Sunday, March 11, 2012

Knowing your long term goals as an artist and determining the steps to take to get there.

by Aidana WillowRaven

In many ways, this topic can relate to most career paths, but today, I want to focus on my own field: cover art, illustration, and design.

One of my Twitter followers suggested a blog topic recently that sort of made me step back and think. Here is how the brief chat went:

@heyprettydivine asks me: @WillowRaven Where you see yourself progressing with your art career? Will you be a cover artist forever or will you move on and up?

I responded: @heyprettydivine On and up? There is something better than this? lol. This is why I went to art school to begin with. To be on/in books.

@heyprettydivine tweets: @WillowRaven OH of course! It's amazing, an ultimate dream for so many, but I thought that at such a young age u must nw hve new goals, too.

And after a moment's thought, I replied: @heyprettydivine I do have new goals, but they don't change WHAT I do as much as WHOM I do them for. Make sense?

Then I got to thinking a bit more. Although I knew from day one of my college training that I wanted to be a cover artist, my career path wasn't quite straight. It took quite a while to get where I am now, which is finally doing work I wanted to do when I started fine art classes at Norfolk State (then later at ODU).

Originally, my entire focus was on taking the courses I'd need to be a SFF book cover artist. I had a plan (which my professors and adviser hated ... lol), don't worry about the degree as much as the portfolio. I didn't say it was a GOOD plan ... lol. But in a lot of ways, that approach made me a more diverse artist. It also made it harder for me to get my career rolling. But first things first ...

I had decided to go to college and study art. I stared at my favorite book covers and figured I'd need to learn a lot about the human form, so I took life drawing classes almost every term. I also could see I needed painting and possibly design, since I was too cheap to pay a designer to clean up my art for print ... lol. So painting was also an every term class and design classes, which were not part of a fine art degree, were chosen as electives.

During my first term, I realized that was not going to be nearly enough figure work to accomplish my goal, so I added anatomy, animation, and seemingly non-related courses like anthropology, world religions, psychology, and astronomy to my load. 

I also added pottery and sculpture. I hung out in the studios after classes and watched the grad students work and had one on one conversations with professors about this you just don't learn in class, like copyright infringement and prejudices among the different art fields (which helped me to understand why so many of my profs hated that my goal was to be a scifi/fantasy cover artist).

I slaved myself out to those professors that did gallery showings and those that did what I considered practical things, like created brochures for the Norfolk International Airport.

My point is, I tried to learn it all. Everything I could remotely relate to becoming a fantasy and science fiction artist. I was in college six years and never earned my degree because in my mind, the portfolio was what got me a job, not sticking to a set curriculum. Youth!

Ten years go by ... I win a few awards in art shows. I sell a few computer print outs of my work for a couple bucks here and there. I even sell some work at scifi/fantasy conventions. Nothing big. And no book covers.The majority of jobs out there required my having a degree. I found out the hard way that most Art Directors are not artists themselves. More often than not, there isn't even an Art  Director doing the hiring, but an Editor who typically knows even less about art. They don't bother even looking at a portfolio without that degree.

What I also failed to learn in college was how to land a cover artist gig without a degree or any kind of business skills to start my own freelance business. So, I decided to finally take control of my ability to start my own art career and learn business. A few online courses, and before I knew it, I was being asked to illustrate a children's book.

Well, it's not scifi or fantasy, but it's a foot in the door. Suddenly, I realized I'd been cheated out of thousands of dollars and that my work, which I'd not been paid for, was profiting others. Not me. So more study had to go into fair and ethical guidelines for my industry. I had to find the right people to work with and continue building my portfolio, even though nothing I was doing had anything to do with my initial goal.

Don't get me wrong. I learned a lot on the journey. For example, I learned I like other genres. I LIKE doing book covers in general, not just scifi or fantasy. I LIKE illustrating for kids. That was never part of my college plans. 

I also learned that it takes time to build a name and reputation. You just can't be good. You have to be better and find someone who gives you a chance to show your worth. You have to build a professional portfolio, vs a personal one, because you're simply not legitimate until you have 50 or more published works. You need to learn your rights as an artist. You need to be willing to compromise. You need to do freebies on occasion (keep those to a minimum, or you earn enemies in the art community) and work cheap for a while. And most importantly: You have to figure out what your goals are and what you need to do to reach those goals.

Fifteen years after art school, and I am FINALLY doing what I SET OUT TO DO. So where do I plan to go from here? As I told @heyprettydivine, I have no intentions of changing what I do. I do hope to one day do at least one cover for a best seller. But if I never do, I am still doing precisely what I want to do.

What are your goals as an artist, and how do you hope to reach them?

Art Director & VP of Operations


  1. Doing what you love to do is about as good as it gets, in my opinion. And that best seller cover could be any day now. Then I'll say, "Hey, Aidana did my covers too."

    Thanks for sharing your story with us.

  2. Who knows but what that breakthrough book might not come from 4RV.

  3. Actually, it wouldn't surprise me if it were a 4RV book that became a best seller. I know I get most of my freelance jobs from work I've done for 4RV.

    As a matter of fact, most of the people that hire me were attracted to Beverly's book covers ... lol.

  4. Aidana, I love your covers, especially mine! :) It is so true that doing what you love is "as good as it gets."