How I Created a Professional Art Career…Without the Help of Art School

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on taking the next step with art career

Are you looking to create a professional art career?

Well, that’s exactly what I’ve managed to do….without any help from art school.

But firstly, I want to give you a full disclaimer here. I want to let you know that I did, in fact, go to art school.

It was a lifelong dream for my parents that I would be the first child to go to university in our family. So, I respected their wishes in the most rebellious way I could – I went to art school.

And, following my dream since childhood, I was able to make a professional art career doing what I loved most. But it had almost nothing to do with what we learned in art school.

School can be good for certain types of people, but almost everyone I went to school with ended up with a degree they couldn’t use to get into any kind of professional work.

And even worse, their portfolios were filled with mostly useless pieces that no one would pay any money for, let alone want to hire them.

I’m not pointing fingers or saying this is anyone’s fault. I just want to let you know what my own art school experience was like, in terms of something tangible such as ‘Were you able to get a job or not after graduating?’

So the big answer was ‘nope’. And, from some of the recent articles I’ve been reading about the collapse of several Art Institute schools in the states, it looks like times haven’t changed that much.

Sadly, students are still pretty much left out in the cold when it comes to using your skills to find a professional art career, or, you know, actually being able to feed yourself.

But here’s some good news. You can either:

  • Learn all this stuff by going to school. This might be a great idea, but you’ll still be out of pocket to the tune of thousands (or even tens of thousands of dollars) because of huge tuition fees.
  • Learn all this stuff with us – which definitely  won’t cost you thousands of dollars!

How Art School Fails Its Students

Let’s start with the problem: You are probably not learning the right skills and tools employers are looking for.

And the reason for this is the curriculum is often way out-dated.

The industries change so fast that, even if your teacher was at the top of their game five years ago, they’re probably pretty clueless as to what’s cutting-edge right now.

There’s just a certain level of knowledge you can only attain when you are on the front lines of industry. But unfortunately, these highly-skilled people don’t always make the best teachers.

Therefore, the ideal blend would be someone who’s not only a great teacher, but also has that freshness and knowledge that comes from recently working in the industry.

As a concrete example, you might spend a ton of time studying hand-drawn animation (which sounds great in theory, because you’ll learn all the principles etc.), but what studios actively need are digital animators.

The biggest way art schools fail their students, however, is this: By simply not preparing people for the reality of how they can get a job after school.

Once you’ve graduated, it’s more or less a case of ‘See you later, alligator’…and you’re out the door on your own.  It might feel good to have finished school, but you’ll pretty soon realize how prepared (or not) your school left you.

I was lucky in that I spent most of my spare time learning software and tools that were actually in demand.  So, when school finished, I was able to go on and get my first job creating 3D for films.

The rest of the kids that I went to school with:

  •  Took jobs in unrelated careers
  • Went on for more schooling at a technical college (which actually helped people prepare to get a job)
  • Went on to become teachers (more education)
  • Went on to do a Masters Degree

So basically, after our ‘program’, everyone either totally dropped out of art, or ended up going for more school.  I think just one other student in my graduation class of around 100 people was able to get a job – that’s a really low success rate!

become a professional artist - student

The curriculum taught at some art schools isn’t always the most up-to-date

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So Art School Failed You…What Can You Do To Kickstart Your Creative Career?

I don’t think poor career mentorship applies only to art schools, but this is the only thing I know, so that’s why we’re talking about this. It’s not that I’m just picking on poor little art schools 😉

So, even if your program left you high and dry, there’s still hope for you.

Hopefully, you worked your butt off while you were at school, but it’s pretty easy to slack in art school… so let’s just assume you have an ‘OK’ or ‘average’ portfolio.  Even if you have a really poor portfolio, you can still use this next type of outreach to help land your first job.

There are essentially three types of outreach:

  •  In Person
  • Networked
  • Word of Mouth / Referral

Boosting Your Professional Art Career with In-Person Connections

This is how I landed my first ‘professional’ job on a brand name project (even though I had been working via the internet since I was a teen).  It happened during my first summer after university.

My dad was in a meeting with two brothers who had a very small animation company, and he told them they should meet me, because I was also doing animation in my spare time.  They gave me an animation test, and I passed it and I had a job!

Now, the fact this connection came through my dad isn’t the point.  Here’s how you can use these In-person connections (and by In-person, I mean taking the people you already know and then leveraging the people who they know so you have access to lots of different people).

Here’s how you contact them:

Hi <Name>,

I’ve been spending my days and nights working on my art portfolio and I’m finally ready to send it out into the world.

Do you know anyone I could get in touch with to get some advice on how I can improve it?

Sincerely,

Your Name

So, what’s happening here is you are leveraging the people you know to expand to a much wider audience of people.  You are also asking if your friends know anyone you could connect with for advice.

Notice you aren’t begging anyone for anything, and you aren’t asking to be hired.  All you are asking for is an introduction.

It may be that you get introduced to someone’s cousin who once decorated a cake for someone’s birthday, but that’s not the point.  That person will also know more creative people and your network can grow and grow.

To start with, you could send that email to just 10 people and see what kind of results you get. It could be that’s enough to get you started, with the right introduction to the right person.

Or, it could be you need to send another 10, 20 or possibly even 50 emails to people you already know, asking them who you might be able to get in contact with to take a look at your portfolio and offer you a little bit of advice.

Now, when someone sees your portfolio, chances are they’ll offer you a job on the spot if it’s an amazing collection of work. Or, if they don’t have any positions available currently, they might offer to let you know as soon as anything comes up.

Alternatively, they might actually write back to you with real advice you can use to improve your portfolio. If they do this, it’s a great opportunity to form a relationship with that person, or you can show them you are willing to take feedback and improve your work based on their insights.

The key with turning this kind of situation into a job is to continue following up with the person from time to time, letting them know about the updates you have in your portfolio and the progress you’ve made in developing your skills.

networking for artists

Networking with other artists and people in your industry can help you
land a job in your chosen field

Landing a Job Through Networked Connections

I’ve landed both freelance and corporate jobs this way.

To explain what I mean by ‘networked’, I mean: When you go to a networking event or conference where you’re meeting people you’ve never met before, and forming new relationships with them.

You’d be extremely surprised to know exactly how many people are actually looking for good employees or contractors to fill positions within their company.

There are a lot of books on how to go and attend conferences in a smart way, but in a nutshell, the more you know exactly who your target is, the better off you’re going to be.

For example, if you know you want to work on a particular game or comic book, it would probably make sense to try and set up a meeting with somebody from that company before the conference starts.

This way, you’ll have an opportunity to get some face-to-face time with that person and therefore greatly increase your chances of landing a job working on the project of your dreams.

I wasn’t as smart as this back when I was hustling at conferences. However, I did still manage to land ongoing contracts working on casual games, had a chance to make my own Prima strategy guide (we weren’t able to land that contract but we still had the opportunity), and we also landed our first contract to work on our very first Xbox 360 game!

At the time, I was doing federal land work as a freelancer and for the studio I had started. But you can just as easily get a job at your favorite studio by going to conferences, networking events and other live opportunities where people from the same or similar industries are meeting.

I’ll throw in one additional piece of advice here. And that’s to really consider the event you are thinking of attending. Will it be a good place or not for job opportunities?

This really depends on your personal situation, but one way you could find out is this: You could contact the event organizers beforehand and let them know a little bit about your personal situation and what you’re looking to accomplish by attending.

Attending events and conferences can be extremely powerful, because the real decision-makers and people who are at the top of their game in your chosen industry will also be there.

Word of Mouth/Referral

This final way to land a job is when someone else refers you to an employer and you get the call. Usually, this only happens when you do really outstanding work, but the quality bar may not be quite as high as you think.

These day, most people are trying to get their work recognized online by being referred to and talked about. However, this is actually quite difficult to achieve, simply because there’s so much noise in the online space and so many amazingly talented artists from all over the world.

You can still be noticed and talked about online, but you have to be specific about where you’re choosing to post your work. You also need to have a good idea of your target audience, and make sure your work is getting seen by them.

The other way to make this work for you is when people are talking about you in a local sense. This is often referred to as referral marketing, and it’s one of the oldest ways to get new clients in the book.

Essentially, it works like this: If you’re doing good work for somebody in your local space, and that person knows other local people, then they will probably tell them about the amazing work you did for them.

I’ve used this tactic personally in the past to land jobs for web design, live caricature illustration, newspaper comics, teaching, tutoring and even landing my dream job working for large video game company.

I’m sure there are other ways to find a job, but you can use any of these three examples to take your existing portfolio and get it into the hands of somebody who can either hire you, or at least point you in the right direction so you can continue to move forward.

It’s pretty easy to overcomplicate or over-think the whole situation with getting a job, but it’s really quite simple – as our examples prove. It really does come down to how qualified you are for the job, and how badly the employer needs someone to fill that role.

And if you try to land a job and don’t get the results you want, just keep going. More often than not, it’s simply down to timing and a little bit of a luck.

But, when you’re able to get your portfolio in the hands of the right person at the right time, it’s extremely easy for them to say ‘yes’ and bring you on board.

So, now you know three different ways you can use to land a job. And, with this in mind, an interesting question to ask yourself is this: If your school isn’t teaching you this kind of stuff, you really have to ask yourself how effective your degree is going to be at helping you land a job.

A lot of people will tell you your portfolio has to be absolutely jaw-droppingly amazing in order to get hired. And, truthfully, having an awesome portfolio does help a lot.

However, I know people with awesome portfolios who struggle with getting jobs, and I also know people with weak portfolios who have no problems finding work.

The difference between those who find work easily (and those who don’t) often comes back to just how effective that person is at using the three techniques listed above.

So, if you use one of the methods outlined above, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below. Tell me how it worked out for you, or let me know if you have your own suggestions to help art school graduates land the right job. I’d love to hear those as well!

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3 Responses to “How I Created a Professional Art Career…Without the Help of Art School”

  1. Jess H

    I just wanted to let you know that I studied digital film production in the uk – agreed it’s another creative course, but still – and I experienced a very similar situation. The uni were forever telling us how they trained us to industry standard and then months before graduating, told us we would have to pay £1000 extra for a short course (not included I our curriculum) that would teach us interview skills and other useful skills we would need to land jobs!!! As if paying £10,000+ wasn’t enough they asked us to pay extra for actual skills we would need! The education system seems to have some major flaws!

    Reply
  2. mm

    Mitch at PencilKings

    At least you had an option Jess 😉 I’ve always found that personal networking worked wonders.

    Reply
  3. Athena D

    I have always said it is always about who you know and so far it has been mostly true in my graphic design career and other work endeavors.

    Reply

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