Working outside your realm and finding limits…

A lot of freelancers stumble across this decision from time to time.  I’m not just talking about artists, either.  There’s a great (though silly) discussion on this in the movie “Clerks”, where the main characters are discussing how the destruction of the unfinished (looking) Death Star in “Return of the Jedi” is more of a political question than the one in “Star Wars” because of the possibility of the collateral damage of deaths of innocent contractors still working on said Death Star (the character Randall points out “Do you think your standard Storm Trooper knows how to install a toilet?”).  Like I said, it’s silly, but thought-provoking.

In the film, a bystander listening to the conversation pipes in with a story of his brother in real life turning down a plumbing job for a well-known mobster.  Some time later, the mobster is marked for a hit and everyone in the household is killed (including the contractors).  He finishes his story by stating that contractors do, in fact, consider politics and repercussions when choosing jobs.

Very seldom in my freelance career have I actually turned a client away at all, much less for political, moral or safety reasons.  The few times I’ve declined projects were usually because I was currently swamped with work, in which case they would sometimes just wait, or because a project was really outside of my skill set.

To the right is a good example of this.  A client came to me asking for a pin-up girl, which I’ve done many of, but when they showed me this sample, I had to admit to the client that “photo realistic” painting was simply beyond my capability.  The same thing happens when people ask for web design, flash or full-on animation (not to mention 3D modeling or animation).  I cover quite a lot of ground in my art skills, but there are still limits.

There have been rare occasions where I’ve turned a client away because their project was distasteful.  I’m willing to produce erotic art (though I do that under another pseudonym), violence and opposing politic views, but I draw lines at white supremacy, pedophilia and other things of that nature.

Which brings us to the more subtle areas.  People ask me to draw the strangest things sometimes, and I often wonder when entering into new fields what made the person think that I could manage such a project, when there’s no examples of similar work on my website.  I suppose many a layman assumes art is art.  If a fella can draw, then obviously they can sculpt, paint, draft architecture, compose concertos, juggle knives, fire dance, etc.  Again, I’m rather versatile, and usually I find myself capable of approaching a new medium, style or subject.  But I have to wonder what made the client who sent me that pin-up sample think I could do that.  I mean… if I could do that, my website would be COVERED with that style of art!  I suppose it’s difficult to take myself OUT of the perspective of an artist and understand that most people just don’t think or see that way.   ….I’m still not really able to draft architecture… just for the record… (or fire dance).

U.T. Head Coaches- 2004

What happens more often is that I get projects outside my norm that I debate whether or not to showcase them on my website and in my portfolio.  When I produced a Christmas card for the University of Texas Athletics Department, with caricatures of all the head coaches in their sports’ uniforms, it was a little daunting.  I know nothing about sports (I know, I know… I have a penis, so I should…).  I had to Google all the uniforms to figure out what they looked like (and I’d like to say that you athletes wear some strange things sometimes)!  Then there was the question of whether or not to display the work, possibly attracting more of the same type of work.  In this economy I’ve usually chosen to get all I can.  I simply don’t highlight those works that aren’t my greatest strengths or areas of expertise.  I still display all I can, though, because just like the ones who assume I can do anything, there’s the opposite side of the coin… many non-artists think if they don’t see something almost exactly like what they need or have in mind, that I can’t do it.  I almost find this mentality even more perplexing (obviously if I can draw human figures, fantasy art, greek and hindu mythology…. I can manage to draw ancient Mayan characters… that’s obvious, right?).  I suppose I should be thankful because the reason I get work is that most people’s minds DON’T work that way.

Not my usual thing, but hey...

So, I’m usually fine with producing work that’s conservative, religious, sports-related, country and western, or otherwise outside of my realm of knowledge and interest.  I draw lines at extremism because no amount of money is worth being connected with that sort of thing (I have occasionally been known to take my name off of projects that were downright pathetic because of other factors).  I attempt to steer future clients towards that which I’m more interested in, but that’s mostly because that’s what I’m best at.  It’s a simple dynamic of interest equates time invested which produces improvement.

For me, that works, because I wish to promote myself as a versatile artist.  I’m willing to be patient as I steer more clients in the direction I want to go and am able to pass on projects that aren’t my strength or simply aren’t interesting to me more and more.  For other artists, especially ones who wish to be more specialized, this can be a slippery slope.  If you need the work (as most of us do), but are more determined to steer your work in a particular direction, then the answer is usually to be willing to do work outside your normal realm (that is, if it’s within your capabilities), but not display or promote that work.  Granted, you will lose some of those clients who won’t choose you if they don’t see anything like what they’re looking for.  On the other hand, you’ll still get plenty who think if you’re an artist, you can do it all, and will request the abnormal work.  Those who are in the arts industry or are looking for your type of work will see by your website or portfolio what your strengths or main focus are.  In the end, you’ll essentially steer more clients in the direction you want, but will probably lose a few opportunities to make more money.  In theory, you should eventually be doing almost nothing but your preferred work (not taking into account other factors such as skill level, talent, business sense, contacts, being a jerk, etc.).

If income isn’t as strong of a factor, such as if you’re working your freelance only part-time, have some other form of funding or income, or are starting out with an education and high skill level, then you can probably focus solely on your preferred types of work.  This means only including these works in your portfolio, website, blog, etc.  It also means turning away that which is outside of this realm.  One can always try to steer an inquiry, such as saying “well, I don’t really do [blah], but if you’ve seen my work, maybe something along those lines would work for your project.”  All of this is still working under the concept of a commercial artist, not fine art.  A fine artist just does what they want & tries to sell, market or otherwise profit from it (though I still classify certain “fine artists” as “con artists” or over-celebrated interior decorators).  A commercial artist is given instructions and produces said product.  Although a person in this third category might be seen as “finicky” or even arrogant, it could just be that you’re an artist who knows what they want to do, and is only interested in working in that realm and improving and expanding upon those foundations.

Amy Brown fairy art

The summary of this category:  You do that type of work you want, and that’s it, though your client base is vastly limited.  This will, of course, vary depending on what your realm is, and it’s general demand (or current popularity).  If fairy artist Amy Brown had been around in the 50’s trying to make her way, she probably wouldn’t have gotten very far (a modest success at best).  However, in the 90’s when whimsical and fantasy works were more popular than ever… she soared.

A tattoo artist under the current popularity would also do well, talent permitting.  If your specialty is carving little goblins out of goat turds… don’t expect a huge reception (though, you never know…).

That’s all for now, but I thought this was something worth discussing!


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