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The Crucial Question That Could Save Your Art Career [Part 2]

You’re A Better Artist Than You Think Lesson 1.2

In part one of this series, I posed a mostly rhetorical question:

Are professional artists (whether aspiring or experienced) foolish to believe that their work could be both financially sustainable and creatively fulfilling?

This page from 'They Drew As They Pleased, Vol 4' by Didier Ghez shows a collection Mary Blair's character designs for 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Then we observed a struggle between these two extremes in the early life and work of Mary Blair, a genius of color and design who became one of the most influential artists in the history of Disney animation.

…but before that, she quit.

…after just fourteen months at the studio.

…and then abruptly changed her mind.

Today we’ll learn that, after her return to Disney, Mary Blair discovered, in effect, one crucial question that led to an elevated role in which she soon found the work to be both financially sustainable and creatively fulfilling.

…a crucial question that led her transformation from versatile mimic into the marquee artist of Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan and the animatronic wonder It’s A Small World.

…a crucial question that every professional artist (aspiring or experienced) would be wise to apply.

Watch The Video (Or Read On For The Transcript):

Saludos Amigos:

Mary Blair quit her job at Disney just a few months before the United States entered the Second World War.

In an effort to bolster diplomatic relationships, President Roosevelt convinced Walt Disney (in exchange for a much-needed financial guarantee) to lead a project that would eventually comprise the development and production of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

A double page spread depicting different scenes of life painted by Disney artist Mary Blair on location in South America in 1941: groups of women in town, a procession of small sailing boats traveling along a river, a pregnant woman carrying a child on her back and a basket filled with geese on her head as she walks through dense vegetation with a goat by her side, a village surrounded by mountains. The pages are taken from John Canemaker's book 'The Art And Flair Of Mary Blair.'

When Mary heard that production would begin with a research trip through Latin America, she regretted her decision to quit.

…so she went back to Walt and asked for a spot on the roster.

He obliged and also put her back on the payroll.

The Disney research team toured from August through October. Walt played a primarily ambassadorial role while his artists immersed themselves in the various local cultures. Drawing and painting en plein air, journaling, photographing and filming, they generated a prolific amount of concept art and story ideas.

The quality and cultural sensitivity of the finished films are (as one would expect from an almost entirely white/ male/ US-American team working under the auspices of geopolitical crisis management in a studio already notorious for exploiting stereotypes) inconsistent.

This page from John Canemaker's book 'The Art And Flair Of Mary Blair' features a watercolor painting by Mary Blair showing a procession of a South American girl and four women, painted on location in 1941.

That’s what happens when a studio tries to represent real-world cultures without the cohesive participation of multiple in-house employees from those cultures.

Despite their problematic premise, it seems that the individual artists were genuinely invested and positively affected. (Watch the documentary Walt and El Grupo to learn more about their experience.)

For Mary Blair, the trip changed everything.

Sharply In Focus:

Compare the illustration and story sketches she created before the trip, to the watercolors and pastels she painted en plein air in Latin America and you’ll see that Mary, as Didier Ghez described, had “discovered a new world, a world whose colors were a revelation.”

…and though, as Marc Davis said, Mary would become known as one of “the greatest colorist[s] of all time,” the experience affected every aspect of her work, not just color.

Historian JB Kaufman observed that by “some subliminal catalyst in the South American atmosphere, a new artistic voice was emerging in her paintings.”

Frank Thomas (who was also part of Disney’s research team) agreed. He observed her development of an entirely new artistic approach.

…one that was “simple, direct and sharply in focus.”

She discovered a world whose colors were a revelation.

(She probably identified a link between the bold colors and confident shapes that were awakening in Brazil and her pre-existing affinity for modernism.)

Mary confirmed that her transformation was holistic, crediting the art, fashion and natural splendor of Brazil and Guatemala as an education in color and a nigh-religious experience in Mexico (during Las Posadas) for her commitment to the childlike innocence that defined her prime.

Walt’s Favorite Artist:

Mary’s transformation affected much more than her art career.

…it reformed the aesthetic legacy of Disney animation.

As John Canemaker explained, Walt Disney saw Mary’s “seemingly overnight” transformation happen before his eyes.

“Walt instinctively understood that Blair’s assertive art was in sync with the changing times and future projects. The delicate Arthur Rackham-like fairy tale illustrations that inspired Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs were out; bold graphics, stylization and surrealism were in, as exemplified in the phantasmagoria of The Three Caballeros.”

Mary’s transformation also inspired a lifelong friendship with Walt.

Nathalia Holt elaborates in the following collection of excerpts from her book The Queens Of Animation:

“Mary perceived her role at the studio differently as well. She was no longer an outsider, allowed through the studio doors only because of her husband. The trip had made her one of Walt’s inner circle and given her a higher appreciation for the artistry that drove their animation.

She was no longer an outsider.

As the studio’s value was rising in her opinion, Walt was gaining new appreciation for Mary. The colors and sketches she developed on the trip were like nothing he had seen before. She would brazenly place reds and pinks next to one another, then throw in eccentric patterns that few artists would dare combine.

Walt was transfixed. He had a new favorite artist.

His admiration was lasting and sincere. Very few pieces of artwork by studio employees were displayed at his home, but Walt loved Mary’s watercolors so much that two of her paintings of Peruvian children, both concept drawings [for] Saludos Amigos, hung in the Disney house in Los Angeles.”

A Place In The Business:

It seems there were several reasons why Mary Blair quit her job at Disney and almost missed this life-changing trip.

First of all, for Mary, the animation industry was already “Plan B.”

…a financially sustainable, albeit creatively unfulfilling, alternative to the gallery scene.

Furthermore, like many professional women (then and now), Mary lived with disproportionate domestic pressures.

…and though she never became invested in the issues that led to the infamous Disney strike of 1941, it complicated a professional arrangement that she would have preferred to keep simple.

As we learned in part one of this series, Mary hoped that a career in commercial illustration would be more “interesting” than her early work at Disney.

…and maybe she was right. Maybe she wasn’t. We’ll never know.

Regardless, it seems clear now that commercial illustration wasn’t the right answer either.

…because, in Latin America, Mary Blair “discovered color” (as I once heard Mindy Johnson say), developed a more focused approach to drawing and painting and demonstrated her potential for a new professional role – what we now call “Visual Development.”

…a role in which she would enjoy both creative fulfillment and financial sustainability for the next two decades.

So, what’s the lesson here? Buy a plane ticket to Rio?

So what’s the lesson here?

…buy a plane ticket to Rio?

Although I do recommend that all artists travel as far and as frequently as they are able, travel was just Mary Blair’s way of finding an answer to the crucial question.

Travel was not the answer itself.

The answer, for Mary Blair, was Visual Development.

A Researcher At Heart:

Visual Development comprises four main aspects: Color, Design, Story and Research.

…for specific application in the animation field.

Travel is just one of the ways Visual Development Artists conduct their research.

(We also watch a lot of movies and stage extremely awkward reference photos. It’s a fun job.)

Mary’s previous work as a “versatile mimic” shows that her skill with Color, Design and Story were established before the Latin American tour.

…and though she was always, as animator Eric Larson said, “a researcher at heart,” she hadn’t tried combining all four.

When she did, everything clicked.

A black and white photo of Mary Blair working on a watercolor painting in South America in 1941. The photo is featured in 'The Art And Flair Of Mary Blair' by John Canemaker.

“From then on,” she said, “everything was extremely interesting. The type of work now involved – inspirational sketches, styling, obtaining material on survey trips – was started by this trip to South America. From ’41 on, I felt I found a place in the business.”

Mary Blair’s work as a fine art painter was financially unsustainable.

…then her work as a “versatile mimic” in animation was creatively unfulfilling.

…until she found the balance between creative fulfillment and financial sustainability by combining all four aspects of the Visual Development skill set.

I felt I found a place in the business.

Of course, Visual Development couldn’t accommodate every one of Mary Blair’s many creative curiosities. How could it? That’s why she also designed her own clothes, worked in advertising, children’s publishing and eventually returned to fine art.

…but Visual Development was the best fit that came with a steady paycheck.

Furthermore, it was within that balance that she did her best work.

The Crucial Question:

For over fifteen years, I’ve been helping aspiring professional artists develop creatively fulfilling, financially sustainable careers through my online mentorships and free formats like this course.

To me, it frequently seems that the most frustrated artists are the ones asking:

“How could I make money from my art?”

…without considering why they might make money from their art.

Instead of trying to find their place in a business, they’re trying to find business for their place.

Instead of asking:

“How could I make money from my art?”

…try this:

“Of the artistic skill sets for which there is an existing market demand, in which do I find the most fulfillment when practicing?”

That’s the crucial question.

…the mindset shift away from:

I-made-a-thing-someone-give-me-money

…to:

Why-would-someone-give-me-money-for-this-thing?

…and if they wouldn’t, why not?

Aspiring professionals in non-artistic fields assume the crucial question.

Imagine you’re waiting at a crowded bus stop for your morning commute and some rando in flip flops and a red dot helmet rolls up on a tricycle shouting:

“Everybody on! …and hurry up! We’re late!”

Imagine you’re about to have a root canal. Reclining in the chair, feeling the anesthetic take over, an assistant tells you that your dentist is on vacation, so they asked your car mechanic to perform the extraction instead. He enters the room, greasy pliers in hand…

“Don’t you worry, friend. I’ll pop ‘at sucker out faster’n you can say ‘daggum!'”

In non-artistic fields, for everyone from bus drivers to dentists, aspiring professionals develop skill sets to match existing market demand.

Why would it be any different for artists?

Why would our approach to becoming a professional artist differ from the approach to becoming a professional-anything-else?

Find a business that fits.

Then find your place within it.

Again, the crucial question is:

“Of the artistic skill sets for which there is an existing market demand, in which do I find the most fulfillment when practicing?”

Yes, it’s complex.

…and it takes time, attention and considerable effort to answer.

…but it’s one of the most useful questions a professional artist (aspiring or experienced) could ever consider.

…because honest, informed responses to the crucial question eventually lead to creatively fulfilling, financially sustainable work.

Next, In Part Three:

I’ll share a story about how I found my own answer to the crucial question, how I lost it and how I got it back.

But before that, your homework…

Lesson 1.2 Homework:

How do you feel about your current approach to becoming a professional artist?

Are you trying to find your place in a business?

…or are you trying to find business for your place?

If you’re the latter:

List all the ways your work would improve if you focused on developing a specific, professional skill set for which there is an existing market demand.

Begin researching healthy (or at least stable) markets where there is growing (or at least consistent) demand for specific artistic skill sets.

(Here are a few examples of existing markets for professional artists: Feature Animation, TV/ Streaming Animation, Costume Design, Kidlit, All-Ages Comics, Sci-Fi/ Fantasy Illustration, Editorial Illustration, Scientific Illustration, AAA Video Games, Indie Game Development, Motion Graphics, Murals, Surface Pattern Design, Doll Customization and Pet Portraiture.)

Look over your “Hell Yes” list from Lesson 1.1 and identify any marketable skills within which you’re already finding fulfillment.

Do your “Hell Yes” and “Hell No” lists suggest that you would prefer a role as an employee at a company? If so, search sites like LinkedIn for old job postings. These often list specific skill requirements.

…if your lists suggest entrepreneurship, then I recommend reading Clockwork by Mike Michalowicz and Storybrand by Donald Miller.

If you’re the former:

Maybe it’s time to get more specific.

Within which skill set are you both practiced and fulfilled?

With which existing market demand does your skill set align?

Is any aspect of your professional skill set under-developed vis a vis that existing market demand?

If so, how will you focus on improving that specific aspect of your skill set?

Every Successful Art Career Is A Collaboration:

Get clear, relevant feedback on your work and focused, personalized guidance for your art career in our newest mentorship: The Clockwork Heart

Any Questions?

Please email them to Support@ChrisOatley.com. If we receive questions to which our responses apply more generally, we’ll create bonus lessons and share them along with the main course content.

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Special thanks: To Storybook Steve for providing the music in the video accompanying the lesson, our Production Coordinator Mari Gonzales Curia and Content Producer Mona Lloyd for editorial contributions to this post.