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4 Artist Tips That Can Improve Any Career Path (Even Non-Art)

Originally published on LinkedIn

I think drawing has always come naturally to me. As long as I can recall, I have been able to put down a likeness on paper relatively effortlessly. I solidified my techniques over the years by working tirelessly to improve, by training in the tools of the trade, and by observing those more experienced than me.

During the larger part of 25 years that I spent honing my drawing techniques, my artwork has received attention in galleries on both East and West coasts, and my illustration work has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the U.S., all while I was building and earning a living in a career outside the art world. In many ways, though, the things I learned in pursuit of mastering a hobby, as some would playing golf or chess, has helped me navigate my professional career. I owe much of my professional success to my art teachers for instilling a life’s worth of lessons that transcend the art world.

Below are four lessons I was taught by several of my art instructors that can better prepare anyone focused on their career path inside or outside the art world.

A drawing rarely turns out the way you picture the image in your head.

An artist once said (and I paraphrase), “I spend the first five minutes capturing the image and the next five hours fixing the mistakes.” Bob Ross, America's favorite TV Art Instructor, would call it a "Happy Accident".

Life is often about recovering.

Flubs in your work history – dead-end job, lay-off, being fired – are easier to smooth over early in your career. When you are young, you are expected to try new things, to absorb good and bad work experiences like a sponge. I believe one learns so much more making mistakes than by getting something right the first time; picking the right major, playing things safe.

What you don’t see in the finished drawing – the marks you drew early on and covered over or erased -- are often the most important contributions to an image.

I often look back over my career and call out specific moments, often from my teens working at a pizza restaurant, sweeping floors and cleaning the bathrooms of a warehouse, or bagging groceries. You will not find these moments on my resume but they hold just as much value for building my character as my more recent employers and positions.

Bob Ross once said, “I think probably nothing will teach you more than just experimenting. Do as many different things as you have the nerve to do. You just… Go for it. Sometimes you learn more from mistakes than you do from trying so hard. So anytime you make a mistake, before you get upset at it, look at it. Sometimes those mistakes turn into being the best learning devices we have.”

Don’t blame the tools you are given.

I have never owned the most expensive of anything; not to this day. An art instructor once told me, “never start a hobby you can’t afford to keep.” Before I ever worked with more refined paint brushes, pencils or paper, I became comfortable creating with cheap pencils and brushes on cheap newsprint paper.

Growing up in a house where magazines were scarce, I made use of the black-and-white obituary photos printed in the daily newspaper to use for visual reference when drawing. I would have given my left tooth for an array of full-color magazines. But by being forced to work from blurry, low-resolution black-and-white photos, I trained myself to look deep for detail where there was no photographic evidence of detail; to create detail from nothing.

Upon earning a driver’s license, and eventually enough consistent income for gas in the car, Saturday afternoons became my time for artistic growth. I spent those hours at the Cincinnati Art Museum. My time at the museum marked a formidable period of growth in my drawing skill. I spent the larger part of 3 years visiting the museum (admission was free on Saturdays), moving from painting to sculpture with my sketchbook, copying images from Rembrandt, Grant Wood, Mary Cassatt and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Learn as much as you can from what you’ve been provided. As long as you are progressing in your career growth, your skill, or your goal, you are setting yourself up to get the better job, to purchase the nicer tools, to elevate your skills, to provide your employer, industry, or trade with the best version of you that you can. Use the tools already around you. Down your career path, your tools can be used to define your style. But for right now, they are simply built for honing your skills.

Stand back to look at your artwork from time to time

Art work is created to be viewed from a specific vantage point. Standing too close distorts the perception of how the whole of the painting or drawing is working. The longer an artist works without stepping back, the easier it becomes to obsess over individual areas. One of my studio art instructors told me the story of the method his instructor took to correct a pupil’s drawing when he felt they were treating their drawing with excessive care too early in development. The instructor often smoked a cigar during class, while he walked from student easel to student easel, providing instruction. If he saw that a student was obsessing over details in a drawing, preventing him from paying attention to the whole of the image, he would approach the student’s sketch, take the cigar from his mouth, and put it out across the student’s drawing.

Has life ever put a cigar out on your drawing? Or put a wrinkle in your resume? The Great Recession took a hit on my career, pushing me headfirst into the unemployment pool. It was during a massive layoff with the company I had worked at for over six years that I decided a change in my life was in order. I returned to school and eventually earned an MBA. Going back to school, and the short time unemployed, created some positive distance between me and my former position of six years. Though the layoff turned my life temporarily upside down, my reaction to it – pursuit of an MBA – allowed me to gain some altitude from the layoff situation so I could re-approach my career, not just my employment, with fresh eyes.

The more one can step back and become objective, the easier it is to see strengths and weaknesses.

Never be satisfied. You are your biggest fan and your biggest foe.

I have never created a drawing or painting that I have every truly been satisfied with. I obsess over the mistakes I made or the areas I could have improved with more time. My drawings are not finished works of art; they are more like works in progress that are never complete. I am not as good as I want to be. And I doubt I ever will. But this dissatisfaction in my own capabilities is what drives me to constantly improve upon my skill. And the idea that I am better at something than I was yesterday motivates me to do better tomorrow.

My career is a work in progress. I am not one to find contentment doing the same thing, day in and day out, for years. And that’s okay.

Leave it to Bob Ross to sum this concept up: “I think if there’s a secret to human nature, it’s the fact that we aren’t satisfied. We’re never satisfied. I hope you’re absolutely plagued with dissatisfaction through your whole life. Because if you are, you’ll always strive to do better. And over and over, I tell my students, ‘If you ever do a painting you’re completely satisfied with, you might as well quit ‘cause you have nowhere else to go.’ And the next one that I do is gonna be my masterpiece. Probably won’t be this one but the next one.”

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