The Art of the Self-Directed Project
Posted on 09 Jan 2017
The Wicked Kingdom deck: constructed from equal parts blood, sweat, tears, and Kickstarter monies.
A self-directed project is more than just personal work; rather, it's a focused, coherent body of work with a specific purpose and, even more importantly, a plan.
Why self-directed projects? I've heard the same story from many illustrators older and wiser than I: the business models that once kept artists in top hats and tails are dead or dying; illustration rates have stagnated; prospective illustrators attempt to compete for work with artists in the developing world on price rather than on quality, and the ensuing budgetary race to the bottom ruins everyone.
Don't get me wrong - a lot of artists are able to bring in enough higher-paying work to make it... but, unfortunately, I've never been one of them. My art has always been hard for art directors to place, and in the face of continual discouragement I often wondered if I'd be able to make a living off my art in the long term. When I started my first large-scale, self-directed project (an illustrated playing card deck called Wicked Kingdom) it was in part an effort to prove - even if only to myself - that my work could be marketable.
Although I knew that a self-directed project would be subject to its own ups and downs, I still felt it would offer a stability that I wasn't finding in my client work and create a well from which to draw new content (and potential income) even during commercial dry spells. More importantly, it represented the opportunity to tailor a project to fit my own strengths and interests. I: FINDING YOUR VISION
Redirecting your professional efforts towards a project of your own design can be a daunting task - in part because it requires you to figure out how, exactly, you want to focus those efforts. The question, “What do I want to do?" is so broad that it can be tough to find an answer. Instead, try imagining an inquiry for the perfect commission appearing in your inbox. What type of client sent it? What tone and subject matter are they looking for? What is the final product - and who will want to buy it? What other companies will be eager to hire you when they see this project in your portfolio? Dream as big as you'd like, because chances are this inquiry will never show up - this is a commission you're going to have to assign yourself.
While a successful self-directed project needs to check all your boxes from the very beginning, it's equally important that it sustain its momentum past the initial excitement of starting something new. I've found that the best way to build a project I can commit to in the long term - through the late nights of drawing and the inevitable slump in enthusiasm that happens around the halfway mark - is finding a balance between comfort (what are you already good at doing?) and challenge (what do you want to learn more about?). TheWicked Kingdom project hit this balance perfectly for me - I got to show off my storytelling skills, while exploring a new format and honing my then-new traditional media process.II: THE GAME PLAN
A tiny snippet from the immense sea of notes & sketches that eventually became the Wicked Kingdom deck.
You can think of the early stage of planning as the “soft" stage - exploring your dreams, interests, and inspirations. Next comes the “hard" stage - creating a game plan for your project. A good target to aim for is a coherent body of work (think about the overall arc of your creation - how you'll link everything together visually and thematically) with a clear purpose. What will it BE? An instructional series? A graphic novel? A card deck? Whatever form your project takes, make it something concrete - your decisions here will shape the project specs, and determine the course you'll take to realize the finished product. It's never too early to start thinking about your project from a commercial standpoint. Can you monetize the intermediate stages along the way? How will you market the finished product, and to whom? I knew Wicked Kingdom would appeal to my existing fans in the fantasy art community, but I also hoped that adapting my artwork into the universally-palatable format of a card deck would help the project spread even further.
While you're deciding what form your project will take, be sure to consider the practical aspects. It's important to evaluate the volume of work and how long each piece of the project will take to complete - especially if you'll be working on it in the spare hours between commissions or outside your day job. I chose to illustrate a poker deck in part because it represented a manageable body of work: twelve face cards, four aces, two jokers, a card back, and a package design. I expected to be able to complete two paintings a month and wrap up the project in a year. In actuality I spent about a year and a half on the artwork, which was often forced to the back burner by commissions and other distractions... But that initial timeline gave me something to measure my progress against, and counting down to the last painting gave me a light at the end of the tunnel to push towards.
It's also a good idea to take into account your current skill level, and where you are in your career. If you're just starting out, steer clear of huge, sprawling projects; since your style and skill set are still evolving (or at least, they should be!) your best work now may look clumsy alongside your best work a year from now, making it harder to create a cohesive collection of work. Even though I was fairly confident in my skill set when I started the Wicked Kingdom deck, I occasionally felt limited by the style and techniques I had settled on early in the project. Choosing a smaller project gives you a better training ground to hone your style and improve your technical skills.III: THE EXECUTION
This is what Kickstarter fulfillment in a one-bedroom apartment looks like.
As if planning the artwork wasn't complex enough, turning your vision into a salable product presents its own set of challenges. There are a ton of companies out there that will offer to manage, promote, and fulfill your project for you (I heard from a LOT of them over the course of Wicked Kingdom), but until you've had some firsthand experience of your own, it's hard to evaluate what sort of return on your investment you'll get from outsourcing these critical tasks... or if the professionals who are offering their services even know any more about the process than you do!
Ultimately, I decided to be as hands-on as possible with Wicked Kingdom. After all, who could possibly care more about the success of the project than I did? I managed every aspect of the project myself from social media promotion to sourcing merchandise to unloading palettes and boxing each of the 4500+ shipments, and while it added up to a grueling couple of months (made all the more stressful by the fact that almost every aspect of the process was new to me) I don't regret the decision. I had complete control over how the project was presented to the world - a major concern, since it would bear my name in perpetuity - and I was able to track where every dime was spent. In the end, I came away with the undivided profits and a wealth of experience to draw from for my next project.
If you decide to follow my example and tackle the bulk of the work yourself, start researching the technical aspects of production and fulfillment early on . A successful project has a lot of moving parts, and no detail is too small to consider along the way. Lists are your friend! I kept an enormous to-do list that covered every aspect of the Wicked Kingdom project, and whenever some small worry occurred to me (should I design my own packaging, or hire a professional? Where could I even FIT a thousand boxes?) I tried to convert it into something actionable (mock up some type designs in Photoshop; look into pricing of nearby storage units) and add it to the list. The great thing about the internet is that if you look hard enough, you can find the answer to almost any question... and, if you're lucky, you can identify some of the “unknown unknowns" that are waiting to trip you up in the process.IV: MAKING IT WORTH YOUR WHILE
An art tutorial - first created for my supporters on Patreon, later included in the art book.
While the right self-directed project should feel inherently rewarding to work on, finding ways to monetize the product you're creating is crucial if you're hoping to eventually supplant some of your client work. While the end goal for Wicked Kingdom was a card deck funded through Kickstarter, I tried to find small ways to make the project profitable along the way. I created an online shop to sell the original drawings and paintings; I offered limited-edition prints of the card art; I documented my painting process and assembled the resulting photos, videos, and writings into art tutorials that I released to paying backers on Patreon.
Even viewed as a whole, these income streams didn't represented a full-time income; however, they helped offset the cost of the time I was taking away from commissions, and served as much-needed motivation to choose my sketchbook over Netflix at the end of a long work day. Plus, each scrap of new content gave me something to post on social media, boosting visibility for the project and drawing new followers who would, eventually, become backers for the Kickstarter campaign (you DON'T, under any circumstances, want to be the creator who waits until launch day to tell everyone about their Kickstarter).
If you're not sure how to make money off your project, my best advice is to look at the successful self-directed projects of artists that have gone before you. When I was planning the Wicked Kingdom project, I was inspired by the success of Pete Mohrbacher's serialized Angelarium prints, and by some of the top-funded playing card projects on Kickstarter like Jackson Robinson's Federal 52 and Chris Ovdiyenko's Arcana. Whatever niche you've decided on for your project, do the research! I knew nothing about designing and printing a playing card deck when I started Wicked Kingdom, but by lurking on playing card forums and dissecting the successes (and failures) of past card deck campaigns, I was able to gather the information I needed to build a successful project of my own. V: THE PAYOFF
Printer's proofs for the playing card deck: my first glimpse of the project coming to fruition.
It can be hard to predict exactly how a project will turn out; while you may be able to make some informed guesses based on the size of your existing fan base and how well other projects of the same kind have fared, there are infinite variables involved, making it impossible to replicate another creator's success. Because of this, self-directed projects - especially if it's your FIRST self-directed project, as Wicked Kingdom was for me - are an uncertain undertaking.
Before you set out to pour countless hours into a project, you should make sure there's more in it for you than just the dream of cash in your pocket. Financial success will, of course, be one of the big targets you're aiming for; but because there are no guarantees, you'll want to ensure that your project offers alternative payoffs in the event that the financial side of things falls short.
Start with something objective and measurable - a goal that defines the success of your project beyond a dollar amount. It doesn't need to be complex; Wicked Kingdom could be seen, at its simplest, as a framework for creating 16-20 personal pieces in the space of about a year. Even if my Kickstarter launch had been a massive flop, I would still have those 20 paintings - to add to my portfolio, submit to art directors, or sell as prints and originals - and I would have generated a year's worth of social media posts showcasing my progress and reminding potential clients and fans that I existed.
Finally, you'll want to strive for a goal that's personally meaningful. It can be about forming connections (with fans, other artists, or previously unexplored corners of the industry) or about learning and self-improvement (the refinement of your artistic process; the mastery of a particular subject matter or of a new set of tools or techniques).
Since all projects must come to an end eventually, think about how you will handle your project's success (or failure) productively. Just as you examined other creators' projects while you were in the planning stages, you'll want to use the closing chapter of your project as an opportunity to evaluate your own efforts and results. Which goals did you achieve? What details did you nail the first time around, and what could have been improved upon? Find a way to translate the experience you've gained into greater success for your next self-directed project... Because there WILL be another self-directed project...won't there?POSTSCRIPT: SOME NOTES ON FANBASE
From many, one.
I owe much of Wicked Kingdom's success to the nebulous and mysterious force that is my fan base - all the people who have followed me on social media, bought my art, and backed my Kickstarter. Where did they come from? Why are they here? Will they leave me unexpectedly one day when a prettier, younger artist comes along (possibly Micah Epstein
)?? Sadly, I don't have any verifiable answers to any of these questions. All I can offer is a few general notes on things I've done over the course of my career which may
have contributed to developing a fan base. My rules:
- Make sure your art is good. If it isn't good, figure out why and how to fix it.
- Show it to people. This means I try to stay current by posting a lot of images of my art - preferably something new and interesting, like a piece I haven't shared already, or work-in-progress shots of a current piece. When I'm really on top of things, I try to post twice a week. Don't fall into the trap of posting just anything, though - if the choice is posting old/subpar art or no art at all - choose no art!
- Stay focused. My social media accounts are strictly for promoting my work and interacting with the art community in a semi-professional capacity. A lot of my Facebook followers are real-life friends, but many more of them are strangers. I assume my they're following me for my art, not for my vacation photos, political musings, and pet photos - so I keep these off of my accounts. (Friends and relatives can get them from me in person - besides, who needs their workout selfies preserved in perpetuity?)
- Keep pushing yourself. Never let pursuit of a fanbase be your primary goal. People like what they're used to - the things they've come to expect - but this isn't a good reason to hold yourself back from experimentation and growth. If your work is changing in a positive direction, you may lose some fans, but you'll find others. Avoid the temptation to repeat yourself or to allow what's sold well in the past to define who you are as an artist. In the same vein, you shouldn't let the general approval and goodwill you get from your fan base prevent you from looking at your own work with a critical eye; people who like your art will almost never tell you "this sucks." That's your job! Never stop looking for ways to hone your craft and create a better product.
If you missed the Kickstarter, you can still buy the Wicked Kingdom deck (and the art book documenting its creation) below. You can find prints and original artwork from the project in the shop HERE
. You can get all the tutorials from the Wicked Kingdom project with a $5 pledge on Patreon at www.patreon.com/wyliebeckert
- where you'll also be the first to see my next project as it develops.
Huge thanks to everyone who has supported me in the pursuit of my self-directed work; I couldn't have done it without you! I hope you'll join me for what's to come...
New Work: Quanta Magazine and some Wicked Jacks
Posted on 31 Jan 2016
Mochizuki's last stand...
With my last post being back in November, I don't suppose I'll ever get caught up on my blogging, will I? Here's a consolation prize: a piece I did a while back for Quanta Magazine. The illustration pertains to the work of mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki, whose cryptic mathematical proofs have confounded his academic colleagues. It was an interesting concept to get down on paper: the misunderstood Mochizuki atop a mountain of his writings; his bewildered fellow mathematicians forced to wade through them and make of them what they will.
Also, because my playing card deck (Wicked Kingdom!
) is still alive and well, here's the latest pair of card illustrations:
Jack of Hearts, 11x17" oil, acrylic, and watercolor on paper. Original available.
THE JACK OF HEARTS: One of the many industrious souls who ply their trade in the mecca of vice the kingdom's capitol has become.
The orphaned son of a vanished handmaiden, his place in the palace was lost during the upheaval caused by the old king's death. His early life on the streets was marked by hardship, struggle, and desperate acts; but a boy so very much like the old king in face and bearing proved a novelty to delight even the jaded tastes of the capitol; through wit and industry, he has managed to rise from his humble beginnings to become a courtesan of the highest order.
It would seem he could want for little now - having earned his place as a sought-after tradesman in the finest courtly houses of the kingdom and even, it is rumored, the king's own palace. But ambition, unlike lust, is not easily sated...
Jack of Clubs, 11x17" oil, acrylic, and watercolor on paper. Original available.
THE JACK OF CLUBS: a deserter who, having lost his taste for war, finds himself exiled and disgraced - condemned to live as a recluse and poach the dark forests of the borderlands for whatever prey he might find there.
There are few enough left now who remember his time at the right hand of the king who fostered and trained him; but for his own part, he still he dreams of blood, and smoke, and his lost place in the walled kingdom - a position to which he has not entirely abandoned hope of restoring himself. His final chance at redemption: a treasured and elusive prey, the hunting of which will require all the skills at his disposal...
In other news, I made it to Seattle and am finally getting settled in - I've met a ton of awesome artists already, and the weather is a far sight better than I was accustomed to in Maine. A net gain overall! As for any other art that may or may have been accomplished in the past few months, I fear it is doomed to obscurity because each passing day makes it less likely that I'll get around to sifting through the wreckage of moving boxes to retrieve and document it. There are always exciting things just over the horizon, though. Onwards and upwards...
Illuxcon, a Long Drive, Two Queens, and a Jack
Posted on 02 Nov 2015
This blog seems to exist mainly as a forum for me to post my regrets about not blogging more. I can't be too sorry, though; I've been squaring away a few commissions, getting in some work done on my card deck, and attending Illuxcon!
My booth setup in the 2015 Weekend Salon at Illuxcon
Illuxcon is a bit special to me because it's where I got my first in-person introduction to the fantasy illustration community; I've been attending since 2013, but this was my first year exhibiting in the juried show. I'd previously exhibited in the showcase (the first-come-first-serve melee that occurs late Friday and Saturday nights) - while the Salon was slower paced, I definitely preferred the schedule (10am-5pm, leaving the night free for bar crawls, catching up with other artists, and sweet sweet sleep). Another bonus of the Salon over the showcase: assigned seating with display walls and hanging hardware provided - in the showcase, the best spots always go the strongest, swiftest, and most cunning (I tend to end up in the back corner behind a pillar at these sort of things).
If the whispers of artists are to be believed, this was a pretty dismal year for sales all around (apparently a massive art auction took place shortly before the show, siphoning away a lot of the art dollars collectors tend to spend at IX).
For my part, I sold a few pencil drawings and small items, and a good number of prints - definitely enough to cover the cost of attending, but not as much as I might have expected given Illuxcon's track record over the past few years. I'm morbidly curious to see the numbers on how this year's show compare to previous years - but it seems that sales totals weren't tallied this time around (unless I just missed the call for numbers).
I don't think it will deter me from exhibiting in future years, though - as always, it was great getting to meet some new artists and hang out with my crew from the back corner of IMC again; the continued interest in the Wicked Kingdom series was hugely encouraging, and I'm glad to have had the chance to get the word out to even more people about the project. Also, Illuxcon is switching venues next year - moving from Allentown (which has never seemed especially excited to have its streets overrun by drunken illustrators for a week) to a larger space in Reading, PA. I got a chance to talk with show founder Pat Wilshire about the move, and it sounds like it's going to be an exciting change.
I wasn't allowed to buy anything this year (I've had to burn enough of my own art to make room for my upcoming move), but I was tempted. I did leave with some richly undeserved but nonetheless coveted original art - a sketch of myself as an orc by Micah Epstein, and an ink drawing of my dog Tiki reimagined as a dive helmet by Dan Chudzinski!
A portrait by Micah Epstein. (I'M SO BEAUTIFUL AS AN ORC, YOU GUYS!)
A tiny dive helmet for Tiki by Dan Chudzinski - Awwwwww.
As with most conventions, I spent the duration bleary with sleep deprivation, misremembering names and forgetting faces. Nonetheless, I got to see some amazing art and talk to some amazing people (although, naturally, I missed quite a few who I meant to track down - it's hard to see the whole show and man a booth at the same time). Some of it must have stuck, though - after the usual day or two of twilight sleep that follows convention attendance, I awoke refreshed, inspired, and ready to start painting! Just in time to realize that I had less than a week to pack for a cross country move.
Which brings me to the other major news: I'm moving! After about six years in Maine (which were thoroughly unenjoyable, but probably important to the larger Wylie Beckert character arc) I'm headed back to the west coast; this time, the destination is Seattle. "But it's cloudy!"
, you'll no doubt protest; to such objections, I reply with the traditional Maine greeting "Go die in a blizzard."
Since I'll be driving (and taking the scenic route) new art and blog posting will most likely be non-existant over the next month or two until I'm settled in the new location; with any luck, though, I'll be doing some sketching on the road. Be sure to follow me on Instagram
if you want to see clumsy plen-air watercolors of the World's Largest Ball of Twine and other holy relics of middle america.
Link to my Instagram above. Follow!
Between commissions, moving stress, and Illuxcon prep (which takes an inordinate amount of time for what really amounts to "wrap a bunch of my paintings in bubble wrap; shake spiders out of my only jacket") I've managed to make some small progress on my Wicked Kingdom
playing card series, with the Queens of Clubs and Diamonds and the Jack of Spades (I feel like the Spades have the deepest and darkest backstory of any of the suits; they're definitely my favorites at the moment, and the Jack was a lot of fun to work on). The Wicked Kingdom series will be taking a big productivity hit from the move, but I'm looking to start up again in late November, and with any luck will be ready to launch the Kickstarter in February/March next year.
Queen of Clubs, 11x17" oil, acrylic, and watercolor on paper
THE QUEEN OF CLUBS, or so she might have one day become - destined to cover her face and sit by the fire among her aunts, or die in childbirth like her mother - had she not forged her own war-club and followed the tracks of a foundling she-bear into the forest beyond her father's high walls.
None can say for certain what became of her, although there are hunters from the borderlands who claim to have seen her among the trees: a warrior maiden clad in iron and ragged pelts, more animal than human, with lichen on her armor and wildfire in her eyes. Legend names her the Bear Queen, and only the very brave or very foolish would venture to set a snare in her woods.
Queen of Diamonds, 11x17" oil, acrylic, and watercolor on paper. Original available.
THE QUEEN OF DIAMONDS: a title held by the eldest of the chosen girls, blinded by oleander, who trade the deceptions of their earthly eyes for inviolable vision of smoke and stone. In the temple beneath the mountains, they are taught to read the language of the true-sighted; the histories and philosophies lost to the rest of the four kingdoms are revealed to them in the darkness.
Upon the death of the Queen - often an early one, as the work of a vessel is not without its costs - a new girl assumes the title; by her vows she will be silent until such time as the stone speaks through her in a voice as old as the world - a voice that whispers the fates of men and foretells the rise and fall of kingdoms.
Her counsel is sought by kings, heroes, and other wanderers in the dark.
THE JACK OF SPADES: once the hope of his kingdom, heir to the prosperity of endless river valleys; now a gibbet of sunbleached bones overlooking scorched earth and blackened fields.
The legend outlives the man: a flaxen-haired prince who left his palace to work the fields with the common folk, and took up arms to fight alongside them. With his death, the royal lineage of the House of Spades was extinguished, and the King issued a final decree: that his son's body would keep its lonely vigil over the battlefield where he died until it saw the four kingdoms starve for their transgressions.
Each year, on the eve of his death, every field in the kingdom is burned to ensure a late planting and a scanty harvest - lest some unscrupulous peasant risk feeding the enemy in exchange for a few coins. Only two plots of land escape the ritual that has become known as the Prince's Harvest: the king's own gardens, lusher by the year, and the ravaged fields beneath the prince's eternal gaze; there, whatever weeds may grow from the hallowed ground are permitted to flourish.