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Lessons That I Have Learned Working As an Artist
1. People think you can read their minds.
I didn't know you wanted an atomic bomb explosion in the background. That wasn't in the original description. My mistake.
2. They expect you to get it right on the first try.
3. They only give you 1-3 chances.
In my experience, art is a process of trial and error. Many times, lots of errors. And you know what they say, to error is human. Well, good luck with that, because if you make one mistake, you've made them all. I try to keep my mistakes to myself, but even if I've gotten 99 aspects of a project correct, if there is just one thing I missed, then I haven't done my job correctly.
4. They don't mean what they say.
Example: They give you a description of a drawing with details that they want, and photo examples (ones that look entirely different, mind you). You draw something with those details, then they surprise you by saying that they actually wanted these other details that weren't in the original description.
5. No matter what, everything is your fault.
This is what I consider the "bottom of the food chain syndrome." I can recall several exact moments where the other person messed up. Maybe they used the wrong words, e.g., when they said "#2 (rough drawing) is the right way to go," when what they really meant was "We want a combination of #1-3, but I like one aspect in #2 that isn't in #'s 1-3." Maybe they didn't listen to me when I said, "It is too dark to film here" or "The microphone is too far away from the actor. I can't record their audio." Then they act surprised when the quality isn't good, even though I was there directly communicating the problems to them.
You will find yourself many times working for someone who doesn't know what they are doing, and ultimately since you are the under-employee, you are to blame. I have never understood why it is so hard for people to admit that they made a mistake. Everybody makes them. It's not like they are uncommon.
6. Expect to be paid low wages, or sometimes not at all.
I've read horror stories about how 20-year veterans in the industry still have to sign up for unpaid gigs, just to gain experience. That's right. They still need experience.
7. You have to put on a shit eating grin and you can't sue anyone.
This industry is all about personalities and presentation, not about the work itself.
Relationships are what get you jobs. You need to smile and be polite, because whomever is the first person to have an attitude will lose. And they will lose forever. Because everyone will talk about you behind your back. Yes, just like high school. And if someone doesn't pay you, you can't do anything about it. They will ignore your phone calls. And I am not just speaking from personal experience, but from testimonies I have heard from friends or other creatives.
Sometimes, it doesn't matter if you have a written agreement, or you are in the right. I have had a lawyer tell me not to sue, even though I wasn't paid and had a contract because as he said, "Nobody gets anywhere by suing people." He went on to tell me that what matters is being polite and agreeable, and my reputation is what is important. So if someone doesn't pay me, at least I have the chance that they will say nice things about me. That's what's important, right? Or maybe they will just lie about me anyway. But I think this is what they mean by professionalism. And often the case, the payment isn't as much as the costs for a lawyer.
8. It isn't only big evil corporations that are the worst.
You would think that someone who works in the same field as you would have some understanding. Nope. Your fellow creatives can be just as clueless or bad at giving directions.
9. There are good, honest people in the industry.
The problem is, most of the time they are in the same situation as you. Powerless. And everyone in this industry is competing with you for a power grab. Those who have grabbed power, even if it is really only a notch about my level, don't want to risk dropping back down to my level. That's why I see myself getting blamed most of the time, even if it isn't the truth.
10. Many people are perfectionists, and they don't even know it.
I am a perfectionist. I can't help it as an artist. But I make a rule. I'm only a perfectionist with my own work. When I am being hired to make someone else's project, I will show them rough sketches, works in progress, and try to keep them updated within reason, and I ask for their feedback. I don't want to make the best drawing for me. It's the best drawing for them. That makes sense, right?
Well, sometimes you can do everything right for the customer, and just have a bad customer. A customer who either doesn't know what they want, or hired you not because they respect your creative mind and aesthetic, but because they didn't want to do the work themselves. I am going through this right now with someone who has asked for revisions after revisions, all because the director keeps changing his mind, or because she herself isn't sure how to convey what she wants. She has the attitude that only she can do it the way she wants it, and it infuriates me because I just want to make the drawing that she wants and move on to other projects. On top of that, she is being condescending, and I have to put up with it and be nice.
11. If they don't give you a deadline, there is a problem.
You might be talking to someone and they won't give you a deadline for completion. You might think, "Oh, cool. I have some time. I can focus on other projects that do have deadlines. These are cool people then, and they respect my process." Be careful. They aren't cool. They just don't want to accept any blame. See, they probably have their own expectations. They might expect you to put everything else on the back-burner and to make their project a top priority anyway. It has come back to haunt me before. I have had a producer for a Corporate Broadcasting System accuse me of setting my own deadline by saying that I could complete a project in just a week with proper time constraints. If they ask for an estimated time frame, it's a trap.
12. Sometimes, if they are taking their time, it is costing you.
They don't realize this. They don't care if you have to pay rent, or if you have to work 40 hours a week at another job, or if they gave you only 24 hours to edit together a 15-minute documentary with 2+ hours of unorganized footage and another 2+ hours of un-transcoded video files that they left up to you to transcode (sorry for the techno-mumbo-jumbo, but if you're not in the know, all you have to know is that's a lot of work). Some people expect that if you are working for them, then they are your top priority. I have had clients take more than a week to get back to me, and then accuse me of missing a deadline because they didn't get back to me sooner.
13. If you find good people to work with, keep them as your top priority for projects in the future.
They are good for it, right? They deserve it.
As an artist of some kind (the kind people don't like), I have to say this. We are, right now in 2014, living in the greatest art renaissance that the world has ever seen. We have so many creative and technically astounding artists, working with new, unbelievable materials that the masters could not have worked with. But the public's tastes have not changed enough to meet it. Digital artists are producing mind blowing works of art that critics are passing off as cheap imitations. But when you think about it, all art is imitation. Every artist started off by copying someone else, or being taught another artist's techniques. Someone still put the work into making it.
Now more than ever it is easier to get your work seen by the public. In turn, it is also much more difficult to get properly credited, compensated, and "discovered." Since everything is accessible, people expect the best quality items to be thrown in their laps. They expect to be told by the media or by advertisements exactly what the best source for entertainment is. But what the average person does not understand, or care for, is that what they are given isn't necessarily the best. There's always something better. Some 7-year-old girl in Milwaukee could be making the most emotional little film, and the best she can hope for is an article on Huffington Post.
Then again, what is "best" is completely subjective to each of us. Of course, right? Artists and non-artists are always asking me, "Well, what is art anyway?" But if everyone seems to be an expert about it already, why are they asking me? Everyone is entitled to like what they like. But consider this. 90% of our film, television, and commercial media is distributed by 6 companies: GE, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS. 90% of our art is filtered through the policies of only 6 corporations. And factoring in that the United States is the highest producer of globally-consumed media, the average art consumer doesn't really have a choice unless they are willing to look elsewhere for their entertainment and their information.
What matters is if it was given to them by the right people. I don't think it is any secret that a major corporation holds way more cards than the lonely artist. The lonely artist has no other options than to make the best work that they can and hope that someone with more money and more connections is interested in taking them along for the ride.
Yet, I still tread on. It's nice to be persistent sometimes, despite all common sense to the contrary. I need to learn how to be a perfect, expedient, prolific, work-for-cheap machine. That's how you become famous as an artist these days. That, or you break the law and never show your face publicly. Most of the most famous artists are still only remembered for one thing. Picasso has Cubism. Warhol has Pop Art. Orson Welles has Citizen Kane. Artists are recognizable for this thing that we are supposed to have known popularly as "style" or even "brand." That's how someone can tell that we have actually made it. But style becomes the opposite of creativity. Style is the decision that something specific works and is the way to go, even though there are millions of ways a single artist could, in theory, draw the same cat or make the same point.
Even though there are some who stem the tide, each artist ultimately has to make the following decision: They make it when they are young, or they make it when they are old and tired of fighting. "Should I stay true to my creative spirit and make work that I think is amazing, or should I make what someone else tells me to make?" I'll be honest, I thought I could get past this creative spirit thing a long time ago, but I don't think that I can.
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