Making Art for a Living

Author: Zach Gage

Original Link

Sigh. Tweet time. I have seen this article being passed around. One of my friends asked me what I thought about it. I have a lot of trouble relating to both the person who wrote this, and the person who it targets, because their premises are off to me.

There are people out there who believe the way you find success is by picking a target and working towards it. Warner (the author of the article) thinks that and I assume his audience thinks that. It's a comforting way to look at the world and it's probably true in some careers?

But if you think you’re going to find success in the arts by picking a target and working towards it... you are taking a phenomenal risk. The arts isn't like getting a job in a company where you put in your dues and either maintain your job or get promoted...

Art is extremely cutthroat and extremely high risk due to the nature of making *new* things. There is no audience for *new*. That's what *new* means. Most people can’t make it to any level of sustainability in art let alone to "the top". Plus, "the top" is always moving.

Almost everyone I know in the arts, even lots of successful amazing people, have side-jobs. That's what it's like being an artist. That is normal. Try to recall the last time someone you know quit their day-job to strike it rich as a painter or a writer or a musician.

The way to operate in the arts is to take small risks by doing highly risky small things that make you happy and give you experience/resumé items even when they fail catastrophically. Don't build your livelihood or taste or happiness around expecting commercial success.

And when you do find things that "work for you" or "feel right", follow those threads and build your career and life slowly one idea at a time.

I didn't start my career with a dream of making mobile games — I got into it by accident because I ported an artwork to iOS because I was excited about designing controls for a multitouch screen. It randomly made some money and I thought — hey wow this is a really special market.

I didn't know anything back then. I didn't know how to do PR, I didn't know how to design games, I didn't know how to build a fanbase or run a business. I was a visual artist and a programmer and I just did what I thought was interesting and learned everything else as I went.

Before I started I tried a real job in web-dev for a few months just to make sure I'd have a fallback plan if things failed and for the first few years of my career I taught art and code and did small side-gigs for ad clients.

I looked at every project I made as: Hey if this succeeds maybe I can quit my other jobs, and if it fails, it'll give me experience and resumé items that I can use as bargaining chips to get better, higher paying, more interesting teaching gigs and freelance work.

Now — I got really lucky with the financial success I've found. Undoubtably. I'm not saying that if you follow these ideas you'll find any success at all, but what I am saying is that you specifically shouldn't plan on it. Plan around financial failure but creative success.

Plan on trying to make work that makes you happy and teaches you new things, allows you to grow as a person. Work that and endears you to friends and colleagues. Work that makes you more lucrative and interesting to schools or clients or whatever your side-gig is.

This is what Warner misses in that article. He thinks mortgaging your house to make a puzzle platformer is stupid and advises you to learn a trade skill and enter the industry and put in your dues. These are both bad. They're top down and to be an artist you need to go bottom up.

Warner mentions an Ira Glass quote that it's clear he still doesn't understand. Ira says new artists have ambitions that outstrip their taste. That's true, but you don't find your taste (your style) by doing work for other people, you find it by working through your own ideas.

Figure out how to make work that makes you happy NOW. Don't join a company, don't mortgage your house, don't pay a team, or write a design spec. Don't spend 3 years or even 1 year. Make things that you think are great and release them to the world and iterate iterate iterate.

Maybe you'll reach the top, or maybe you wont. Maybe there is no top. At least you'll be happy and fulfilled, and ideally, if you follow the threads of quality you'll learn a lot and find some great career somewhere doing something interesting even if it isn't what you expected.