This is a cautionary tale, so hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.
While I’m going to focus on my artwork this could just as easily apply to writing, or music, or anything else where you express yourself.
Don’t walk away from creativity.
I stopped creating artwork for 15 years. I will detail the reasons why below, but the cost was much higher than I anticipated.
What I’ve learned since returning to creating artwork is that being creative, particularly in this manner, is something that is not just important to me but something that is fundamental to who I am.
When I was young
I could never get enough paper and art supplies when I was growing up. I was fortunate that my parents were very supportive and always kept me in bristol board, and map pencils, and markers, and anything else that I desired, to be creative.
Some of my friends would complain about being bored when they were alone, but I relished that time because it allowed me to be creative.
I got serious about drawing when I was five years old. I wasn’t any good at it but I was certainly trying as hard as I could.
I remember drawing pictures of Spider-Man in the Star Wars universe, which was exceptionally absurd at the time (in the 70s) but my designs for that character are similar to what you see in the MCU movies today (with Tony Stark’s armor and gadgets).
Afternoons and evenings were spent poring over comics and magazines, and anything that I could get my hands on, that would inspire me and teach me to get better.
By age 13 my parents invested in a large beautiful drafting table for me to draw on and I had decided that I wanted to be an artist for a career.
I sold my first piece of art in my teens at a local science fiction convention and thought I was well on my way to success.
Comics became my passion and in my 20s I published several comics with my best friends.
Unfortunately, it was right around this time that I began to take an open and honest assessment of where I was and where I wanted to be in my life. I loved doing art and it was deeply important to me, but I wasn’t making any money doing it.
Don’t get me wrong, I tried very hard to make money by doing freelance artwork or approaching large comic book companies and seeking employment. But to be honest, while I was good, I needed to put more time into my craft to be great, and to make a living at it. I was close, but I wasn’t dedicated enough to be a professional.
It was right around this time that I began to reconsider what success meant to me, and I walked away from drawing.
[This is a piece that I did for a pin-up comic titled “Bad Girls” in 1995.]
What I wanted to find was something that would still allow me to be creative but would also be something more technical that would translate into making more money.
I began to pursue photography and I returned to college to learn that trade.
I want to stress here that photography is unquestionably art, and also undoubtedly a creative endeavor. And as a photographer I have made more money, I created a substantial career for myself, and over the past three years straight, I have won an award for being the best in my niche.
I do not regret focusing on photography. However, I absolutely regret not drawing, inking, or painting for 15 years.
There are many reasons why I didn’t create artwork over this time. For one, I felt like drawing had betrayed me and kept me from the success that I was looking for.
Also, due to a number of factors, I didn’t have the workspace required to draw and paint as I once had.
And, I was exceptionally busy with all of the other things that I was doing. I didn’t miss drawing and painting because I had so many other things going on.
Fast forward 15 years
People who met me within the last 15 or 20 years didn’t even know that I was capable of drawing. Only long-time friends and family knew that I had the ability.
[This is the T-shirt I drew on for my friend, the first piece of real artwork I had done in 15 years. The date of this photo was September 2014.]
One of my friends discovered that I could draw and asked me to do something on a T-shirt for her. So I drew a picture of her on the T-shirt. When she found out that I was pretty good at it she started feeding me every type of media you could imagine. She would bring me floor tiles and paint to do pieces. She got me supplies to do linocuts. And I began to invest in large sketch pads, sable hair brushes, charcoal, erasers, pastels, and other goodies.
I got the bug again.
At the time I was dealing with a lot of challenging things in my life. My dad had recently been diagnosed with dementia. I lost a lucrative stable job with a large energy company. And I was feeling a little lost.
What I discovered is the more artwork I created the better I felt.
I also learned something else very important. Artwork, like everything else, requires you to practice regularly, and do the hard work to improve, or you’ll lose your proficiency.
I simply wasn’t as good at drawing as I was when I stopped 15 years earlier. It was frustrating, but it was also a challenge.
The digital fix
Since I still didn’t have an art space to make a big mess it occurred to me that the same computer that I was using for photography, video, and design, could also be used to create art. The problem was that I would have to learn almost everything from scratch, again.
[One of my first pieces of digital art on PhotoShop. This was a super simple piece for an article I wrote. I was still struggling with that confidence-of-line on a tablet.]
Since I was doing this for fun, and since I didn’t have any pressure on me to produce anything, I had the freedom to be terrible.
I invested in a Wacom tablet and started doing work in Photoshop. I moved quickly to Adobe Illustrator and several smaller programs that were designed specifically for creating artwork.
Each program had its own particular charms and I was producing increasingly better work as I began to be more comfortable with drawing on a tablet and learning how to use more features on these programs.
When I discovered Clip Studio Paint it was a revelation for me. It just naturally did all of the things that I wanted it to do, and the results looked like what I would’ve created with a pencil and paper. I knew immediately that this was the program that I was going to stick with and that I could begin to work on my process and my style.
I’m still very much in the mode of learning and growing and becoming better at what I’m doing. But in the course of becoming better, and sharing my work on my website and on social media, I began to attract an audience for my work.
[“Miss Robbn” — Commissioned work from last month.]
Ironically, while I was doing this for fun, it ended up becoming one of my streams of income. People began to contact me and ask if I did commissioned work. The more commissioned work I did the more requests I got. And now it’s a substantial part of my workload.
So, after walking away from artwork because it wasn’t producing for me financially, it’s funny that I found money in a place that I wasn’t looking.
I’ve learned so much over the last few years. Not only about artwork, or the process, but also who I am as a person and how important artwork is to me.
I can’t roll back the clock and get back the 15 years I lost. If I had begun to do digital artwork around the time that I stopped doing artwork entirely, there’s no telling where I would be artistically at this time or what kind of opportunities would have fallen in my lap.
I’ll tell you this… my evolution in the last two years has been exponential. If I could’ve added 15 more years of experience who knows where I would be today.
What I can do right now is acknowledge that I wish I had never stopped drawing, learn from that personally, and share this experience with you so maybe you won’t make the same mistake.
Here are a few things that I learned along the way.
1. Use it or lose it.
Yeah, taking 15 years off of doing artwork, or probably just about anything else you can imagine, means that you’re going to have a lot work to get back to the point where you left off. It’s so much easier to just keep going.
2. Have fun.
The last few years I’ve been solely focused on doing artwork for the purpose of having fun. And you know what? I’ve improved exponentially over that period of time. By concentrating on having fun first it led to serious progress.
3. Art meant more to me than I realized.
I thought as long as I did any artistic endeavor that I would have my creativity itch scratched. But it doesn’t work that way. Being able to express myself through artwork was far more important to me than I ever knew.
4. Art soothes me.
My stress levels vanish while doing artwork. Since a lot of what I’m dealing with personally revolves around stress management, finding something that is so effective in removing stress from my life is something that is incredibly valuable to me.
5. When I stopped focusing on money, I made money.
It’s so funny to me that I tried for decades to generate money doing artwork, and when I started doing it for fun the money flowed to me. That’s a lesson that can affect anyone who is reading this right now. If you love what you’re doing, it shows. And that love can create something that other people perceive as valuable too.
The most important thing that I learned was this,
Don’t walk away from creativity.
If you like to sing, create beautiful gardens, write poetry, work on cars, build things, perform in front of people, or any other creative endeavor, find the time to do it.
We’re only given so long on this earth. Even if something isn’t making money for you, or the people you hang around don’t understand it, or it seems like a waste of time, realize that you deserve to spend some time doing the things that feed your soul.
Walking away from those things is a mistake that you may regret. You can’t get that time back.
And you owe it to yourself to find joy and happiness in small things that mean the world to you, and you alone.