How to be successful as an artist.

Full disclosure: The banana is just there to get your attention.

Now, you want to be a successful artist too, right?

Helping you become a successful artist is a critical component of Toonstop’s mission. Other artists like Marc Brunet have produced dozens of videos and courses producing a lot of material in the hopes that you and I would benefit and get clarity as to how we want to approach our art careers.

“Be a successful artist” is extremely vague as a goal, however. Art is a very broad discipline, and the things that are important to someone else as an artist may not necessarily be important to you.

To be a successful artist, define what you mean by “succeeding at art”.

That’s kind of cliché for sure, but it’s still a really important step, nonetheless.

Again, art is an extremely broad discipline, just like music is. Music as a discipline can help us understand success as an artist, however, with the knowledge that you don’t have to be good at every single musical instrument. In fact, you only need to be good at one. Being good, or rather, great, at just one instrument is enough to create an entire career for a musician.

Choose your instrument, and then learn what you must do to become great with that instrument.

At the most basic, think of  one thing that you want to do as an artist. I don’t mean limit yourself from trying things, but you need to focus on one goal for a reasonable period of time to advance your skill enough to achieve success.

Your  one thing, essentially will fall within any of the big dreams people have as an artist:

  • Concept art
  • 3D art
  • Illustration
  • Comic art
  • Animation
  • Painting
  • Graphic Design

Even knowing which of the broad disciplines you’re interested in, you have to then select a niche within one of those broad disciplines that helps you more clearly define your vision.

You cannot achieve success with unclear goals.

Once you’ve selected your artistic niche, locate one person who reflects the idea of success that you have in your head. Consider the following factors when defining success.

The elements of success include…

  • Making a living.
  • A certain level of mastery.
  • Communicating a message to the world.
  • A body of work of a certain size.
  • Notoriety in a specific artistic discipline.
  • Working for someone else, or being your own boss.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but most artists need to deal with these questions once they’ve chosen their niche.

Now, lets explore each of these ideas for just a bit.

Making a living…

Do you want to make a living as an artist? It helps to answer that question. It’s okay whether the answer is yes or no. It’s just important to have in mind so you can understand how to invest your time into the goal.

If you don’t want to make a living, you have the freedom of simply creating to enjoy the craft, which is definitely fine and noble! You get to live without some of the stresses that come with the need to make a living as an artist and enjoy the satisfaction of your work.  Not wanting to make a living as an artist is a valid goal!

If you do want to make a living however, be ready to be challenged. 

Your art must be worth more than someone else’s money.

Don’t freak out, though., This isn’t as hard as it might sound. This is where your niche comes in.

In some cases, you will need your work to be worth more than a corporation’s money. This requires an extremely high degree of skill that solves a problem for the company. If you want to work for a company of any kind, you will need to, in almost every situation, posses an extremely high degree of skill in a field that a company stands in need of to achieve a goal.

However, there’s also the direct to consumer route.

This article (https://kk.org/thetechnium/1000-true-fans/) talks about the concept of 1000 true fans, or the idea that you only need a small set of people willing to spend the right amount of money to enable you to have a living. While you still require a high level of skill to go this route, you only need to be able to produce work that satisfies a smaller group of people specifically interested in your work, rather than trying to impress a company who is trying to appeal to very large audiences.

In most cases the life of a financially successful artist is not necessarily glamorous, but it is possible to afford yourself a decent and comfortable living that pays your bills, grants you freedom, and can even take care of a family.

A certain level of mastery…

Knowing how good you want to become helps you to design a route between where you are with your skills right now and where you need to be to create the kind of pictures you are interested in. This is the part where you must have at least one concrete example of the art that you are trying to create.

For example, my models of success are Sean McCabe (seanwes.com), Marc Brunet (cubebrush.co), and Jake Parker (mrjakeparker.com). There are several facets of their success as people, but they all share in common that they have achieved just enough mastery in their fields to realize their goals with their art.

Essentially speaking, you cannot truly have success in art without some level of mastery over your craft, unless you are simply creating for yourself, and have consciously opted out of the question of mastery because that is not a concern for you. (This is valid, you just have to be real with yourself about it.)

Think about at least one concrete person who reflects the level of mastery you possess, and then examine what it took for them to get there. In some cases those people have already outright said what they had to do to become successful, and even how long it took. 

Now all you have to do is repeat what they did. 

The nice thing about someone else’s experience is that you can just spend your time doing the work and not worry so much about having to find the answers on your own. The keyword in this case, however, is doing the work.

Communicating a message…

A message is a powerful way to supercharge the connection your art makes with the people who see a picture. It’s up to you to decide how critical the concept of message is to your craft, and work accordingly.

For some people, art is a tool specifically for the purpose of communicating a message to the world. This is not a wrong thing. They have chosen a visual medium to carry important ideas out to the world and connect with people that they may not see or have time to deliver their message to personally.

You have to choose what, if any, message you want your art to deliver, and then be ready to continue broadcasting that message until the people you intend your message to reach have received and properly captured your message in their hearts and minds.

If communicating your message is a critical component to your idea of success, you must clearly understand the relationship between your message and how much mastery your art requires to communicate that message,

Comics capture our attention using both the power of pictures and the power of messages. We have to stop, read, and think about what it is that we are seeing in art that relies on writing and observing events in a sequence. While the art of the pioneers of comics possesses impressive skill in most cases, the design elements of those narrative pieces of art would not stay in the collective consciousness of the world without the power of writing and effective messages (whether that message is narrative, commentary, or comedy).

If you are choosing to forgo the question of message in your art, understand this:

First, it is impossible to fully and completely divorce art and message. There’s always an existing ratio of some sort.

Second, you will need to be able to produce absolutely stunning art. And even then, in some cases it will only be remembered as a pretty picture attached to other concepts that anchor the picture in the mind of your audience.

A body of work of a certain size…

Have you heard the story about two groups of people judged on the quality of their pottery?

In short, one group of people was tasked to make the best pots that they could, and the other group was tasked to make as many pots as they could.

The way this particular story goes, the people whose goal was to make more pots incidentally made better pots as a result of their quantity.

I give this anecdote in the hopes that it helps you to understand how you need to approach the question of how big your body of work needs to be to count as “successful”.

In the question of how good your art needs to be, there’s also the matter of how much of your art there needs to be for you to be successful.

Naturally, if you do not practice and produce art frequently and consistently, you are less likely to achieve success as you have defined it.

How much art does it take to be successful? There’s not really a hard number to define by.

First, you need to make enough art to gain the right level of mastery. Then, you need to make enough of the right kind of art to fulfill the other elements of your success equation, such as:

  • Having enough art to sell and make the money you need
  • Having enough art to get the right person’s attention
  • Having enough art to communicate the message you want the world to hear.

Ultimately you will only really make just a few really great pieces of art in your lifetime, but you have to make a lot of art to get there, not a little bit of art.

Notoriety in a specific artistic discipline…

Does success require getting your name out there and having it recognized when people think of a certain kind of art?

Success doesn’t have to mean being well-known. It’s valid to create privately for your own enjoyment. But beyond the hobbyist level you may require a certain level of notoriety to become successful as defined by the other elements of the success equation.

Understanding what your own success equation helps you to know where and how often you should be publishing in order to get your name into people’s minds and getting it to stay there.

Marc Brunet, Loish, Anthony Jones, and Sycra are names that most of us here recognize, and they got there by creating art and publishing it as often as they had to to get other people to remember. Not only that, but they worked to publish high-quality content that we in some way benefitted from. Ten fans became a hundred became a thousand and so on and so forth until they gained extremely popular names that granted them access to the minds of fans and the minds of companies.

If indeed success in your mind requires notoriety, understand that you will need to create a lot of work, document the creation of that work, and publish it regularly in a manner that connects with your audience and helps them to not forget you.

Working for someone else, or being your own boss…

This is a really neat one right now. This generation is basically the gold rush when it comes to being able to make the decision of working for someone else or being your own boss.

Now, if you want an office job as an artist, your work is cut out for you. You must be highly skilled. You must have a good size body of work. You must find an open seat at a company that needs your specific skill set. AND you have to be better than the other guy who is equally qualified and gunning for the same seat. The fight’s not even really over after that, but that’s not really a huge concern at the moment that you’ve actually secured the job. You’ll have time to figure that one out as you’re working your job.

If you want to be your own boss, it’s not necessarily lesser or greater level of effort. You will need to produce work that captures the attention of the right number of people willing to par for your work. You will need to regularly produce content that keeps their attention and is worth their money, and once you have brought in that money, you will be accountable for taxes out of your own pocket.

In-house jobs and at-home jobs do have distinct pros and cons. 

In-house jobs have a little more mental secutiry and you can work on ideas that someone else assigns you. But you’ll be beholden to a company’s schedule and policies, and there are less of these seats available generally.

At-home jobs will rely more on people coming to you from all over, whether they are coming for products or services. You’ll be more on the hook for producing good ideas and content, but if you have designed your small business intelligently, you are allowed greater lifestyle freedom as long as you put yourself in a position where you are getting the jobs you need that will let you unplug and have your own life away from your clients.

Again, you have to find concrete examples of people who have the kind of job or lifestyle you want, and learn from them. The intel is out there, and the real life examples of the life you want most likely exist too! You just have to do your homework!

The world is crazy and I still need help…

None of these individual sections is an exhaustive treatment of the subjects within, but I hope that you’re able to think more clearly as to what it is success looks like for you. You can’t run in blindly without any goals and expect your art career to go over smoothly. You have to know what you want so you can draw a plan to get there.

Clarity can be missing from the question of being an artist. Make your own life easier, not harder. Look for real life examples of what you want on all levels of the success equation, and learn from them. And remember that you don’t have to worry about doing eight million different difficult things perfectly. Learn how to do one thing well at a time and you’ll get where you need to go.


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