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Artistic Freedom

CoyotePostThe greatest freedom in being self-employed is that you get to choose where you want to go. It’s one of the reasons so many creatives work for themselves and yet we too often forget that simple fact.

I’ve always felt a need to catch up, especially since I operated for a long time under the assumption that I started late. While I doodled as a kid and teenager, I never really started drawing with any intent or wanting to learn to be a better artist until my late twenties.  That was when the Banff Crag and Canyon newspaper needed a weekly cartoonist and nobody else applied.  It didn’t matter that I didn’t draw well or know much about politics or current events.  They weren’t paying much and nobody was looking to the Crag’s editorial cartoon to set the standard. I already had a full-time tourism job and no ambition to do anything art related past this one thing.   Draw one small town editorial cartoon each week for some extra beer money.  Let’s face it, I was 27 years old, I had never gone to art school, and I didn’t draw very well.  I never expected this to go anywhere.

Fast forward to today, I’m now 43, I’ve been doing this art gig full-time for almost 8 years and am very happy drawing and colouring for a living.  It has thankfully been more than a few years since I would consider it a struggle to make ends meet.  I’ve tried a number of different art related tangents, discarded the ones I didn’t like or that didn’t work, sought to become better at the ones I felt passionate about, and year after year, my focus has become sharper.

One of the best things I did this year was to begin removing myself from a few imaginary races I’ve been running.  It’s easy to get caught up in the hype today that an artist’s value is entirely dependent on how many people follow you on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and that the incremental rise and fall of your Klout score will determine whether or not your business survives the end of the week.  I know, because for a long time, I worried about that very thing.  It’s exhausting and it’s an illusion.

Social media has been great for my business, don’t get me wrong, but it just never worked for me when I was trying too hard to get it to work for me.   The scramble to be noticed by Company A, to be retweeted by Company B, and to have your site address posted by Company C becomes like an addiction.  When it happens once, you try to make it happen again.  When it doesn’t happen, or it happens but not as well as you wanted it to, and fails to pay the street-cred dividends you expected, you wish you’d never had the initial boost to your profile in the first place.  You start to question your own value when the person who was happy to hear from you last year suddenly isn’t returning your calls anymore.

Then you end up looking to other people in your industry that you view as more successful and try to copy what they’re doing.  Person A is writing articles, so I guess I need to write articles.  But Person B is teaching, so I guess I should be teaching.  Person C is traveling all over the place doing demonstrations at trade shows, so maybe I should be doing that, too.  And I don’t know what Person D is doing but everybody is talking about them so I need to find out why.

All of that scrambling leaves little time for anything creative.  While it’s true that I’m drawing editorial cartoons every day to meet my deadlines, last year I didn’t paint nearly as much as I had expected to, and not even close to how much I wanted to.  The one thing I enjoy most about my work, I shoved aside so that I could promote myself.  But what exactly was I promoting if there wasn’t any work?

This year, I’ve realized that the growth of my business is not tied to my connection to movers and shakers, nor is it tied to blogging freelancing tips and tricks or spending hours writing yet another tutorial on how to use brushes in Photoshop.   While people may value that contribution, it has rarely translated to income or led me in a direction in which I wanted to go.  I found myself looking forward and thinking, why do I feel like I’m voluntarily walking into a trap?  It also left me little time to paint or draw anything outside of my deadlines.

The greatest gains I’ve seen in my business, both financially and in my public profile, have been when I produce the work I enjoy creating.  The connection I make with the people who enjoy and buy my work doesn’t happen when I talk about being creative, it happens when I AM creative.

Therein lies the simple plan for the next year.  Pay the bills, learn to be a better artist, and chart my own course.  Spend a lot more time producing artwork and a lot less time talking about it.