Artist Spotlight features the best and brightest artists in their respective fields. PortPrep interviews each of them as they discuss their experiences on how they got into the arts, what it was like studying and getting a degree in arts and design, and the important traits necessary in becoming a successful artist. Click here to check out other interviews.
The Drawn to Success Portfolio Building Boot Camp is a collection of courses created by Karen Kesteloot that teaches high school seniors how to create an art portfolio that will get them into the best art and design programs in college. In particular, Karen’s courses are designed to improve your drawing skills and translating your creativity and ideas into well-composed pieces in your portfolio. For more information about her courses, click here.
Alongside Karen is Garth Laidlaw, a recent graduate in the animation program at Sheridan College. While his courses are geared more towards students interested in becoming an animator, his knowledge on storyboarding and making better drawings should nonetheless call the attention of students who wants to better prepare themselves for challenges ahead in college.
We caught up with Garth as he discusses his experiences as an animator student in college and how his education has prepared him in the job market.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m Garth Laidlaw and I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I would hoard any of those yellow sticky notepads that I could, and make little animations in them for when you flip the pages. Now, I’m making animation videos for the websites of many great people, illustrating children’s books, hosting weekly figure drawing sessions in the community, and trying to fund many other personal projects for the future such as educational nutrition animation videos on Youtube.
How did you know that you wanted to study arts?
When I looked at my grades in the other subjects! No I actually did quite well in most aspects of high school, but just couldn’t find a real niche in any of the other disciplines that are typically seen as less creative such as the maths and sciences. Truth be told, I think I knew I wanted to be in art for a long time but didn’t choose an actual ‘term’ for it until I began hearing about Sheridan College’s great ‘animation’ program. The idea of creating artwork for TV and video games had me very intrigued. That said I had no idea what skill level was required when I applied straight from high school! There was quite a knowledge-gap there.
Describe the kind of education you received prior to becoming the artist you are today. How did it affect you to become an artist?
Well I eventually got in to Sheridan and studied there. I will admit it took a while to really nestle into my artistic roots, and throughout college I had many, many doubts about my work and my future, as I’ve found out that all artists do. When I got into art school I actually just snuck by – with a portfolio grade just being accepted. Luckily, due to my high capacity for learning and meeting the challenge set by my peers, I caught up fairly quickly. Art school taught me a lot about the skills required to professionally produce art regularly, but more importantly, it taught me about the kind of artwork that I liked to produce. Going to art schools pushes and pulls you in a variety of directions and really gets you out of your comfort zone, which is exactly where the true growth occurs. Although there are many online ways to learn I truly hope that they never replace schools that require you to be there in person, as there is so many benefits that you get just in the interactions you get from socializing with friends and the fantastic faculty. This is absolutely invaluable. Developing a strong drawing ability is just the beginning.
Did your college education make it much more difficult for you to become a professional artist? Why or why not?
This is an interesting question because there is a great importance here. Going to art school made it far easier to technically prepare to produce artwork at the pace and skill level required of professional artists, but it actually was more difficult in a way. Once you’re there, and you begin learning and growing from hearing about what it’s like to be a professional artist from some of the faculty, you begin to realize all of the different roles that ‘being an artist’ really can entail. I had no idea of the vast options available in the various industries. I didn’t even realize until I started animating what animating truly meant. There are so many roles in the various animation studios that don’t even have to do with art specifically. Some require computer programming, some involve more organizational duties, yet all are still technically in the animation ‘industry’. This is something that I feel students should be more aware of because if you love art and animation but am not sure if you like drawing that much, there are plenty of careers that involve many other skillsets. There’s even jobs for illustrators who are very, very technical who LOVE designing fonts. I had no idea this could be a job for some.
Did you have to create an art portfolio as part of the requirements before studying arts? What was that like for you?
Sheridan College is apparently one of the toughest programs to get into that require an art portfolio, and after having gone through the process, I can see why. As I mentioned above, I had no idea of the fundamentals when I applied straight from high school, which is why I went through Sheridan’s ‘Art Fundamental’ program first, luckily only for one year (many take multiple). The portfolio work for animation was very specific, which I was actually very thankful for. This said the actual drawing level required was like learning a whole new language because there were a lot of nuances that I feel like I couldn’t have figured out coming straight from high school. The portfolio took me a few months, though with a proper work ethic and really knowing how to structure my days and make schedules, could have been shortened to a month. I will admit it’s slightly hard to place myself back in that scenario now however – I felt like I was just a kid! Some of the technical requirements were figure drawing (often the weakest area for prospective students), animal drawing, a character rotation, that same character’s facial expressions, storyboards, object drawings, perspective drawings, and some others. They are fairly straight forward sounding but actually leave room for plenty of creativity and this is where I feel high school doesn’t prepare you for at all. Creative thinking is probably one of the most needed skills these days, and the way curriculums are currently set up are to encourage the opposite of that – structured, in-the-box thinking that adhere to only one or a few possible outcomes. To overcome challenges today – we need to switch gears drastically, especially if you hope to get into tough art schools.
What were the most important lessons you learned while studying how to practice art?
Some of the most important things I learned were really how to develop a work ethic that is best for me. I can’t stress this enough. Again, I started in the bottom heap of students that got into the school, and arose in a much higher place by the end of it. It takes a fair amount of sacrifice and discipline, but now I feel that it’s actually quite formulaic. I don’t actually believe in inherent talent – I’m much more of a 99% perspiration 1% inspiration kind of person now. It is absolutely no accident that the people working for Pixar, Disney, Blizzard, etc. are there. They put in more hours AND/OR resources for learning than I, and many others, currently haven’t. This said my perspective of those roles has also changed significantly after having one through school. Having this realization was actually fairly recent, and very relieving. For students in high school this is a great thing because it means that you really just have to find a way to continually fit ‘artwork creation’ into your schedule. Building a routine is far, far more important that creating ONE fantastic piece once in 3 months, at least while focusing on learning. I feel it’s important to distinguish between art learning and art producing – a topic I’m currently writing about in a book I plan to release in the next year. There are those who definitely start off with better foundations, but playing a victimized role of not being good enough is the antithesis to artistic growth. Find a way to get regular artwork creation into your routine, and don’t let it out. This is the most effective way to improve I’ve learned, though there is a lot more to it.
What should students consider before studying art?
They should consider that where they think they want to end up will likely change, even if slightly. And moreover that this isn’t a bad thing! Your ideal image of that future professional artist role will change, but it will likely be for the better. You will be opened up to fully realize all of the various artistic/creative roles that our world really needs. Once you realize the empowering asset that artists are for communities, the opportunities are limitless. I’m still often amazed by various services on the internet for creative types, such as Kickstarter, or even newer, and more inspiring in my opinion, Patreon (look this one up – I have a campaign on there). You should also consider the potential to be a freelance artist – with the internet there is plenty of self-employed work potential. Technology is opening up doors for artists, which I feel is great. As a freelancer I feel far more self-sustainable as an artist than I feel I would have been even 10 years ago if I were trying the same thing.
What is being an artist like as an occupation? Does it have a a competitive market with lots of demand or is it a relatively small industry with select people and clients?
I’m only two years out of school, so it’s hard to say. I keep hearing my teacher’s advice from art school in that the first 5 years are the hardest – when we’re working hard to make a name for ourselves. The competitive market is there, but I feel it’s greatly exaggerated and also somewhat artificially created by our culture of inherent scarcity. There is PLENTY of opportunity for artists today – it just takes a different way of thinking and approaching ‘work’ than it did in the past. Thinking more creatively should come natural to artists, but I feel that many are still stuck in the old ways of thinking that you need to be employed by someone, and going to the office every day. The truth is, with technology being where it is, I’d find it difficult to justify artists being so locked-in to such roles. I can send my artwork anywhere in the world in a second, whether it’s a huge illustration or a video uploaded to Vimeo or Youtube.
This said the mainstream animation industry is very close knit I’ve been slowly realizing. This is nice in a way, because it’s very easy to obtain resourceful information about the current state of many professionals and their studios. However, it is also a problem because the amount of students that post-secondary art institutions are releasing into the professional world is far too many – they’re increasing the cap of students admitted every year which is going to vastly change the actual quality of education received by those students.
This is why I truly believe in what myself and Karen are creating with these extracurricular education programs. I feel this is really where education needs to go if it’s going to create prepared, adaptable, and confident artists for the future. There is still so much red tape in institutional learning even within many art schools. For example, in my final year of animation I wanted to team up with other friends to create our ‘Thesis Film’ as a team instead of each of us creating our own films. This wasn’t part of the curriculum so it was not accepted despite the fact that what we were trying to create is exactly the kind of structure that a real studio would look like if we were working in the industry. No lone artist is responsible for animation, painting backgrounds, video compositing, visual effects, and all of the other important aspects of the production. Education needs to be far more flexible and lucrative to allow for innovation outside of the structured realms of the curriculum. This may be a tangent but I feel this information is vitally important to get out there.
What are some of the obstacles that being an animator has to overcome?
You have to overcome what you feel most comfortable creating as an artist. As a simple example I felt very out of place drawing cartoons. I preferred to draw realistic, action characters and battles (think most video games today) because that was just most comfortable. When I was pushed from this place of drawing what came most naturally to me, I realized that I actually could enjoy drawing cartoons too! This really made me re-evaluate what I ‘enjoyed’ and ‘didn’t enjoy’ and also made me more adaptable as an artist – capable of switching styles when I need to.
Aside from this, you need to overcome your current perception of ‘hard work’! This may sound daunting, but a lot is required of artists. Artists should be seeking their profession in the same way an Olympic swimmer would pursue swimming (spoiler: they swim everyday), which again comes back to building an artistic routine. Like exercise, creative work is all about continually flexing the right muscles to allow for maximum growth. I still struggle with this as I find myself contacting clients and e-mailing a lot of the time when I should be spending the time animating or illustrating. It’s all a balance, but it’s absolutely worth it. I still fully believe that this is the most fulfilling profession that I can imagine myself doing as long as I am allowed creative exploration and control of my work.
Lastly, you need to overcome your attachment to you artwork. Your work will inevitably be critiqued by either peers or teachers, or eventually even clients, and this is ALWAYS going to be a really hard thing to deal with early on, and sometimes even now. It takes a lot of willpower to try and learn from it as opposed to taking advice personally. Don’t be defensive – take your ego out of the equation and you will allow plenty of space for growth in whatever industry you hope to break in to.
What are the keys to success in becoming a great artist?
I’ll let you know when I find them! Really, there are plenty of ways of approaching this discipline, and I think the first is to realize, as I mentioned with the Olympic swimmer, that IT IS a discipline. Although it can be incredibly fun to create stories and illustrate them, there will also always be those times that you feel as though you’re slaving away at your easel/desk/computer trying to create artwork. On a slightly embarrassing point, I feel as though I will be very grateful one day for all of the times that I sacrificed elements of my social life to further my learning and understanding of art. Every now and then I find myself inside on a Friday or Saturday night in my house while many of my friends are out, creating new artwork or reading (equally important – whole other discussion). It’s tough to see what these intense creative times mean in the long term, but something tells me that these early sacrifices will pay off in the long term. Those odd times that I create something I’m quite proud of pay off immediately! My best advice is to really chase those feelings. You know how you feel when you create something you love? Even if it’s a fleeting emotion, follow that. That is the good stuff. The feeling of creation and expression is one of the most empowering feelings of fulfillment I’ve experienced, and I’m not alone. I hope that I can help other artists develop their skills to find, or better yet, create work doing the things they love.