What's wrong with portrait painting.
I grew up believing that I'll become a portrait artist painting people outside in Stanley Park. That's the impression I got from parents if I didn't study hard and get good grades. In other words if I'm lazy I'll end up like them. My grades weren’t very good so to my parents, I must have been lazy. Maybe I was or maybe I just wasn’t interested in school. Honestly speaking, I don't remember much of my early school life expect a few pockets of memories, one of which was when my drawing of Optimus Prime was framed and hung in my elementary school hallway.
High School was particularly stressful for my parents I think. I can't blame them as I showed no concrete interest in math, science, English or even sports. I did however enjoyed creating stuff so art, technology and graphics classes were my strongest passions. I think the fear of my parents was that I couldn't enroll into a university like UBC or SFU and would suffer a lifestyle of poverty and unaccomplishment. At best I'll study in a collage (not that there was anything wrong with that) but it's clear that my future was destined to be a portrait artist at Stanley Park. With a lack lustre GPA, my mom surprisingly suggested that I should pursue a career in the arts. She researched and founded a known artist for me to train under in hopes that maybe I'll at least enroll into the best art collage in the city, Emily Carr institute of Art and Design. So in grade 10 I began learning from Kenson Seto.
After graduating from Emily Carr, I realized that being an artist takes a ton of work. And without a doubt in my mind that for me to turn creativity into a career will take a huge commitment and also I will be battling with being recognized as what society considers as a professional. Maybe to some, being an artist doesn’t involve any skill, dedication, or structure; it’s just a random act of splashing paint on a canvas and calling it art. In some degree it’s true but the world of artists is much more than modern or contemporary art.
In the post, I hope to speak to both parents and aspiring creative people.
I hope this could renew your mind on creative careers.
To creative people,
You are no less of a professional compared to a doctor, lawyer or an accountant.
"What's wrong with being a portrait artist?"
So here’s my perspective on the whole “professional” concept. Each professional profession involves years of studying, passing arduous exams and once recognized you have to continually undertake professional development in order to maintain your professional status. All of this creates a status of "not everyone can achieve" which then translates to value and prestige. A professional by this definition describes a hard working individual who has accomplishments, status and lives a prosperous life. Basically all the things that Asian parents approves and encourages. But what if you don’t make the “cut” so to speak? What if it’s not because you’re not smart enough but instead, what if you’re made for something else - something completely different and unconventional? What if you don't align with the conventional professionals, could you still be a professional? To me, it is a loud and resounding YES.
There are two ultimate differences between a professional and a creative professional; first, is the way they learn and second, it's the process on how they learn. Other than that, they’re virtually the same in many other ways.
First: The Way They Learn
The way a professional learns is by speed - the faster you learn the material, the more prepared you are in the exams and in the real world. As for a creative professional, learning isn’t necessarily about speed but rather it’s about passion and how deep you love what you do.
Part of being creative is harnessing and mastering the ability to effectively share your point of view in a creative way. It’s impossible to share your point of view without first knowing who you are. I can share from my own personal experience, my entire creative professional career can be summed up as one journey - the journey within. I intentionally invested much of my time to honestly and vulnerably discover me and what I represent in the world around me. Knowing myself will reveal to you what you love and what you don’t love. Loving what you do will only give you direction. But how deep you love what you do will be the only motivation you have when it comes to overcoming hardships and struggles.
Second: The Process on How They Learn
The process on how they learn is also quite different. To become a doctor for example, it’s a linear step by step process. The process is standardized and regulated by a governing body. By the way, I totally agree with this process because it installs accountability and safety to everyone who depends on professionals - and in this case it could be a matter of life or death.
However to become a creative professional, the process is mostly up to you. Of coarse there are Master programs in Art and Design but ultimately your style, your approach to your craft is entirely up to you. You are your own accountability and you are your own guiding principle. Because there isn't a clear learning structure in mastering your creativity, it’s really a test on how disciplined you are. Are you willing to inconvenience yourself to master your craft? If you don’t tangibly value what you value, how would you expect others to value it as well? What if Jake Weidmann decided to give up, I think the art of being a penman would die and this art form would become a relic. How tragic would that be?
Paul Smith is a great example of an artist how deeply loves what he does. His story humbles me in my pursuit of mastering branding. Even after his death in 2007, his life story and his unrelenting determination towards his art will continue to inspire others.
Another example would be Jung Gi Kim. When you watch him draw on a blank white sheet of paper, the question in my mind (and I hope it’s also a question you’re asking too) is "how many years did it take him to draw the way he draws?”. During the years when I was teaching art in my studio, the biggest lesson I taught wasn't a skill but rather an attitude. There’s a beauty in good old fashion elbow grease. I know for a fact that a devoted creative professional dedicates his/her ENTIRE life in pursuing their mastery - how’s that for professional development! Overtime, they will have a skill that only a few people might have but to the majority of everyone else, it will press a reality that this artist can do something that you wish you can do as well.
But what about accountability - how does a creative professional stay accountable? It is true that in so some degree, there isn’t a governing body to keep creative professionals in check but to me, it goes back to deeply loving what you do. You will always value what you love. In my opinion, a true authentic creative professional lives by a stringent code of ethics - the ethics of knowing you could always improve. What do I mean by a true authentic creative professional? Well, anyone can paint a painting but that doesn’t mean they’re a painter. Just like anyone can learn about dentistry but that doesn’t make them a dentist. My mom used to make clothing for my sister and I when we were young. Does that mean she’s a tailor? No. She was a nurse at that time who also knew how to make clothes. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing my mom in any way but when you compare her to Frank Shattuck, it’s pretty clear on who’s the true authentic creative professional.
At the end of the day, conventional and unconventional professionals alike have the gifts and talents to do something others cannot - and that is why the world we live in today is in high demand for them. The good thing is they're both perpetual lifetime students. They’ll learn either by legislation or by choice and speaking from my own experience, the more I learn the more I don’t know.
Anyways I said a lot. So allow me to conclude this post by saying this: To parents, don’t let labelling and preconceptions define what a professional is, instead recognize the unique gifts and talents of all professions because the value they bring collectively makes our world that much more complete. To aspiring creatives, when you value what you love, others will love what you value.