PK 053: James Cornette on Surviving a Year as an Artist

PK 053: James Cornette on Surviving a Year as an Artist 2 053 James Cornette podcast feat image

Subscribe to the Pencil Kings Podcast: | iTunes | Stitcher
James Cornette worked on a car assembly line for 11 years before becoming an artist. His new book is designed to help you stay motivated and creative.

“If you really focus on something, you’re going to get better at it.”

James Cornette spent 11 years on a car assembly line before deciding to become an artist. His recently-published book, Surviving a Year, gives artists 12 practical steps to help them follow their dreams and stay creative.

In this podcast, he talks about photography, sketching, and creativity. He also describes how he managed to escape the monotony of his day job and eventually carve out a successful and more fulfilling career as an art director.

So what prompted him to write a book and how did he stay motivated?

He says: “I originally had the idea for the book back in 2012, and my plan was to get together with some friends and take a photo every day for 365 days.”

I sounded like a great project, but unfortunately his friends started dropping out after a few months. And that’s when James decided to go it alone and eventually turn his project into a book in 2013.

“I have a one-and-half hour commute to work, so it gave me plenty of time to think about the project,” James explains.

“I was keen to take photos which were more than typical family pics etc. And, thanks to smartphones, it’s so easy! When I was about halfway through, I found I’d already got a substantial body of work. It’s important to try not to miss a day. It’s a mental thing, really.”

What are the biggest lessons James Cornette learned through writing his book?

He says: “Writing this book taught me that if you really focus on something, you’re going to get better at it. Taking photos every day really embeds memories in your head, and it’s almost like my mind got better at how I see stuff.

“I really enjoyed trying out different techniques and subject matter. For example, I love shooting still life, but I found it much more challenging to photograph people instead.”

In fact, taking photographs of people turned out to be slightly more challenging than James thought, because he even had several run-ins with police while putting his book together!

He explains: “At the Patco train station in New Jersey where I live, you’re not allowed to stand on a train station and take photos of people. It sucks, because there’s a lot of awesome graffiti there!”

Although James found himself being interviewed by the law, he was lucky enough not to have his equipment confiscated on this occasion.

And another run-in with a police officer who questioned why he was taking pics outside an old movie theater thankfully didn’t put James off his project. “Some people are just so suspicious!” he laughs.

And how did James stay motivated throughout the year?

He says: “My advice for anyone who gets suck is just to have fun. If you get hung up on all the usual excuses for not making art, you just become a victim. Basically, just make stuff! Keep doing it, stopping to assess your work, and then moving forward.

James also has some advice for any artists who keep comparing their work to others (which is basically all of us, right?). He says: “If I based my work on everyone else’s skills, I’d never make anything!”

James Cornette on Self-doubt as an Artist

But that’s not to say James didn’t entirely avoid the self-doubt that afflicts so many of us artists. He says he found himself doubting whether he was even qualified to write a book: “I’m not a professional photographer, so does my voice really count?”

Fortunately, the constructive criticism and encouragement of friends and family helped him see it through. And, when the time came to publish his book, James knew he just had to get it out there.

In some ways, finding the drive and motivation to publish his first book had parallels with his life before he decided to become an artist. After all, he worked on a car assembly line for 11 years before plucking up the courage to follow his dreams.

“The money was easy, but it was so monotonous,” he explains. “I didn’t know how to get out!”

But James Cornette didn’t give up. He just kept trying until an opportunity came his way. And, when it did, he decided to grasp it with both hands.

He explains: “I took leave of absence without pay at my old job for six months. That way, I could always go back there if things didn’t work out.”

Luckily for James, things did eventually work out. Although his initial placement as a freelancer in the marketing department of a pharmaceutical company wasn’t ideal (He says: “It was through a placement agency, and they take such a huge cut of your wages”), he made enough contacts to help him find something better.

Talking about his first poorly-paid placement, James says: “It’s a bit like Dan Davis from Steam Crow said in his Pencil Kings podcast. I felt like I’d arrived, but I hadn’t really arrived.”

Thankfully, things worked out in the end, and James eventually landed a role as an art director – a career he clearly relishes.

But, when he’s not busy with work or putting books together, he also finds time to improve his art skills with the regular video courses from Pencil Kings.

He says: “I took the Ultimate Guide to Photoshop course with my daughter and we both got such a lot from it. Even though I’ve been using Photoshop for 20 years, there was still stuff I didn’t know in there. I also really enjoyed the Storyboarding Basics video course and all the Francis Vallejo tutorials.

“Basically, taking these courses made me want to sit down and take my sketchbook out instead of watching episodes of The Walking Dead!”

So how about you? Are you ready to take the plunge with your own art career?

Listen to this week’s show and learn:

  • How to focus on your art and stay creative
  • Why your first creative gig can help you make great contacts
  • Why it’s good to step out of your comfort zone
  • Why writing a book or making art is way easier than you think

People on this Episode:


Mentioned in the episode:

James’ Website
James on Facebook
James on Twitter
James on Instagram

Listening options:

Subscribe via iTunes.
Listen on Stitcher Radio.
Android users can grab our RSS feed here.
Right-click and “save file as” for direct download.

Thanks for listening to our show! We’ll be back next Wednesday morning 8AM EST.



PS, there is also Pencil Kings content on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

4 thoughts on “PK 053: James Cornette on Surviving a Year as an Artist”

  1. Thanks again Mitch for going through the trouble of finding these folks and regularly interviewing them for the art community! They’re really helpful and relate-able.

  2. James Cornette, good for you for sharing your experience. I was fascinated. Bless you. And thank you so much for sharing in your book.

Comments are closed.