How Did You Prepare for Your Career? -- James Gurney

1) What kinds of education, training, and practice did you do to prepare for your career? Anything special you’d recommend?
I had a general liberal arts education before I went to art school. I graduated first from UC Berkeley with an anthropology major. This turned out to be ideal preparation for doing archaeological illustration for National Geographic, though I didn't anticipate that when I was choosing a major. I was just taking classes that interested me.

I went to art school after my liberal arts education, but I left after two semesters, for three reasons. 1) It was expensive and I didn't want to be in debt. 2) The school I was attending wasn't teaching the information I was hungry to learn. 3) I started finding paying work in the movies and publishing that was much more challenging and interesting than what my friends were doing in art school.

As a result, I'm almost entirely self-taught in art. I signed up for a membership to the zoo and sketched live animals twice a week. I drew skeletons at the natural history museum. I developed my own curriculum of self-teaching based on the Famous Artists Course from the 1950s, How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, Andrew Loomis’s book Creative Illustration, and the teaching methods from the 19th century French academy, which involved fairly detailed anatomy and cast drawing. All this self-teaching from books was combined with daily outdoor painting which became such a passion that I ended up coauthoring a book on the subject for Watson-Guptill called The Artist's Guide to Sketchingin 1982.

2) What are the most important skills to practice and/or master in your artistic genre?
I think traditional drawing and painting skills will always be valuable—things like anatomy, perspective, caricature, and multi-figure composition. Those skills transcend styles and fads and they're surprisingly rare these days. 

My main influences were from before my time. Norman Rockwell was my childhood hero. As a high school student, I learned how to do hand-lettered calligraphy, and made my first income from designing wedding invitations. I got a job doing engraved line illustrations for ring ads in the newspaper. It wasn’t paying the bills. My big break was getting a job painting backgrounds for an animated film called Fire and Ice, co-produced by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta, and released in 1983. It was a marathon of painting, because I had to paint about 600 paintings in a year and a half. Whenever I have needed new skills for my career, I just teach them to myself.

3) Do you have any recommendations for a person just starting out in the field?
1. If you put together a portfolio, show only your best work——eight pieces at the least and sixteen pieces at the most. Start and finish with your best pieces.

2. Don’t rely solely on electronic media to make contact with people in the business. Try to meet the art buyer. Go to conventions. Take workshops. And don’t overlook mailing traditional paper letters and printed leave-behinds. Since so few people do it these days, you might get your work up on someone’s bulletin board.

3. Always express a can-do attitude. On your first job, do twice as good a job as anyone would expect, and deliver it early. Make every published work your very best, regardless of the deadline or the budget. Then be sure to deliver more than you promise.

4. Some parts of the arts industry are more competitive than others. Fewer people think of scientific illustration or toy design, for example, compared to movie concept art. And within the field of concept art, many more people try to break into character design than environment design. I don’t think young artists should worry about standing out or developing a unique style. I think it’s more important to be able to draw nature faithfully and express visual ideas clearly without calling attention to style. Too often art schools push young artists to develop a distinctive style before they’ve even begun to master the basics. 

5. Finally, to make a living by your art nowadays, you don't necessarily have to worry about winning the approval of the traditional gatekeepers (such as art directors, galleries, and movie studios) anymore. Thanks to Kickstarter, Gumroad, Patreon, YouTube and other crowd-based publicity and monetization strategies, you can assemble your own crowd and they can support you directly as you make your art. Start your own studio! Publish your own stuff! You can make art in the intersection of what you love to create and what people want to buy. That's why this is potentially the best time to be a young artist to enter the art world. But it takes persistence, grit, determination, flexibility, patience, and an understanding "significant-other”.

For tips on developing your social media strategies, check out the post: 72 Tips for Sharing Art on Social Media
For the best books to use for self teaching, check out: Best How-To Art Books and Art Students Survival Guide

Original Post by James Gurney

Web Site for James Gurney

The Blog of James Gurney, Gurney Journey