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The Crucial Question That Could Save Your Art Career [Part 3]

You’re A Better Artist Than You Think Lesson 1.3

In parts one and two of this series, I emphasized that most artists will never find a financially sustainable career until they develop a complete, professionally viable skill set.

…but why invest the time and energy necessary to develop a financially sustainable art career if you don’t love the work?

…or at least like it?

We saw how Mary Blair struggled to pay the bills with her passion for fine art, then settled for a steady paycheck in animation.

…but got bored with the work just a few years later.

If she hadn’t given animation one last chance, by joining Walt Disney’s visual development research trip to Latin America, she might never have discovered the skill set from which she derived creative fulfillment, a steady paycheck and her legendary career.

Today, in part three, I’ll share how and why I wasted a lot of time pursuing a career I never loved and three steps you can take to avoid the same mistake…

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

Step 1: Examine Your Background

A photo of Chris Oatley as a teenager with his parents. They’re outside in the shade, smiling at the camera.

Both of my parents were effective public school teachers.

…both in music.

…and my entire childhood was an education in education.

I was there when they spent all evening on the phone, collaborating with the parents or guardians of their students – and not just when there was a problem to solve.

I was there when their students made grand gestures of gratitude after the school concerts and musicals my parents directed.

A young Chris Oatley with a vintage Kermit The Frog puppet, circa 1984. The pupped holds a handmade banjo. In the background there is a rainbow made with construction paper and painted with Crayola markers.

I saw thousands of smiles, shaky voices and quivering lips as students and fellow faculty thanked my parents for encouragement, insight and shared passion for the craft.

My Dad was such a beloved teacher that we could never leave the house to celebrate his birthday because he had to stay close to the phone in order to receive the non-stop calls from former students, wishing him a happy birthday and reminding him what a difference he made in their lives.

When I’m in my hometown and I have to tell a stranger of a certain age my last name, it often leads to an animated conversation about how “amazing” an educator my Mom was.

(That’s always the word – “amazing.”)

Though I was never opposed to pursuing a teaching career, I had a profoundly emotional experience at age thirteen, during a showing of Disney’s Beauty & The Beast and decided I wanted to go to art school to become a 2D animator.

Glen Keane’s sketch of the Beast from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast.’

Half-way through my undergraduate program at The Columbus College Of Art and Design, however, the mainstream animation industry made it clear that 2D was over and CG was the future.

To me, even the best computer animation still looked kinda gross, so, even though the harbingers of this new medium claimed that drawing was still a significant aspect, I was skeptical.

I switched to illustration and graduated with half a portfolio.

…but after two years of compensating for a lack of illustration work with a day job at Guitar Center (Stairway To Heaven can go to hell), a compromise on medium seemed more appealing.

…so I enrolled at The Ohio State University to pursue a graduate degree in computer animation.

An illustration by Chris Oatley done in acrylics as part of his graduate studies at the Columbus College Of Art And Design in his senior year ca. 2001. Underneath a stormy sky, a young child in a yellow raincoat holds a red balloon by a string. He doesn’t see the large green monster in a trench coat that is towering over him and holding up a needle just waiting to burst the balloon.

…and which work study assignment paid my way?

Teaching.

…drawing fundamentals and 2D animation, specifically.

Throughout grad school, I was more invested in my teaching job than the degree it was intended to support.

As a grad student, I changed research topics multiple times, failed to finish a single thesis project and frustrated my advisors for three years.

…but as a teacher, I got the highest marks possible from my students and work study supervisors.

Throughout grad school, I was more invested in my teaching job than the degree it was intended to support.

My own coursework and research was interesting, but never as fulfilling as sharing time with my students, witnessing the “click” moments at which difficult drawing, design or animation concepts made sense to them and seeing their pride and confidence grow in correlation with their skill level.

Remember the crucial question?

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

I already had my answer.

It was right in front of me.

Then Disney called.

Step 1 Homework: Background

Chris Oatley’s digital illustration of the Room 2 mascot: a white elephant holding up a pink quill in front of a flat yellow background.

What interests, talents, skills, resources and life lessons are already available to you?

Make an exhaustive list.

Which aspects suggest (or combine to suggest) a potential career direction?

Which aspects are so obvious they could have been overlooked?

Which aspects might not have seemed useful until you did the homework assignments for parts one and two of this lesson?

Remember, you’re looking for a direction that fits both criteria: creative fulfillment and financial sustainability.

Review parts one and two of this lesson if you need help defining a viable professional skill set.

If that still doesn’t help, email us.

Note: Everyone’s personal background is different. Feel free to adapt this prompt in any way necessary to ensure it only edifies you creatively and professionally.

Step 2: Embrace The Boredom

After all that, Disney didn’t even hire me to animate.

They hired me for visual development.

Why is a whole ‘nother story. The short version is that, even though I didn’t learn what visdev is until half way through grad school, I began practicing each skill within the set (color, design, story and research) in art school and never stopped.

…which is why I was ready (or, at least, ready enough) when Disney called.

A detail of Chris Oatley’s early VisDev painting of Chloe from Disney’s ‘Pixie Hollow Games.’

When they did, I gave up on computer animation. I had grown to enjoy it, but it had always been a compromise.

…and of the career options then offered by the animation industry, visdev was a much better fit.

The next part of this story will get too confusing if I don’t spoil the ending, so here goes…

I eventually figured out that “teaching pre-professional artists” is my answer to the crucial question.

A VisDev prop design of a raw crystal chalice by Chris Oatley for the movie Tinker Bell.

Now, I teach full-time, freelance as a visual development artist (primarily) and practice my story craft through personal projects whenever possible.

If I ever had to choose between visdev and teaching, the choice would be easy. I can imagine a life without visdev, but I can’t imagine a life without teaching.

…so, though it would eventually play a supportive role in my career, visual development wasn’t the “wrong career” I mentioned earlier.

Storyboarding was.

Seems random, I know.

…but because I never found the same fulfillment in visual development as I do in teaching, I was restless until the day they traded places.

…and in the words of Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def):

My restlessness is my nemesis.

“My restlessness is my nemesis.”

…and that’s where my storyboarding story begins.

Sometime after Disney and DreamWorks abandoned 2D feature animation, I tried to find other ways to apply my drawing and painting skills within the wider animation industry.

During my search, I learned about animation pitch bibles and lauded the promise of early Internet animation.

Come on, Fhqwgads!

A digital cover illustration by Chris Oatley for a TV Pitch called ‘Manny McWeird And His Man-Eating Beard.’ It shows Manny with his extremely long beard wrapped around another character, holding him up in the air above Manny’s head.

Inspired, I worked on several pitch bibles – on my own and with collaborators. I designed the characters, wrote a few scripts and springboards and illustrated a few story moments.

…but I never attempted storyboarding.

I did, however, begin to appreciate its importance to the animation process.

Later, in grad school, I developed, designed, storyboarded and pitched a couple of short films for classes and my aforementioned thesis projects.

I loved the drawing, painting, writing and pitching.

…but the storyboarding?

…more like storyBORING.

A frame from Chris Oatley’s MFA project: an animated short called ‘Stay Cool.’ It shows the character model appreciating the cool air coming from the fan on a hot summer day.

For me, storyboarding offered neither the meditative focus of drawing and painting nor the immediacy of screenwriting.

…and though I enjoyed cracking up a crowd while pitching my boards, I always prefer conversation over presentation.

…but my storyboard pitches made an impression.

Fellow classmates, faculty, friends, family, and, eventually, two recruiters for a major studio, all encouraged me to pursue storyboarding as a career.

…and they weren’t wrong to do so. A career in storyboarding would have been a career drawing, pitching and developing my story craft within the field of animation.

It checked a lot of boxes.

A storyboard sequence done in pencil for Chris Oatley’s MFA project, showing two young monster characters sitting inside the house, one of which is shooting marbles at the other monster with a slingshot. The floor is littered with marbles, implying numerous previous attempts.

…but I just couldn’t stand the simple, ass-in-seat practice of drawing storyboards.

I could hardly make it through a single pass on a six minute short, let alone a twenty-two minute TV episode.

I mostly avoided storyboarding for the rest of my time in grad school, but it occupied space in my mind, my portfolio, on my bookshelf (thus creating space in my wallet) and it complicated my conversations with industry decision makers.

Breaking in at Disney stilled the storyboard swirl for a while, but after a couple years in corporate culture I grew restless again.

A photo of the Tinker Bell Meet And Greet at the Disney parks, featuring several fairy props designed by Chris Oatley.

Disney was all about “leadership” (despite it often feeling like the happiest factory on earth) so there’s a lot of pressure to ascend the hierarchy of one’s department.

The assumed promotion for a visual development artist was a job I decided I didn’t want – art director.

Of the senior positions the studio offered, the role of director was more appealing because of how they combined mentorship and story craft.

…but Disney departments often seem like Hogwarts houses (Once sorted, you’re stuck.), I sought advice from a few of my superiors.

Everyone said the same thing:

Switch to storyboarding and then ascend via the assumed path: storyboard revisionist to storyboard artist to head of story to director.

Instead of exploring why I didn’t want to be an art director or why, in general, the corporate ladder gave me vertigo, I started procrastinating practicing storyboarding again.

Digital storyboards done by Chris Oatley for his MFA project. It shows a character sweating in the unbearable heat and trying to stay cool with an iced drink and a cooling fan. Next step: dealing with the source of the problem, the sun.

I watched a few videos in Sherm Cohen‘s storyboard course (Which is great, by the way.), bought a few books I eventually gave to friends and drew a few revisions on old storyboards from grad school.

I don’t remember actually doing anything else about it.

I couldn’t stand the simple, ass-in-seat practice of drawing storyboards.

…and, just like back in grad school, storyboarding occupied space in my mind, my portfolio, on my bookshelf and it complicated my conversations with industry decision makers.

A cropped drawing by Justin Copeland, featuring Spider-Man swinging through the streets of New York City with an enraged Hulk jumping after him.

Who knows what a mess my restlessness could have made if I hadn’t become friends with Justin Copeland – the most impressive storyboard artist I know.

The first time I met him, at lunch with our mutual friend Jeff Wamester, Justin drew on napkins the entire time.

Justin’s napkin art wasn’t just doodles. These were dynamic figure drawings and compositions so clear you could even tell which camera lens he was imagining.

On another occasion, I saw him pitch a storyboard sequence where Tony Stark transformed into Iron Man.

It is, to this day, the single most inspiring superhero moment I’ve ever seen. In all the superhero movies, comics and video games, I’ve never seen anything more artful than Justin Copeland’s Iron Man boards.

That’s when I understood that storyboarding isn’t just another option on the animation buffet. It’s a cuisine.

…an art form to which Justin was wholeheartedly committed.

…and to which I had never been.

…and never would be.

A photo of James Clear’s book ‘Atomic Habits’ being held up in front of a bookshelf.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear shares the following story:

“After my baseball career ended, I was looking for a new sport. I joined my weightlifting team and one day an elite coach visited our gym. He had worked with thousands of athletes during his long career, including a few Olympians. I introduced myself and we began talking about the process of improvement.

‘What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else?’ I asked. ‘What do the really successful people do that most don’t?’

He mentioned the factors you might expect: genetics, luck, talent. But then he said something I wasn’t expecting: ‘At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.’

Successful people find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom.

His answer surprised me because it’s a different way of thinking about work ethic. People talk about getting ‘amped up’ to work on their goals. Whether it’s business or sports or art, you hear people say things like, ‘It all comes down to passion.’ or, ‘You have to really want it.’

As a result, many of us get depressed when we lose focus or motivation because we think that successful people have some bottomless reserve of passion. But this coach was saying that really successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else.

The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom.

Mastery requires practice. But the more you practice something, the more boring and routine it becomes. Once the beginner gains have been made and we learn what to expect, our interest starts to fade.

Sometimes it happens even faster than that.

All you have to do is hit the gym a few days in a row or publish a couple of blog posts on time and letting one day slip doesn’t feel like much. Things are going well. It’s easy to rationalize taking a day off because you’re in a good place.

The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom.”

Justin Copeland knows the figure, the camera, composition, editing, all the relevant software and the history of film.

…but none of that would matter if he wouldn’t abide the simple, ass-in-seat practice of drawing storyboards.

When storyboarding gets boring, Justin Copeland keeps going.

I only ever considered storyboarding because other people told me to.

The more you practice something, the more boring and routine it becomes.

…and I never embraced the boredom.

As a teacher, I love almost every hour I invest in developing and revising lessons, the exhaustive reading and research, creating demos for class and offering critiques.

It rarely gets boring.

…but when it does, I keep going.

…because there’s always the fathomless fulfillment of sharing time with my students.

…and there are few greater feelings than the moment when one of them calls or writes to say they got their big break and that I played a role in their success.

It was a relief to accept that storyboarding was simply not for me.

…but why did it take so long?

…and was it really a waste of time?

Step 2 Homework: Boredom

Chris Oatley’s digital illustration of the Room 2 mascot: a white elephant holding up a pink quill in front of a flat yellow background.

No matter how passionate you are about developing a professionally viable skill set, you’ll always encounter boredom in practice.

(Read the book Peak by K. Anders Ericsson and the aforementioned Atomic Habits by James Clear for more about how to practice efficiently and effectively.)

…but which boredom will you embrace?

Consider your lists from parts one and two of this lesson. What skills that others find boring, do you find embraceable?

What skills have you tried to develop in the past but abandoned because SQUIRREL!?

What would happen if you committed to the simple, ass-in-seat practice?

What “false positives” might be acting as a distraction?

(Even if the people who recommended a particular career path meant well, you’re the one who has to live with the decisions.)

…and speaking of decisions, is there anything about which it’s time to just make a decision and commit?

Step 3: Give It Time

During my first year in grad school, I told my Mom about an upsetting encounter I had in the teachers’ lounge.

A few other educators seemed to have nothing else to talk about except how lazy/ clueless/ stubborn all of their students were.

Some of their students were also my students, so I always felt all mama-bear when I heard those teachers complain like that.

A storyboard panel done in pencil for Chris Oatley’s MFA project, showing two young monster characters sitting inside the house, one of which is aiming a slingshot at the other across the table. The floor is littered with marbles, implying numerous previous attempts.

I asked my Mom if she thought I’d done the right thing when I called them out and explained that while the occasional problem student is expected, trends like they were describing are actually the teachers’ responsibility.

I said something like: “If you treat them like artists, they will act like artists.”

Accurately interpreting my agitation as passion, she said, “Well, Christopher, if you ever decide you don’t want to work at Disney, you could always teach full-time.”

I said maybe part-time. I had already invested so much in my animation career, I didn’t even want to consider changing direction that close to the goal.

It’s weird to think that there was a time I thought of teaching as an add-on.

…especially since I now consider it the primary aspect of my life’s purpose.

A photo of Angela Duckworth’s book ‘Grit’ being held up in front of a bookshelf.

Author Angela Duckworth helped me understand why it took so long to realize that. Here’s a series of excerpts from her book Grit: The Power Of Passion And Perseverance (lightly edited for length):

“I don’t think most young people need encouragement to follow their passion. Most would do exactly that – in a heartbeat – if only they had a passion in the first place.

If I’m ever invited to give a commencement speech, I’ll begin with the advice to foster a passion.

When I first started interviewing grit paragons, I assumed they’d all have stories about the singular moment when, suddenly, they’d discovered their God-given passion.

In my mind’s eye, this was a filmable event, with dramatic lighting and a soundtrack of rousing orchestral music commensurate with its monumental, life-changing import.

In the opening scene of Julie & Julia a younger Julia Child than any of us watched on television is dining in a fancy French restaurant with her husband, Paul. Julia takes one bite and swoons. She never knew food could be this good.

‘The whole experience was an opening up of the soul and spirit for me,’ Julia said many years later. ‘I was hooked, and for life, as it turned out.’

We are wise not to follow, but to foster passion.

Such cinematic moments were what I expected from my grit paragons. And I think this is also what young graduates imagine it must be like to discover your life’s passion. One moment, you have no idea what to do with your time on earth. And the next, it’s all clear – you know exactly who you were meant to be.

But, in fact, most grit paragons I’ve interviewed told me they spent years exploring several different interests, and the one that eventually came to occupy all of their waking (and some sleeping) thoughts wasn’t recognizably their life’s destiny on first acquaintance.

As for Julia Child, that ethereal morsel was indeed a revelation. But her epiphany was that classical French cuisine was divine, not that she would become a chef and cookbook author.

In Julia’s romance with French food, that first bite was just the first kiss. ‘Really, the more I cook, the more I like to cook,’ she later told her sister-in-law.

So while we might envy those who love what they do for a living, we shouldn’t assume that they started from a different place than the rest of us. Chances are, they took quite some time figuring out exactly what they wanted to do with their lives.

Commencement speakers may say about their vocation, ‘I can’t imagine doing anything else,’ but, in fact, there was a time earlier in life when they could.”

Remember how I had to switch from 2D animation to illustration half-way through art school?

A photo of Chris Oatley outside a Guitar Center store in Arvada, CO, playing air guitar underneath a banner proclaiming, ‘Now Offering Music Lessons.’

…which is why I graduated with half a portfolio and, failing to launch a successful illustration career, had to get a day job at Guitar Center and listen to out-of-tune-Stairways-To-Heaven all day long and it was all Shrek’s fault?

Although I felt completely lost, I was on the right path…

I learned about digital audio recording at Guitar Center.

…and, thanks to the significant employee discount, I built a little home studio by giving most of my paychecks back to my employer.

After Guitar Center (but before graduate school), I got a job as a background painter for a small animation shop in Columbus, Ohio. When my alma mater asked if someone from our studio could come over and review portfolios on career day, they sent me.

I had a great time and got positive feedback from the students.

The podcast album art for Chris Oatley’s ArtCast, showing a small white robot with green eyes holding up a paintbrush that is dripping with green paint in front of a flat grey background.

…so when I discovered a new thing called podcasting during my first year at Disney, I became an “early adopter” for the first and only time in my life.

I applied the recording knowledge I picked up at Guitar Center and imagined I was speaking to those students from career day.

Despite my giving it the uninspired title of Chris Oatley’s ArtCast, a lot of artists listened to my show.

(My friends and family told me the show was popular because I have a way with words. If that’s true, it’s also because my show was one of the first of its kind.)

In 2011, I got a booth at CTNX. I didn’t have anything to sell. I just wanted to network with other artists and promote my podcast.

I had no idea the experience would change my life.

A photo of Jason Pruett and Chris Oatley’s shared booth at CTNX in 2011. Jason Pruett smiles at the camera in front of a couple of banner images, one of which is prominently featuring the dinosaur characters of Chris Oatley’s personal project, ‘Greg The Megabeaver’s Prehistoric Sideshow.’

All weekend long, there was a line of podcast listeners at my booth, wanting to talk and share their artwork.

In all three days, there was only one hour where there wasn’t a line – on Sunday afternoon as the convention was coming to a close.

In most of the conversations I had, there was a constant refrain – always some version of the following:

I struggled with ________ concept until I heard you explain it.

Many of them asked, specifically, if I would offer an online course.

…and that’s when everything clicked.

I had a meaningful connection with pre-professional artists all over the world.

…just like those I worked with at my alma mater career day and during my work study assignment in graduate school.

…and I had the technology and experience to start a small, online school guided by the values I learned from my parents.

A year later, I launched my first online course.

I received twice as many enrollments as I needed to proceed, so I quit my job at Disney.

I’ve been teaching full-time ever since.

A digital illustration by Chris Oatley, showing a cartoony version of himself as he records an ArtCast episode with a portable mic while walking his dog.

From the conversation with my Mom where I told her I thought teaching would be secondary, to that decisive moment at CTNX, it took seven years for me to realize that the creative fulfillment I was seeking had been there all along.

Would I have figured things out faster without those storyboarding distractions?

…probably.

…a little.

…and the increased focus would probably have made me a better visdev artist in the meantime.

Professional benefits aside, it would have been wise to allocate some of that time and energy for mindfulness and self-care.

However, I also know that lasting passion is only clear in hindsight.

A few years ago, I was at dinner with some friends. Half the restaurant was blocked off for a young couple’s engagement party.

When a dad with a microphone announced the couple’s arrival, their friends and family applauded and cheered.

Then he acknowledged his own parents and said they were celebrating their own special day…

…their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

The crowd went wild.

Lasting passion is only clear in hindsight.

The floor in the restaurant was literally shaking from all the noise.

The elderly couple, hand-in-hand, stood up – slow and unsteady. They waved and smiled wide as tears filled their eyes.

My friends and I cheered too.

Of course, everyone in the building was happy for the young couple. …but everyone knows that half a century means something else entirely.

Lasting passion is only clear in hindsight.

Storyboarding, for me, was a misguided pursuit that brought a lot of confusion and deferred the realization that I’m a teacher first.

As Angela Duckworth explained, we are wise not to follow, but to foster passion.

…but that takes time.

Examine your background.

Embrace the boredom.

…and give it time.

Step 3 Homework: Time

Chris Oatley’s digital illustration of the Room 2 mascot: a white elephant holding up a pink quill in front of a flat yellow background.

Lasting passion leaves a trail of evidence.

…but, often, other people find it before you do.

Create a sequential timeline of your creative and professional aspirations. It might help to write it like a memoir similar to the one you just read.

Like teaching was for me, are there any recurring themes?

If so, what does that mean for you?

Consider what evidence you, or people you trust might have discovered along the way. When you separate the evidence from anything that might have been a distraction, what conclusions could you draw?

Lesson 1 Wrap-Up:

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.

Professional artists, aspiring and experienced, expect their work to be both creatively fulfilling and financially sustainable.

…and that’s a lot to expect.

…but not too much.

We only expect too much when we expect it to be easy.

Developing a creatively fulfilling, financially sustainable art career is difficult because there are two criteria instead of just one or the other.

I don’t presume that everyone wants to make art their job.

If you’re satisfied to hold your art in a sacred place, devoted only to self-expansion, that’s valid.

…but if the occasional night and weekend are not enough (For me, they’re not.) then you’ll need to make more room for art.

…and that probably means going pro.

I also know that there’s no perfect job – creative or otherwise.

Every job has moments (or even entire seasons) where it’s an uninspiring grind, but we all know the difference between work in which we often lose all sense of time and work where we simply punch a clock and check it every thirty minutes.

There’s no perfect job, creative or otherwise.

We also know that every industry has problems and that certain industries are more problematic than others.

There’s always a dance-with-the-devil-you-choose aspect to survival in a capitalist society.

As author/ illustrator Hugh MacLeod said, “Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.”

…but until our society effectively implements something like universal basic income, it seems that professional artists (aspiring and experienced) are stuck with the conundrum:

How can I make a sustainable living from creatively fulfilling work?

The good news is that there are a lot of options.

Animation, games and VFX are still growing.

Publishing markets like kidlit, YA and Sci-Fi/ Fantasy remain viable.

Successful all-ages and indie comics get series and film options.

Independent creatives with everything from board game boutiques to custom doll shops to pet portraits can benefit from unprecedented reach and risk mitigation through social media.

Emerging markets like streaming and VR offer further possibilities…

Art careers are everywhere.

The crucial question is:

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

Next, In Lesson Two:

You learn to improve your art literally overnight by developing a more professional workflow…

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

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