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.
Our interview with Amy-Elyse Neer reminds us the fun in art. It’s not always about expressing dark emotions through your artworks. Art can be light, accessible, and positive, regardless of what the artist is undergoing.
Despite being born legally blind and having to undergo an operation when she was four years old to be able to see, Amy remains filled with humor as she makes art for a living and sells them at different online art platforms.
In this off-the-cuff and insightful interview, she discusses how she sees art both as an academic and professional practice through her rose-colored spectacles.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I live in the San Jose California area, I’ve lived in this area most of my life. I live with my guy and our four cats.
How did you know that you wanted to study arts?
I really believe some people are born knowing what they should be doing with their lives. For me there was never a question. I was drawing from the moment I could hold a crayon. There was never a moment where I suddenly went “DING! I know! I’ll be an artist!” I just was. It was so much a part of my core being that I just assumed everyone knew, and rarely spoke of it (not wanting to bore people with shop talk), so, often, when something good happened, like I sold a canvas or got in a show, I’d have friends who would say things like “I didn’t know you were an artist!”
Describe the kind of art education you receive prior to becoming the artist you are today.
Well I don’t think you ever stop learning about art, nor should you. there’s no end point to education. But the first art classes I was ever offered were in junior high school, and I found I had already self taught most of the things these classes went over, but I still loved them and took them through all 6 trimesters, the “But I already taught myself this” continued into high school, but I still took the classes for those few nuggets of new information and technique, and I loved my teachers in these classes, they were wonderful, smart. strong, creative women. I ended up helping with some of the lessons because I’d come in already knowing certain techniques or tools really well, I was able to be an extra set of hands and eyes for the teacher. That was cool, because explaining a technique to someone else can help you understand it better.
Money was tight so when I was given the opportunity to take an accelerated course in 11th grade on graphic design, typesetting and printing that results in a AA degree, I did it. On graduating from that I started taking courses at the community college and earned a second AA in theatrical make up and set design. (If you want to become a portrait artist, I HIGHLY recommend taking course in theatrical make up, nothing makes you understand the human face like taking one person and turning them into a completely different person using pigment). After graduating from that I took classes whenever something struck my fancy, when I took it into my head to learn a technique and I could not learn it without guidance, on my own, I’d find a class, enroll and take it.
Did you have to create an art portfolio as part of the requirements before studying the arts? What was that like for you?
Not before, but as part of the curriculum, we did. Looking back on it now, think it was a fine lesson in using a critical eye on ones’ own work. Learning when to throw out the bad and also admit when you’ve done something brilliant, it’s a hard thing to learn.
What were the most important lessons you learned while studying how to practice art?
How to stop. Learning how to stop when a work is done, before you overwork it into tortured trash, this is a very hard lesson to learn, luckily once you learn it, it becomes very easy to stop at the right time.
What should students consider before studying art?
They should embrace the fact that they should NEVER work for free, that devalues them, and their fellow artists. You offering to do it for free is not just taking money out of your pocket and setting a very bad precedent for future client interactions, but that company then has a bludgeon of “This other guy said he’d do it for free” to come at another artist with. Once they get you to agree to be their slave you are trapped. Take a marketing class, a small business admin class, learn the math involved in staying a float as a freelancer. Only work for money or for trade of things you can actually use and that the company would otherwise be paid for. If a restaurant wants art, you want meals, then a trade is even compensation. If a car dealer wants art, and you need a tune up, a trade is compensation. If anyone wants art and is offering “great exposure” or “experience” they just want free decor, you will get the “great exposure” to people who don’t care, and aren’t going to buy or “discover you” and the “experience” of having your art stolen.
“Selling out” is a shaming term used to try to beat you into a mold of starving artist, you can’t eat principles, and if your principle is “My art is above money” then you are unrealistic and will starve and should plan on having lots of sucky day jobs. If you love art, and study art and get good at art, you should be paid. Doctors don’t work for free and neither should you. Being a professional artist means getting paid for art. Take small jobs, but make sure you get compensated. Do commissions. Make art EVERY day on a set schedule, can’t think of anything, today? Sit down and start doodling, take a drive with your sketch book. Do not let a single day pass without getting a solid chunk of time spent on making art. If anyone ever tries to shame you with the term “selling out” tell them they take money for the work they went to school for, so by that logic they are selling out too. Be proud of your skill, respect your creativity by making sure you get paid.
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?
For me specifically, it’s like this:
- Wake up, early (around 6 am), gently remove myself from under a pile of cats, drink ALL THE COFFEE, make more coffee
- Clean work area
- Sit down
- Get out idea book (I get so many ideas and forget them if I don’t write them down, so I keep a notebook handy and a text app in my mobile devices specific to making a note of them as soon as they hit my brain for later reference)
- Pick a project
- Sketch ideas, research background, reference photos I may have taken, work out a composition I like
- Prepare my surface
- Stop and jot down some things that occurred to me for later
- Get to work on actual piece
- Work on that for about 5 hours
- If this finishes the piece, take scans/pics prepare them for listing and uploading and printing
- Promote the holy beejeezus out of it
- Work on any commissioned stuff I need to finish
- This is interspersed with breaks while waiting for paint to dry when I will drool over art supplies at my favorite art supply websites, chat online with a few friends, browse a few art forums, all while eating a little something cause otherwise I’d forget to eat, and occasionally taking a walk or doing some stretching to keep my muscles and blood flow working
- Then around 8 pm I will stop working for the day, play some video games or read or watch tv to calm my brain down
- Then around 10 I go to bed, sleep like a rock, and wake up the next morning covered in cats
Once a week I try to take a day off, but I am really bad at that, and once a month I do a table at an art walk in Campbell and the following weekend I go to an artist’s guild meeting.
As far as competitive market and demand, I don’t know really. I mean, I don’t really compare myself to others. But as far as lots of demand, yes, there is. Art is in everything you do or use or touch every day. Everything you use in a day has been on the drawing board, at some point an artist was involved. You have to get away from the idea that you are going to become the next great famous painter because a bolt of inspiration will hit you and patrons will flock to your door and bring dump trucks of praise and money, and realize that it’s the small bread and butter stuff that pay the bills so you can afford to do that grand canvas in the studio. Really… make art every day.
Treat it like a job. Don’t take assignments you are uncomfortable doing, ( because of political/religious views; for example) you should be proud of what you put out, and never be ashamed to point to it and say “I made this”, but take every small job you can. You build a client base by being able to meet any request, on time and within the budget you quoted. Showing a portfolio of “projects” you did for “experience” is like showing clients a neon sign that says “You can rip me off, I don’t value my time, education or skill.”; showing your client a portfolio of stuff, no matter how small, that was delivered on time and you got paid for, establishes you as reliable and worth your quoted rate.
If you want people to take you seriously, you have to take it seriously first. That’s how you build a client base.
What are some of the obstacles that a painter has to overcome?
My “What most artists will say” answer:
Well I see a lot of other artist talking about “waiting for their muse” or “inspiration hitting”, I don’t get that. My biggest obstacle about inspiration is not getting to my notebook in time to jot ideas down, so far I seriously have not had a block or an issue thinking of things to do. I probably will at some point, but I honestly believe that if you work on art every day, it becomes as natural to slip into that golden space of creativity, as it is to breathe. If you wait for a bolt from the blue before you work, your skill set won’t be ready for it. And personally, I don’t think your best work happens from those flashes of sudden inspiration, I think it’s the small little “sparkles” of ideas that lead to great work, and work that other people can understand and identify with.
My serious answer:
Money for supplies. Art supplies are really expensive. Getting the materials you need to work with can be very trying at times.
My funny answer:
25 pound Orange Stripey Maine Coon cats named Big Fat Pancake who wait until you are working and demand more crunchies, by standing on their hind legs and tapping you on the ear with their paw. (Seriously, he’s like 4 feet tall when he does that)
What are the keys to success in becoming a great artist?
Work every day, never stop working, learning, practicing, starting over, trying again, refining technique. Never ever just wait for your muse. Your muse is busy, and, quite frankly, she’s sick of your whining. Be your own muse.