What Gets Thrown Out

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I read an article today written by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, detailing the obstacles he went through to get to where he is today.  I’ll admit that most of the time I find motivational articles for struggling artists annoying. Many articles either 1) don’t acknowledge the blood, sweat and tears it took to get there,  2) mention that an artist had a priceless connection which ignited their careers or 3) are about an artist who won a prestigious award which brought them incredible success in their 20’s.

The truth of the matter is that while amazing success does happen for a few artists, for the vast majority, it’s a tedious, daily grind. Consequently, many artists develop unrealistic expectations about what they should have accomplished by now.  This can be extremely discouraging, and it’s too easy to become bitter and resentful.  In the article, Weiner talks about feeling this way:

“I got very bitter, seeing people I didn’t think deserved it succeed. It was a dark time. Show business looked so impenetrable that I eventually stopped writing.”

Even though I’m not a Hollywood writer, I saw myself in Weiner’s anecdotes. (minus the part about having a hit TV show)

“While being battered always hurts, an important survival mechanism I’ve acquired over the years is to both thrive on rejection and hold on to compliments. Rejection enrages me, but that “I’ll show you!” feeling is an extremely powerful motivator.”

The article was another reminder that most of what I do won’t make the final cut. This can be frustrating: you invest tons of time, only to end up using just 10% of what you made. I’ve experienced this in everything I do, from creating artwork, writing materials for courses I teach, and my advice column.

“If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that.”

In my freshman drawing class at RISD, I require my students to create at least 6 thumbnail sketches in advance of starting the final drawing for their homework assignments. A common issue is that many students pass in 6 thumbnail sketches that all look the same. I compare it to going to a buffet dinner that has 20 plates of the same chicken dish. Diversity within a set of thumbnail sketches is critical; if the 6 sketches look the same, it means that 5 of those sketches are useless.

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Even when you do have a strong, diverse set of thumbnail sketches, ultimately you’ll only go with one, while the other 5 get thrown out. As a means of comparison, I asked the students how many rounds of sketches they thought it must have taken to arrive at the final iPhone design. One student simply said “most of the ideas were thrown out.”

Be willing to part with those sketches, you might be surprised at what you could gain.


Like this post? Check out Ask the Art Prof Live, a weekly live video broadcast on my Facebook page where I provide professional advice for art students and professional artists. Ask the Art Prof began as a written column in 2013 and was featured in the Huffington Post from 2013-2015.  Ask me your questions by commenting on the live video post as the video streams, and I’ll answer right away. I’ll discuss being an artist today, art technique & materials, work strategies for artists, career advice, teaching art, and more. Like my Facebook page and you’ll receive a notification when each live video begins.


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