We’ve all heard it. We’ve all heard it several times, in fact. It is a somber bit of “wisdom” from someone close to us, always spoken with an air of warning:
“There’s a lot of competition out there…”
When we hear these words they strike us with the force of a magic spell. As the idea of becoming an artist for a living suddenly seems less shiny, we begin to doubt our creative goals and our daydreams of artistic achievement. Suddenly our hopes seem slightly foolish and ill-considered. In the worst case scenario, we give up, surrendering future happiness and fulfillment in exchange for the death sentence of being “reasonable.”
I am here to break the spell.
The dark magic invoked by the mere mention of competition is easily exorcized. You just have to understand one thing: Competition is not inherently good or bad.
Mentioning the competition is like bringing up the number of people wearing pants versus shorts. It has no real relevance to the artistic market. A good answer to “There’s a lot of competition out there” would be, “And there are a lot of people named Ed. We should all stop having kids…”
There are a handful of competition scenarios. All of them, if understood without fear, can be used to your advantage. There is never a reason to run from competition. Just adopt the right response for the type of competition you are facing.
Let’s look at some truths of competition to help us get a better understanding of this multifaceted — but ultimately helpful— phenomenon.
# 1: Bad Competition Is Better Than No Competition
In any field of endeavor, the median level of expertise, commitment, and professionalism will be fairly poor. In other words, “average” (or lower) quality work is exactly what a client will get from half the artists they try to work with. It’s a statistical fact.
It’s also a fact that works to your favor. When you choose a field that is seemingly bloated with artists, ask yourself, “But how many of them are actually good?” The more garbage and noise in a field, the easier it is to rise to the top. Once the audience has come to expect amateurism and mediocre work, they will be stunned and amazed when they are exposed to competence and excellence.
Bring your “A” game to everything you do. Practice constantly; make continuing education a driving force in your creative life. When compared to the “average,” your work will shine like a beacon in the night. Clients will take notice. The sea of half-rate competition will lift you up and carry you to success.
# 2: More Artists Doesn’t Mean More Competition
An idea that goes hand in hand with the previous section is this: There are as many fans as there are art styles. Every conceivable variation of every imaginable artistic style will develop its own niche of followers if given enough exposure. Lots of people love “Hellboy” creator Mike Mignolla’s artwork — and lots of people think it stinks. No one’s art is inherently good or bad. Audience reaction is all that matters. So while you may have chosen an art style with a lot of other artists doing something very similar, it’s still not the same.
Yes, there are a lot of artists out there, but a lot of them are drawing Campbell’s Soup Kids and Pokémon or designing Hummel figurines. I’d rather die than do that type of work, so they certainly can’t be counted as my competition.
In my specific discipline (Novel Covers) there are still huge variations in audience taste. I paint fantasy-realism. People who like a less real feel to their covers won’t use me no matter how good I am. People who want a more realistic feel will probably go to photography and thus wouldn’t hire me either.
I am really only competing, therefore, with a very small sub-group of illustrators: Fantasy-realist, digital painters who specialize in only Science Fiction and Fantasy novel covers. That narrows the field quite a bit.
Now if I capitalize on point # 1, and always remember point #3, I should do just fine.
# 3: The Greatest Artists in the Industry Are Your Competition
If I was going to offer up an example of “competition as bogeyman,” it would be this: The best, most famous artist in your field is your competition. Your competition is not your artistic peers. It’s not the other students in your class at school. If you are starting out in the industry, you are competing against seasoned professionals with stellar portfolios and tons of industry connections.
If you are an aspiring book-cover illustrator, for example, you are competing with me. The scary part (for you) is that you probably didn’t even know I am your competition. Every day I am taking a job away from a hopeful illustrator because I have better connections, a better portfolio, and a far better marketing and branding plan than you. Before you had the chance even to hear that there was a job coming up, I’d already taken it. I ate your lunch before you realized somebody cooked it.
The funny part is that industry masters like Brom or Donoto Giancolla are doing the same thing to me!
The point is, start your career trying to be (from a professional perspective) exactly like whoever is in the top of your field. Does your favorite artist have an awesome web presence? Then you need one too. Does your favorite artist have YouTube videos or make personal appearances at art schools? Then you should too.
If you are as good as you think you are (and I’m sure you are), then it’s never too late to start establishing yourself as an expert. There is always someone who knows less than you, so there is no reason not to make tutorials and get more name recognition. There are lots of industry related events, like conventions and art school portfolio reviews, whose owners and coordinators are looking to fill judging slots or offer other forms of speaking engagement for art professionals. Go apply for these openings. If they say “no,” so what? Keep trying. Someone will give in and give you a chance eventually.
Study the modern “masters” of your artistic discipline. Find biographical information about them. Use this to form insights into the mind of driven professionals. Think like a winner and you become a winner.
So fear not, young artist. You have nothing to worry about… but you do have a lot of work to do.
Get started. Good luck.
John Jackson (as Johnny Atomic — www.atomiccovers.com) is a noted cover artist and Art Director for League Entertainment. His clients include Harper Collins/Eos, Lucasfilms, and Disney Entertainment. Along with League Co-Founder Ken Chapman, John is working on the upcoming artist’s guide, “Art: The Savage Business.” Follow Johnny on Pinterest and Twitter and his company League Entertainment on Twitter.
Read more about Johnny Atomic in his expert career interview: http://www.theartcareerproject.com/interview/johnny-atomic/.