The Visual Storytelling Podcast
The Visual Storytelling Podcast
Chris Oatley
4 Keys To A Long and Healthy Illustration Career :: ArtCast #114
1 seconds Posted Dec 31, 2018 at 9:43 pm.
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" data-image-caption="" data-medium-file="" data-large-file="" class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-131694" src="" alt="Cartoony illustration of an eccentric butterfly with floral print wings, wearing a pink speedo and sunglasses, relaxing while drinking a pina colada. Two regular butterflies admire from across the swimming pool. Artist: Chris Oatley" width="1920" height="1080" srcset=" 1920w, 150w, 580w, 768w, 700w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" data-recalc-dims="1" />

How long did it take you to learn the “Happy Birthday” song?

…and how long would it take you to learn to sing a pitch-perfect, note-for-note, Broadway power ballad?

Years, right?

Because style takes time.

…and how many wrong notes would you produce in private before you gained the confidence to perform live?


Process and performance are different things.

Let’s pretend you have some real potential. Would you start chain smoking and take a day job in a coal mine to pay the bills?

Of course not.

You gotta take care of your moneymaker.

And when you’re a big hit on Broadway with crossover success in movies and pop music…

…did you make it without a mentor?

Probably not.

A good mentor is essential.

We can easily see the absurdity in the image of an aspiring Broadway star who expects instant results, performs without practice, neglects their throat and lungs and thinks they’ll somehow succeed without expert perspectives.

But it’s a lot harder to see – in ourselves – the illustrator who expects instant results, publishes without practice, neglects their body and brain and thinks they’ll somehow succeed without expert perspectives.

Today, Lauren Panepinto (Creative Director for the Sci-Fi/ Fantasy publisher Orbit Books) and Marc Scheff (Games-Illustrator-turned-Fine-Artist) join me to share 4 Keys To A Long And Healthy Illustration Career…

Watch The Lesson:

[ download the mp3 ] [ download the pdf ]

Lesson Transcript:

*The following is a transcript of the full lesson – with illustrations!

Here you’ll also find links to the artists and resources referenced in the lesson…


Hello, my friends and welcome to another episode of The ArtCast by The Oatley Academy! I’m Chris Oatley – I’m an Illustrator and Visual Development Artist currently working for Disney.

…and here at, I help Artists create dream careers in the Animation Industry.

" data-image-caption="" data-medium-file="" data-large-file="" class="pull-left alignnone wp-image-131693 size-full" src="" alt="Intricate illustration of a clockwork owl. Album art for Chris Oatley's new course called Dream Machine: Social Media Strategies To Upgrade Your Art Career! Artist: Ejiwa Ebenebe." width="400" height="400" srcset=" 1280w, 150w, 500w, 768w, 700w" sizes="(max-width: 400px) 100vw, 400px" data-recalc-dims="1" /> I’m delighted and honored to announce that today’s guest, my friend Lauren Panepinto will join Loish, Animation Recruiter Alison Mann and me in teaching my new course at The Oatley Academy!

It’s called Dream Machine: Social Media Strategies To Upgrade Your Art Career!

…and it is awesome.

If you’re interested in working with us to develop a sustainable, efficient and effective social media strategy, that aligns with your personal values, fits your specific career goals and helps you rise above the chaos and competition, join our interest list!

I’ll follow-up via email in a weeks with more information about the course (the curriculum, schedule, payment plans, etc.) and I’ll share all the details about how to join!

Now, grab a pen because you’ll definitely want to take notes on today’s lesson: 4 Keys To A Long And Healthy Illustration Career!

KEY #1: Style Takes Time

Cartoony illustration of an eccentric butterfly with floral print wings, wearing a pink speedo and sunglasses, relaxing while drinking a pina colada. Artist: Chris Oatley Every successful, Professional Artist is either a Peacock or a Chameleon.

(Some Professional Artists can actually switch back and forth.)

Most Illustrators, some Concept Artists and some Animation VisDev Artists are Peacocks. They build successful careers with a unique, personal and distinctive visual style.

Most Animation VisDev Artists, most Concept Artists and some Illustrators are Chameleons who work in project-specific styles inspired by the story they’re telling.

Whether you get hired for your personal style or to help develop a project-specific style, it takes time.

Here’s Lauren…


[Lauren] People freak out about finding their style.

They know they’re supposed to have a style. They hear everyone saying: “You have to be unique you have to be the person that does that thing the only way that you know how to do.”

…and they freak out because they think: “I don’t know what my style is and maybe it’s like this and maybe it’s like this?!”

I’ve never seen the level of anxiety…

Just… Just make work.

[Marc] You don’t wait until “The Style” finds you and then make work. You know, Picasso said, ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’

[Chris] My good friend Zi Yan – He answers the style question with a parable.

Zi says: A student comes to a mentor…

The student says: “Mentor, can you please help me find my voice?”

The mentor says: “You’re speaking, aren’t you?”

The student says: “Yes.”

The mentor says: “Now go find something to say.”

[Lauren] Exactly.

[Chris] …and I’ll add to this a story about a friend of mine who had a child – a toddler. We went to dinner and there was a little play area for the kids. All of a sudden we hear their child screaming – the most shrill, intense scream – and it doesn’t stop. It just keeps going and going and going…

[Lauren] That’s alarming.

[Chris] Just “AAAAYH! AAAAYH!” over and over.

We all look up and see the child standing by himself in the play area. But there’s nothing wrong. No altercation. Nothing. He’s just standing there with clenched fists, screaming.

The child’s mom then explains that the baby has discovered…

…his voice.


And last week it was [motor sound] “BRRRR!” week. And it was “BRRRR! BRRRR! BRRRR!” all week long.

…and now – congratulations to me – it’s scream week.

I saw them a couple months later – and the child was experimenting with an entirely different sound.

I realized: This is what Illustrators and Animation Artists to need to understand. 

Finding your style is often just: “BRRRR! BRRRR!”

It’s like trying to hear your own voice and figure out all the different sounds you can make.

If you take time to really listen to yourself – to your own voice - You can find it by trying and discover it by doing. Move forward – make work - and your style will begin to reveal itself.

[Lauren] But people don’t let themselves play. They’re so determined that every piece they start is going to be a portfolio piece. They don’t play.

[Chris] Exactly. Yeah. That’s just bonkers.

[Lauren] So many times we’ve looked at people’s portfolios, and we’ve said: “I see you’re trying to do all this other stuff. But *this* thing, *this* is really cool. Have you ever tried doing *this* thing?”

Tawny Fritz was talking about being at IMC (which is a hotbed of people picking out what you should be doing – which is why people go) but she was trying so hard to be like an Oil Painter.

…and she had these – she was doing these black and white pen and ink Illustrations.

[Marc] Just in between painting sessions. Just screwin’ around.

[Lauren] Just to decompress. But everyone who came around was like: “Whatever.” (About the painting.) “…but [these pen and ink pieces are] great! You should be doing *this!*” 

…and she talks about going through this – almost a grieving process.

[Marc] We all go back to the IMC dorm where everyone’s staying and I walk in and she’s sitting there in a chair…

[Lauren] Like somebody died.

[Marc] …and I ask: “What’s going on?” 

She said something like: “I’m busting my ass on this painting and everyone’s coming by and they don’t even notice it – and they’re like: ‘Oh look at these ink drawings.'”

And so I asked: “Dooo you thiiink maybeee you should juuust… …do this?”

…and she’s like: “Okay, okay. I’ll think about it.”

…and now she’s making these beautiful…

[Lauren] Now that’s what she does.

[Marc] And she’s committed to it.

[Chris] And it’s not like she can’t ever try oil painting again…

[Lauren] It’s not like we choose something and then we’re stuck with it for all time.

[Marc] It’s not a future dystopia, where it’s like: “You are an ink person! Go to the ink people! Forever you will only eat ink and breathe ink!”


[Lauren] It’s true that people get really freaked out. I’ve [suggested a particular focus] to people and they burst into tears in the middle of a portfolio review because they think: “No that’s not me! That’s not what I want to do!”

…and I think: “Okay, well, that’s fine. You can paint like a third-rate Donato for the next ten years, but you could be getting work doing this while you figure it out.”

People get so wrapped up in their vision of their own identity: I am this kind of Artist, or I am this kind of person. I was talking to an artist up at IMC and they were talking about how they would never be the kind of person that does personal projects. They only want do commissions. They don’t want to do any personal projects.

…and I was like: “Wow, okay. Well that’s opposite of how most people feel but, okay. But why? Have you ever done a personal project?”

“No that’s just not who I am.”

“How do you know?”

[Chris] Wow.

[Marc] I’ve seen it happen over and over again where it’s like: “I appreciate you trying this here, but scrap it. Because this thing – this other thing – that you keep showing up with…”

[Lauren] Is great.

[Marc] “…is really where your heart is. So why don’t you try exploring it?”

How many people listening to this really wanted to be (I’m raising my hand) “that” kind of painter, gotten halfway to being good at it and realized: “I don’t want to be “that” kind of painter. I actually want to paint this other way. That’s not what’s coming out of me.”

[Chris] Yeah. Something I’ve been saying to my students a lot lately has been: “Try on different outfits.”

They completely buy-in prior to even having tried it on for size. It’s like window shopping for wedding dresses and then you go and you spend $5,000 on a dress before you’ve even tried it on.

[Lauren] It’s almost like absorbing people’s superpowers…

Try and do a piece of your own in the style of Escher. Try and do a piece of your own in the style of Mucha. It’s ok if your influences show. They will show and they should show. (But people stop at that point.)

We teach people to career stalk.

You should have for 5 or 10 Artists that – you think you want their career. (It changes every couple of years. Everybody coming out of school right now looks like Victo Ngai. A couple years ago it was Sam Weber.)

You should not just look at their website wistfully and wish that you could be as good as them.

Go back and look at their old art. See how they got there. See what their clients said they got. Did they work in-house?

A lot of people don’t know that Sam Weber worked for The New York Times and was pretty much a black-and-white/ pen-and-ink Illustrator.

Knowing that is critical to bridging that gap between where you are and where you want to be.

So we teach people to (politely) career stalk. (Don’t actually stalk them.)

Do your research. Pretend that these are your mentors – even if they don’t know – because cause they are. Don’t just look at the finished product. Figure out how they got there.

The Internet is an amazing place for that. Go back far enough in someone’s Facebook timeline and you can see a whole career.

KEY #2: Separate Process And Performance

" data-image-caption="" data-medium-file="" data-large-file="" class="pull-left size-full wp-image-131687" src="" alt="A cartoon illustration of a little, nerdy bird shows off his new, feathered mohawk. The grown-up birds are appalled. Artist: Chris Oatley" width="400" height="400" srcset=" 1280w, 150w, 500w, 768w, 700w" sizes="(max-width: 400px) 100vw, 400px" data-recalc-dims="1" /> Social Media almost forces Artists to conflate Process and Performance.

Process (which often includes practice) is, primarily, private.

Performance is, primarily, for the public…


[Chris] Everybody at Disney has Frank and Ollie stories and though most of the people at Disney now didn’t know Frank and Ollie – but the stories are still circulating.

I can’t remember who told me this story. …or if the person who told me the story is even the protagonist of the story. I don’t remember.

But there’s this Storyboard Artist who is new and he has a pitch coming up. …and the Story Artist wants to impress Ollie Johnston who will be reviewing the Storyboards.

…and so he works night and day, making the most perfect, beautiful Story Sketches you’ve ever seen.

He’s shading everything, putting some color on there, drawing and redrawing and cleaning-up and he goes in and does the pitch.

Then Ollie stands up to share his opinion…

…and instead of really giving feedback on the pitch, he just picks up a pencil, walks up to one of the Storyboards and he just starts kinda – delicately doodling – nonsensically – over the drawing.

…and he looks at the Storyboard Artist and asks: “How does this make you feel?”


The whole point being: It’s a Storyboard. It’s not the final piece.

This is process.

…and there’s this amazing – sort of – disposability that folks in Animation approach their work with that I think a lot of Illustrators could really benefit from.

In that it’s all just steps along the way.

…even if you spent an entire week on a painting it’s still going to be in the rear-view mirror…

[Marc] Yeah, and I think that’s something that gets lost a little bit, especially…

Take sketchbooks as an example.

If you want to figure out the design for something, you don’t work on a giant canvas and try to figure it out there. You work in a sketchbook.

If you’re trying to figure out how you work with oil, you don’t do a giant – you don’t do a Waterhouse.

You have to make a lot of work. …and you have to be willing to make crap.

It’s also one of the things that desensitizes you to failure.

[Lauren] That’s the confidence thing. You don’t gain confidence by winning. You gain confidence by losing. You gain insecurity by winning, cause then you have a streak that you don’t want to screw up.

[Marc] Then when you’re sitting there and you’re making a piece of dung in your sketchbook, you’re not also beating yourself up about it.

…hopefully not.

When people post their sketches online, they’re not posting the fifty pages of stuff that just looks like nothing – not good – the light on the face is terrible and all that other stuff.

[Lauren] That’s social media in general. You only see ten percent of the best work.

[Marc] Well, we can go down that road if you want to…

[Lauren] That’s different.

[Marc] That’s part of the issue. The process is so opaque because people aren’t showing all that stuff.

KEY #3: Take Care Of Your Moneymaker

A cartoony illustration of a cat awkwardly licking her own back paw. Artist: Chris Oatley As Artists, we’re fortunate that most of us will be able to continue to do creatively fulfilling work well into our old age.

The problem is many of us work in ways that risk our long-term health.

Just recently, I heard an interview with a popular Instagram Artist who said she wrecked her stomach and injured her spine from overwork.

After that, I read an interview where an experienced Professional Artist was quoted saying that in order to make a living as an Artist, “you can’t ease up or relax at all – ever.”

…which simply isn’t true – let alone sustainable.

Most of the pros I know do work a lot, but they don’t wreck their bodies and relationships in the process.

Here’s Lauren…


[Lauren] Pay as much attention to your mental strength as your artist strength.

What an Art Director gets to hear that a lot of Artists starting out don’t get to hear is that the Artists at the top of the chain have the same doubts and insecurities and mental head-game stuff as the guys on the bottom of the chain.

It’s just the level is different.

[Marc] I heard one Artist – I won’t name names – talking about this and saying: “Well, yeah. I am booked solid for the next two years.

…but what about after that?”

…and everyone else is like: “Two years, Geez…”

[Chris] That’s great, yeah!

[Lauren] But the anxiety doesn’t go away. It just gets bigger and bigger.

Really the questions that we get over and over and over again are not nitty-gritty business questions. They’re therapy questions.

Things like habit building, how to deal with anxiety, confidence and depression.

[Marc] Getting enough sleep.

[Lauren] Self-care…

…to the point that it has sent me on my own little side journey of reading Artists’ psychiatry. (To Chris) You and I have talked about this before, but I’m even thinking about doing a Master’s in Art Therapy to try and help.

I’m from New York.

So I am completely, a thousand percent transparent that I have a therapist.

[Marc] I love mine!

[Lauren] Yeah.

[Marc] I think when you get here they just give you one. Right when you get off the plane…

[Lauren] I wish they would…

[Marc] You have a temporary one assigned just for your trip, while you’re here, Chris.


[Lauren] Bringing down mental health stigma is a big thing right now.

Especially on social media and that’s important because we all like to pretend that everything is fine.

…and one of the dangers of social media is that we only see when it’s fine.

There’s a version of this talk – that’s taped now – I think it’s from The Society Of Illustrators – But Mike Mignola gives this talk at IMC whenever he’s there about his career.

…and there’s a chunk in it about how the years when he was just writing Hellboy – and he wasn’t drawing Hellboy – weren’t because he was too busy (which is what everybody assumed) or that he was working on other stuff but because he’d had, pretty much, a nervous breakdown and he couldn’t bring himself to draw and all he could do was write the stories.

It was a fight with himself even to get a cover drawing out.

…and that’s so important for people to hear.

…so they’re not blindsided by things that come up.

…and the shame of it.

You know, like: “Oh I should be better than this. I shouldn’t let this sideline me” or “I shouldn’t feel this way.”

I mean, if Mike Mignola can’t draw Hellboy…

You’re not alone.

So I think those issues are really, really, really important.

I see it all the time on Facebook. I see Artists that have the work down and have the contacts down and they just can’t get their head-game together.

I wanna reach through the Internet and say: “I’m not a Therapist. Can you please, please, please find one?”

[Marc] Definitely speak to friends and see what options are out there because there are public health options.

[Lauren] There are apps too. There are text-a-therapist apps that are affordable…

[Marc] Much more affordable, yeah…

[Lauren] Also, Mark and I wanted to have a blog on but we wanted it to be different.

There are three sections on that blog.

One is “Book Notes.”

I read a lot of books – and they’re almost always self-help books.

…the ones that I make notes of.

They’re like Artist self-help. Things like habit building and confidence (like The Confidence Code) and I put a little review, but the summary I write in my sketchbook and I scan the pages so people know what I’m reading and where I’m getting this information from that I think is really valuable for Artists to read.

The second thing is “S.O.S.”

Which is: “I don’t know what to charge!”

…and then we give you bullet points.

Or “I can’t find my style.”

[Marc] “The Art Director is standing across the room! What do I do?!”

[Lauren] Yeah, those things.

…but the third one is “Artist Therapy.”

…and it’s just whatever I’ve learned from all of the books and all of the therapy.

I try and distill it into those posts – and it’s not tailored to individual people – I try to make it as general as possible.

[Marc] There are a lot of the same questions that come up that require that kind of conversation.

[Lauren] And again, I’m hearing these questions from people who are struggling with this stuff at the Iain McCaig level and Mike Mignola level and people are struggling with it at the entry level.

It doesn’t magically go away the more successful you are.

[Marc] “When does the pain stop?”

It doesn’t.

KEY #4: A Good Mentor Is Essential

A cartoony illustration of a wise, old tortoise and an uncannily enthusiastic baby bunny who is very eager to learn. Artist: Chris Oatley Lots of Artists are introverted.

Most of us, I’d guess.

And introversion can be a beautiful thing. But even introverted Artists can’t succeed – at least not in a significant and lasting way – entirely on their own.

Here’s Marc…


[Marc] Make sure you have one really good friend.

Don’t go at it alone.

A lot of us are introverts or shy or some combination of both.

And it’s not always easy to go have a crowd of people you hang out with.

…and maybe you don’t like to hang out with people. Maybe that’s just not your thing. Maybe you actually prefer to be by yourself.

…and that’s. That’s what you get.

But it’s very important to have that one person that you can share all the things with.

…and it’s not just valuable for mental health.

Take Rebecca as my example. I don’t see Rebecca all the time.

[Lauren] Rebecca Guay.

[Marc] We talk occasionally. (More these days, honestly.) But I can – anytime – send her something and say “I’m kinda stuck.”

(She calls it: “Rats in your head.”)

“I’ve got these rats running around my head and I’m feeling insecure. I don’t know what I’m doing with this piece. Should I apply to this thing? Which piece of should I send this thing?”

…all that career stuff on which I just want someone else’s perspective who – definitely – whose opinion I respect.

…but who will also give it to me in a completely realist way.

…and in a way that I can also hear.

Having that friend, that person that you trust in your life.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be someone who’s doing the stuff in your world, but someone who…

[Lauren] Who just gets it.

[Marc] I can point to a number of turning points in my career where I showed somebody something and they gave me some real feedback and it changed everything.

Rebecca has been that person for me.

…and I can think of a few times when she’s done that.

…where she saw some Illustration work I was doing and said: “Why don’t you try doing a lot of that?”

…and that changed everything.

When I was working on building up my repertoire in the gallery world, I showed her some stuff and she helped me hone it down.

[Lauren] You need somebody to call you on your sh**t.

You need somebody to pat your back when you need it.

…and tell you it’s going to be okay.

[Marc] It’s very easy for creatives to be looking forward all the time.

…and you have to be. That’s important.

But if you’re not also measuring how far you’ve come, you completely lose sight of how great you’re doing.

…of all the stuff you’ve done.

[Lauren] It’s hard to tell yourself how good you’re doing.

You need your friends to be like: “Oh my god. Okay. This is not going so great. But do you remember when you did that amazing thing?”


Connect with Lauren and Marc at

And join the interest list for Dream Machine: Social Media Strategies To Upgrade Your Art Career!

Again, if you’re interested in working with Creative Director Lauren Panepinto, Feature Animation Recruiter Alison Mann, Loish and me to develop a sustainable, efficient and effective social media strategy, that aligns with your personal values, fits your specific career goals and helps you rise above the chaos and competition, then this is one epic opportunity that you will not want to miss!

Until next time, my friends, remember: You are creators, not consumers. Design your lives accordingly.

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