided me with some significant art challenges to take part in and some fantastic free exposure. The weekly Artorder challenges really offered me the chance to have some fun and stay focused on making art all the time. Artorder was where I first started meeting other artists and realizing it is a small world after all. I have met many great and creative people this year, and I don't think I would still be at this if I had not. So get out of your cave and send someone an email to say "Hi."
D&D Biker Gang One of the pieces I did this year for an Artorder Challenge © 2009 Christopher Burdett
Networking is a powerful tool, and with the products of the 21st century like Twitter and Facebook, it has gotten even more effortless. There are also scores of other websites, forums, online galleries, and podcasts that offer great environments to meet other artists, share helpful information and maybe even get a fresh pair of eyes to look at a new piece of work. This past year I shifted my usage of
Myspace (Long gone now) to Facebook, started a Twitter account, a Deviantart account (This has since been deleted due to the RAMPANT art theft on the site), a Conceptart account (I have long since stopped using this), and started following the Ninja Mountain Podcast (has not been updated since 2015) and the WIP Podcast (Sadly, no longer around). I began finding many of the same people in these locals, and I realized I was joining an established artist community out on the web. How cool is that? Side note, I wish so much that I had discovered the WIP podcast sooner than I did, so helpful, and all those associated with the Ninja Mountain podcast have been a joy to meet and very helpful with their sage advice. These elements can then work together to help generate your presence online. You post something new to your blog, tweet about it, have the Twitter application on Facebook post your tweet, have the Blogger application on Facebook post a link to your blog, post the image to Deviantart and then blog there about it. Make sure you have some sort of stat tracker set up so you can watch the numbers. I am still amazed at how this all works. The power of the internet is impressive. Is all of this necessary? That is for you to decide. I have met so many incredible people through my postings and presence on the web. It has allowed me to be more in touch with the industry and be more a part of it. I have met people who are not artists but fans of the games I have worked on, and it has been a joy to share with them unreleased designs that never made it into the game. Does this get me jobs? Is all that we do just about getting work? Or is it about an expression of who we are as an artist? That is for you to decide for yourself. I enjoy blogging and meeting new artists and making new friendships. It can't hurt, and it has definitely given me the motivation to keep working and getting better. There wouldn't be the saying, "It is not what you know, but WHO you know," if it wasn't true.
The client and you or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Self Promotion
You might notice I have yet to really talk about actually getting work. Because I was starting fresh at the beginning of 2009, I built everything from the ground up. I did all (or I should have done all) of the above before really looking for work. However, I tested the waters in controlled situations to try out the wording of emails or the selected work I would send out as samples. A lot of these trials I did through leads I found on the Conceptart forums. I also made many mistakes and learned valuable lessons (review the stuff under The Basics). Here is a big secret of mine; I am sure I am not the first, but I figured this one out. There is a monthly publication called Game Trade Magazine, or GTM. Most gaming or comic book stores should carry it or have access to it. GTM advertises the gaming products coming out in a couple of months, like Previews for comics. It is a magazine that lists all the gaming companies currently producing products. Once I had a copy of the GTM, I went through it and marked off prospective companies and then looked at their websites to see if I was right for them and then got their contact information and submission guidelines. Most companies on the up and up should have easy-to-locate submission procedures and information. If they don't pass them by. I made a text document of all the companies I tracked down, including address, contact names, phone number, etc., for my records. I also used this document to record what date I submitted work to them (but that comes a little later). I generated a pretty solid list of companies that I thought I would be well suited for. Starting in January, I began working on new updated work. In February, I started a blog and made friends, and became more active in online communities. In March, I expanded to sites like Deviantart and continued networking and compiling potential contacts. When April came around, I made the "Big Push," April 1st, to be exact. I updated my blog and website with all the new work I had been doing and sent out emails to all the potential clients I had gathered. This emailing was staggered over a couple of days with the companies I was more confident with going out first. I set up a temporary page on my website that featured just the new work and directed prospective clients. I also included a link to my main website, my blog, and my gallery on Deviantart that featured my miniature turnarounds (I am always looking for more turnaround work *wink wink*). I tried to be professional with the emails by stating who I am, why I was contacting them, a brief history of my working experience, what I was interested in from them, links to my various galleries, and finally, an open-ended invitation for them to contact me when they can use me. This was then followed by the most critical part of the email, which is at the bottom of most of my emails:
If they can't get ahold of you, then you have wasted everybody's time. I sent out all the emails and held my breath. I got some follow-ups right away thanking me for the submissions, some outright rejections, some inquires about my rates and a whole heaping bag of silence from most that I contacted. We all get rejected. It is a part of life. We must push through it and move past it. If we were not rejected, the jobs we land would not taste as sweet. I say that for me more than you. What did I do wrong? Did I do anything wrong? Was my work not up to their standards? Was my work not what they needed at the time? Did I email the wrong person? Did the email get lost in the tubes of the internet? Or maybe, get this, the art directors are busy and don't get around contacting you until they have work available... For me, that was May and June. I had to sit around and stew in my head, pondering what I had done wrong just long enough to wonder if I had wasted 5 months of work and struggle. Patience is easy to talk about and hard to learn. I debated sending follow-up emails, but I didn't feel enough time had passed to warrant it yet.
Basilisk - Card art from Talisman One of the first projects that rolled in from the "Big Push" © 2009 Fantasy Flight Games
Promoting yourself to others is a tough one. In many ways, I think I got a lot of practice by promoting myself to my friends. Learning what worked, what didn't. It is a lot of trial and error. Start small and work your way up. I had to go from 0 to 60 this year, and it all started with trying to get people to go to my blog.
Where the cool kids are
As part of my big push this year, I attended the San Diego Comic-Con in July and Illuxcon in November. Of these, I will be attending Illuxcon for sure this year. I found both very important to attend, and I had a great time. I might not have locked in work from going, but I met many great people. Having your portfolio critiqued by the leading names in the industry is priceless. That alone is worth the price of admission. If you have the chance to go to a convention that has a high volume of artists, art directors, or both, make sure you attend at least once. I posted at length my adventures at both Comic-Con and Illuxcon here on this blog if you were wondering about them.
Usagi Yojimbo I made this piece for the 2009 San Diego souvenir brochure. It was prominently featured in the brochure. © Stan Sakai / Dark Horse Comics
The convention scene is an excellent time to talk about business cards and leave-behinds. When I was making new cards this year, I looked back at what I had done previously and was HORRIFIED. We all learn and grow. This year I decided to forgo a fancy or bulky leave behind and go with a simple two-sided postcard. There was a lot of discussion about leave-behinds this year, and I decided less was more, and something smaller was less likely to end up in the garbage. There are many options and many companies to choose from. You just need to figure out what is best for you.
- Do the best job you can every time.
- Know your limits, and don't take too much work. Err on the side of less rather than more.
- Maintain a certain level of professionalism until you have established a more friendly relationship with the client.
- Make the changes you are asked to make (within reason).
- We are all in this together.
I hope this has all made sense in the end and that you see some of the interconnectedness that I saw developing as I wrote all this. Most of this I put together this year with the help of many, many people. Many of you are reading this right now, so I think you all for your time, critiques, help, and advice. I made many mistakes this year, but I also worked with more clients than I ever had to date. I won't work with some of them again, but I had to figure out that for myself. I even had a client bounce a payment check with me, but I am pretty sure it has been resolved. I had to find my limits and determine the conditions I considered workable. I have found some companies this year I really enjoy working for, and I hope that our relationship continues. If you have any questions or want me to clarify, let me know. I hope this has been useful to you.