How I Became an Artist
I am extraordinarily blessed to do what I love for a living. Somehow in the last decade I’ve turned a hobby into a profession and then into a lifestyle. While I don’t claim any profound wisdom nor that my path is the best one, I thought that some aspiring artists out there might be encouraged to see the road that someone else has taken.
I didn’t want to be an artist.
I wanted to make video games. I was a nerd. I took programming classes at the local community college when I was 14. I made art (and always had), but only as a hobby.
Most of my artistic interests at the time were in making pixel art — primarily because I could use it in the games I was making.
I also found the ConceptArt.org forums (they have, notably, since taken a nosedive — but that’s a story for internet-drama history). This was in their heyday when a slew of amazing concept artists and illustrators were active on there. I constantly browsed and posted. It was a goldmine of information and sharing. It was where I discovered that there were people out there who got to paint beautiful, amazing things and made a living from it.
I was also taking drawing classes at the community college. Painting classes soon followed.
In 2o06, shortly before my 18th birthday, I had a monumental week. With typical teenage audacity, I decided to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
Within a week.
I spent the week writing lists. Pros/cons. Writing about what I wanted in life. Sitting around thinking. Taking walks.
And eventually came down to a few distinct choices.
- Programmer. I could make games for a living. I wasn’t a prodigy, but I was a fairly adept programmer for my age.
- Graphic designer. I took design classes at the community college as well and had picked it up extremely quickly. I had even freelanced a little.
- Carpenter. My dad builds houses for a living, and it was always an option (and, I suppose, sort of still is) for me to take over the company.
Obviously we all know what I picked.
The reason I decided to become an artist has nothing to do with what would make me the most money, or what I was “talented” at, or even what I necessarily always enjoyed the most. It was simply something that, in my gut, I just knew was the right choice. Without anything better to go on, that’s what I relied on.
From this moment, the fear began. I have spent every day since, with some variance, utterly terrified of failing. Of not being good enough. Not making enough money to support myself. Being a horrible, embarrassing failure.
And it was this fear that propelled me to improve.
My first decision was where to go to art school. Incidentally, no one had told me not to go to art school at the time, so I started researching schools. I figured if I was going to do this, I wanted to do it right. So I looked up rankings and after tons and tons of research decided the Rhode Island School of Design was where I wanted to go.
I got in. Barely.
I was wait-listed. But eventually got the call that I had gotten in. Unfortunately, it included no scholarships at all. The entirety of the approximate $35k tuition would rest on my shoulders (not to mention living expenses). This was a financially tough time for my family, so every dime would come entirely from loans.
I wrestled with the choice as long as I possibly could.
And decided not to go. I would, instead, reapply next year after working on my craft and improving my portfolio in hopes of receiving a scholarship.
The first thing I did was sign up for a class at nearby University of Virginia to take figure drawing. I had never done any figure drawing beforehand and felt that lacking in my application.
Alongside this, I also began taking private lessons with a local portrait painter, Henry Wingate. He was trained classically and taught me many of these methods of slow observational drawing.
A year passed and it was time to reapply to RISD. I did a fresh set of their required drawings and sent in a portfolio of new work.
I still remember the day I got the letter from RISD. It was a big envelope.
I had gotten in with a $20k yearly scholarship.
The following months I would scramble to secure the student loans in order to pay the remainder of the costs. My parent’s financial situation, thanks to the housing crisis, was still bleak. So as much as they would have loved to have helped, it was on me (and the good people at JPMorgan Chase).
I made it to RISD. And then I worked. I mean worked. To RISD’s credit, they are wonderous at making their students work hard. My classmates and I put in insane hours working on our craft. If it takes ten thousand hours, then I was getting there as quickly as I could.
The year came to a close. I had made friends and did more art than I could possibly fit in this post. But the financial realities of staying for another two years were coming to the forefront. Tuition was rising and my scholarship was not. To stay would mean ending up with over $100k in debt.
So I left.
I transferred to the Virginia Commonwealth University. I had grown up in VA, so I was able to get in-state tuition. The school accepted me even before I applied. It didn’t have the prestige that RISD had, but I would be able to get a degree and continue my study of art.
During this summer before I went to VCU, something extraordinary happened. You see, I had spent the entirety of my artistic career avoiding landscape art of any kind. I found it painfully boring. I would even go to a museum and walk straight past all of the Hudson River School painters.
But this summer I actually walked outside with my paints. I did my first plein air work of my life. And I loved it. Every minute of it. The heat, the glare of light, the wind blowing around and bugs flying into my paint. Everything about it just felt… right. I had grown up in the woods of Virginia and it felt like a dream come true to get to create art and experience nature at the same time.
So with this fresh outlook on what sort of art I thought I should make, I went to Richmond to attend VCU. I made a new group of friends. And we were all given the assignments of filling up sketchbooks. While I had always had sketchbooks and filled them up from time to time, VCU was obsessed with them. Our professors made sure we were constantly working in them, grading us largely based on the number of pages filled.
Now I will take this opportunity to admit that I am not a very good draftsman. And despite filling a sketchbook or two mostly with line drawings, that didn’t improve all that much. So I started painting in them. I knew I could fill a page a lot faster with a brush than a pencil.
Besides drawing my friends, sometimes family, and often strangers, I filled up my sketchbooks with studies of landscapes (from life, the masters, and photos). I knew if I wanted to make good landscapes, I’d need to study them a lot.
But still, as any good artist does, I continued to work on my figurative skills. But during this time I noticed an odd sort of trend. People tended to say much nicer things about my landscapes than my figures. Particularly odd considering less than a year prior I had been adamantly opposed to doing landscapes at all.
But this wasn’t enough. I knew that even though I was learning and improving, I needed to work on my own as well. I needed to pursue the things I eventually wanted to be paid to do. So in my evenings, after I was done with classes and homework — VCU, thankfully, had a considerably lighter homework load than RISD — I would do imaginative sketches of landscapes. Ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours, you might have even called them “speed paintings” back in the day. But they were tools for me to learn how to develop an entire scene, color palette, and mood in a very short amount of time.
This was one of the most important exercises I have ever done. This is where I took the years of study and began really applying them.
People responded to them. A lot. But still, I knew that I had to do more if I was going to get paid to do this. Everything I did was unfinished.
I am an obnoxiously impatient person and I had a hard time working on a piece to completion. I would get sick of something and just want to move on to the next piece. Which is often what I did. So I was sitting on a pile of unfinished work and my junior year was coming to a close.
I buckled down and forced myself to finish just one piece.
I had done it. And I was proud. I had produced a piece that, despite all of the flaws I now see in it, is at a fairly professional level. The lighting is good, the composition is solid, the space and atmosphere is believable, and I had forced myself to take enough time that most things are decently rendered.
So during the remainder of my semester and into the summer, I worked on finishing my first portfolio of work.
This is the point everything tipped.
I had spent all of these years working to acquire a base of skills in art and at this point, I had done just that. I was far from being perfect, but I knew I had attained a professional level. And all before my senior year in school.
It felt amazing.
During September of my senior year I took a day or two off of classes to drive up to middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania for Illuxcon, a fairly new convention for fantasy & science fiction illustrators. I had gone the year before and walked around, talked to a few people, and come away profoundly inspired by the amazing work I had seen there. It had been my goal to come back, get a table at their showcase event, and impress everyone. That was my mission.
And to some degree, I think I succeeded.
I came back with the portfolio you saw above and I did make a splash (giving away hundreds of free prints didn’t hurt). I went from entirely unknown to someone worth noticing. And the art directors noticed too. It was wonderful and exhilarating and I’ll never forget the pure joy of that night, showing off my work.
All of this work led to my first jobs. There’s a little overlapping of timelines here, because the work started rolling in during the summer before my senior year and kept up all through graduation. So I was somewhere between student and professional for about a year there.
These were great.
Working professionally felt incredible. But I always have my sights set higher.
I wanted Dungeons & Dragons.
I had met with the art director, Jon Schindehette, at Illuxcon and received a very positive review. So I was hoping and waiting for the call. And one night, on the way out to dinner with some friends, I got the email. Jon wanted to give me some work.
Three commissions, in fact. The biggest one being a cover piece for their online magazine. Wow. Funnily enough, the brief was still titled, “Sam Burley.pdf”, after the name of a fellow illustrator who I suppose was originally intended to do this piece. I did not mind in the slightest being the second tier artist.
The success with that piece and others led me on to being a consistent artist for D&D for the years to follow.
And still, during this time, I forced myself to continue producing personal pieces. Just for myself, my portfolio, and my own personal satisfaction.
This last piece is very important for me. Hope of Glory is a piece I used as the cover of a postcard mailer I had made up for one of my classes during my senior year (I did, sometimes, still do my homework). Among the many art directors I sent it to was the sole art director of Magic: The Gathering, Jeremy Jarvis, with a quick “Would love to work with you sometime!” scrawled on the back. Magic was and remains one of the most coveted jobs for fantasy artists everywhere. They pay well, have a huge fan base, and only hire very good artists. Plus it’s pretty fun.
And a month after graduation I got the email from him.
I am currently working on Magic card #69 for them. It has been an amazing road working with Wizards. They have been with me for most of my professional career and have served to constantly challenge me and give me room to grow.
Soon after graduation, I moved back in with my parents. I was doing well enough with freelance work that I could have made it on my own. But I had $40k in student loans that were weighing me down. So I humbled myself and moved back home.
I spent the following year working. A lot. Harder than I had ever worked before. Taking on as much work as I possibly could and pushing my skills to be the best. Somehow, some way, by some miracle, I paid off my loans in precisely one year, one month, and one day after graduation. Just past my (insane) goal of paying them off within a year.
But then I started getting annoyed. I got annoyed with how students are taught and with how art schools take advantage of eager young art students. I saw too many of my peers taken advantage of. They charge tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and give very little in return.
So for one thing, I wrote that angry rant that a few of you might have read.
In 2013, I started Art Camp. It was designed to be a summer program that ran for 12 weeks and would teach students the very basic, fundamental exercises they should use to improve their work. They’re all of the exercises I had spent the last several years doing. I had seen so many students utterly confused as to how to improve. So I put together a little program to guide people through the process. And it blew up.
Like, a lot. I set out to get just 25 students. I ended up with hundreds.
I ran another course the following year and now my friend Titus Lunter is running his own art camp on my platform. Where it’ll grow, I’m not really sure. But I hope it continues to help aspiring artists all over the world.
At the heart of my work has always been my personal work. And so in 2013 I finally told everyone that these pieces were part of a cohesive world. One that I call The Sin of Man. It’s a primal, fantastical world full of strange magic, weird creatures, and mysterious gods. I don’t know where this road will lead me, but I love making the work.
In the beginning of 2014 I got a couple tweet mentions from a beautiful Australian girl. Within just a few months I had moved to the other side of the world just for the chance to date her. She has encouraged me and inspired me so much in the last year and a half. She’s even a fantastic artist herself. Love ya, babe. ❤
We have had a great time exploring Australia and New Zealand together and she has been a wonderful support as I continue to experiment and refine my craft. And I, on my side, get to see her grow into a professional artist herself.
The following is a sampling of some of the recent personal work I have completed.
Which brings us to now.
I get to travel the world with a beautiful woman, create art for a world of my own design, and help aspiring artists make better work. I can barely begin to express just how lucky I feel to have the life I do. I may have worked at it, but it’s hard to feel deserving of so much.
I hope that, in some small way, this post serves to encourage fellow artists on their journey. It can take a long time and seem hopeless. It can be exhausting, discouraging, even depressing. But if you stay at it, someday you will make it past those obstacles.
If I can leave you with one piece of advice that I have acquired over all of these years, it’s to always find some degree of pride in what you have accomplished so far. Be thankful for every accomplishment, no matter how small. Be proud of yourselves. Not to the point of pride, but rather to encourage and motivate.
Because if you just keep going, eventually you’ll find yourself somewhere.