Wednesday, February 19, 2014

10 Things...Finding Your Audience

Portrait of Leonard Bernstein, during his final concert

Greg Manchess

You’re the student everybody pointed to in grade school and said “she’s the artist in the class.” You grew up drawing and making things. You were the arty one. All art interests you. And you like to work in all mediums because, after all, you’re The One.

I get a lot of questions when critiquing a portfolio about how one goes about finding work, getting hired, making a name, finding an audience. How does one go about it?

Finding your voice and your audience may be your greatest hurdle. Maybe even more than learning to draw and paint. This takes having a Zen-like attitude and blood that runs cool as ice cream. It takes a thick reptilian skin that can repel bullets of disinterest.

But the first thing you must do is get practical. Think about the business of illustration without the Prima-Donna effect. Without the desire to be the Next Big Thing. You must turn off your inner narcissistic Wannabe, and learn to look at the business with real, practical depth. And that, dear artist-type, comes from observing how things are getting bought and sold around you.

There is a catch here: you find your audience when you find your style.

Narrow it down.
So, you want to do it all. You want to be able to shift and change and not get cornered. You want to be able to do exactly what you want to do, without getting trapped in a “style.” You better hope to high heaven you even get that far, because in avoiding being trapped, in avoiding being typecast, you’re limiting yourself to the great unwashed bazillions that are thinking the same dang thing.

Sure, you’d like to get work from all over the industry. Comics, book covers, movie posters, children’s books, gaming, etc. First move: decide which one, maybe two, of these areas you really like the most. Do it now.

You already know down deep. C’mon. It’s burning a hole in your heart. And if you really can’t place it, you’d better take a long walk and get it figured out. Until you do, you’ll be all over the board. You’ll be scatter-brained. As will your work. As will any client that might want to use you. And this...this is BAD.

You cannot afford to confuse your potential client. They want to know exactly what they’ll get for using you. You must show them exactly what you do, and will do, for them.

Decide what you love most. 
My butt was handed to me at one point in my career about my portfolio. It was too scattered. I could handle nearly any technique, in any media. And no one remembered what it was that I did.

Not good.

Sit yourself down and give yourself a stern talking to. Walk a beach. Climb a mountain. Consult a crystal or see a shrink, but you’d better make a dang decision of just exactly what kind of art you love the most. Now. Today. Do not waste any more time. Decide.

Comics? Then focus on working for that. Book covers? Study what’s on the shelves. Magazines? Pick the ones you want to work for and make everything, everything in your book look like what they’d buy. They will not buy you for your creativity. They will buy you for the work you show them that reflects what they love to print. That’s where your creativity goes. Not waiting for them call you. Look at what they buy and mimic that.

Study artists who work in that arena.
LOOK at who’s being bought. Study every person working in that part of the field that appeals to you. Mimic what they do. Develop a method similar to how they work. Show potential clients in that area only the kinds of work that they need to see. Look at other people’s portfolios and websites that are similar. Do not let up. Become that kind of illustrator. Research your breath away. Tire yourself out studying that work.

Create pieces specifically for that area only.
After you’ve decided that you want to work as a conceptual artist for film, or a children’s book illustrator, then fill your portfolio with only that kind of work. LOOK at what’s being bought. Study everything that goes on in that sector. Become a nerd for that type of illustration.

Now put all of that into your book. Do not deviate. It must all appeal to that area of the field or even just to one client. That’s right, I said one client. All that work. One possible client.

Practice showing it around, test it out.
Show your book around, but only to people in that arena. Don’t waste time showing a comic portfolio to the Wall Street Journal. Or book cover work to Time Magazine. They buy portraits. Wizards of the Coast buys fantasy art cards. Got it?

A successful illustrator doesn’t shotgun this field. They sharp-shoot to hit the target they’re after. Strike that target well, and people come back for more. That’s when you start building clients. Then a direction, a voice, a style.

This is like an ‘elevator pitch.’ You know this term? It’s how much time you have to convince a movie mogul that your film will be the time it takes to ride a few floors in an elevator. You have to hit them in the frontal lobe.

You’ll have all the time in the world. Two seconds, tops.

Develop what you want to see.
LOOK around you. What is it that you’d like to see on the shelves, in the store, on the screen? Start building a vision to manifest that picture in your head. You are unique in that vision. No one else has it. It’s all you.

The bad news is, others will get close to what you are doing. We are all very similar in our visions. That’s ok. That’s how things get created by humans. But if those 'others' have more gumption than you, guess who gets the work?

Don’t try to guess what will get attention. Don’t try to guess what will be popular. This is the part where you build something that’s your first love, unique to only you. But keep it out of your main portfolio. This experimental portfolio is developed over time and is only your best work, only the stuff you’d ultimately like to see out there. When you’ve got 10 solid, consistent pieces in that book, start sportin’ it.

Find a niche.
Start looking at the field and sizing it up for potential. Don’t take on the whole field at once. Don’t expect to sell to every client that looks at your book. Your genius comes out slooooowly, through time, effort, and due diligence. Mold yourself to the field. Do not expect it to notice you or cater to you or fawn over you. It won’t. It’s mean. It’s a bear. You have to tame it.

Do you like bears? They’re dangerous, y’know. They could eat you. Feed them gingerly until they rely on you for their meal. 

Find your niche by looking at the little stuff first, and build your way to bigger things. Or do what I did. I made my portfolio look like it had been in the business for years by making the samples in the book look like what was being bought at the time. Yes, I copied other artists' work, but I didn’t lose myself doing it. I learned my own voice more accurately by allowing other artists to guide my hand until I knew where to go.

You don’t find your style. Your style finds you.
It finds you when you’re least engaged at trying to find it. When you are so stinking focused on drawing and painting well, no matter what the medium, your style leaks out of you. Soon, you recognize it. You have to draw your way out of that cage. Your pieces will tell you what you are interested in.

(btw, your style starts showing up here...)

But make a decision and focus. Make a boatload of paintings that allow you to relax enough to analyze your approach, your line, your stroke, your rendering. Did you think this was gonna be easy? Are you that insensitive to discovery?

Have you not read ANY art history? Sheesh.

The audience is you.
Imagine a cellist playing a solo piece in front of an audience. Does he consider the audience? Does he play differently to different audiences? Audiences of different incomes or ethnicities?

No. The work selects the audience.

Instead of imagining an audience for your work, no matter how large or small, create images for the art lover in yourself. You’ll have a much better chance at connecting with people if you can connect with yourself first. (refer back to item 2)

Specialize first, expand next.
Ok, so let’s say you’ve gotten down the road. You’ve made some progress at focusing and gaining some attention in the area that you are thrilled to be working in. You may even have a portfolio at this point that reflects a smart, observant thinker, and skilled painter.

That's when you can broaden your scope. That's when you can use that voice to tame other areas of the industry and get them wanting your vision. And not before.

SPECIALIZE FIRST. EXPAND NEXT. That’s when your audience expands.

Was that so hard? You bet your sweet pumpkin it’s hard. This is Creativity, remember? It doesn’t come all shiny new out of a box.


  1. This is damn good sage advice!

    I think depending on what type of industry you're headed to, the narrowing down part might be the hardest. Especially since the industry has broadened out (from what I can tell on the outside). What I mean is, at this point, are concept artists more of just flat illustrators? Or are the great concept artists simply able to render characters, environments, vehicles, creatures, etc (individually) to the maximum?

    Regardless, I love this article!

    1. Mathew, I recently read this article, and I think it could help answer some questions about concept art.

      Concept art and illustration are in a lot of ways different skill sets, and not all concept artists are good illustrators (and vice versa). However, a lot of concept art the public sees is really more like illustration and promotional work.

  2. This post answers questions I have been mulling over recently. Thanks so much for sharing, Greg.

  3. Loveble article, congratulations.

    Good points here are:

    a) The Audience is you
    b) Specialized first, Expand Next

    But why it's so hard keep our minds focused in that? XD

  4. Pancho....we trip over what our peers have told us, thinking they are helping by using logic. This is not a logical process. It is based on observing what happens and trying to repeat that success. But going about it as if it's a formula is what confuses.

  5. Wow! This is one of my favorite postings by you. I remember when I first started painting/drawing, I was all over the place. I could sell small pieces here or there but nothing major. Now that I specialize in landscapes in oil for the home decoration market, I'm starting to get collectors. I still have to reign in my impulse to do everything. Fantastic article, Greg.

  6. Wonderful post, There is sooo much good advice,Thanks

  7. You know when you know that you know something and many people have told you the same thing, but sometimes it's just the 'nth' time that strikes it home? I've spent the last year or so stressing out over this, and I've told myself this SO many times. The 'magpie' trait that has served me fairly well thus far is now actually starting to hold me back simply because I don't think my work is identifiable, and I'm not really spending time refining the kind of work I want to do. You've actually given me an answer to something I've wanted to sit down and ask someone that I look up to. I've longed to put my mish mash folio down in front of someone and ask them what they think. Even though I find it hard to push myself out to the kind of studios I'd like to work for because secretly I know I'm so all over the place they won't know what to hire me for. SO thank you for putting it down so bluntly and so straight forwardly - it's like hearing all the things I've been telling myself coming from someone with your extensive experience gives the idea enough solidity to make them concrete plans to follow.

    I would say that being diverse isn't a bad thing in the games industry - perhaps more so than in the illustrative side of the business - especially if you want to go into the more fluid mobile sector. But for someone like me who actually wants to do next gen AAA stuff, it's definitely a hindrance.

    Out of curiosity, do you think it's an issue if the two things you love doing most are opposite ends of the spectrum? I really want to work for the guys who make games like DragonAge or Assassin's Creed, but at the same time I also love doing stuff that leans much more heavily towards the animation genre and wouldn't want to give up doing that. The priority is the AAA titles, so I put more of my time to that.

  8. Really good question, Sam. And such an easy one to answer because when we all think of "our portfolio" we think singularly. We think it is one thing.

    Right this minute, stop thinking like that.

    Make your portfolio flexible, or make several. This portfolio goes to only gaming guys and caters to what they buy. That portfolio goes to only book cover (or whatever) clients and only has that kind of work in it and only is seen by those kinds of publishers.

    It's such an easy thing if you're split about having different interests. Go after them separately! But make sure you show exactly what they'll want from you, and you want from them, in these books.

    Down the line a bit, you'll know where you're headed. And if you're still confused....your paintings will be, so make hard decisions and stick to them.

    1. If you've decided on two genres to focus on, is it ok to have your portfolios for both genres on the same website as long as they are on separate pages? Or will art buyers seeing that there is a division be detrimental?
      James Gardner

  9. One other point. You can't paint one really good piece and expect everyone to think you've made it, or that you are amazing.

    You have to show CONSISTENCY. You have to fill your book with multiple successful pieces. You must be able to repeat those successes so that a client will know that you are capable of being able to not only make changes, but deliver quality and ON TIME.

  10. This is what I needed to hear. Thank you.

  11. Wow, thank you for this post Greg. This also really speaks to me at a time that I am struggling. For several years I've focused on improving my skills and creating art in a way that I love without regard to audience. In the process I think I've developed a fairly distinctive style. I hadn't been thinking about where to market myself until recently, and now that I'm looking I'm not sure i quite fit in anywhere.

    I narrowed what I would like to do down to childrens books, although my work doesn't really look like what's being published- is that a mistake, or should I just send my work out and see what happens? Should I spend more time doing like you said- mimicking what's out there at first to better fit into the market? (Making art really does feel like wandering in the wilderness sometimes!)

  12. Wow, Excellent advice.

    Funny, this is exactly what I say to every student and starting illustrators (and I have met a few).

  13. The part that hits home most for me right now is the soul searching. What do I really like? What subjects I don't like? I've tried narrowing before and would start off in a direction only to find I didn't like it much at all. If I can't feel good about the work who else will? So, anyway instead of just picking up a pencil and paper to do hand studies today some lists might be made and some soul will be searched. Thanks, Greg.

  14. Fantastic points Greg, you're "10 things..." articles never cease to encourage and inspire.

  15. It's true, the giveaway of a novice portfolio is that you can tell that they don't know what they want.

  16. This is something I've wrestled with for a number of years. Thank you.

  17. Sounds like you guys know what I mean! Glad!

    You're right, Kelley....dead giveaway. Can't afford to have a book look unfocused because it reflects back to the artist: unfocused, unsure, unreliable. Deadly.

    Ashley...don't just send your work out and "see what happens." So many do that. Graduated art students do that. They are trolling for clues, ideas, searching to see how it will be received. I did that too, then I realized REALLY FAST that that is not the way to go about it.

    Mimic what is out there. You may even lose yourself for a while, but you won't know it until you focus and go after something. You're still in there somewhere, but you must coax it out. That's why this is a process. And a hard one at that. One really cannot be 'original' to themselves until they know what they want. Don't wait for that to show up. Prod it.

  18. Great article, thanks so much for sharing!!

  19. This is pretty much exactly the blog post I need right now. I've had trouble choosing a direction and I suppose it's partially because I'm afraid of limiting myself. However, if I think about it, most of the successful, well rounded artists I met started out by focusing on one or two things, then branching out to other things.

  20. By mimicking artists that are getting work from clients you want to work for, isn't that just being a bad version of [insert artist]? And banking on the opportunity that said artist doesn't have the time do the projects they'd normally be the first pick for?

    Or is that what you were referring to when you said there will be a time where you'll be losing yourself by borrowing someone else's style?

    1. Preston, let me just toss this thought out to consider. Jeff Jones got his career start because he could do a sorta/kinda Frazetta style at a time when clients wanted Frazetta but Frank wasn't interested in the jobs. It helped Jeff get his career off the ground and, of course, he eventually transcended it.

    2. Dead on, Arnie. Btw, there will be a Jeff Jones show at the Society of Illustrators opening March 5th. You'll see early pieces of his work and later gems, too. Jeff's early work was a Frazetta copy, and not the best. But as he kept striving, there was a point at which his work transcended Frazetta's, as Arnie said, and one could watch it become more and more Jeff. It was remarkable. And it got to the point that, for me, I could see a Frazetta and say 'wow, fantastic!' But then I'd see a Jones painting and my guts would melt into my heart with respect. He had a soulful touch that could wither a painter.

    3. Thanks for taking the time to respond Arnie and Greg.

  21. Awesome advice and for me, extremely relevant right now! Thanks for sharing the wisdom and experience, Greg :)

  22. Whoa :)

    Well I must say... this blog post totally hit home for me xD
    I just felt totally all over the place, not sure how or what to do the art. And I think I was a bit obsessed so much to get into the game/film industry and tried to mimic so many different art styles that right now its just all falling apart ^^;
    What's curious about this, is before I've read this post of yours, I've had NO clue how to proceed, asked on a few places but nobody really could offer an answer that I felt is correct and this was going on for a few years now... So it seems, I "only" need to focus myself and find what I'd like to do and how I want to do isn't it?

    That will be though... ^^; Since I don't know. As far as I know, to be a concept artist or an illustrator in gaming/film industry, you mostly need nearly everything to draw good: characters, beasts, machines, landscape, ect. x) Or artists on this field are more... specialised?
    Apologise for the bit nooby questions, but I'm still a rookie in this field :P Only doing random commissions as a freelancer now :)

  23. Phewwwww....Dude what a freak'n wake up call. I can't argue with any of this as it is spot on. I'm so glad I follow this blog! You answered my questions and then some from the last 10 things you did.

    I will admit it is extremely hard to let go some of the many things you're okay at to get really good at just a few, but it seem to be the only way. I've had many instructors over the years and most of them preach flexibility but never being superb at only a handful of things to the point to where you master it. This has ruined me now I've got to start all over hahahaha.

    I wish school had been as informative as this last post I could have saved thousands!!!

    Thanks Greg

  24. So Greg, Where do I send money for the '10 Things..' book project?

  25. Hi Greg, I agree with your posting but.. The way I handled it was to have a very big case. In the case I had three different portfolios. An Illustration portfolio, An Amusement park design portfolio and a cartooning portfolio. All very focused with in that arena. Clients were shown only one portfolio unless something special was called for. This kept the work special but allowed me more freedom to jump from one industry to another when work got slow in one area or another.
    Thanks for all the great insight. Kurt

  26. This has been my biggest hurdle, artistically; deciding what I like best. Thanks for the article, it leaves much to ponder... :)

  27. Thanks, guys! To answer some of the confused comments:

    Simplify. Sounds idiot simple. Sounds obvious. Okay, so newbies tell me that it can't be as easy as that. That's right, it's not easy to parse these things out, but do they also think that by making things more complex that the answers will jump out of some kind of secret formula?

    Look at the professionals around you. What do their portfolios look like? What do you imagine them to look like? That's right....they are simple. Direct. Elegant. To the point. Polished. Trained. Skilled. FOCUSED.

    Yes, Preston, one can become a 'bad copy' of someone else. But only because they decide to stop at that level. One has to push through, after learning all they can from a good example. The student must transcend the teacher. But so many think that means the student must master the teacher.

    No. The student takes the teacher's best help and masters their own skills. It's the way it's been done since the dawn of time.

    Again....the musician is expected to practice and practice and also return to the basics to maintain that skill. I.e., practicing scales. Why not the artist? Why not practice the human figure over and over again to maintain the skill of anatomy? But no, the World of Art only puts their trust in magic. Only respects DNA. Only confirms and applauds The Gift.


    As with finding your voice, one must train it out.

    Levi...being a conceptual artist is like being a historical artist or a storyboard artist. I think you'll need to know a lot about animals, figures, buildings, equipment, light, landscape....on and on. But the average illustrator must know this, too. The time it takes to learn all of that is actually shorter than it seems, because it all compounds at certain points along the way. The more you learn, the more you CAN learn. It multiplies. Drawing is the answer.

    Great comments, all! Thanks for the compliments. But if you have more questions, even silly ones, let's hear them. Many are probably holding back that would want to know what you are asking! : )

  28. I find it odd.... to me, conceptart and highly detailed art are the things I like to do the most, expecially concept art. Here's the big twist: for some reason I also don't understand, I am much better and also have a knack for a cartoony disney-esque style. I've always sucked at cartoony stuff, but about two years ago I did it for a school assignment and everybody loved it more than the art I love to draw. People still say I should quit working on my concept art and focus on my cartoony stuff, which annoys me like hell.
    Is my mind telling me 'Stop with that conceptual nonsense and go cartoons!' ?

    I still draw in my cartoony style for projects and to loosen up my mind, before I start with concept art. Still it annoys me that people like what I find basic and hate what I love. Is it that I need to practice concept art even harder?

    Enlighten me, fellow artists!

  29. Excellent advice, Greg. The old expression "Jack of all Trades, Master of None" might have been coined for the art world. Whatever niche you choose, if you want to compete in it, you'd better master it. And as a corollary to that, if you don't love what you do, you'll never master it, so when you're taking that long walk deciding what your focus is going to be, settle on something you're really, really interested in. That can be tough, when you enjoy different things, but if you pay attention, the REAL thing, the CENTRAL interest, will emerge.

  30. Nice one, Christopher! For years I've been saying, "Jack of All Trades, Master of ONE." At least that helps get the focus going...

    Stephan....that's tough, and close to what happened to me. I liked working in so many techniques, but I really wanted to do well in oil painting. It took a long time and focus away from the other stuff. I would just grit my teeth when I couldn't work in say, pencil, or Prisma, or gouache.

    Listen, I think you love the concept work. You know you do. Just keep the cartoony stuff in your back pocket for survival purposes while you strengthen your passion and skills for the stuff you clearly want to do. DO NOT get distracted from that. Your example fits exactly into the problem we're trying to get around.

    Don't get enticed by something that comes so easily, or gets you quick attention. Your real passion deserves your focus. DO NOT falter.

    Won't be easy, but ask yourself this question (the same one I asked years ago): "if I die never having tried to master the thing I love most...will I be ok with that?"

    That's not morbid, that's just honest and real. I asked myself that very question. I put my income at risk, and my family's security. Of course I figured if I had to, I'd just get a 'real job.' But it came down to confronting myself as a human being on a tiny blue dot in the middle of a gigantic Universe.

    Yikes, did that ever sink home.

  31. This comment has been removed by the author.

  32. Well, that makes me feel better. I've wondered about "finding my voice" since forever. I'm still (sorta) at the wandering around point, just because there *are* so many paths to take. At this moment, I am doing an indie writer & press children's book in a style I'd never have considered before. (Author's choice there). So out of the items listed way back there, I'd have to say Children's Books & Book covers. Could possibly consider that this book needs a cover & I'm doing it, so I might have gained both in this job.

  33. Regarding the “Narrow it Down” section, I think it is less important to focus on an industry and way more important to focus on a technique. In my experience, the people who do the best tend to pick a technique and subject matter they like, and then send their stuff to everyone. The market tends to pick your industry for you. For example, say you send out 2000 emails, spread over the entire illustration industry (advertising, editorial, book, etc.) and you get 10 jobs. 5 might be for editorial, 3 for books, and 2 for ads. You might think “ok I’m an editorial guy” but the book work might have been so good that suddenly you get tons more. As your career progresses you become known in a particular industry, and your portfolio moves in that direction. Who knows, maybe you become the go-to guy for comic style ad work, or painted style comics. You would have never known if you avoided those industries just because you didn't think your style fit. Just focus on a technique and subject matter you like, and see who wants to pay you for it. If you have two techniques you like, definitely keep them in different portfolios, but still send them to everyone (but I agree with Greg about consistency, so maybe don’t send both styles at the same time:).

    That being said, I think focusing on a particular industry is wise is when you have limited resources. If you don’t have the money to buy contact lists or the time to send e-mails all day, then yeah, focus on the industry and art directors you want to work for the most. But really, the people I’ve seen make it (those who weren't already super gifted artists) were the people who worked in a style they liked and busted their butts contacting EVERYONE in the industry. I think the saying “do what you love and eventually someone will pay you for it” is true; the real trick though is finding those people.

  34. Fantastic post, Greg. Straight to the damn point.

    So glad to have read this. Coming from a publishing background, where in-house creatives are kind of expected to be jack of all trades, it's a natural thing to try a bit of everything, you never get good at one thing. There isn't that focus.

    I get my inspiration from so many different types of artist, from concept artists, comic artists, animators, childrens book illustrators, street artists, old masters, fine art...... so much awesome talent and creativity out there, it can be very hard to stay focussed on what YOU want, and which direction you want to take.

    But I look at those artists whom I am inspired by the most. I know their work instantly. There is no confusion in their gallery. Even their sketchbooks are solid. They are recognisable and memorable, and I keep going back to them. The have appeal, and soul. You can see the craft right there.

    Thank you again for this post. I really needed it.

  35. Outstanding post,

    It could not have come at a more appropriate time. Outside of all of the great advice in your article. And the most interesting comments following, A highlight for me that hit home was: "Your genius comes out slooooowly, through time, effort, and due diligence.". The truth I see in that statement says it all... It reflects the fact that it is time and hard work that reveals each individuals own path... Every "overnight success" I have ever witnessed, was the culmination of hard work and doing what it takes to "make it".

    I believe "due diligence" will be my new motto!

    Thanks Greg for such an in gauging article.

  36. Thank you Greg for such a wonderful post! This is something I've been struggling with. I would love to do book covers & editorial spots - but doing both right now would really make my portfolio look scatterbrained. This helped me put some things in perspective. :)


  37. Thanks again for the latest comments! YAY to 'things in perspective'!! It's so very simple, and yet so very awkward to engage in what we intrinsically know to be the right effort. It just feels painful at times, but sticking it out, staying on track, gives us improved perspective, and then confidence, and then successful paintings.

  38. Hey quick question?, Where do I go online to look what is selling? and who is getting work?

  39. The BEST advice I have ever seen.

  40. So nice site and very good service so i like this very much and thanks for your great sharing..
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  41. I have this bookmarked and read it at least once a month. Solid advice. Thanks for posting this! :)


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