Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How to Be a Rookie

The retail operation where I sometimes grab shifts is now welcoming a handful of rookies onto the roster. As a result, I find myself proffering some hints and lessons here and there.

Which takes me back to when I was a rookie (and believe me, I feel like I'm a rookie on a regular basis--this is not a job where you learn everything in the first week and then never pay attention again).

Unlike other professions that take on apprentices formally, with guidelines, caricature operations really vary. Some folks have to adhere very specifically to a house style and medium, while at other places it's a free-for-all. But there's a certain set of unwritten rules in this business when it comes to learning the craft as a newbie. I decided to write them down.

1. Be Nice.

I don't mean "draw nice." I mean BE nice. There always seems to be one or two folks a year who show up and think they already know it all. Invariably, they don't. Nor will they learn. Be nice to your fellow newbies, your new boss, and any other seasoned artists who are there. These folks will be key to your learning process over the next months or years, and they will also help you earn an income.

2. Be Humble

You aren't as good as you think you are. If the first sentence out of a potential new hire's mouth is something about how awesome and talented they are, I steel myself for what their work is going to look like. It's usually awful because they have invested more time in self-worship than self-improvement. Most everyone who actually gets good at this is constantly self-critical. In order to get better, you need to be able to tell where you went wrong, and the ability to see that much is a key ingredient in a caricature artist. If someone cannot see flaws in their own work, it's usually a sign they don't have that power of observation. The flip-side of this is that if you ARE overly self-critical, take a breath and realize that it doesn't necessarily mean you suck . . . it means you have the ability to see where you could use improvement. That's the ticket right there.

3. Be Observant.

Before you even officially hire on, you should show up and watch each established caricaturist work for at least an hour or two. This was the first assignment I ever had as a rookie with Quickdraw. Even if you show up to observe and there's no business, chances are the artist will show you a few tips and tricks and you can ask questions. For the first year, whenever the artist next to you is drawing you should be watching.

4. Be Grateful.

There's an attitude I have come across lately, online and in person, of "I deserve to be an artist--because REASONS!" The universe does not owe you an audience or a living. Someone I know (only peripherally) recently griped "I just want a fun, creative job in the arts that can pay my bills, is that too much to ask??" Well, in a word, yes! We are phenomenally lucky to live in today's age, where we non-royals don't have to spend dawn till dusk subsistence farming in order to live. So we have some leisure time. And that's getting spent consuming creative arts, so much so that people start thinking that's all there is to life. Then they believe that it's logical that they, too, should be gainfully employed making content. Not everyone can, not everyone should, but believe me it seems like EVERYONE IS TRYING. Quite frankly, our country might be better off if folks got this determined to be a really good vacuum repair person, or shoemaker, or botanist, or tailor--the "sciences and useful arts" as our Constitution puts it. The people lucky enough to make a living in a creative field, even one as varied and "carny" as caricature, are in it because of dedication, practice, and maybe a little insanity. That's what it takes to rise above the background hum of a few million aspiring doodlers. If you get a chance to be one of them, remember there are a million people who would trade places with you. Don't ever gripe about the fame and fortune you don't have. Draw the face in front of you and learn from it. And be glad you aren't subsistence farming.

5. Be Open to Learning--from Everyone.

You will likely hire on to a crew with decent artists, great artists, and maybe a couple lousy ones too. The lousy ones will have their good days, and the great ones will have their bad days. You can learn from all of them. You might see someone put a few bad lines on a drawing and start thinking that you're better than one (or all) of them and they have nothing to teach you. This is the day you will stop learning, and it is the road to being a lousy artist.

6. Be Trustworthy.

Nothing gets a person fired quicker than stealing. And yet I have seen folks try it time and time again in this business. Skimming off the profits seems easy, or victimless, to some artists--but the victim will be you in the long run. Pocketing the entire payment for a color double might mean an extra $15 or $20 for your take-home pay, but remember what it will cost you in the long run. Once someone notices a thief, word gets around. Maybe they get fired immediately, maybe there's a grace period but eventually the thief is let go. That reputation follows a person, and this is a small community. Fellow artists won't keep thievery a secret--they have a vested interest in seeing the booth pay its rent. And reputations follow you. When you want to work at an operation across the country, that might be cut short with just a few words, like "Oh I remember that guy. He got let go for stealing."

7. Be Resilient

No one is perfect at this. And no one gets great customer reactions 100% of the time. Be prepared for rejects, and deal with them in a mature way when they arise. Take a break, walk it off, and face the next customer with all the effort and optimism you can muster. If a jerky customer or hen-pecking grandma rattles you enough to ruin your entire day, this might not be the best job for you. 

8. Be Brave.

I have seen some artists get gun-shy and avoid working with one of the really seasoned crowd favorites because they feel inadequate, or a bit jealous. "I hate working with that guy! He's so fast and the crowd loves him, it makes me feel like chopped liver." Well guess what? You will always, always, always make more money per shift working next to an artist that is more dynamic and better than you. Because their work generates interest that will lead to more butts in YOUR chair too. You might not beat their total, but you will benefit. And sitting next to them is an ongoing learning opportunity. You only rise to the level of those you surround yourself with. Aim high, and don't let a fragile ego hold you back. 

Good luck!

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