As I look through my RSS feed at other blogs of artists - artists I respect and look up to, I see a lot of positivity. There is an incredible community of well-wishing, support and good vibes. Everywhere I look, I see the message, "You CAN do it!" It's really, really inspiring.
It's not me.
I wouldn't say I'm a pessimist, but I was born to take things apart. I come out of movies I love and I analyze the things that didn't work. I look for tangents in the paintings of the "Ancient Masters" (sometimes I find them!) The glass with me is basically never "full".
We all have our self-images, the way we see ourselves and our interactions with the world. For me, I fight demons, and fighting requires constant vigilance in a world where you can never let down your guard. One of the biggest of these demons I've been facing recently is discouragement.
For those who don't know me, my entry into "the arts" came in 2003, when I picked up a Canon 10D digital camera and became a photographer. Before that, I got a degree in comp sci and math, and had been doing database marketing for Fortune 100 companies. For some reason, there was an itch that wasn't getting scratched with my day job, and telling stories with images did the trick.
It took me about 2 years to "master" my craft to the point I was doing fashion photography in NYC, and I was a year into that when my wife and I moved to Miyazaki Prefecture in Japan to teach English for 2 years. Miyazaki, while beautiful on the whole, is in the middle of nowhere, and I was in Nobeoka, a blue-collar town built around a chemical factory. Not a lot of models there!
I adjusted. I started making pictures using 3D programs like Poser and Vue. I thought of it as "virtual photography." I couldn't model objects, but I could take other people's objects, build some environments, and use my vision to create a story. By late 2007, I had realized that the limitations on that medium were too constraining for me. "No problem!" I thought, I'll become a matte painter! I've taken a ton of good pictures, how hard can it be to just start collaging photos together to make the stories I want? Turns out, it's pretty hard when you don't know how to paint. I started trying to paint in photoshop. Turns out, THAT's pretty hard when you don't know how to draw.
By Spring of 2008, I had worked my way backwards to the simplest of tools, the pencil and paper. I drew constantly, albeit badly, and came to the conclusion that everyone starts at the same level. If you start drawing at 6 or and 33, you kinda draw with the same line quality and ability. Of course, when you are 6, you get praised and your picture goes up on the fridge. When you are 33, most people look at you a bit funny! The advantage is, at 33 you can apply your lifetime of work ethic and understanding to improve significantly faster.
In 2009 I moved to Vancouver, BC, and in September started art school at Emily Carr University. It's been four and a half years, and in December, I will graduate with a BA in Illustration.
Why the backstory?
I wanted you to know where I come from, because, when I look back at the last 10 years, I see so many life lessons that can help me deal with the discouragements I feel now.
First off - I need to do this. There was something missing in my life before I started doing photography. I can't give up, it is simply not an option. As discouragements settle in, REMEMBER WHY YOU ARE DOING WHAT YOU DO.
Second - You will try things you are not ready for. That does not mean you will never be able to do them. When I tried matte painting, man, I was *bad*. I didn't have the skills to meet my vision. I have been doing some plate extensions for warm-ups lately, and you know what? They look pretty good. When I think about it, that is kind of amazing. The "end goal" I was reaching for in 2008 is what I do to warm-up in 2013 before I engage my creative muscles. Was I sad back then when my mattes looks awful? You bet I was....but:
Third - What you want may very well change. In 2003, if you had told me that ten years later I would be striving as hard as I could to be a visual development artist for feature animations, I would have laughed you out of the bar. In 2008, if you told me that I would find matte painting too restrictive, I wouldn't have believed you (mostly because in 2008 I could never imagine me being able to draw or paint to a level where I could do something with it.) It is critically important to have goals. Goals keep you going, and keep you solving problems. It is also critically important that you let those goals shift over time. I know many, many artists who are doing really cool things that have nothing to do with what they planned when they were younger. I'm not saying to settle, I hate the entire concept of settling for something when what you want is out there over the horizon. I am saying that you are allowed to discover that you really enjoy being an assistant pig-keeper (usually, you figure that out right before they crown you High King, and you have to spend the rest of your life mediating drunk nobles over cattle disputes.)
Fourth - There will always be people you look up to. There will also be people who used to be better than you that you now feel like you have surpassed. Those are fine. There will also be people who seem to speed past you. Those are also fine. I have a GOAL, but I am doing the work for the PROCESS. I love to draw. I love to paint. How well the people around you will probably affect you, I know it does me. We are human, it happens, but remember, you are doing this for you.
So - Discouragement. It's going to happen. I love painting and drawing, and care more about it than anything else I have ever done. I still get discouraged. When every one of my friends get into an art show I don't get a call-back about, I get discouraged. I can tell myself that it just means my style isn't what they are looking for, but I still get discouraged. When I get told "Your characters don't measure up to your environments, and you should probably just take them out," I get discouraged. I don't hear "Your environments are really good!", I hear "Your characters suck!"
Also, in my experience, there is a weird skill level in the middle, between noob and pro. When you are a noob, you get encouragement. When you are a pro, you get (and deserve) praise. You will rise above noob, but it's a long hike from there to pro, and the positive reinforcement can be scarce on the ground. It is discouraging to see people of much less skill than you getting kudos, while you get seemingly reamed for the smallest of things.
You can't really get discouraged if you don't care....I guess you can, but only for a little bit, because then you quit and move on to something else. I am not going to quit. I need this. Discouragement is just a phase. When I lived in Japan, I studied judo at my high school with the judo club....they were much better than me, but the coach was amazing. He said that judo means "The way of efficiency." You live a way, you don't practice it. It doesn't matter how technically good you are at living a way, it is the authenticity in which you try that counts.
For me, I try to practice "'The Way of Visual Storytelling." Like any road, there are steep parts and easy parts, but it is the trip as a whole that counts. I'm going to be discouraged; I'm going to be elated. There will be days when the goal seems impossibly far. That's the key to a "Way". The only thing that really matters is the next step. I may never be a visual development artist for Dreamworks, but no matter how discouraged I feel, I can pick up a pencil and make a mark. There are no good or bad marks when measured against the long term. Really, there are no good or bad paintings either, they are just footsteps on the Way.
Today's warm-up was especially rewarding for me. On top of it being an amazing painting to play with, it was like a light went off in my head when I was working on it. "OMG, EDGES!!!" I've obviously known the theory for years, but it clicked when I was painting the rocks...Obvious and hidden edges
Ok, putting my time where my mouth is. The number one response I got to my work at IlluxCon was, "Work on your figures!" Here's a 2 hour photo study of figure and drapery. I blurred out the "naughty bits", 'cause America has a weird problem with breasts.
Ok, it's been a few days since the con ended, and I've had a chance to reflect and let everything settle in, so I thought I'd write up my thoughts on one of the best events for artists in North America.
First off, I really liked the new venue. It was bigger, and better laid out than the previous location in Altoona, and I liked having both the main and weekend shows. The hallway downstairs, aka, "The Birthing Canal", was a bit tight, but otherwise, amazing. Having a cafe inside the event that was open every day was incredible. I'm from the Pacific Northwest, I gotta keep my blood-coffee ratio up, and I was well pleased :)
Restaurants in the area were fine, and it was really nice to be able to walk to and from the hotel and the event. Allentown isn't quite as "lost in the best part of the 1950s" as Altoona, but ya know, I'll deal with it :)
Ok, the event itself - wow. So many of my heroes in one place. I really don't have words to describe the feeling. As usual, everyone was friendly, opening to looking at my stuff, and super helpful. Since my focus is on visual development, sometimes the artists at the show would be a little at a loss to give what they felt to be helpful advice, but I always found their comments to the point and insightful.
Number one advice was to bring my "character" skills up to be in line with my environments. I completely agree with this, and I'll be starting to go to the 3-hour life painting sessions held at Basic Inquiry as soon as I'm in Vancouver on a Sunday. On top of that, more observational drawing of buildings, and more plein air painting. Nothing I'm not already doing, but it's great to get the feedback that I'm doing the right stuff.
I had two "official" portfolio reviews, one with Robh Ruppel and the other with Joe Shoopack. Both were fantastic in very different ways, and I'm really looking forward to going back to them in several months and showing my progress.
Beyond all the crits and inspirational paintings, IlluxCon is incredible for meeting people and making friends. Always, always stay in the con hotel, because the best stuff happens after hours, when you realize you are kibitzing with your favorite artists over a couple of beers. In the 3 years I've been going, I never have felt like I was excluded from any clique because I was less famous, or not as good an artist. On the contrary, there is laughter, joking and friendship to spare.
So, long story short, I am inspired, fired up and ready to go, and the plan is to have at least 75% of my portfolio replaced in time for CTN-Expo in November!
Seth Rutledge is a visual developer and concept artist for the animation and video game industries, a photographer and a coffee snob living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Before he discovered illustration, he received a CSCI/Math degree from UNC-Charlotte, and has lived and worked all over the United States and Canada. He has run marathons, taught English in Japan, been CTO for a pharma marketing company and done fashion photography in NYC. Seth has two albums he wrote and played keyboards on, and he plays the theramin whenever he gets the chance. Seth spends so much time in coffee shops drawing that he is mentioned in online reviews. He would love a career drawing elves and goblins for a living.