In almost every career, there’s a phrase you’ll hear as you work your way over hurdles and advance your way to that proverbial corner office: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
When approaching three budding artists for an interview, I asked whether there was any truth to this.
Their answers were surprisingly sincere.
Nepotism in art probably exists. It exists as part of the human condition. However, these three young UMass Dartmouth Illustration graduates Kendra, Mike, and Will, are evidence that art isn’t just about who you know. Art is a labor of love. A daily practice. A difficult path, where every step is one forward.
Note: these questions were asked in late 2015 via email. None of the artists discussed or shared their answers with each other. Their answers may have been edited for grammatical purposes only.
Question: What is your name, where are you from, where are you now, and how old are you?
Kendrah: Kendrah Smith, I’m from Boston Mass but now live in Providence, RI. I’m 32 years old.
Mike: I’m Mike Regan and I hail from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which is also where I currently reside. I’m 24 years old.
Will: My name is Will Nunes. I am from South Dennis on Cape Cod, MA. Currently I live in Pawtucket, RI. I am 25.
Q: Where did you study art? How useful was art school?
K: I went to UMASS Dartmouth and graduated from their illustration program in 2014. I started in my mid-20’s and art school was incredibly helpful for me in terms of discipline. A lot of people go to college without knowing exactly what they want to do, but I only went back after seeing what the professional world was like and knowing I wanted something different. Art school helped me with opportunities to try new things, see what I was good at and what I liked doing, and access to professionals and worthwhile advice.
M: I went to UMass Dartmouth to study Illustration. It gave me an appreciation for the skills I had and I think it made me a much harder worker. Just wish it wasn’t such an expensive lesson. Seriously, though, it was insightful and my actual illustration classes were, for the most part, amazing.
W: I studied Illustration at Umass Dartmouth. There were certainly some elements that weren’t particularly useful – we had to spend our Freshman year taking “foundation” art classes, instead of Illustration classes, for instance – but overall, I thought it was very useful. It cannot be overstated how amazing and helpful it is to be surrounded by other creative people while you work.
Q: What materials do you use to create your work? (if digital, what software and hardware do you use?)
K: For the most part, I work digitally. I use Adobe Illustrator for vector art and linework, and Adobe Photoshop to add filtering layers and textures. When I want to freehand, I use Manga Studio 5, which I like better than Photoshop because it has a stabilizer for your hand. If I paint, I use wood and acrylics the most.
M: I was trained in natural media, but I work digitally now. I use Manga Studio, which emulates real brushes, pens, and paints pretty well. I also use a Monoprice tablet to create the work, which is really great, cheap alternative to Wacom.
W: I mainly use Adobe Photoshop to do my painting, with an old Wacom tablet passed down to me by my dad. Sometimes I do the rough sketches for my work in graphite, and occasionally I work in charcoal.
Q: Is your choice of materials influenced by what is available to you (in your area), finances, work space, any other factors?
K: My choice of materials is mostly dictated by what works best for me. I invested in a Cintiq when I used one at work and found how much easier it is for me to work that way. It was worth the money for me. Being an artist is my career, so I make it a point to find the workspace and spend my money on materials of quality. If it’s important, you find a way to do it.
M: Primarily work space, as I would have nowhere to put physical art. I’d love to get back to that, but not until I have a more secure living space. It’s also much, much cheaper and I can get similar results. Still, drawing with a tablet is a different beast than working with natural media.
W: Working digitally makes it easy for me to work from home, saves me money on supplies, and is generally what the type of clients who hire me are looking for – but I wouldn’t say those reasons are why I work digitally. I work digitally because it’s what I am best at and it’s what I have the most experience in. More importantly, I work digitally because I enjoy it.
Q: When did you know art was the future for you? When did you start drawing, sculpting, etc?
K: I was always drawing as a child and got into graphic design in high school but put it away in my early 20’s for some reason. I kept being crafty and always needed some creative project to work on but it wasn’t until I burnt out of my previous career in medical administration that I really went full speed ahead into art as an actual career. The biggest thing for me was coming to terms with the fact that if I wanted this, I had to dedicate an enormous amount of time to it. You can’t get a career you love by doing it halfway.
M: I would two fist crayons when drawing in coloring books, that was probably a good hint. Though, I pursued it more because it was all I knew that stood out about me that I could maybe make a career out of. I’ve been drawing forever, just never put any effort into really improving until college.
W: I think I decided art was my future in high school. I’ve been drawing my whole life, but as I approached adulthood I decided I would like to do it professionally.
Q: Who are your two biggest artist inspirations? Who has influenced your work the most (a professor, another artist, a character)?
K: I look at a lot of other artists of all types. Classically, I like abstract painters, even though I don’t use any of those techniques in my work. As far as illustrators, I love Adrian Tomine, Tomer Hanuka, Lauren Mccubbin, Ghostco, Tula Lotay, Richard Salcido, … It’s hard to name just two. I think Ghostco and Tula Lotay probably have the most influence on my work because I always go back to their work for inspiration. But my favorite thing is to find inspiration in artists whose work is nothing like mine, and see if I can borrow any ideas from it.
M: This changes week-to-week or even day-to-day. I know, for the past couple years, I’ve been drawing a ton of inspiration from Matt Smith, who is a local Massachusetts comic artist responsible for Barbarian Lord. He’s also a UMass Dartmouth grad and I got to meet him in person. I followed his art for a while before meeting him and it was by luck that I found him at a convention, but since I found his art online a year prior to that meeting I’ve looked at his work to get myself inspired to create. But really all of those great artists like Mike Mignola, Moebius, Guy Davis, Steve Purcell, and even Frank Frazetta (though my work is far from his in terms of style). It’s really hard to choose just two!
W: The biggest, most direct artistic inspiration is Mike McCarthy, an artist who worked on the Fable videogames. My work these days probably doesn’t reflect it too much, but I spent years imitating his style and it has definitely informed my development as an artist. Whenever I need some motivation for what I can accomplish with my art, I check out his work.
The other is probably JC Leyendecker. I’ll never get over how he could draw those wrinkles and folds on clothes – one of my favorite things to draw.
Q: How much time are you able to dedicate to creating? How often each week, how many hours at a time?
K: Lately, not as much as I would like. But my full-time job is always creative so I would say anywhere between 40-60 hours a week if you include the day job. Right now I’m a designer and it’s not as creative as when I can illustrate full time.
M: I usually create something, in some form, several times a week. Often times, I will open an empty file and doodle for 20 minutes or an hour. Sometimes a doodle or drawing comes from it, sometimes I save it for later, or more commonly I just toss it. My day job requires a lot of phone conversations, so I like to doodle in a sketchbook while I do that, as well. To better answer the question: Not as much time as I’d like, but enough to not get too rusty. Hoping to start dedicating more time to it, though.
W: Right now, I dedicate most of my week to drawing. I’m doing my best to support myself with my art, which unfortunately makes it harder to devote time to more personal creative work, though my work suffers if I don’t take time to draw for myself. I try to keep normal work hours for art, though working from home makes this a little more flexible – I can take the time to cook myself lunch, and then work later in the night, for instance.
Q: What are some of the hurdles that get in your way of spending time creating?
K: Overworking my creative brain at a day job and general laziness are the ultimate creativity killers. It’s way too easy for me to get into a slump and not draw for weeks at a time, but it’s almost always because I’m being creative all day at work and want to come home and turn my brain off for a while. Otherwise it’s because Netflix has too much good television for me to catch up on.
M: Work, mostly. My current job has a fluid schedule, but can be mentally taxing, which can hurt my desire to create stuff. Just being lethargic can really hit me, though, but I’m getting sliiiightly better about spending down time scribbling instead of staring into the void.
W: Discipline is the biggest hurdle – some days, I just want to watch all of the Star Wars movies and not draw. Sometimes it feels like all of your creativity has been drained out and drawing is a chore. On those days, it’s very difficult to keep working.
Q: Do you promote your work? If so, how? Networking, social media, shows?
K: I do the social media circuit when I have new pieces or new projects. I link my instagram, facebook, tumblr and twitter so one post goes to all places. And I’m fairly active on LinkedIn because my work is so commercial, so I will update that when I design something new or have an editorial illustration to share.
M: Tried tumblr, but that was just a wasted effort without the right roll of the dice. I’m not trying to make a living off my art right now, so I just post it to an art page on Facebook, primarily for me and my friends. I’ll probably make more of an effort when I have a body of work I really want to share.
W: I have my own website which is mostly just a digital portfolio I can send to people. I send my portfolio out to everyone I think might have work for me, and I have my artwork on various social media websites.
Q: Does Social Media impact your career as an artist? Which platforms do you use and do you think that they impact your work positively or negatively and why?
K: Absolutely when it comes to networking and sharing work, using the platforms I mentioned. I find Instagram and Tumblr are the most effective ones when I want people to see my work. It doesn’t affect me so much in terms of good or bad criticism because you have to take it with a grain of salt. Of course it feels good when people like your work, but there will always be someone who has something to say about how you can improve and you have to learn how to filter out the useful feedback. I find that sometimes bad criticism can be just as helpful because it might help me see something that I wasn’t aware of before.
M: As I said, I used tumblr, but I got into the mindset of getting likes and reblogs, which just made me doubt myself. I could draw the shittiest (worst, if swearing is bad) picture of a Mortal Kombat joke, like, only spend 15 minutes on this piece of fan art and then get hundreds of likes and reblogs, but all my personal work and stuff I was proud of was swept under the carpet. Social media is a necessary thing these days, well maybe not, but it kind of is, probably. I just stopped making an effort with it, but I plan on launching a site for a personal project in the future. I hope having a stable place to display my work will give it a stronger identity and help it be remembered. With that plan, I’d only ever have to reblog one link, so really it’ll help me be lazier!
W: A huge impact – most of my work right now is coming from social media. I have a small following on Tumblr and on my Facebook art page, from which I can get some commissions. Reddit so far has been the most useful in terms of finding paid work, despite my complete ignorance in terms of how to actually use that site.
I wouldn’t say that social media has much of an impact on my art itself. Most of the time, anything I post on them is work I did for myself, though occasionally I catch myself thinking “this will get a lot of notes on tumblr” (they never do). It can be a little rough sometimes – I have had my artwork openly mocked online before – but that’s all part of making art, really, and you can’t let it stop you from making what you want.
Q: Do you know someone in the art world who has helped to elevate your art? If so, who? How important do you think it is to know someone already in the industry? Do you agree that as a new artist, without any connections to the art work, breaking through to a higher level of recognition is extremely difficult? If so, please explain why. If not, what do you think the most important aspect of your art and your relationships surrounding art is to your career/recognition growing?
K: My mentor at school, Jean-Francois Allaux, really helped me push myself further and take criticism better. He helped me hone my eye to see how I can always improve and change. I do agree that breaking through to a higher level of recognition is difficult but I think that is true for any field in which people are recognized. There will always be other people working harder, with more connections, and whose work you think is “better” than yours. The best thing you can do for yourself is to appreciate their accomplishments and use it to fuel your own work ethic. The other thing I would recommend is to look at what other well-known artists are working on and investigate how to break in. I have been lucky enough to work on some high-profile projects with some well-known people and it’s because I put myself out there and kept looking for a way to get my foot in the door.
M: I can’t really answer most of this, as I lack both an art career and much in the way of recognition. I also don’t have anyone I know or refer to that’s super deep into the art world. I do want to bug that Matt Smith guy, though, because he’s really cool.
W: I wouldn’t say my art has been elevated, and I certainly haven’t broken through to a higher level of recognition, so I can’t speak of its difficulty yet. I would imagine that advancing in the art world is a lot like advancing in most other worlds. Knowing someone in the industry can be very helpful, I’m sure, but honestly I think finding a niche, getting your work out there, making sure your portfolio and skills are the best they can be, and some degree of luck are more important. Having money helps a lot, too – I imagine it’s easier to keep your art going at a good pace when you don’t have to worry about day-to-day expenses.
Q: What is the biggest, most important issue for you in current art culture? Examples might be copy write law, social media exposure, cost of materials/software… you know better than me!!
K: I think a big problem is people wanting to pay with “exposure” and expecting people to work for cheap or free. This is always an issue and everyone complains about it. The problem is that people keep undervaluing themselves as artists and it perpetuates the problem. I’ve never once gotten a job because someone saw something I did elsewhere and tracked me down. It’s always because I sent them my portfolio and they saw something they liked in THERE. If someone expects a project will get a lot of exposure, then they should be willing to pay for something of quality. Always value yourself and your work. Never work for free unless you absolutely love the project and will enjoy working on it regardless of what you get paid. You won’t ever regret passing on a project that didn’t pay you, but you will regret spending time on a low-paying project when you could have been doing something you actually wanted to do.
M: It’s just fucking hard, I guess. Two of my friends who do illustration for a living are dealing with a lot of stress right now and I realize that I’d kind of like to avoid that. I’m currently a social worker and love that, but best of all is I still get to create art and do odd jobs here and there. Maybe someday I’ll buck up and really give this art career thing a shot, but my life is unstable enough as it is. At the end of the day, I’ll still be drawing, if only for myself.
W: The biggest issue for me is simply getting clients to actually pay a fair price for the work. I’ve encountered many work-for-hire contracts, which usually amount to giving the client all rights to the images, without getting compensated particularly well. Many companies will hire freelance artists in this manner, and it can be difficult to keep the balance between not accepting work that won’t compensate fairly, and making sure you can actually pay your rent.
Q: Final thoughts?
K: Don’t try to be an artist that you’re not. Do what you love and what you’re good at and focus on being the best you can be at that. If you love portraits, do portraits and look for where your portraits will fit in the world. Love robots? Draw robots. Want to sculpt muppets? There’s someone out there who will pay good money for that, you just have to find them. Don’t do digital design when you don’t like it because everyone says it’s the new thing and a good way to make money. Don’t go into industrial design when what you really love is sculpting. The jobs won’t magically fall in your lap, you’ll still have to find them, but you want to have a damn good portfolio when you do.
M: Is that a threat?
W: Thanks for your time.
Illustration + Design