Greg High discovered he had a talent for drawing and sketching early in his life. But even as he headed off to college, he told his friends he didn’t want to become an artist because it wasn’t going to help him pay the bills. Instead he was going to be an architect, then he was going teach fine art. Now, more than 30 years later, High is a respected freelance illustrator and one of the only court sketch artists in San Diego.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, and it didn’t lead to the fame or riches that some of the luckier artists who ply their craft experience. But it has allowed High to get paid to do something he loves — a feeling that not many working Americans get to experience in their lifetime. We chatted with High about how his career began, how it has evolved, and what advice he would pass on to people who are interested in roughly following in his footsteps. His responses were both insightful and honest, which usually makes for the best type of answers. Enjoy!
How did you start sketching?
My first sketches were most likely the result of imitating my older brother who liked to draw. There was no obvious hereditary artistic talent in our family other than my older brother and myself. My father was a Coast Guard pilot and my mother was a nurse homemaker. I may have shown some artistic talent in church and school projects but I never had any formal training.
I liked to doodle and illustrate my school notes and papers. I liked to do portraits of famous people. I even entered a radio contest to copy the Mona Lisa when it was on loan to the U.S. back in the 1960′s. I didn’t win anything but I enjoyed the project.
When did you decide to make it into a career?
I often told my curious friends that I had no intention of being an artist because there was no money in it. I went to the University of Michigan to become an architect. I switched my major to fine art after the first year and five years after graduation I went back to the Cranbrook Academy of Art to get a Master of Fine Arts in painting.
I thought I might teach fine art. But in 1977, at the age of 26, I moved to Southern California and eventually found employment as a low-paid graphic artist in the thriving military training industry. I was just trying to make a living in sunny California; I was not sure what career path I would take.
Can you describe the process that you undertook to develop your career as a sketch artist?
I started at the bottom as just another graphic artist. I aspired to be one of the storyboard artists in the training slide presentation business for which I worked. Meanwhile, after hours, I took every freelance art assignment that came my way. I acquired experience in a number of disciplines (i.e. logo design, advertisement illustration, animation background painting, cartooning, caricatures, and more).
One day, I applied for a media art position at a local television station. The art director liked my portfolio, but I had no specific experience in the industry to qualify me for the open position. But he did ask if I could be on call as a court sketch artist while their regular artist was on vacation. I agreed. I believe I had one assignment in the following two weeks then I found out the regular sketch artist was not coming back so from then on I was the go-to guy for court sketch assignments at this television station.
If someone was looking to support themselves full-time as a sketch artist, what should they expect?
I have been the primary and occasionally the only court sketch artist in San Diego for thirty years. It is not a regular job. It is not a living. It is a very specialized service requiring specific artistic talents and professional flexibility to be available on call. I am a freelance illustrator.
Sketches of federal and military court proceedings is a service I provide for media clients. The money is good by assignment but the business is sporadic and not a viable living in and of itself. Perhaps in the New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC markets one could make a living by being a court sketch artist, but then there is the matter of competition in the bigger markets.
Where have you noticed are the best places to sell your work? What have been some of the way you have been able to make good money doing sketches? What can be expected in the market, job market and graphic design world?
When you tell someone that you are an artist, they can have any number of imaginings as to who you are and what you do. By nature, all artists are different and most specialize in one form of art or another. I took a more shotgun approach to commercial art (www.greghigh.com). My slogan is “what you want when you need it.” My idea was to not limit my opportunities. I am the proverbial “jack of all, master of none”, but I get the job done.
Over the years I have had the luxury of becoming more discriminate in the work I do. Since I can draw (sketch) and I am quick, now I find myself mostly doing conceptual storyboards for a variety of clientele all over the country. I am on the down slope of my professional career (making money) which is good because the art market is changing rapidly with the advance of technology and whole new industries are popping up that use artists (i.e. web design, game development, animation, 3-d, CBT, etc.).
It is both exciting and daunting. I continually solicit agencies and media producers with samples of my work. Bad economies hit us freelancers hard; but we will be the first to see a recovery, it’s not yet though.
If you had it to do all over again, what kind of advice would you of given yourself as a sketch artist? Are there certain areas that you wish you would of focused on closer in order to further you career?
I’ve done okay over the years but perhaps I could have promoted myself more. I might have better immersed myself in the professional community by joining organizations, seeking out and working with masters in a field, trying to get in where the action is, competing for better exposure, and making myself into a nationally known artist. This all comes under the heading of marketing. Most artists don’t market themselves; we just want to do the “art” thing.
I never resorted to an agent, which has limited my opportunities with certain job prospects. But if no one knows you exist, you will not get work. Fortunately, enough folks know that I exist and know I am good at what I do. If you have a strong constitution and you can make it work, freelance is a great way to go.
Even though this is a tough business, if someone was as persistent with their career as you have been with yours, what are the steps you would recommend taking to make their career as successful as possible?
I am trained as a fine artist. I have made a living as a commercial artist. The two are related but very different. As a fine artist you work for yourself, you realize your own vision without interference. It sells or it doesn’t. As a commercial artist for hire, you serve another’s vision. You are paid to apply your artistic talents to someone else’s project.
The biggest mistakes most artists make in the commercial world are they don’t listen carefully to the client and they go off on their own creative tangent and they don’t get the job done on time within budget. Give clients what they want when they need it and you will get paid. And you will have an edge on most your competition.
Any final words for our artists on the field of sketch artistry?
Unfortunately, to an artist, art is something we do whether we get paid for our art or not. We are vulnerable to those that would take advantage and expect you to do your art for nothing. The professional artist must respect their talent, their contributions and require free market compensation for services rendered. Yes, an artist must be a business person to survive or an artist can be a member of a team on a regular job.
Being able to sketch (perhaps not so easily learned if one has no innate talent) is a great foundation for any number of art jobs. But being able to draw is not a prerequisite to an art career anymore. Because I can draw I have made a good life of art with court sketching and conceptual storyboarding. Each artist can only do what they are good at and match themselves with clients who appreciate their work. And there is no substitute for good, old fashioned, honest effort and delivery.
“Call me Crazy but I like to Have Fun With My Art!” -Greg High