Ben Thompson


In Pursuit of Success

An artist goes through many stages when defining the terms for personal and professional "Success". The word itself is subject to interpretation and engenders many impassioned responses, all of which are valid when one considers that at its heart success is a very personal and ever moving target. Should one find themselves actually achieving any or all of the criteria set for their own personal success, the harsh truth is that the requirements will have inexplicably altered and the journey will continue with little pause for reflection.

Having had some version of this conversation with any number of fellow illustrators, there tends to be an unofficial pattern to the basic stages the artist might experience in his or her career.

Success will mean more fun
When we are first exploring what it means to be creative, the criteria is very simple and very honest: "Are we having fun?" The truth is every child tends to be creative in some form or another. The simple act of getting an idea onto paper is in and of itself a success. This is a wonderful time in the development of an artist, as there are no restrictions and no limits to be had here. Literally anything is possible, and there is no one to tell you otherwise. Now is the time to draw that pink striped, three armed dragon with a laser gun, fighting an interstellar battle with a robot soldier on the surface of Mars and do so with wild abandon! Why? Because that would be SO awesome!

Success will mean more acceptance
As you get older your terms for success are accompanied by some guidelines. Does it look like something specific? Do others like what you do? Do you have a clear answer ready for those who ask: "What do you want to be when you grow up?", and are you ready to defend your passion when your triumphant reply of "an artist!" is met with more and more skepticism from those around you? If any or all of the above can be answered in the affirmative likely you will consider yourself happy to have come this far unscathed.

Success will mean more work
The newly minted artist often judges his or her relative success upon leaving school by the number of assignments that are found filling out their calendar. The less free time found on said calendar, the more in demand their work time, the more successful they view their chosen career path to be. Quantity might be seen to outstrip quality at this early stage, and the rate of pay still remains secondary to the promise of more work to come upon completion of a given commission. It is often at this stage of the game where lack of sleep and the relative caffeine intake are almost flaunted as badges of honor among ones peers.

Success will mean more money
Having developed a respectable client list at this point, and the frequency of work is not likely to raise considerable concerns or require as much attention on their part, the rate of pay takes on a greater importance to the business minded artist. No longer interested in or able to take on every job they are approached with, the paycheck associated with each and every assignment comes under scrutiny. It is here that one benefits from being able to bargain with the non-creative persons and learns how to best educate the client as to what they should expect for their money.

Success will mean more recognition
Let's face it, few things are as compelling to the hard working creative as the recognition a prestigious award or title promises to be. It cannot be bought or traded, and carries with it a sense of belonging to a smaller subset of individuals singled out for the honor. In some small way all your hard work and efforts are given a tangible credence that few successes offer.

Success will mean more time
At some point the monetary gain and stability of the high paying job becomes somewhat less attractive. The awards and accolades might mean slightly less. Instead it is the personal time that one is afforded by the previous string of successes that will be most attractive to the creative individual. This may mean more time for personal work, or more time with family or friends. In the end the reasons for such a desire are likely as varied as they are personal.

Success will mean a legacy
Finally ones success might be measured in the mark ones work has made in their life. For some this may mean becoming the best artist they can be and achieving a level of skill and execution long sought after. For others it may be the hard fought balance achieved between their work and their personal life. For still others it may mean a permanent place among their peers in the annuals of art and the recognition as a pillar of an artistic community.

Obviously this is by no means a complete timeline of events as you should expect them to play out on your own career, as goodness knows I have yet to experience any number of these myself. The above is likely all too broad a summary, and could do with some additional thought. More likely still is that you may recognize some small part of you in each of them, and in turn be able to offer up your own qualifiers for success not outlined here.

Regardless of what form your personal successes may take, it is important to note that it is up to the individual to define for themselves the qualifiers for such achievements and to do so with great care as it is likely to determine ones relative happiness along the way.

What terms for your own success would you add?

header image: Norman Rockwell

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Ben Thompson
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