Tips & advice

Some tips based on my personal experiences and perspective.

Drawing-related injuries

Drawing-related injuries refers to RSIs, carpal tunnel, wrist pain, or any other type of injury that results from repetitive use of the arm muscles needed to draw. Unfortunately I’ve experienced some strain from drawing in the past, but managed to overcome it by making changes to my workflow, mindset, and routine. My tip to anyone struggling with this is first of all to do what most artists have a hard time doing: slow down, take breaks, and give yourself time to rest and recover. Take a moment to realize that whatever urgent task you are doing is completely irrelevant compared to the need to maintain long-term use of your arm. Prioritize your health above all else! Here are some things that I found helpful in dealing with my injury:

  • Mindset: The main thing that’s helped me is to become aware of thought patterns that intensify stress and lead to bad posture and squeezing of the pen. Through mindfulness techniques and forcing breaks, I’ve learned to realize when this is happening and force myself to relax and step away from what I’m doing.
  • Sleeping position: If your arm is hurting, don’t sleep on it at night. This can obstruct bloodflow to the injured area while it heals at night. Sleep on your back or on the other side. Also, make sure you don’t bend your wrist into a sharp angle while you sleep.
  • Frequent breaks: I use workrave, which forces me to take frequent micro-breaks and also longer breaks throughout the day.
  • Stretches: be sure to stretch your arm, shoulders and neck throughout your workday. This not only helps soothe the muscles, but soothes the mind as well!
  • Workspace: try to configure your workspace in such a way that it reduces as much strain as possible. Things like a good chair and desk, the height of your screen, and the angle of the screen have a huge impact on how much strain you’re putting on yourself while working.
  • Routine & structure: Keep a steady daily routine where you plan your drawing hours ahead of time. This will prevent you from getting stuck in an activity that causes strain. If you can, try to include workouts or yoga in the routine, as well as rest and calm activities. Implementing a healthier routine in my life has been the main solution to being more productive!

And most importantly: speak to a doctor or physical therapist if you’re feeling pain, rather than ‘power through’ it. An expert can identify the problem and give specific solutions that will help you!

Necessity of formal art education

As a self-taught digital artist, I can confirm that a formal education is not required to obtain the skills needed to work as an artist. I know of many artists who have chosen to make use of the resources available on the web and managed to build a career without going to art school. The areas in which I currently find the most work are areas in which I am self-taught. However, art school had many important benefits to me. I learned how to take on a variety of different projects and work with deadlines, as well as work in larger teams. I learned how to explain my creative process and put it in a greater context, as well as how to justify and elaborate on my creative choices. Most importantly, I laid the foundations for the network of people that now form my colleagues and friends. Art school was helpful to me in many ways, but I could have learned the same things in a different way. If you are doubting whether to attend art school, try to figure out what fits you best and know that you are not obligated to do it.

Where to study

A lot of people from all over the world ask me for tips on choosing something to study and finding the right college for it. I feel bad, but there is little advice I can give! I don’t know anything about colleges outside of the Netherlands, and it’s been a long time since I graduated from art school so I’m no longer up to speed on the quality of art education here. Also, each college has a different view on what your portfolio should look like, so if you need help on what kind of work you should have, please consult someone at the college you’d like to go to – they can most likely provide tips and guidance.

Studying in the Netherlands

Here in the Netherlands, I can only comment on my own experience at the Utrecht School of the Arts. It’s based on my experiences between 2005-2009, and may not reflect any changes that have been implemented since that time. The overall experience was chaotic, with lots of assignments being thrown at us and very little training in how to tackle them. I was disappointed by the lack of techniques and skills we learned. However, I got a lot of freedom as a student and this allowed me to thrive, because I like to manage my own projects and create personal art, which I had lots of time for. All in all, I wouldn’t really recommend this school to anyone who wants to become a skilled animator there.

Commission tips

Commissions are paid requests to draw something or someone, usually non-commercial in nature (meaning, they are intended for personal use by the client). I’ve frequently been asked for tips on how to price them by people who want to start offering commissions. Personally, I started out offering very cheap commissions and then gradually raised the price as the demand for my artwork grew. But looking at commissions through the lens of a professional artist, I find that many commission prices are absurdly cheap, and far below industry standard – including the ones I used to offer before I became aware of how art is priced in the professional world. However, due to the wide availability of cheap commissions, many people have come to expect and even demand these very low prices. If you decide to offer commissions, do not let anyone convince you that your price is too high – this happens a lot and you’re better off ignoring them and moving on. The best way to approach your pricing is to estimate how many hours would go into each piece, and to figure out how much money you feel an hour of your time is worth, and then do the math. For the rest, I would advise you to:

  • Agree on the deadline in advance, and stick to it.
  • Ask for your payment in advance, and if you can, use Paypal as the payment method.
  • Agree on what your payment will be if the commission is cancelled halfway through the process.
  • Show your client the rough sketch and a rough color version before proceeding to the next step, to ensure that the client is happy with where the image is going.
  • Establish with your client how many modifications can be made to the artwork based on the client’s feedback, in order to avoid a situation in which you might have to completely re-do your image.
  • Be dependable and communicate well with your client. Your reputation as an artist is incredibly important!
  • Stick to the agreements made before starting, and do not let yourself be manipulated into taking on a much larger workload, or smaller compensation, than initially agreed upon.

Finding work

A common question I get is: how do I find work as a freelancer? I find work primarily through my online presence. I try to make sure that my work is seen by as many people as possible, and so has a greater chance of also being seen by potential clients. I’ve also noticed that many of the clients who approach me have been following my work for a long time, and when they initially discovered my work, they were still students or just starting out in the industry. So I believe that maintaining my online presence over a long period of time has been crucial in finding work as a freelancer. If you are considering using social media as a way to generate exposure for your art, try sharing a combination of finished pieces and rough work. Also, be sure to show your process for creating your art. This way, you not only share your art, but also your way of working. If a potential client sees your work, they can get a sense of your process and can choose from different levels of finish; Sometimes clients, especially those in the concept art field, prefer to see rough work over finished work.

There are also many other options, like being active in smaller communities such as discords, being present at comic cons and industry events, and approaching clients personally. All of these are perfectly valid ways of finding work!

Pricing

Many freelancers starting out are unsure of how to price their work. It’s totally up to you what you want to charge, so it’s important to look at your own specific situation first. The most important thing is that you need to be able to make a living off of your work, which is more complicated than it sounds. Besides being able to pay the bills, this also means you should factor in the cost of any student debts you might be paying back, and materials you need to run your business. You should also charge for your expertise as an artist. Remember: just because you’re an artist, doesn’t mean that you should be scraping by for your entire life – you should be able to grow and invest in your business, so you should be making more than just what you need to survive. I recommend first figuring out what you need to cover all your monthly costs, and then take into consideration the fact that most freelancers don’t do paid work full-time. They also do a lot of unpaid work in the form of updating social media, answering e-mails, managing finances, etc. If you spend about 50% of your hours doing paid client work, make sure your fee also covers the unpaid hours in which you manage your business.

It also helps to make friends in the industry and ask them what their going rates are, so that you can adapt your rate to what is customary in your field. However, NEVER charge less than you need to survive! When negotiating your fee, keep in mind that you can always bargain downwards, but clients are very unlikely to ever accept a higher fee after you’ve suggested a lower one, so it’s better to err on the side of a higher fee. Also, don’t let yourself be emotionally manipulated by clients who suggest your work is worth less than what you ask. Many of them are just using manipulation tactics to get you to lower your price, so don’t take it personally and just move on to a client that is willing to pay your fee. Also, never work for ‘exposure’ – the kind of work that has given me the most exposure has been my own personal illustrations and sketches, so if you’re considering doing free or low-paid work because you want to expand your portfolio, consider a personal project rather than work for a client.

“Art theft” or copyright breach

I’ve had my work ‘stolen’ (that is to say: my copyright breached) numerous times. A good example of a copyright breach is having your original artwork printed on apparel and sold for profit without your permission or knowledge. (Note: art theft does not include ‘style borrowing’ or ‘style theft’ – styles are not copyrighted!) Fortunately, with help from my fanbase, I’ve usually managed to have such items removed from circulation without having to take legal action. I’ve also sent out many DMCA takedown notices, and sent out cease-and-desist letters, which helped to remove the stolen work. People have asked me what can be done to prevent such things from happening. My personal opinion is that there is no solution that completely guarantees that your art will never be stolen, except for one thing: Never showing your art to anyone. This has the disadvantage of your art never gaining positive exposure of any kind, so I don’t recommend it. Any preventative measures you take should be weighed against the greater benefits you may receive from sharing your work. For example, I chose to avoid using large watermarks on my artwork because I find that disruptive. For every art thief who no longer has to bother with photoshopping out the watermark, there are numerous other people who enjoy the experience of seeing my work as it was intended and share it with others, which in the long term brings me exposure, clients and income.

One important thing you can do is avoid sharing high resolution versions of your work in any way, shape or form unless it is with a trusted client or business partner. If you find your copyright breached, contact the people who are doing it and inform them of the breach in a professional and straightforward manner. If they are not willing to remove the item or discuss the problem, contact someone with legal experience and, if you can, join forces with a lawyer, who can assist you in sending a case-and-desist letter.

What platform to use

There are a huge number of platforms available to post your work on as an artist, and many of them are saturated with artists. If you’re just getting started with posting your art, I recommend choosing 2-3 platforms that you will regularly post on. Try to figure out which one feels most intuitive and enjoyable to you and make that one your area of focus. You can get the most out of a platform when you understand how it works and what kind of content works best there, which is something you learn by using it. I personally use instagram the most, but I find it to be quite oversaturated and difficult for newer artists to get noticed there. Twitter also has a great artist community. If you are finding it difficult to get your work seen on bigger platforms, try joining smaller communities, like forums or discord servers. In general, I recommend posting on a few different platforms to cover your bases, but don’t spread yourself too thin.

Gaining a following

Getting people to follow your work on social media is a complex process. There’s no guarantee that a certain approach or type of post will definitely get you followers, so it’s mostly a question of posting as often as possible and finding out for yourself what works and what doesn’t. If you’re just starting out, it can be discouraging, because it’s hard to get noticed. Despite this, it’s good to just keep posting and trying to observe long-term results rather than expecting instant success. I recommend posting as regularly and as often as possible. Try to post a mixture of finished and rough work – people like to see the process behind a drawing. Try to share knowledge and tips with others so that they can learn from your work. Most importantly, try to be an active member of a community – get to know other users, respond to comments, and follow other accounts. You’ll gain followers from these interactions and you can also learn a lot from how other people handle their social media accounts.

Crowdfunding

My artbooks were originally funded with a successful Kickstarter campaign. Because of this, I sometimes get approached for advice on crowdfunding, specifically using crowdfunding to fund a book project. However, in my case, much of the complicated work was done by my publisher, 3DTotal. They set up the kickstarter, created the layouts for the book, and arranged the printing, packaging, delivery and customer service. For any questions regarding those aspects of a kickstarter project, I unfortunately cannot provide any insights. I can provide the following tips:

  • Do research: Crowdfunding is a way to test whether there is interest in a product. Before launching, to some research into whether people are interested in the product you offer, perhaps by asking around in your own circle of friends or on your social media channels. Try to see your crowdfunding campaign as a way to test whether your product can be successful, rather than a guarantee for success.
  • Set a clear goal: Formulate your goal as clearly and concisely as possible. People usually don’t have a lot of time read through lengthy descriptions and information before deciding to back a project, so make sure that you clearly state what backers are paying for, and do so near the top of your kickstarter page.
  • Be realistic about time: Many kickstarters fail to deliver their product within the time frame that they promised. Make sure that you think realistically about the amount of time that goes into a project, including packaging, contact with your backers, replacing lost packages, etc. Also, take into consideration the possible scenario of going over your funding goal, so that you’re not blindsided with a massive amount of work without any kind of backup plan.
  • Make a schedule: Make a realistic time schedule that includes some wiggle room, so that you can be sure you will meet the deadlines you promise to your backers.
  • Simplify your prizes: Don’t overcomplicate the different tiers you offer your backers. If you are offering 15 different tiers with minor differences beteween them, you will make it more difficult for backers to choose a prize, so consider fewer tiers with clear descriptions.

Getting started with digital art

I’ve been asked by people who are just beginning to draw digitally for tips on where to begin the learning process. I started by just messing around in Photoshop and other digital programs, experimenting and not expecting too grandiose of an outcome. My first drawings in Photoshop were simple, drawn with a mouse and blended with the smudge tool (something I don’t really recommend, but it worked for me at the time!). It’s good to slowly familiarize yourself with the digital drawing process, so that you’re comfortable with the tools and options, before you start drawing elaborate and detailed pieces. I created a lot of smaller drawings in a day, rather than putting a lot of my time into larger, more elaborate pieces. My work became more detailed as my skills improved. I think one of the best things you can do to get the hang of digital art is to practice sketching and speedpaints, since it prevents you from getting hung up on details and allows you to become comfortable with the tools you have. Keep it simple and practice as much as you can!

When is it too late to learn

Many artists pick up digital art later in their life, having started with traditional tools. Next to that, there are many people who pick up drawing as a whole later in their life. I’ve been approached by a few people who are afraid that it is too late for them to make this change and develop a career in this area. I personally don’t believe there is any point where it is ‘too late’ to learn something new, although whether you can build a career as an artist depends entirely on what field of art you’re looking to enter and your location. Some directions and areas may be more restrictive than others. In my personal experience as a freelance animator and concept artist working in the Netherlands, the content of your portfolio and whether your clients trust you to deliver the materials is the most important factor. This has a lot to do with the impression you make, your style of communicating, and also your experience (which in turn affects what kind of impression you make). I believe that this can be cultivated at any point in one’s life and that it is never too late! Most importantly, being a self-taught digital artist, I believe that it’s possible to get the hang of digital media at any age if that is what you want to do. Just be sure to develop your knowledge at your own pace and find what works best for you, rather than feeling the pressure to learn every single trick in the book. For more information on finding your career later in life, check out this conversation between me and my friend Iris Compiet, who found her career path in her late 30’s.

Staying motivated / dealing with artblock

A few people have approached me with the question of how I stay creative and motivated when I’m in an artblock (which is a phase where you feel unable to draw). Personally, since creating artwork is my profession, in many ways I have no choice but to keep going. I went through something which seems to be common amongst many artists: a phase of rapid improvement and high motivation (for me, this occurred in the last two years of high school), which gradually slowed down and sometimes felt like an artblock, because my enthusiasm wasn’t as great as before. Although I craved the feeling I had when I was in my more productive phase, it’s better to accept the change and to search for new ways to find motivation and develop artistically. In my most productive phase, I really loved drawing 4-5 pictures a day and spending every free minute I had behind the computer screen. However, this is just something I wouldn’t have the motivation for today. Accepting a slower, more steady pace of improvement and inspiration has helped me to move past artblocks, as well as taking breaks and giving myself time to recharge. It also helps to find a starting point for your artwork to kickstart your creativity, such as drawing from life, doing a commission, or participating in forums that choose random subjects for people to sketch. Coming up with your own ideas from scratch all the time can be draining.

Most importantly, it helps to cut yourself some slack and stop being really hard on yourself and your drawing skills. Artblock is often the result of a fear of failure and low confidence in your abilities, but the irony is that these feelings result in a reduced ability to enjoy the drawing process and blocking your opportunities to grow and practice as an artist, keeping you trapped in a negative cycle. If you have these feelings, idenfity them and realize they are the root of the problem, not your drawing skills. The most important thing is to enjoy yourself and give yourself the room you need to develop at your own pace!

Drawing every day

From time to time, I’ve heard people say that an artist must draw every day in order to improve. However, I personally do not recommend drawing every day. I do believe that there are some artists out there who benefit from a good dose of self-discipline and would learn a lot from drawing daily, but for many artists, this is a lot of pressure to put on oneself. On top of that, I don’t think that it’s a requirement for improving your skills. You can improve your skills in other ways as well: finding inspiration in your surroundings or in other artists, or giving your brain some time to come up with new ideas and motivation. But to those who are considering drawing daily, also take into consideration the need for your mind and body to get rest and recover from the drawing process! Having said that, I do think that drawing regularly is a good idea, but if you feel that daily drawing is burning you out, it’s definitely ok to draw less frequently.

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