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5 Things You Shouldn’t Say to an Artist

The Virgin Mary Telling a Young John the Baptist to Be Quiet - Paragraph
The Virgin Mary Telling a Young John the Baptist to Be Quiet by Annibale Carracci.

I should say first that most of the people in my life are very supportive. Their intentions are very good. I receive more than my fair share of praise and compliments, and I am grateful for them. So take these minor complaints with this assumption in mind and in this light: that they are more minor annoyances than genuine grievances. Okay, maybe some of them are genuine grievances. But I mean them in the nicest possible way.

This said:

1. No I should not make this random event into a story/comic strip/or painting.

For every famous artist, thousands more make a perfectly good living in relative obscurity.

I have no doubt that you mean well. Of course you do. But when you say, “You should make a comic strip about this,” or whatever work of art for which you are convinced that this thing we just experienced or talked about would make the perfect subject, I assure you you are wrong. It is never going to happen. Since my work is particularly time consuming, consider this the equivalent of saying, “This random event would serve as the perfect inspiration for you to build a small shed from scratch in your backyard.” Then imagine someone repeating this at random moments whenever the inspiration hits them. This is you.

2. Please stop talking about my art in aspirational terms.

I would prefer that my lack of what may be in your estimation adequate success not be a continuing topic of conversation every time we talk about what I’m working on. While I’m not always content with the degree of remuneration or attention my work garners, we don’t have to talk about this every time the subject comes up. The suggestion that “success is right around the corner” implies lack of success. Lack of success implies failure. So when you continually bring this up, you are in essence, no matter how encouraging you mean to be, suggesting that I am a failure, and discounting whatever small successes I may already have achieved.

3. Please stop talking about “when I am famous.”

While I’m sure you are aware of many artists who are of great renown, most working artists are not. For every famous artist you can name, thousands more make a perfectly good living in relative obscurity. There are many similar disciplines for which fame is not instantly associated, but since the only artists you know about are famous (which of course is because they are famous) you can’t fathom how someone might make a living in the arts without being famous.

Not only does this suggest that you think this success, whatever you define as success, is unlikely and elusive, but that attempting such a thing is in most cases a pipe dream. Because of this, while I try to assume the best intentions, the suggestion may even come across as sarcastic or a gentle jibe. And while you may truly be convinced, or even have the genuine conviction that I will be one of the few, it just doesn’t work that way. It’s definitely a hard path to follow, but I don’t have to be Dr. Seuss or Jackson Pollock to make a reasonable living at it. So please stop saying it.

4. I do not want to illustrate your children’s book or graphic novel.

Just assume I don’t. If you are serious about these disciplines, please pursue them through regular channels. Read up. Attend a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators meeting. Learn the process of submission. Realize that if I was to take on such an ambitious project, I would have to be paid for it somehow, because it’s just too labor intensive (see #1) to do in my spare time, so someone would have to publish the thing and give me some kind of advance before I even got started. Future profits are not a guarantee.

And if I did do a book without a publisher willing to pay me for it, it would probably be one of my own many pet projects, the ones that I am not doing because I am too busy pursuing paying work. There are many other reasons why such a collaborative project with a random acquaintance, friend or family member would be impractical, all of which I’m sure you will learn when you do your research. You’re doing that research, right? If you’re not, you’re just not that serious about this.

5. I can’t do stuff for free.

On rare occasions I have done work for charity, but just as you can’t afford to do your job for free, I can’t afford to give away my labor either. Because that’s what it is. Labor. Work. Just like your job. We may be good friends who do favors for one another from time to time, but consider this favor a very big one.

You wouldn’t ask your friend the lawyer to represent you in a court case for free. Or your friend the contractor to work on your house for free. So why ask me? At the same time, know that when your friend does give you a print or one of their books it is a generous act (even those books don’t come cheap—writers typically only receive a handful of comp copies, and the rest they have to pay for), and if you are privileged enough to receive their original work, it is an even greater gift, since that picture may represent many hours spent at the drawing table.

This said, if you are a close friend or family member, know that you are dearly loved, and that none of this is meant to disparage you. Know that if you are an acquaintance, I always try to assume the best of intentions.

But please stop saying this stuff.

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  1. Ha, ha, ha. Yeah, when you’re an illustrator–particularly a children’s book illustrator–everybody has an idea for a book you “should” write and/or illustrate. My least favorite comments are intended as compliments, and I get them all the time: 1.) “Wow, that looks just like a photograph,” or 2.) “Wow, That looks really professional.” If it indeed looks “just like a photograph,” (which it doesn’t) then I have failed by merely copying a photograph and bringing nothing to it as an artist. And if it it “looks professional” it’s because I actually AM…a professional. Thanks for noticing.

  2. Anything intended as a compliment I just take as a compliment. Good intentions count for a lot. People don’t really know what they’re saying sometimes. For me, it’s, “better than I can do” Usually this person does not share your discipline, and so what they can do isn’t likely to be much, so it’s an unintentional backhanded compliment.

    But I just say “thank you.”

    As long as they don’t want me to DO something. Or we have to talk about my future success, or potential success, or lack of success. Things are actually going quite well at the moment. It’s always hot and cold, but right now I have a pretty nice gig.

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