Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 - Practicing what I Preach

Another year has come and gone and hopefully we are all better for it. It has been an interesting year for me to say the least and it has not been all good, nor has it been all bad. It has been life. I hope I learned as much as I could from the crazy ups and downs. I now have to get all my thoughts together and find the nuggets of wisdom that have been sifted from the comings and goings of my day to day life. Not always an easy job, but it does help me put into perspective for myself the year that was and figure out what I want to do with the year ahead. This is my fourth time doing this on the blog and it has not gotten any easier, but I feel it is an impotent part of this journey I am taking with the blog. If you missed any of my previous posts you can read them here: 2009 Part 1 & Part 2, 2010, and 2011.

Do as I say, not as I do.

I tired really hard this year to follow my own advice from previous years and to practice what I preach. This has not been easy, but I think it has allowed me to move in the right direction in regards to my career. Maintaining the philosophy of making the work for myself and not just for the client has been a big part of this years efforts. While fulfilling the needs of the project I try to make each piece into something I REALLY want to work on and not simply a job. I think my work for Fantasy Flight this year best sums up these efforts. While I can't share all that I have done yet, I can talk about the Smaug pieces I did for the LoTR card game…

The Burning of Lake-Town #1 (Smaug the Terrible)
© 2012 Fantasy Flight Games

As you can clearly see the image used on the cards is just part of the image that I created. Given the option, I don't like composing to a square, and these cards are pretty much square compositions. A nice long rectangle on the other hand is an area I really like to compose in. Once I have the rectangular composition locked down I can easily (most of the time) pull a square selection out that will provide a serviceable piece for the client. The client is completely aware of this from the beginning and I provide them with the entire piece, not just the cropped down section intended for use. This has led to the work being used in promotional materials and in one occasion a piece of the larger paining was used to make an additional card.

The Burning of Lake-Town #2 (Smaug the Magnificent)
© 2012 Fantasy Flight Games

Why do this? Why make the additional work and effort for myself? I do this because the piece becomes mine, I am invested and take personal ownership of it. As a professional artist I already maintain a level of quality for ALL my assignments, but by making it MINE, I find myself going that extra mile, putting that extra amount of time and effort into it. I am happy, the client is happy, and now I have something more in the end then just an image I made for a card. Instead of just an assignment I now have a potential print for conventions, a more interesting piece for the blog and online galleries, or even a possible portfolio piece. But most of all, I have something I believe in and stand behind and hopefully will be a representation of my current level of craft and skill. 

The Burning of Lake-Town #3 (Smaug the Mighty)
© 2012 Fantasy Flight Games

Not every assignment is suitable for these extra efforts. If a license on a project bans prints, well, no need to make the image bigger and extended, but I still put all the effort and time into the piece. I just make sure I ask for Trandosians, and that is reason enough to put the extra amount of time and love into a piece. …but I digress. There are a dozen reasons to not go that extra mile, buy there are twice as many reasons to go that extra mile. You have to figure out what those reasons are for yourself and decide if it is worth it. It has taken me a long time to realize that I needed to do this and to figure out what my reasons to do it are.

Managing the roller coaster of ups and downs.

First and foremost, I have nothing to complain about. Some of the events of my life and career have come to me easily and others have taken a lot of time and effort. This is the way of things. I count my blessings and know that there will always be others that are not as fortunate as I am or others who have a boon of fortune a hundred times more then mine. All I can do is work as hard as hard I can and hope I make the right decisions. All this aside, it does not make the sting of perceived or actual failure any less painful or temper the peaks of joy when things work out. We are all human and experience the world in our own personally singular way. I just want to be able to hold tight to a stabilizing amount of objectivity and humbleness. Hopefully this will soften the pains of the lows and make the highs that much more sweet and special. 

The always helpful Yoda...

I wrote at length earlier in the year about feeling like a failure. No need to cover old ground, but I had a series of bumps that all came close together from all different directions. Some have played out to be as I expected and others I have since been able to rectify and redeem. As the rest of the year played out I have had some really exciting things happen (sadly none of which I can talk about yet) and I have had some additional hard stumbles. It has yet to be seen if these are actual stumbles, but they hurt like they are and I just have to learn to roll with it. I guess that gets to the point… I need to learn to roll with it better… I am not sure this is something anyone ever learns, but as long I am trying to do it better and trying to stay objective I can count myself lucky.

Be it human nature, the fact we are our own worse critic, or just crumby biochemistry I find it hard not to dwell on the failure (perceived or actual) even while awesome things are happening all around. When I find a way of packaging and selling a foolproof solution to this I will retire and draw my own monsters to my hearts content. Until then, I will put one foot in front of the other and try to stay as positive as I can about all this. Then again, this might be the very thing that makes us push ourselves to the next level and the thing that results in some of us being artists while others not. If it was easy they would not call it work! I just wish the bumps, dips, and low spots didn't hurt so much and that I didn't take it so personally. It is my own fault I see making monsters as a real and tangible extension of who I am and what I do… I started this whole post out on ways that I make it more of an extension.

Okay, this seems to have gotten more complex the more I think and write about it. In the end my words of advice are… There will always be people better and worse off then you and in turn, there will always be artists "better" and "worse" then you AND this does change depending on your time and effort. Yes, the failures hurt, I know this all too well, but it is how we deal with the failures of life that best define our character and who we are. No matter what, this too will pass, it might take a lot of time and effort, but it will pass and the dark cloud can not stay forever… unless we allow them to. Lastly, hold onto your successes! They are not the sum of who you are but they should be a rock of stability in the dark times.

…now I just have to remember these words and remind myself of them.

Getting serious never stops.

The term "getting serious" comes from a life drawing/painting group I was part of. When the host would announce that there was ten minutes left to the long poses someone would respond with, "time to get serious". Eventually, there was an additional response of, "you should ALWAYS be serious". This has stuck with me and has been the reason I have continued this theme on the blog. I have had some very poignant and distinct moments in my art career where I have had to "get serious". When the dust clears on these moments I have been left with the feeling of "why was I not doing these things already?" "why was I not already taking my career this seriously?". The reasons why are less of the issue, the fact that I could now see a better path is the issue. "Getting serious" is not one single thing and it takes a lot of time and effort. Hopefully by reading my year end post and following the blog you will see my journey in "seriousness", because I am not sure if it can be simply and quickly summed up… but I will try.

For me, a lot of "getting serious" has to do with getting smarter, seeing better, taking chances, and embracing new opportunities. I talked about a lot of this during my lecture that I hosted with Jon Schindehette at Illuxcon in November. Not only did I (and we) talk about these topics but hosting the panel is actually a part of "getting serious". I was taking chances and embracing something new. I put a lot out there and shared a lot of my ups and downs from my early days of making art during the panel and it could have all gone wrong, but I feel it turned out amazingly and I am still so incredibly grateful to have had Jon's input and presence there during the panel.

Panel buddies. One of highlights of 2012!

Getting smarter: Use your brain, stupid. Need I say more? Yes, yes I should… In every since of the phrase I had to start being smarter about making my art. I needed to look at what others were doing that was successful and learn how to implement it into my own work flow. I have said it over and over and over and over and over and over again, one of the most important things I did was START USING REFERENCE. This and this alone was a key point of getting smarter. Getting past all the baggage and garbage I believed and was fed that to be a real artist it had to all come from your head and that using reference was cheating. I got smart and started looking beyond myself. I also started looking for help from other artist on how to make my work better. Imagine that, ask someone who has already traveled the path you want to take and see what they have done that made the journey easier or harder. I also started attending, and will continue to attend, educational events like the Illustration Master Class and Illuxcon to look, listen, and learn.

Seeing better: Seeing better and getting smarter really go hand in hand and play off each other. During the Illuxcon panel I was asked what I felt was the most important skill to learn as an artist and I answered, "the ability to see". When you learn to really see what you are looking at the door to advancement and learning fly open. You can look at something all day long, but until you actually SEE it you are wasting your time. This might all sound weird and ethereal, but it all became clear to me after some rather harsh critiques and the repeated advice for me to start using reference… and the first thought after each critique was that I HAD been using reference. I was using it, but I was not SEEING it. I was not actually seeing the forms, shapes, details, and all the yummy information just waiting to be used in the reference… I was… I was… I have no idea what I WAS doing, because now I am smarter and can better see what I am looking at. Now that I have a better understanding it is hard to remember what I was doing before. I find that something I will still be lazy about something early on in a piece and catch myself later and curse the fact I had not been paying enough attention. The ability to see better has taken me a long time to hone and build upon, but it has been THE MOST important skill I have added to my skill set.

Taking chances and embracing new opportunities: These two are very much linked and tied into everything else I have talked about in this post. We are not going to succeed or fail without taking chances. You want to make something your own, well, you will need to embrace the opportunities provided and take a chance to make something better. We each have our own areas where we can take chances. New opportunities are presented to us all the time, we just need to be able to see them. Getting smarter and seeing better helped me begin to improve my skill set to "get serious", but it is taking chances and embracing new opportunities that has allowed me to actively engage the concept and reality of "getting serious". I have been a working artist for awhile now, but 2012 was a year of many 'firsts' for me. I had to take some chances and I had to grab the opportunities when they were presented themselves. While I was extremely pleases with my efforts, they were not all successes and they didn't all work out just the way I had imagined... but if I didn't try I would have nothing but failure. A year ago I made my first traditional painting and in the last few days I have completed my first traditional paining for a client. This was something I insisted to myself and others was something that was a long ways off, something that was not going to happen anytime soon… well, the opportunity came up and I took a chance. This could be a huge failure or it may be the first small success in what will hopefully be a series of successes, only time will tell. But the one thing I know for sure it that I am SERIOUS about what I am doing and I am giving it my all.

 Bugbear / Chimera / Deep One
9 x 12 - Acrylic on board
© 2012 Christopher Burdett

Wrapping it all up…

More and more I keep coming back to the same questions when I think about making art and my career as an artist… Why am I doing this? Would I have begun this journey if I knew then what I know now? These questions and their answers define current actions and help shape my future actions. Their answers are not something I can share because the answers are constantly changing. BUT, I can say they are shaped and affected by everything I have talked about thus far. More and more I have come to the realization that making art… even just making monsters is a lot more then just making drawing and painting monsters. It is a personal and unique journey that can be as simple or as complex as the creator wants to make it. The path you take in your own journey is dependent on your choices and your efforts along the way. You can decide to ignore all opportunities and forgo the difficult work of self improvement and your path will lead you in one direction or you can sacrifice almost everything and spend years and years of toil and effort to improve and your path will take you somewhere else. None of this is easy and it all takes hard work and effort. All this becomes clearer to me each year as I get a little further along my path. You just need to make sure you are on the right path for you and that you have the ability to change your path to make sure you are heading in the right direction on your journey.

If you have any questions or would like me to clarify anything, let me know. I hope my ramblings have been helpful, useful or at least mildly amusing. I hope 2012 was a good year for you and here's to 2013 being even better! Now, let's get to work!

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  1. Happy new year.

    I read the whole blog, I just didn't come up with anything interesting to say.