I’ve heard this said so many times in so many forms. With the rise of social media, of digital marketplaces, of e-commerce and drop-shipping, of print-on-demand and crowdsourcing, we’ve never had such a wealth of resources at our fingertips to help us make a viable career from our art. Van Gogh would weep with envy.
So why is it so many of us are still struggling?
I’m probably not alone in saying that hearing others driving home the idea that “it’s never been easier” always felt as discouraging as it did encouraging. It’s true, and yet, it feels utterly impossible to stand out, even with all those aids. Why is that? Am I hopeless? If I can’t make this artist thing work when it’s never been easier, is it because I’m a complete lost cause?
A tempting thought, but no, it’s not that.
It’s because it’s easier for MOST PEOPLE, and so, it’s just as difficult as ever to stand out. And as much as standing out isn’t entirely necessary to make a comfortable and meaningful living as an artist (more on that another day), it honestly helps.
When we look at our idols, the ones we wish we could be like and yearn to follow in the steps of, we’re looking at the ones that stand out from the crowd. Behind the most famous, successful, influential artists in the world are millions of people we don’t see. And that is a crowd of individual human beings as complex, striving, and full of potential as you and I.
And while those idols are out there demonstrating how to make the most of those tools, the rest of us are scrambling to emulate, to innovate, to maximise.
Countless people are figuring out how to leverage these tools and setting shining examples of how to absolutely crush it, and so, the bar has been raised once again. Just as quickly as these new and impressive tools offer potential, they become commonplace, dull, even necessary (remember when it was new and edgy to use social media to grow a following as an artist? I hardly do, either).
The internet has blown our world wide open. We just keep getting more and more connected, and our knowledge is growing exponentially. The sheer volume of educational resources we can access at any time for free is staggering. Collectively, we’re improving at an astonishing rate, because the barriers that once kept shared knowledge at bay dissolve more and more every day.
The downside to that it’s now easier than ever to be really, REALLY good at any one thing.
I’m going to say something that sounds horribly discouraging, but please stick with me. I swear that, by the end, I’ll have hope and answers for you. Here goes:
With millions of people learning the same things, using the same tools and aspiring for the same things, it’s borderline impossible to stand out. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how patient, compassionate and kind you are with yourself, the odds are simply not in your favour. Statistically speaking, you’re probably somewhat like me: I’m smart and I’m capable and I’m hard working, but in a sea of millions, I fade into the background. I’m not a genius, I’m not a prodigy, I’m not a visionary. I’m just a well-meaning, resourceful, hopeful but highly flawed individual, and I imagine you are, too. You and I, we devote ourselves to doing the best work we can, to continually striving to be better, to contributing and making a difference, but sadly, that doesn’t make us exceptional. We’re not the only ones working hard to improve. We’re not the only ones who are the protagonists of our world. And many of the people in this sea got a significant head start on us (and let us not forget that we have a head start on many ourselves). Amassing the kind of success our idols have amassed feels like a near impossibility.
So if trying to stand out as an artist right now is so hard, what can we do?
The answer is shockingly simple. When the way ahead is overcrowded, we go sideways. If standing out as an artist is damn near impossible, we become more than just an artist.
Just like we apply filters to a narrow down a search result, we can thin that sea of millions down by adding layers to what we do.
Let’s explore some ways to do that.
Perhaps the most obvious and commonly practised way of starting to emerge from the crowd, specialising (or finding a niche) is a pretty natural progression for most of us as we study and hone our artistic expression. The more we practice, the more we gain a sense for what we like and what we don’t like, and the tighter we narrow our focus.
However, many of us stop there. As I mentioned before, what is easy is usually common, and what is common is not akin to standing out. Even within niches, there is still an abundance of incredible talent, and by narrowing the scope of what we’re creating, we’re also narrowing the potential audience (not a bad thing in the slightest, but an important part of why specialising alone usually isn’t enough).
I personally have had great struggles with specialising. By nature, I am an explorer, and I love trying new things and playing with novel ideas. To pursue one path is to say no to others, and that’s something I hate to do. Specialising has been something I’ve resisted, but I think that it is happening regardless (certainly, my work now is more consistent than it was a few years ago).
If you are like me, I’d encourage you to pursue what you find personally interesting and let specialisation happen in the background. I would not have arrived here faster had I made myself miserable, and there are a wealth of opportunities out there for us generalists. Let us not forget, this well known adage is actually a shortening of the original, and in its shortening, came to mean the complete opposite:
“a jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”
Recruit Lateral Skills
We often think that genius and innovation are the creation of concepts entirely original, but that isn’t true (check out my article on originality in art here). Innovation comes from applying the knowledge we have to look at something in a new way. Behind great inventions is usually a story of oddjob assortments of knowledge, a series of bizarre circumstances and accidents.
Creation does not happen in a vaccuum. We draw on our experience, and the wider the breadth of those experiences, the more likely we are to find something few or none have found before.
What makes Loish stand out as an illustrator? It’s her background in animation, which gave her knowledge into expression and flow that’s uncommon among illustrators, combined with her exploration of themes that are deeply personal to her.
Why is RossDraws phenomenally popular? Not just because he’s a wonderful illustrator, but because he creates videos that entertain and teach us, and by sharing his personality and production skills along with his art makes him stand out and allows us to connect with him more deeply.
There are two ways we can reliably draw someone’s attention:
- Entertain them (eg. humour, sex, deep emotions, storytelling)
- Help them (eg. teach, validate, promote)
If you are able to do either of these well with your work, you will almost certainly begin experiencing organic growth.
Many of us create art in the hope of it being admired, and while that certainly can happen, it’s much harder to stand out simply because you make good art. Experience has shown me that if your art can deeply entertain people, they are far more likely to love it and share it (even if the art is weaker) than if they just think the image is pretty. Likewise, if the content you are creating in some way inspires or educates someone to improve their own work, this too will make it stand out.
It’s important to remember that, although these methods are extremely effective, they will not happen overnight. If you are able to commit the time to build and grow with these things in mind, then growth is almost certain to happen, but it isn’t in any way a hack or shortcut or quantum leap.
For that reason, I think you should find a route that feels right for you. If you hate teaching, don’t choose to bring that into your work simply because teaching sells. Incorporate these principles into your workflow in a way that feels good for you. Create content you personally would deeply connect with and chances are there are others out there who will feel the same way, and you won’t have to grind and fake enthusiasm at something you just don’t care about.