Inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is the aphorism: “Know Thyself.” It’s ancient advice, but by no means outdated or irrelevant.
If you are a comic book artist, chances are you have had experience with multiple skill sets: penciling, inking, coloring, etc. It’s good to have multiple skill sets in the comic book industry. But it’s also good—dare I say, crucial—to have an idea of what you are best at.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW YOURSELF AS AN ARTIST
Here’s the theoretical story of a talented young artist with a portfolio online, says he can do it all: from pencils to lettering. A “package deal.” Super-cheap, and super-fast. Imagine that. Getting an entire finished page of comic art done, including color, for the metaphorical “pennies on the dollar.” What a deal.
But it’s not a deal. It’s not a deal for the talented young artist. It’s not a deal for the person who hires him. Because the artist never pinpointed what he was best at. Instead, he lumped it all in for a bargain-rate package.
You can’t blame said theoretical artist for what he did. Lord knows in the current marketplace rates across the board have been “dropped” considerably (a complex topic for another day). People are looking for “deals.”
But the theoretical client wasn’t interested in assembly-line work. What he or she was most interested in was telling his or her story in the best way possible.
Our talented young artist had some really nice styling with his pencils, and an ink line that, with enough time allotted, was heavenly. Certainly, he required a little more time than the super-fast “assembly line” pace he established for himself.
And his colors needed a lot of work. They tended to “blot out” his delicate linework. Coloring, at least at the current stage of skill he was at, was not his forte. He had a couple of decentish examples of his colors in his portfolio, but couldn’t maintain that quality on a regular basis.
This young man needed to “know himself” as an artist. He needed to gauge what he was best at. He needed to understand how to put his best foot forward. And he needed to understand how long it took for him to do his best work.
In the end of this example, the client wasn’t able to use this artist’s work. The artist was paid in full for the work he did, and let go.
But had this artist understood his strengths, this might have been a completely different story.
WHAT ARE YOUR STRENGTHS AS AN ARTIST?
If you are a comic artist, figure out what you are most talented at. Ask your friends and fans for their opinion on this subject. Go to portfolio reviews and reap the valuable knowledge editors have to provide.
Maybe your pencils are so slick and gorgeous they make angels sing. But your inks? Not quite there yet; they “flatten” your pencils. You don’t want that type of “flattened” art with mediocre inks in your portfolio—it’s death! You have to either work harder to develop your inks…or perhaps even accept that inking is not quite your main talent. And then cultivate some buddies who are master inkers, and whose ink lines look fabulous over your pencils.
Conversely, maybe the skill you are most praised for is inking. And maybe you are not keen so much on the construction and composition of sequential art pages, but just love the rendering part with your virtuoso ink line. Then…maybe you’d make it better in the business as an inker.
Some artists are “naturals” at blending color with their art—true “all in one” packages. And some aren’t. And that’s OK. You don’t have to be #1 at everything. The key is to find out what you are truly good at, and capitalize on that.
THE #1 THING THAT WILL QUICKLY KILL YOUR CAREER AS A COMIC ARTIST
I can already anticipate a counter-argument here: that in today’s comic job market, potential publishers and clients want the cheapest, fastest talent options possible. That they’re not keen on “wasting money” on inkers anymore. That raw, bulk content is “king.” Nobody has any time for this rarified “artsy-fartsy” attitude anymore.
And I will counter that counter-argument with this nugget of wisdom for you:
NOTHING WILL KILL YOUR CAREER FAST ENOUGH THAN HAVING A RUSHED, MEDIOCRE VERSION OF YOUR ART IN PRINT.
As much as you might think that doing the “assembly line”-grade level of work is good in the sense that you received some sort of paying comic work—maybe even for one of the top companies—if a sub-standard version of your art gets published with your name on it, it can really hurt your career.
One more quick theoretical example: the young, “green” artist who gets his or her “big break” doing a Marvel or DC book. Unless that artist has a really good editor invested in the time it is going to take to cultivate and refine the art—and the adequate amount of time to render said art—this could turn out less than ideal. The reader who picks up said comic, not knowing anything about the history of the artist or the conditions under which he or she has worked, may just write it off as “substandard.” And I’ve seen this happen to artists. Numerous times. It’s very frustrating. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking.
And so, to sum up: Know Thyself. Put thy best foot forward. Make friends with other artists whose own strengths compliment yours. And understand that being published, in-and-of-itself, is not the “highest level” you can achieve as a comic artist.
That Highest Level is the one you set up for yourself.