The DG Guide to Becoming an Artist. (Personal Essay)

“It was all a dream,  I used to read Word Up magazine. Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine. Hangin’ pictures on my wall. Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl, I let my tape rock till my tape popped.”  – Notorious B.I.G,  “Juicy”


Let’s face it. The Walking Dead isn’t just a TV show. For many people out there, it’s reality. There are tons of zombies that wake up every day, spend half of it in traffic, and the other half at a job they hate. They see their family for less than an hour, then pass out.  Only to repeat the exact same motions the next day.  Caught in a seemingly infinite loop of mortgage paying mediocrity.

If you’re an artist, you are in touch with a kind of greatness and magic beyond this world of cookie cutter pressed, assembly line zombies.  Toiling away inside a cubicle, behind a desk, seated in front of a computer, inside a giant factory all day.  Lots of people mistakingly think that artists are starving mimes wearing black & white, horizontal striped tops and berets on their heads, collecting loose change on the streets.  The truth is, art is all around us, everyday.  It doesn’t just hang in galleries.  Fortune 500 companies depend on artists to sell their products.  Politicians count on artists to help get them elected.  Art sells dreams to suburban housewives in Nebraska.  Art is a necessary currency that our society runs on.  Art challenges conventions and explores new ideas.  It’s also often misunderstood, and occasionally dangerous.

Barack_Obama_Hope_poster Shepard Fairey’s  poster – arguably instrumental in the ultimate success of Barack Obama’s campaign.


1. Are you an artist?

Being an artist isn’t a career path. It is not a choice. It is a calling. If you feel something within that needs to come out, you should channel it. I believe that people have a responsibility in them to follow their calling, especially if they have a unique talent. The world needs more beauty in it. Art is a rare gift, and an important commodity.

2. What kind of artist are you?

I began my career as a graphic and web designer. I worked for many different places. I tried my hand at freelancing. I was busy enough, and earning good money, but I was not happy. I did not feel fulfilled as an artist. I ended up branching out into photography and film, and deciding that I would rather work on my  own material in my own time.  The decision was a difficult one – especially from a financial standpoint, but I remain content in my decision. The best way to figure out what kind of artist you are is by trial and error. Experiment. There are no limits to the type of art you set out to do.  You will find that many different mediums are closely related. They just employ different tools.

3. Go to School. Or, don’t.

If you are self-motivated and master of your own domain, you can save yourself a ton of cash by learning stuff from the interwebz. There are many places you can learn things for free; whether it’s an online course from a university or college, or a simple, informative youtube video. That way, the only thing you can save for are the tools you need for your trade.  If, on the other hand, you need a bit of discipline and structure to guide you by, and you have the time and money, then school can be a great option. Try and find one where the teachers have practical experience in the field you are pursuing. The other benefit from schools is all the great people you will meet.  The bottom line is that there are many paths to becoming an artist, and you have to determine which one works best for yourself.

4. Learn the Rules. Then Break Them.

I went to school for Graphic Design many years ago, in a galaxy far away. One of the beginner level courses was a class in Design Fundamentals.  It was taught by a real, crotchety old British dude. A bit of an asshole, to be honest. But he had this fantastic catch phrase which was, “You have to know the rules, to break the rules.”  I always hear it in a British accent, which makes it somehow sound way more awesome. It’s also very true. Most great art out there comes from someone trying to do something different. If no art got pushed, challenged, or broke new boundaries, we wouldn’t have any Picassos.


5. Stay True To Yourself.

Try to make art for yourself, and not your audience. You will never be able to please everyone, so find a result that satisfies you. This is sometimes difficult if you are creating work in a professional capacity with a paying client or employer. However, if you feel strongly enough about something, you should be prepared to defend your work.


The masterpiece of Dickbutt. Unfortunately, often the butt of many a joke. 


6. Be True To Others.

Always be honest. The world really is a small place, and artist communities are pretty tight. Be friendly and respectful to people.  Even if they are working on something that isn’t exactly your cup of tea.  It takes courage for people to work on and display their art publicly. For many, it is like baring their soul. They should always be commended on some level, even if it is a depiction of a dickbutt.  Lend them a hand and pass on your best advice if called upon it. If you are asked to critique something, always be as diplomatic and constructive as possible. Don’t be petty or mean.  Don’t steal other people’s ideas. Everybody knows that everything is a remix. If you got inspired by someone else’s work, be upfront about it.


8. Surround yourself with positive people.

Everyone should be surrounded with people that love and respect them, no matter what field they are in.  For some reason, many people look down on artists.  Avoid these types of people. More often than not, they are people that wish they had an ounce of your talent, and lack the cojones to follow the path less travelled.  They are also the first ones to critique a book, band or movie.  They are the ones that spend time in discussion forums, making nasty comments.  It is easy to criticize, while sitting on a couch downing bags of Cheetos.  It is not so easy to create.

cheetos Cheetos. Admittedly delicious, but with possible links to procrastination.


9. The Key to Success.

The unfortunate reality is that success to the everyday, average person translates into financial gain in our current society. The larger a figure on your bank statement, the more “successful” you are.  On a personal level, I strongly reject this ideal. To me, a successful artist is an an artist that is happy and content with the work they produce; whether they sell no paintings at all, or a thousand paintings.  Art is all about self-expression.  It’s about conveying a thought, feeling or idea to an audience. The audience can be one person, or many million.  If you want to get rich, then you may be better off going into a career as a banker or a lawyer.   To sustain themselves, many artists have day jobs to support themselves. I am one of them. But this isn’t a necessity.  There are many different ways you can monetize your passion. You just need to figure out the way that works best for you. Just remember that many so-called “successful” artists would gladly trade in that success for anonymity, or more time for themselves and their families. There is a price for everything we pay for in this world.

10. Turn off the phone.

Whenever you can find time to yourself, take some time to unplug. That’s how you get to truly observe your surroundings and the universe around you. When you are free from distractions, you get inspired by ideas. I almost never have my headphones in when I ride public transit for this reason. I sometimes regret it when the occasional person high on bath salts staggers on the bus and rails about their missing goldfish, but I would rather be present, and in the moment than cut off from the rest of the world, and lost. There is much we can learn from this time and space.

11. Get Linked.

Surround yourself with other people doing other creative stuff. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in your specific field. If they are fellow artists, they will “get” you.   You can bounce new ideas off each other,  blow off steam, and get inspired.  On a more practical level, you can also share resources, equipment, and help each other out on your respective projects.

12. Go Public.

Start a blog, or self-publish a book.   Find a way to showcase your work; wether it’s applying for a showing at a gallery, or a screening at your local pub.  Maybe you want to hire an agent to help get your work out there. Even if you don’t have original material of your own to showcase yet, you can write about the things that inspire and motivate you.  By beginning this process, you can build a collection of the content that you can aspire to. When this dialogue gets initiated,  you can connect to a wider community with similar interests, and build relationships which can lead to all kinds of collaborative possibilities down the road.

13. Research & Develop.

Always keep researching your fields. If you shoot or paint, go to galleries, watch movies. If you’re a bedroom producer or budding musician, don’t rely solely on Soundcloud. Go to shows, meet people in real life. If you’re a graffiti artist, go explore those alleyways and rooftops.  If you’re a tattoo artist, check out those conventions when they happen.  Keep an open mind. Practise, practise, practise your craft.  Remember to come up for air. Don’t burn yourself out. Spend time with your family and friends. Take a walk in the park. Keep in mind that creativity is about having fun.

14. Innovate & Disrupt.

Find the style and content of other artists that you dig & identify with. Then build on that content and make it your own.  Try to have a fresh and original approach. Do this by tweaking it with your own narrative. Bring something to the table that noone else has.

15.  Be Cool.

The best thing you should do is stay positive. The world is full of suckers who will tell you that your ideas suck, that you are a failure, and that you will never get anywhere in life. It could be a teacher, parent, sibling, or even a friend. Don’t succumb to negativity. Most of those people are just projecting insecurity about their own life choices.


The eye wear, jewelry and clothes we all exhibit daily are constructed and designed by artists. The music we listen to, the furniture we sit in, the homes where we sleep. The planes, trains and automobiles we ride.  The paintings, comic books, video games, novels, photographs, movies, we enjoy. Without art, our world would be a bland, dark place. Don’t sell yourself short. And don’t listen to the haters. Life is way too short not to follow your dreams.  You have an important gift to give to the world. Just try to branch out from the dickbutts, if possible.


 Top photo of Banksy mural courtesy of Chris Devers

Dickbutt photo courtesy of Camron Flanders


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