I recently came across a question from a former classmate expressing the desire to develop a portfolio. My first question to him was the same question Taisa and I were asked years ago.
“What type of work do you want to do?”
That’s something most of us take for granted so for a moment we looked like a couple of deer in headlights. We were at the stage of learning fundamentals, so we just assumed at the time that art was just art. If you are a person who likes many types of subject matter, with a wide range of influences you want to do everything. You have the super cool drawings you want to do, you have to be able to paint realistically, in both traditional and digitally if the internet is to be believed. You have to make money so you want to do what is considered practical or a “marketable skill” so that your mom, dad, best friend, and cat feel secure in how you spend your time. The only choice it seems is to be great at all the art right now. That’s right! You must be a world class web and graphic designer by day and a concept artist making comics AND characters for video games by night while selling still life paintings in galleries on the weekends AND your aunts all want dog portraits so you have to do that. You saw a girl on Instagram who paints beautiful florals so you just have to learn to paint perfect florals to sell at fairs. There’s that guy who draws all the awesome fan art and makes money with that so you have to have that to sell at conventions.
Let’s say you do dabble in everyone of these areas, someone will ask “oh you’re an artist that’s cool, what do you do?”
If you are as awkward as 20 year old Tyra you’ll stall and stammer and the person will glaze over. No singular thing about the work stands out as great. No resounding confidence in discussing your mish-mash of work because you don’t even care about half of it. The only reason you did it was because a teacher told you to do it, your mom told you to draw more flowers, or you just wanted to copy a character from a show. You may feel it was too stressful of an interaction to ever talk to that individual about this ever again. No chance to increase your network, no chance to have someone connect with your work. All of this culminates into an inability to convince anyone to look at, much less spend money on, your art.
When we imagine our careers we need to slow the heck down and think logically. There are only 24 hours in a day and we all need sleep, time with family, a day job with a commute time. You don’t have to be the greatest artist in a field in order to get work but there does need to be a reasonable level of expertise. If an artist wants to get work doing something, and get quality clients the best way to do it is to have a body of work. The artist and potential clients should both be confident that the artist can consistently produce a quality result. The only way to produce said body of work is to spend significant time on a narrow set of skills. This cannot be done if you are trying to be all things to all people. Not being able to meet expectations consistently will cause problems with any clients you get. This is not to say that an artist will be stuck doing this one thing for the rest of his/her life. Different influences can be pulled in, different mediums can be used to experiment or reinforce skills. Even though we feel as if we have to do everything, most artists who have a wide range of work have just been doing it a long time, James Gurney being a notable example. As you focus on a discipline, it allows you to “nerd out” about what you do, chase rabbit trails. When you have fun with it, it shows in the quality of work and the way you discuss it. It creates a level of confidence that attracts people to your work and makes you feel great about what you’re doing.