Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Odds

Many years ago now, I wrote a little about the comic, "Art School Confidential." It was on my mind again after a recent post, so here we are.

A Prophetic Comic
Allow me to begin by posting this panel from the comic, which will be the basis for this post. Frankly, I could write an article on every panel of that comic, but that'd be wholesale cannibalism. And Clowes has no website. He should be raking in a mint on this. C'mon Clowes, publish it as a standalone eReader comic or something for $.99 or whatever. Heck, I'll buy one and I own no compatible device. But, back to the post:

I could stop there, this panel being worth a thousand words. But let's see if I can unpack a thousand words' worth myself. In that recent post, I talked a little about the financial prospects of a freelance illustrator. And I was dead honest--I have made annual incomes that fall into that spectrum, though it varies widely year-to-year. Yes, even including that last bar: so if you think I was being facetious, think again. And that wasn't even at the beginning of my career--my first couple of years out the gate were decent, actually. It was smack dab in the midst of being a working professional. So if you didn't take that last post seriously, and are considering a career in the arts, please reconsider it. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you. Now then.

Quite apart from the income potential, which is poor, you must understand that I was laying out the income of folks who might conceivably call themselves full-time freelancers. That chart had nothing to say about the likelihood that you even ever get to be a full-time freelancer. Or, that the effort required to even try to be a moonlighting illustrator with a day job will be worthwhile to continue on. When I read this panel, not quite 17 years old at the time, I chuckled. Naturally, I was the kid with the thought bubble. At the same time, I'd just gone from a decent sized fish in my local pool to a passable but panicked fish in a much larger one. In my first weeks of art school I learned how ill-prepared I really was, how many kids had had superior educations to mine to that point. So, it was starting to sink in that this comic panel might actually be prophetic.

I mentioned in that last post that I keep a folder with a few names in it, which I check from time to time. I actually don't know how big the illustration department was, because I was a drawing major who spent his time on the fine arts campus (design is in San Francisco vs. fine art in Oakland). Most illustrators took their drawing/painting and other technical classes on the fine art campus, so I'd get to know them there. But it's safe to say I got to know most of them at least by face. I knew plenty by name, but only remembered a handful by the time I started keeping this folder. It was a small school, though.

I also mentioned that I have a longer memory than most, and so the odds of anyone remembering me are probably slim, especially because I ditched college after 3 years and so didn't finish my degree. In retrospect, I'm ambivalent as to whether that was a good idea or not. It went well enough, so I can't complain, but there were downsides.

I further mentioned that I could never find info on Alexi. As of today, I still can't. And my memory may be hazed by almost 2 decades since I met him, but I will say that at the time he was waaay ahead of me. Ok, I was still 16, that wasn't hard to be. But I'm pretty sure his work the year I met him was still ahead of mine when I left. He should have been phenomenal by now...but he's MIA.

One fellow who did do quite well, seemingly, is Patrick Arrasmith. He moved to NYC right after school, apparently, and has had a regular and what appears to be strong career. His work is stylistically very much as it was in our college classes together, and he was obviously good even then. I'm in NYC, too. I'm pretty sure I saw him at a Society of Illustrators event at one point, but we didn't get a chance to talk, and frankly, I didn't want to have to explain who I was to someone staring at me blankly. If he Googles himself and finds this, maybe it'll facilitate a conversation later. We weren't close buds or anything, but his work and name were noteworthy then, so I remembered. We had a few classes together, but were mostly listen-intently and work-hard types. These qualities often preclude people from being very social in college.

Around 2000 or so, I was really enjoying the occasional webisode of Happy Tree Friends. This online cartoon went on to be a bit of a cult favorite, along with others like Homestarrunner. Then one day I realized that one of the creators was a fellow by the name of Rhode Montijo, another once-classmate. I had him primarily in figure drawing/anatomy classes. During the years I was at San Diego Comic-Con, Happy Tree Friends had a big booth presence, selling all sorts of merch. I was really happy to see someone do well with their own property, and Rhode has continued developing such, including a children's book, more recently. One Comic-Con, I went to go get in line for something or other and saw him there, so I went up and introduced myself. I'd known Rhode a little better. After shaking up his memory a bit, we had a pleasant short conversation, I wished him well and congratulated him on his successes and we parted ways.

And...that's it. Well, there are other folks I follow, but it's difficult for me to assess their careers. I might add myself to the mix as having managed to scrape and claw my way to maintaining a career (as I mentioned last time, with incredible support).

And one guy named Eddie Schantz, probably the one who I was most good pals with, died tragically within 4 years of my leaving school. We were similar--he was a fantasy-oriented guy. He had a great ability to draw the figure without reference, but hadn't really engaged color work. He had begun to approach me about trying to hook him up with some of my clients. I told him he really needed some strong color work. I don't pass along names easily, since my own reputation is on the line, but had he put that color portfolio together, I would have and who knows if he wouldn't have been another you might've known.

The Rest
Of those who remain, a couple have definitely continued with art in some capacity. That they are really hard to track down speaks volumes though, to me. Art is one of those things where its producers have a strong interest in being found. If an artist isn't easy to find, then they are either extremely reclusive or there isn't much to find, most likely. And if an illustrator and reclusive, that's going to be a career killer.

Others, I know, transitioned into other fields, as I suggested might happen last time. Fantastic--I really respect those who think it the better part of wisdom to move on, who don't cling so tightly to art that it cripples their future if they can't find the means to use it. It might have been difficult to accept a move onward, or may have been a very organic and natural process. Either way, there's a high chance they are as or more fulfilled than they might have been sticking with art and all of its headaches.

Art school, as I've mentioned before, is damned expensive. Right about Ivy-League expensive, and you are probably never going to make Ivy-League incomes with your degree. You may find that your actual illustration income doesn't allow you to eat and pay your school loans on a monthly basis, if you have a difficult first few years. Nevermind rent. I entered college pre-interwebz and so had to make do with a lot less information than students have now. So, I guess what I'm saying is that Clowes' 1-in-100 statistic was a little off. A little. Let's assume 3 others of us did well, but I've forgotten their names or hadn't gotten to know them. That'd be like 6 out of, say, 100 or so. Forget that, let's assume I'm totally out to lunch and 3 times that amount of illustrators did that well and are still sustaining themselves with their art to this day. I'll let you decide if 18% or so are good odds for freelance "success" (however that's defined, I've been pretty loose about it).