An illustrator, a graphic designer and an animator share their tips on carving a career in the industry
Digital art once belonged in the realms of Tumblr, DeviantArt and corners of online message boards: now, it’s finding a space in the mainstream art world’s consciousness. Somerset House’s Big Bang Data and Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966) at the Whitechapel Gallery are both major exhibitions exploring various aspects of the technology and art relationship. Across the water, MoMA’s Ocean of Images show established the post-Internet influence on today’s collective artistic lens, featuring online art collective DIS among other digi-artists. What might have been once quite niche has paved a way for itself in the art spectrum to take a spot on the global stage.
Creatives are relying more and more on the digital world, not only to produce pieces of art but to forge careers in the industry. Three such artists making a name for themselves on the scene joined us for a panel discussion. Jack Sachs, a freelance 3D animator, illustrator and challenging gif-aficionado, Ellie Andrews, a freelance graphic artist who blends textures and pastel colours to produce Brave New World-inspired work, and Polly Nor, a freelance artist who’s frank perspective on female sexuality was featured on Dazed. Speaking at a panel discussion hosted at the Apple Store, Covent Garden, they offer an insider’s look at what it takes to make it.
BE A MAGPIE FOR INSPIRATION
Taking cues from a variety of different places when it comes to their work, it’s important to not just stick to what you know. For example, Sachs picked up ideas for his early 3D animations from the late 80s and early 90s Computer Graphics VHS tapes. Sure, visit galleries, read books and magazines, but also scour Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr. Most importantly use your own life for inspiration. Nor says: “Most of my inspiration comes from everyday struggles, things that I'm feeling, memories, dreams, conversations with friends, funny tweets, status updates and selfies.” You know when people say “You couldn’t make this up?” about some bizarre situation they’ve found themselves in – use that!
Education costs are rocketing in the UK and students are being left in serious debt, but there are other ways to get into digital art or to add to your formal education without having to spend big. “Keep practicing, experimenting and challenging yourself” says Nor. On a practical level, places like YouTube offer hundreds of creative tutorials, which allow you to learn at your own pace, and focus on hyper-specific subjects. For Sachs, they offered him a much more natural, organic learning experience, in fact, he might not be working in animation “if it weren't for the selfless people uploading tutorials to the internet”.
“Don't measure your success on ‘likes’. I think it’s important that people tell kids that, because they’ve not known a world without it” – Ellie Andrews
APPRECIATE ART ON THE INTERNET
All of the artists agreed that creating networks and connections via social media is key to making a career in the digital art industry. Andrews says that social media has enriched both her art and career by introducing her to work and artists that would never have been on her radar otherwise – leading her to “different ways of thinking”, while Sachs found himself motivated by the countless opportunities available to digital artists on social media.
It can be daunting putting your work out there at first, but it’s the easiest way to get seen by your art peers, the press and potential clients. “Social media has played a massive part in my career,” explains Nor. “This time last year, I was just posting the odd drawing on Instagram to show my friends, but slowly, more and more people started responding. I’m now able to share my work with thousands of people all over the world which is pretty cool.”
THE POWER OF ‘LIKES’
While it is important to create a social media presence, Andrews reminds us that it isn’t the be all and end all to creating a career. “Social media encourages an attitude where people expect instant gratification and don't appreciate that work takes time,” she observes. Don't measure your success on “likes”. If you’re not Insta-famous instantly, don’t be disheartened; recognition can take time.
The ultimate end goal is to be doing something you love while making a living from it. First and foremost, says Nor, get a website made. An online shop is the best way for people to support you with your artwork and “it’s the only way you’ll be able to do it and make a living from it”. Instagram can also be great commercially. Nor, Andrews and Sachs use it to sell their personal work in parallel to their commissioned pieces. When you’re negotiating a fee with clients, don’t be scared to say, explains Andrews, “this is how much it is and I’m going to stick to it”. Be confident in the worth of your art – you know your true value.
“Be selective with who you agree to work for. I recently turned down some work from a big evil company and it felt really good” – Jack Sachs
FINDING YOUR STARTING POINT
Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what to do or give you a commission – launch yourself. Nor advises: “Make your own work, do it in your spare time, set yourself your own goals and actually have fun with it.” Andrews advises artists not to have a fixed idea on what ‘art’ should be. Instead, find what works for you. When she started out, she thought her work had to come from a serious place, and has since learnt that “work can be funny, cynical, tongue in cheek” and still have serious value. Lesson: don’t beat yourself up if you get something wrong or things aren’t happening as fast as you’d like. Be patient with yourself.
At the end of the day, this is work that belongs to you. For the most part, clients will come to you because they like your style, but you should remember that when you’re making commercial work for a client, “You’re applying your brand of imaging onto their work”, says Andrews, and so the result will often be a compromise. “You have to be aware of their needs, and find a point where your style meets theirs.”
That said: don’t be afraid to be selective about who you work for. Nor and Sachs both agree that turning down commissions from places that don’t fit with your ethos is an important part of keeping the direction of your art on course. Sachs says he “recently turned down some work from a big evil company and it felt really good”.
BE PREPARED FOR CHALLENGES
As in any creative industry, you’ll run into challenges. Knowing what you might come up against can help to tackle these. Sometimes you will struggle with creating, things might take longer than expected and sometimes a drawing might not turn out as you wanted it to. Learn from your mistakes by keeping a record in your sketchbook, advises Sachs. “Over time those fails – and wins – help you build a strong idea of the type of work you want to make the most.”
Time-management is also key to freelance artists, says Sachs. “Employers don't care – or even know – about your other deadlines” so staying on top of commitments can be difficult. Be flexible with your time, as there’s no 9-5 here.
Working for yourself means running all of your admin too, so make sure you’ve got a handle on that – “sometimes it can feel like you're drowning in commitments but in the end it's still fun,” says Sachs. Nor warns that there’s not much financial security in the industry, so follow the advice above to start bringing in the £s and make a living.
“Don’t be afraid to fuck things up, otherwise your work will be boring” – Ellie Andrews
WHAT IT ALL COMES DOWN TO
It won’t always be easy to control the outcomes of your career as a digital artist, but there are some things you can do to prepare yourself on a personal level to give you a solid foundation. Don’t take things too personally if things don’t work out, and be prepared for disappointment now and again. “Be kind of thick skinned, but also believe in what you're doing, it’s a tricky balance,” observes Sachs. Nor points out that being passionate, working hard and honing your craft is key. Be confident in your work and make sure your social media platforms reflect you as an artist. “Be nice to people and keep grafting,” Andrews says, because you have no idea how far personal relationships that you create can take you. Ellie’s final piece of advice comes from a talk she saw by Harmony Korine at the BFI: “Don’t be afraid to fuck things up, otherwise your work will be boring”.