As much as I appreciate the invite, it likely seems odd that somebody who shoots on automatic with a Nikon D60 would be writing anything on Scott Kelby’s blog. Despite my own ineptitude behind a lens, many of my close friends are photographers. Just don’t ask me what an ISO is or how to use a speed light, and don’t expect me to join you on a 3am photo walk in Vegas. Fool me once.
I’m a cartoonist, illustrator, and painter, and in addition to a pencil and sketchbook, my tools of the trade are Photoshop and a Wacom tablet. What may surprise you is that I had never planned on being an artist, and I didn’t go to art school. For most of my life, I only doodled and rarely created any finished work. I didn’t start down this path with any kind of effort until I was in my thirties, and I’m only 40 now.
My wife and I were living in Banff, Alberta, Canada, and I had a decent job working at a hotel. In 1997, the local weekly paper advertised for an editorial cartoonist, and I figured it might be something fun to do on the side. Nobody else applied, so I got the gig. In 2001, I became nationally syndicated and four years after that, I quit my job. These days, my editorial cartoons run in papers across Canada, I’ve had illustrations in international magazines, and my paintings are selling in galleries. Summed up in a couple of paragraphs, it may seem like I knew what I was doing. Let me assure you, I did not.
Over the past decade, I tried adding a few other skills to my creative repertoire. For awhile I attempted graphic design, because that’s what people told me I should do and that’s where the money was. The fact that I disliked it intensely and wasn’t very good at it probably should have been taken into consideration.
When the newspaper industry began to struggle, many of my colleagues figured that online animation was the future. Wanting to get in on the ground floor, I learned all I could about Flash, created a weekly animated cartoon and even had a couple of TV networks and newspaper chains wanting to run it on their websites. They did not, however, want to pay for it. After five months of no time off, I found out the hard way that I didn’t want to be an animator.
As a cartoonist, I’ve always tried to improve my caricature skills, and eventually I became pretty good at painting detailed caricature portraits. For awhile, there were a few commissions, but the economy suddenly tanked and the price I had to charge to justify the work, had become unaffordable for most people. I just couldn’t provide detailed studio paintings for a quick-sketch price. Looking into my future, I didn’t see this being a big part of it.
When I returned from my first Photoshop World in 2009, I found myself inspired. For years, I’d been looking at what others were doing in the cartooning industry and I’d somehow convinced myself that I had to follow them, even though they weren’t actually leading me anywhere. I finally asked myself the most important question. “What unique work can I do that I will really enjoy, and be able to sell?”
Having lived in the mountains for so many years, I knew that tourists came here for the scenery and the wildlife. As painting landscapes didn’t interest me, the choice between the two was easy. In the Fall of 2009, I painted a portrait of a funny looking grizzly bear, and it changed everything.
It felt completely right, and best of all, people loved it. After the Grizzly came the Raven, then the Elk, and I was hooked. In February, 2010, browsing in an art gallery on a slow day in Banff, I got to talking with the assistant manager. She asked what type of work I did, and I showed her the three images on my phone. After only a moment, she offered to sell the paintings in the gallery.
With another area gallery wanting them as well, the next year was a crash course in the business of canvas and paper printing, limited editions, live painting demonstrations, and everything else I didn’t know about selling work in a gallery. And I kept painting.
In September of that year, I was a finalist for the Guru Awards at Photoshop World in Las Vegas. Not only did my Moose Totem win the Illustration category, but to my great surprise, the Wolf Totem took Best of Show. In a moment of reflection, I recall thinking, “All this time, I’ve been painting people…”
I’ll always be a cartoonist, editorial or otherwise, and I’ve no plans to give that up anytime soon. Commercial work, portrait, caricatures and cartoons, all still pay a good chunk of the bills, and it’s not like I’m working in the salt mines. I’ve got a pretty sweet gig. But that which I am most proud of, that I can see being a big part of my future, are these animal paintings.
This work has opened many doors for me. The prints sell well in the galleries, I’ve recorded training DVDs on cartooning and painting, and I’ve twice been a guest on Wacom webinars this past year. They even hired me to represent their tablets last summer in Calgary at Scott’s ‘Light it, Shoot it, Retouch it’ tour. Personally, I can think of no better validation as a digital artist than being noticed by Wacom.
So what are you supposed to get from this odd story? Well, here are some things I now know for sure. There is no one map to success. When it comes to finding your creative niche, learn from everyone, but copy nobody. Never be completely happy with your work, because you will always have room to improve. Take risks and be willing to fail.
People may tell you that you’re doing it wrong, and while it’s wise to consider that they might be trying to help you and could be right, there is an equal chance that they’re not. When I first started promoting my Totems, more than a few people told me I should do more realistic paintings of wildlife, because they’d probably sell better. Asking my galleries for their thoughts, they told me they weren’t interested in that, because that’s what everybody else was doing.
While working on my latest painting this month, the Cougar Totem in the video above, I woke up at 4:00am on a Sunday, because I knew that I only had a few hours left before the painting was done, and I was excited to finish it. When you find that which you would do even if nobody paid you, that creative work that feels indescribably right, then that is the work you’re supposed to be doing.
If you haven’t found it yet, keep moving forward. Challenge your own assumptions, be willing to experiment and get comfortable with rejection. I’ve always learned much more from my failures than my successes. Most importantly, keep trying new things, because the next one could be it. And even if you are lucky enough to find the work you’re meant to do now, it’s still only a stepping stone to the work you’re meant to do later.