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All Fear, All the Time!

I was going to write this long post about how hard this crisis is hitting freelance artists, those who work in the gig economy and me personally.

But after a few hundred words, it just sounded incredibly self-pitying, the kind of post I hate to read because it triggers feelings of, “you think you’ve got it bad?!”

We’re consuming way too much information on Covid-19, and then sharing it before we’ve even read the last sentence, usually with our own opinion tacked on.  We forget that everyone is hurting from this.

Everybody is scared, if not for health reasons, then for economic ones.

One friend is worried about what this will do to his retirement savings. Another manages an entertainment venue and saw every event cancelled for this month. Another works in tourism, and hotels around here are starting to lay people off. A few friends are brick-and-mortar business owners and are wondering if they’ll survive until this ends. Others are seniors and while financially stable, are the most vulnerable if they get sick. Another friend is a doctor, and she has accepted that she will get sick, sees it as inevitable. Another friend had to cancel his family trip to Mexico this week; he’s out about $4000 because cancellation insurance won’t cover it for this virus.

Then there are the businesses I work with in newspapers and tourism. Newspapers rely on ads, and when companies are on the ropes, they don’t buy advertising. When people aren’t travelling, and everybody is acutely aware of their finances, retail stores and gift shops are wary of what they’re stocking, which means the wholesalers that license my work aren’t selling as much. The trade shows they attend to introduce my work to new customers have been cancelled.

Despite my recent assurance that I’m still doing the Calgary Expo, five weeks away, I highly doubt they’re going ahead with it. And if they do, it’s going to be a dismal year for attendance and sales. I sent my last two paintings for proofing, but I have no idea when I’ll order prints of them. A waste of money for them to just sit in the closet with the extensive inventory I’ve already got.

So yes, I’m scared, just like everybody else.

Fear of the unknown. It’s the reason people are hoarding toilet paper and other supplies. It’s not because they’re crazy, it’s because they’re afraid. When there are so many uncertainties and things we can’t control, our nature is to look for anything we can control.

We may not know if we’re going to have a job next month, but at least we have toilet paper! It’s not the product itself; it’s what it represents—safety, stability, and comfort.

This need to control our environment expresses itself in many different ways. Some people do the buying and hoarding, while others make fun of them for it. Because If I can convince myself that I’m better than those crazy people, then that must mean I’m going to be safe. As if we needed one more thing to reinforce our US versus THEM mentality.

Then there are those in between. I’ll stock up on a little more toilet paper, but not too much. Fine, I’ll add a few more cans to the grocery cart, maybe some extra meat for the freezer. Might as well, I’m here, right?

And then when we get to the grocery store and see all of the empty shelves, the fear escalates, and we buy more than we’d planned.

Because, what if the crazies are right?

It’s all fear. And even though that’s OK, we also end up judging ourselves for being panicky little mammals, too. We know we shouldn’t be checking social media or the news as often as we are because it creates a destructive loop. But we still do, because…

What if?!

We do what we can with what we have, both in resources and information. Think twice before sharing every news story with your friends, because they don’t need to see it any more than you do. If they’re not following the news already, then they probably don’t want to see all of the articles YOU think they should.

We’ve all seen the graph about flattening the curve, so it doesn’t need to be posted again. We’ve all seen the conspiracy theories and the posts from doctors trying to be the voice of reason, the comparisons between the 1918 flu and the predictions of what happens if it gets worse.

We’ve all seen the videos of frenzied shoppers at Costco and the holier-than-thou posts from people who think they’re all idiots.

Some of the memes are pretty funny, sure. Laugh at the absurdity, but avoid the cruelty. These are your friends, your family and your neighbours, and they’re frightened. Cut them some slack. They’re judging you just as harshly, maybe not for this, but something else.

When we’re scared, we act irrationally. It’s human nature. Ironically, by trying to avoid this virus, we end up hurting ourselves with our coping mechanisms. We might drink a little more alcohol or partake of other substances, eat more unhealthy food, avoid exercise, socializing, and laughter.

We’ll spend even more time on the internet, hopping from one news story to the next, refreshing the feed, reading all of the comments, and then sharing the more truthy looking ones to social media, where we scroll madly through our news feed to see what we’ve missed. Then we check to see how many comments and likes we got on our apocalypse porn.

It’s difficult, but we do have the capacity to rein in these fears and habits. We need only summon the will.

I’m an atheist, but I’ve always liked the Serenity Prayer, favoured by Alcoholics Anonymous. It applies to so much of our lives, in good times and in bad.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I’m still short on the wisdom part, but I’m working on it.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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You Don’t Say

eaglecrop
Things People Said to Me at Calgary Expo Holiday Market

with real (and not so real) responses.


You should draw children’s books!”

I hear this a lot from people, along with other ‘suggestions’ from out of the blue.

I could draw children’s books and I’ve had many offers to do so over the past 15 years or so. One of those ended up being very successful for the author and the illustrator to whom I introduced her. They were a good match and the books they’ve done turned out great.

So why didn’t I draw them? I don’t like being around children. I’m not a parent, never wanted kids, and you won’t find me attending the birthday parties that friends have for their kids. Shonna is the same way. We’re monsters. We know. We’re OK with it.

When you create a children’s book, you have to promote it. That means doing readings for children, attending events for children, going to schools where there are children and pretending you want to be there. If I produced a children’s book, there would be a large crowd of people who know me well, shouting, “Hypocrite!”

And they’d be right to do so.

Occasionally I will speak to school classes. I even mentored at the school for a couple of years some time ago, a worthwhile program for kids who showed aptitude in the arts. Once a week, I would go to the school, meet my student in a room near the office and spend an hour on drawing exercises. We’d come up with a project that they’d then present to their class at the end of the program.

I did it because it’s something I would have enjoyed at that age and out of a sense of community guilt, felt I should contribute in some way. There were some good kids, I did my best for them, but it wasn’t personally rewarding and felt like another obligation. Because of that flawed perspective, I won’t do that again. But I will still speak to classes from time to time.

I could have been more politically correct here in my explanation, but I erred on the side of honesty. Feel free to judge me harshly. It’s what makes the internet go ‘round.


“Is this digital? Ohhhh.”

That “Ohhhh” is usually incredibly condescending. What it really says is, “You must have a really good program that changed a photo into whatever this is.”

If I tell them I did it with Photoshop, then they’re even more certain that I’m a fraud.

There are still those who figure if you do your work on a computer, then you’re not really a skilled artist, you’re more like a programmer who just knows how to press all the right buttons.

I could explain at great length about the countless hours I’ve spent working to improve my art skills, through practice, study, and a ton of happy accidents, but I usually just smile and let them have their illusions. As I heard Katey Couric say on a podcast recently, “People aren’t looking for information these days, they’re looking for affirmation.”

You think the computer creates my artwork? Give it a shot.

I’ll wait here.


“Are these photos?”

No. They’re not photos. I use photos for reference, but no photo is ever part of my work.


“So what do you do for your real job?”

This is it. Drawing, colouring and answering stupid…

Sorry. I’ll be nice.


“You should draw an Elephant, Hippo, Badger, Horse, Ocelot, Orangutan, Marmoset, Jellyfish, Narwhal, Praying Mantis, Spider, Kangaroo, Duckbilled Platypus, Anemone, Sloth, Barracuda, Goldfish, Parakeet, Boa Constrictor…
(it’s an endless list)

And will you buying one of those when I do? Just checking.


“They’re all smiling!

“I just love your work!”
“We bought a print of yours last year and it hangs in our hallway.”
“Is that new? I’ll take it!”

Thank you. Thank you very much.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Young and Hungry

YoungHungry

“…So my question to you is, do you have any advice, or tips, for a young artist who wants to make it a way of life? Especially without a degree under my belt.”

I often get questions from young and hungry creatives who want insight into becoming a professional artist. In this case, his focus is on writing. As I’d like to keep things anonymous, I’ve met (let’s call him Brian) a couple of times where my work and his job have crossed paths. It doesn’t matter that I don’t write for a living. Art is art.

There are plenty of ‘you can do it, Nicky!’ posts out there that say if you want it and wish hard enough, your dreams will come true. This isn’t one of those. Motivation is important, but so are reality checks.

I sent questions and emails to artists when I was young and hungry, too, and I always appreciated responses, so I try to pay that forward. The edited version of my response…

We’re all just winging it, Brian. I’ve never met an artist (writer, musician, photographer, creative type) who has it all figured out.

We’re all products of the talents we’ve been given, the drive to do something with them, the skills that come from constant practice and the backgrounds that put us in front of the right opportunities at the right time.

The only thing we can control is whether or not we recognize and take advantage of those opportunities.

I didn’t realize I wanted to create art for a living until my late twenties and it seemed to happen by accident. There was an ad in the Banff Crag and Canyon newspaper for an editorial cartoonist. Once a week, draw a cartoon on local politics and current events for $30. I was working at a hotel at the time and it seemed like an easy way to get some extra beer money, especially since nobody else applied. I had always been a doodler, but never went to art school, had no training and was simply willing to fail publicly.

I spent five years in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, I took Psychology in college and then was an Emergency Medical Technician who never worked for an actual ambulance service after my training. And I have no degree. At the time, I worked in tourism.

Those first cartoons were pitiful and took so many hours, but for three years I did it and never missed a deadline. Without even realizing it, I was putting in the practice time for what would become my career. When another local newspaper started up in 2001, they asked me to be their cartoonist.

One of the owners, who was the editor and is now a good friend, asked me why I wasn’t syndicated. She told me to start doing cartoons on national topics and just start sending them out to papers across Canada. For the first two years, I had two papers, each paying me $10 a week. It was pitiful. I was working so hard, evenings, early mornings before work, and weekends drawing cartoons and sending them out, getting almost no bites at all, while still working a full-time job to pay the bills.

I often thought of giving up. Hours and hours and hours drawing cartoons that never got published. And in hindsight, it was just more of the necessary practice it took to help me become the artist I am today. I just didn’t know it at the time. I felt taken advantage of and tremendously foolish, as if I was kidding myself to think that I could make a career of it.

When things finally started to click, however, it happened pretty quickly. I started getting more and more papers and a little over ten years ago, my wife and I had a serious discussion about my quitting the full-time job. I was 34 years old, but I felt like I was too old to be taking such a risk. I now know different. You can take risks at any age and nothing great ever comes without one.

But for each person, the sacrifice will be different, greater or less depending on your personal circumstances.

The only way I could quit my job was if my business could still pay half of our mortgage and bills. While those first two or three years were pretty damn lean, we managed, and these days I don’t have to refer to myself as a struggling artist.

I’ve had good advice from unexpected sources, bad advice from others. I’ve made mistakes that have cost me time and money, something that still happens occasionally but a whole hell of a lot less. I’ve planted and cultivated new ideas and pursuits that have withered and died on the vine. Other crops have flourished. My career has shifted from solely focused on editorial cartoons to including my paintings of whimsical wildlife. Each year that part of my business shows positive growth and I plan for that trend to continue.

But there’s no secret that only successful artists know. It’s the same requirement for anybody who wants to be self-employed in any field.

You have to work your ass off.

When your friends are going out partying on a Friday night, you have to consider that Saturday will be wasted if you’re hungover. Every leisure activity you do has to be reconsidered. You must sacrifice.

Those two years when I wasn’t getting any newspapers but was still working what seemed like a full-time job on top of a full-time job, I was giving up time with friends and family, I quit skiing because I could no longer afford it, we got by on one car and vacations were few and far between. We rarely went out for lunch or dinner.

I’ve heard stories of photographers who had to sell expensive lenses to pay the rent, writers who write all day and then go work night jobs while the only thing showing up in the mail is rejection after rejection after rejection, not to mention artists who paint on anything they can find because they can’t afford canvas or other materials.

I think that’s the universe’s way of making you prove how bad you want it. It’s an old cliché, but it applies…if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.

Paying the bills isn’t as hard as it used to be, but I still expect it to be all taken away tomorrow, by some unexpected calamity. It feels like I’m always living on borrowed time and I’m days away from having to go back and get a real job, even though I’m not. I am always working. Even when I’m camping or on vacation, I’m thinking about projects or cartoon ideas, following the news, etc. Success in self-employment means having to remind yourself to stop and smell the roses, but you’ll still only budget a small amount of time for it. I force myself to take afternoon hikes as often as possible just to stay healthy and get out of the office, but I’m still thinking about cartoon ideas and paintings while doing it.

That young guy in the picture above was not thinking about work that whole weekend. I guarantee it.

You want to be a writer? Write. All the time, even when you don’t feel like it. Waiting for inspiration is for independently wealthy trust fund babies. Success only comes to the creatives who treat their gifts like tools, just like a plumber, electrician, or other skilled trades-person. He or she worked hard for their expertise, artists have to as well.

Write about the dirt on the window, the dust on the desk, the clouds in the sky, that rude barista at Starbucks (wait, you can’t afford Starbucks anymore), the guy who cut you off in traffic, the ridiculousness of Apple iTunes agreements, the first blade of green grass you saw in the Spring. Just write!

Making a living at it isn’t for everybody. For some artists, the thought of soiling their talents with money and sales is as distasteful as dining on raw sewage. There’s nothing wrong with that. They can still create and have a job on the side to pay the bills. That works for a lot of people. Their creative pursuits are what make their job bearable.

So you have to decide what you want, and what you’re willing to give up to get it.

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Fine Tooning

WynneToonI spent most of Sunday (and a bit more of Monday) working on the cartoon you see above, featuring Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, a comment on this week’s provincial budget. From an efficiency perspective, it wasn’t the best use of my time. I could have easily done two or possibly three cartoons in the same span. But I love to paint and it’s been quite some time since I’ve poured everything into a caricature.

From an hourly perspective, I doubt I made minimum wage on this one, but it was fun and good practice, so it can’t really be seen as time misspent. I would love to be able to create this kind of detail in editorial cartoons on a regular basis, but in the quest to find the middle ground between best art and making a living, sacrifices must be made.

Like every other creative I know, chief among the questions I’m asked about editorial cartooning is, “where do you get your ideas?”

The short answer is that I follow the news closely, pretty much all the time. Newspapers, television, Google, websites like CBC, CTV, Global, National Newswatch and social media if you want specifics. While I won’t have the cartoon idea right away, I’ll be able to see from a headline and summary that there is likely one to be found within. That just comes with experience.

I’m what you call a self-syndicated editorial cartoonist. This means that I create one or two cartoons each weekday on regional, provincial, national and international topics, which I then send off to newspapers across Canada. Some clients only run my work; otherwise I am competing for space with other editorial cartoonists.

There are some daily newspapers that have a staff cartoonist, which is an endangered position, especially when layoffs seem to be the quickest way to cut expenses. I’ve often said that I’m glad I never got a job with a daily newspaper, because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t still have it today.

From 2001 to 2006, I was self-syndicating to newspapers across Canada while holding down a full-time job to pay the bills. I would get up at 5:00am each day to draw and send a cartoon before heading off to work. I would also draw evenings and weekends. When I finally became busy enough to quit the ‘real job’ and still pay my half of the bills, I continued to get up at the same time simply because I’m a morning person. While most think it’s nuts, I truly do enjoy getting up that early. A lot of other artists work late at night into the wee hours, but that’s just not me. I’m in bed by 9:30 or 10:00 most nights.
WynneCloseI work almost every day, though on weekends I have a little more flexibility. Saturdays I try to paint in the morning, but my wife and I will usually go do something the rest of the day. Sundays, I’m working on editorial cartoons. I squeeze in painted work and writing whenever and wherever I can.

The big challenge with freelance editorial cartooning is the speed at which cartoons need to be done. Someone who draws for a daily newspaper has the luxury of taking time to come up with the right idea and then enjoying the whole day to draw it. Nobody is going to take that spot on the editorial page from them as it’s reserved for their work.

For freelancers, however, it’s all about getting a good idea, drawing it fast, and sending it out to as many papers as possible before they go to print. For some weekly papers, that’s before noon on certain days and if there’s a time change in the wrong direction between here and there, that window of opportunity closes fast. This is where the early mornings help.

Not only do I have to make sure I deliver on time, but I’m also competing with other freelancers, not to mention a syndicate that resells cartoons from the few cartoonists who still work for the major dailies or the ones who’ve been laid off.

While I’m comfortable spending my days working alone, the isolation does have its stresses. For example, when big shifts happen in the world of newspapers, like last month’s round of Postmedia layoffs, things change quickly. Those Postmedia daily papers that used to run me quite often, well there’s been a sudden drop this month as editorial page editors have lost/left their jobs and new ones have started in. When there’s a shift like that, I often have to figure it out on my own and adapt quickly. Freelancers don’t get invited to meetings.

There’s also been a noticeable lurch to the right in much of the commentary on some of those daily pages, so any cartoon I draw that doesn’t paint the Conservatives in anything but a positive or persecuted light, well lately they don’t see the light of day. I’ve got no love for the Liberals or NDP, but I can’t bash them every single day ‘just because.’ That’s the Opposition’s shtick.

There is no doubt that the winds have changed. While I don’t expect any sympathy for having to adjust my sails to compensate, especially when so many have been outright laid off from their jobs, it has got me a little concerned. With an overactive OCD fueled imagination and a lot of time alone to think bad thoughts, the stress multiplies.

Thankfully, I have my painted work and print sales to reinforce the hull where it shows potential signs of leaking, but in a down economy, art isn’t a priority for a lot of people, either.

So what does one do? Well, the only thing I can do, I guess. Keep working, scramble a little harder, draw a little faster, look for new revenue streams, try to keep my current customers happy and borrow from a famous prayer. Accept what I can’t change, change what I can and figure out the difference.

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What I Didn’t Know Then

PatPainting
Last week, I got an email from a fellow in Germany. He complimented me on my work, and asked, “Imagine you had a time machine and could meet the younger version of yourself. What would the number one advice be, in regards to art?”

My wife and I were making dinner at the time and I read the email to her off my phone. While Shonna is not an artist, she’s been on this ride with me since the beginning, and she knows what I know when it comes to this business.

We took turns rattling things off and within minutes came up with twenty or thirty different nuggets of truth and I wrote them all down on a scrap of paper.

Experience will always be the best teacher. If you’re an amateur artist looking for wisdom, you’ve got to earn it. But here is a small sampling from that list, some of the things I’ve learned so far.

1) Don’t work for exposure. When is the last time you saw an image, a logo, a website, design or anything creative and then thought, “I’m going to find that person and hire them.”

That’s what this type of client is promising. They want something for nothing and anybody they refer you to will want the same. I have worked for exposure more than once. I never will again.

2) Don’t work for spec. Spec work is often disguised as a contest, a call for entries or an audition piece. It often means a company asks many people to submit designs and the winner gets prizes or prize money. The company then owns whatever the winner created and gets it at a fraction of a cost they would have had to pay a professional. The company usually owns everything else submitted to the contest as well.

Spec work is for suckers. Work disguised as a contest is for suckers. I have been that sucker, more than once, and it feels dirty.

3) Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Don’t follow trends. Don’t copy someone else’s success. It just won’t work. Unless you have the exact same background as that person, started from the same place, with the same opportunities, jumped the same hurdles, had the same skills, influences, inspirations, environment, training, experiences, talent or luck, you will not duplicate another person’s success. You can still BE a success, but it’ll be YOUR success, not a poor copy. By trying to mimic another artist or ride his coattails, you are depriving yourself of discovering your own niche or voice.

Learn from everybody. Copy nobody.

4) Figure out the difference between trolls, constructive criticism and just plain bad advice. There will always be those who tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Some of them will be competitors who are threatened by you or other artists that are just plain jealous. The view has always been clearest from the cheap seats. People that never try will criticize those who do. Social media often seems to be based entirely on that premise.

Some people are genuinely supportive, want to help you, want to see you succeed and have nothing but the best of intentions. If they aren’t in your business, however, don’t know what’s involved, haven’t got more experience than you, or just don’t know what your goals are, you need to find a way to smile and say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Good people with good intentions can still give bad advice.

5) Do what you love for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life.

That is one large steaming pile of manure.

Turning your art into a business may ruin everything you love about art. You can live a satisfying creative life without ever making it your livelihood.

I’ve been self-employed full-time for over a decade now. I haven’t been a struggling artist for many years and I’m making a good living at it. The mortgage gets paid; we’re not living in debt, and have never borrowed money from our parents. And while I take nothing for granted, I haven’t had to worry about getting a real job for years.

But every day I draw something I don’t want to. Sometimes I spend my whole week drawing things I don’t want to. This is not a complaint. This was a choice. I still make my own schedule. I get to go for my hikes in the afternoon, grab some time to take photos at the zoo and myriad other activities and diversions I wouldn’t get to enjoy if I had to report to a desk during specific hours assigned by somebody else. And I’m still drawing every day, which means I’m getting better at it every day.

I work longer hours for myself than I ever did for anybody else, very early mornings, evenings, weekends, statutory holidays and have done so for twenty years. I don’t know how to live any other way now. Art for a living is hard work.

You must invoice, keep your books and accounting in order, pay your taxes first and yourself last. You need a website, social media, keep up on industry news and advances. You need to contact clients, sell whatever you produce, figure out what works, what doesn’t, read articles, read books, make phone calls. When an invoice isn’t paid, you have to track it down. When equipment breaks down, you have to pay to fix it, when your internet crashes; you have to call your provider. There is no I.T. department, no human resources, and often no immediate help in a crisis. You must make time for training and improving your skills. I could write a thousand more words without once mentioning creating anything.

All of this is time away from doing the actual work you need to do in order to get paid. I’m writing this post, I’m not getting paid. That’s OK. This sort of thing has become a small part of my brand and I enjoy writing. It is good practice, too, and a little payment forward.

Honestly, I didn’t think much about whether or not I should turn my love of drawing and painting into a business, I just ended up doing it. But we never had kids and my wife told me in no uncertain terms that she could not support us both. Not in Canmore, Alberta where the paradise tax is high. The minute I couldn’t pay my half of the bills, I had to get a job, an ultimatum to which I agreed.

This business was part-time for ten years before it was full-time. Had I tried to do it too early, I might not be doing it today. Most of the things I thought I wanted, I’m glad I didn’t get, like a full-time job with a daily newspaper, which would have meant being laid off by now. Timing matters and that leap of faith is frightening, because you have to burn a lot of security when you jump. While it was pretty tight those first couple of years, I have no regrets and can’t imagine doing anything else.

As for the best advice I would give my younger self if I had the opportunity?

He did just fine without it.

Cheers,
Patrick

Posted on

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.

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Be careful what you wish for.

YesNoGot this question on my Facebook page this morning.  After writing the response, I thought I’d share it here as well with a few added sentences I thought of after the fact, as I get this sort of question a lot…

Hey Patrick, is your illustrations your main income?? I’m rattling around so much with going full time with my gift of photography but afraid to take that jump.. I seem to have no time to create working a full time job and kids;)

Hi ________:

Between editorial cartooning, illustration, painting commissions, print sales and licensing…yes. I’ve made a good full-time living as an artist for the past seven years. But for nine years before that, it was a gig I did on the side while holding down a full-time job to pay the bills.

I built my business working mornings before work, evenings and weekends and finally got to a point where I couldn’t get any busier until I quit my job as an office manager for a physiotherapist. Living in Canmore (high cost of living in the Canadian Rockies) on one income is near to impossible, or at least was for us then, so the deal with my wife was that if I couldn’t pay my half of the mortgage, I had to at least get a part-time job to supplement the art income. Fortunately, my boss at the time was (and still is) a great guy, knew what I was planning from day one, and when I gave him two months notice, he suggested I go part-time first and he hired somebody else part-time to take up the slack. About six months later, I had to give notice again as I got a lot busier, but waited until he found the right person to fill my job, which took about a month. It was the best LAST job to have.

It was a real struggle for the first few years, a lot of waiting for money to come in, going into overdraft more times than I can count before I wasn’t relying on every invoice being paid in order to pay my half of the bills, but every year has been better than the one before. It hasn’t really been a struggle for about three or four years now.

I don’t want to discourage you, but your situation contains a big factor that mine doesn’t. We never chose to have kids, so the risk wasn’t nearly as much. My wife and I have often said that if we’d had children, I likely wouldn’t have been able to quit my job. I’m not saying it’s impossible, of course, lots of people do it, but it will be a lot more pressure on you. In those first few years, I had no time for anything else but working. Even now, I work almost every day.  I finally figured out awhile ago why they say ‘do what you love for a living.’ It’s not because you’ll be happy all the time. It’s because when everything is hitting the fan, you haven’t slept, eaten, and the bills are overdue, if you didn’t love it, you’d toss it all out the window and quit. Loving what you do is a survival requirement.

Without knowing anything more about your situation, I would advise that before you quit your job, make sure all of your ducks are in a row. Everything from bookkeeping, accounting, taxes and some money in the bank. Get as many gigs as you can part-time first and make your big mistakes while you still have a job. Those first few years, I was on edge and scared ALL the time, feeling like I was one gig away from losing my business.  You spend half of your time doing support work. In addition to bookkeeping and invoicing, you’ve got marketing, correspondence, portfolio and website maintenance, travel time, all of the little things that will take time away for your photography. So those billable hours have to cover that time, too.

I’m a big believer in doing what you love for a living, but it’s never easy. A lot of sleepless nights, chewed fingernails, and figuring things out as I went along, most often from doing a lot of things wrong.  The stress WILL take its toll in a number of different ways.  For however long it takes, vacations can no longer be a priority and you must go without luxuries.  When you do take time off, you’re not getting paid.  There is no such thing as a weekend anymore and if you don’t have a spouse whose job comes with health and dental benefits (fortunately I do), then you have to factor that into the equation.  I know a number of people who quit their jobs without having any idea of what running their own business required and it’s unfortunate, because often they’ll end up giving up their artwork altogether because of the failed business. So they took what they loved and killed it in an effort to make it their job.

Having a hobby you love is not justification for doing it for a living.  There are many days where the last thing I want to do is draw.  I’ve invested so much of myself into my business, and honestly there is nothing I would rather be doing.  Many people like the idea of being self-employed, but it isn’t for everybody.  You can also count on friends and family failing to understand your choice and telling you that you work too much and should take more time off.  They never stop doing that, by the way.

Whatever you decide, give it a lot of thought, but keep doing what you love. If it takes a little longer to do it for a living, and that’s what you really want, so be it, even though it’s frustrating to have to wait. I started very late to this art gig, didn’t even consider it until I was in my thirties and I know people who started even later than I did and are doing very well.

Anything’s possible, but as the old saying goes, “if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

Best of luck,
Patrick

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To thine own self be true

SnowmanThe last few weeks have been less than stellar.  While I find winter tough to take most years, a cold snap hits my mood especially hard.  When the temperature drops to -20C and below, I’m about the unhappiest camper you’re going to find.  Vitamin D, sunlamps, and other home remedies, I’ve tried ’em all.  Short of moving away to a warmer climate for 6 months of the year, I’ve just learned I have to ride it out.  Add to that the holiday season, of which I am not a fan, and a nasty cold that knocked me down hard on my one slow week of the year, and the last few weeks have felt like I’ve been living at the bottom of a deep dark hole.  Don’t get me going again on the fact that I’m supposed to be in Vegas this week.

There seems to be this ridiculous belief that if you are fortunate enough to love what you do for a living, you’re happy and upbeat all the time, and everything is right in the world, every minute of the day.  Trust me, that’s not the case.  While I’d much rather chart my own course than have somebody else tell me where to go and how to do it,  there will always be bad days and bad weeks, just like at any job, even one you enjoy.  Think of it this way, if somebody offered you your favourite food for dinner tonight, you’d jump at the chance.  If they offered it to you tomorrow, you might still be happy.  Now, imagine you have to eat it every night for the next year.  Would it still be your favourite, or would you be willing to pay anything for a rice cake?

It is not only in an artist’s nature to keep trying new things and new ways of being creative, it’s an absolute necessity.  If new challenges don’t present themselves, you have to go looking for them, otherwise what used to be exciting just becomes routine.  Creativity doesn’t do well with routine.  It withers and ends up on life support.

There is an elusive state of being that we all seem to be looking for called ‘balance.’  Parents try to find the balance between a fulfilling work and home life, workaholics need to balance their schedule and time off, creatives look for a balance between inspired work and selling out.  I’ve come to the conclusion that this balance is an illusion, it doesn’t exist, and that to try to find it leads to a futility that only makes  a person feel even worse about their situation.  This is largely because your perception of balance is fluid.  Find that extra hour in a week to read a book, and you’ll be looking for two next week.  Manage that, and you’ll be wanting a whole day off, then two, then three and pretty soon you’re running out of money because you’re never working.  Balance is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  The closer you move toward it, the further it moves away.

Perhaps you’ve heard the fable about the scorpion and the frog.  The scorpion needs a ride across the river and asks the frog for a lift.  The frog declines saying the scorpion will just sting him.  The scorpion argues that it if he did that, he’d sink, too, so the frog gives in to a logical argument.  The scorpion climbs up on the frog’s back and they start off across the river.  Before too long, the scorpion stings the frog, and the frog says, “Why did you do that?  Now we’ll both drown!”

The scorpion says, “I can’t help it.  It’s just my nature.”

Rather than listen to all of the people that tell me I should relax more and take time off and try to find some balance, I’ve decided to make peace with the fact that I’m only content when I’m working.  Even when I’m not working, I’m thinking about work.  With that in mind, I’ve packed my next few months, and most of it will be quite challenging, because a lot of it will be new ground.  I’ll be recording a new DVD on painting portraits, something I’ve been talking about for months but haven’t actually gotten around to doing.  I’ve been commissioned to paint a couple of cat portraits and have received inquiries about two more pet portraits this week.  Another Totem is being prepped to paint as is another portrait, a painting of one of my absolute favorite characters in film.  The last one, I’ll be trying to paint in Corel Painter.  I haven’t used the Painter software since Painter Classic many years ago, and I’ve been wanting to try Painter 12, bought this past week.  The best way to do so is to just throw myself into a painting and learn as I go.  I have no desire to stop painting in Photoshop, but I also don’t want to be restricted to it, either.

There are a couple of online courses I’ve wanted to take for awhile, and there’s no time like the present.  Waiting for my schedule to slow down is just another way of saying that it’s never going to happen.

And finally, I’m well into the planning for my booth at the Calgary Expo in April.  There’s a lot to think about and organize, everything from which prints to sell and how many of each, banner design, and all of the other logistics involved with having my own booth and selling my own work at the event.  It’s very intimidating, I’m likely going to be stressed about it, but at least it’s not routine.

Some of the work will be fulfilling, some won’t.  Some of the deadlines will be ridiculously short, others will give me far too much time, which inevitably leads to procrastination and working at it last minute, anyway.  There will be up days, low days, but mostly just middle of the road days where it feels just like punching a clock, just like any other job.  That’s the cold hard truth of it and anybody who is thinking about being creative for a living should know that.

Motivation and inspiration, these are wonderful things.  Sometimes it’s the kick in the ass that will get you moving when you feel like you’ve got cinder block boots on.  But when everybody is telling you to be Polly Anna, optimistic, happy go lucky, and you-can-do-it, it can also wear on you.  Chasing that high will eventually lead to an overdose.  From time to time, you just need to turn off all of that noise and just get the work done, regardless of how you feel about it.  That’s all anybody does, no matter what they do for a living.

So what’s the point of this melodramatic post?  Simply put, sometimes it’s OK to feel bad even when things are good.  Don’t beat yourself up about it.  The pressure as a freelancer to be ‘up’ all the time is maddening and I’d bet that a lot of folks out there, the ones you think are riding high all the time, are either faking it as a marketing tool or they’re heavily medicated.  Even the most optimistic of personalities has down days, too, and you’re entitled to yours.  I’d rather share with you the reality of being a self-employed creative than be a complete hypocrite and sell you a bill of goods.  In my experience, it can do a lot more harm than good.

But this too shall pass.  For while I’m having a few down days lately,  I know that two weeks from now, you’ll see me giddy with excitement when I pick up a certain painting from the printer.  Bet on it.  After that, there will be something else exciting, and before too long, it’ll be Spring again, my favourite time of the year.  Enjoy the highs, resent the lows, but be who you are and stop trying to please everybody all the time.  It’s exhausting!

You may not be happy all the time, but at least you’ll be sane.