7 Secrets to Becoming a Professional Artist

Posted by Sasha on Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Marc Gabbana concept art

We’re not going to lie to you — becoming a professional illustrator in the entertainment industry is not easy. We sat down with concept artist Marc Gabbana, whose credits include Star Wars Episode I and II, the Matrix sequels, The Polar Express, and War of the Worlds to learn more about how he went about building a career in the film business. One look at his tricked out San Francisco studio makes it clear that he has carved out a good niche as an artist. But it’s his work that really confirms it: his pieces seem to come from another dimension, and it’s near impossible to tell what’s painted with physical paint versus digital tools.

Keymaker cell from Matrix Reloaded

Marc has attained the holy grail of a freelance career, where he has the freedom to say no to projects and focus on doing the work he most enjoys. But he’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not easy to make it to that point. To sum it all up, we present to you the 7 things you need to know before setting out to become an entertainment artist:

1. Don’t underestimate art education

Though Marc’s Dad was less than pleased that he dropped out of architecture school to follow his dream at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Marc found the education invaluable: “We had an exceptionally strong student body where everyone worked so hard and elevated each others’ progress. We didn’t just learn how to make images, we learned how to take them apart and reconstruct them. It was like boot camp.”

Marc stresses the importance of learning how to draw by hand: “There is no substitute for knowledge of traditional media. A lot of work right now is done in 3D, and students skip the foundations of art education — they don’t know how to draw and only have digital models with some shading to show. The problem with this is that there’s no style to this work; you can’t tell who the artist is, and it becomes about making things look photo-real. Making photo-real work gets the job done but you don’t have a thumbprint as an artist, which can hurt your competitive edge for jobs in the long run.”

Overkill SpiderMek sketch

Overkill SpiderMek painting

2. Start working in the “real world” early

Self-promotion is a must for getting early work. Create an online portfolio and find ways of getting recognized. Offer to help out local businesses and don’t be shy about seeking help from your school. Says Marc, “I started doing freelance work in my third year of art school for professors and for the local automotive and advertising industries. After school, I bought ad space for my portfolio in ‘American Showcase,’ which got sent to all agencies (this was pre-internet).”

Adidas artwork

3. Hone your specialties and target an industry

“Listen to your heart and stay laser focused. If you want to be in the film industry, build a film industry portfolio. Do your research about what each kind of portfolio entails.”

When Marc works for an advertising company, his final image is the finished product that gets put online or in print material. In contrast, Marc’s artwork for film, TV, and themed entertainment may continue to evolve over time and gets used by the creative team in different ways. Sometimes his images set the tone for how a film will look and feel, other times they help determine what material should be used for a character’s costume. When creating inspiration art for sets and spaces, Marc has to be wary of every detail because eventually, someone will actually need to build the set or themed space he is painting.

Concept art for Polar ExpressFigure out your strengths and what kind of work you’re best suited for, then build a portfolio to showcase those specialties.

Star Wars concept art

4. Don’t get stuck on the first idea

“The most difficult thing about working in the film industry was learning that directors want to see multiple options. I’ll have created the most amazing thing and they’ll want to see more; my reaction would be, ‘What do you mean more? That’s what I got!’ I learned how to dig deep and find more ideas. Every variation of a drawing requires thought and time, but it’s that kind of iteration that helps move the production along,” Marc explains.

Iteration is worth the effort, because paintings can be a powerful influence on the course of a narrative. Marc singled out the following piece that he did for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, explaining that the image inspired George Lucas to write an entire sequence in the movie because of it:

Droid Factory Star Wars

Iteration also applies to your career as a whole. If the first path you try doesn’t work, keep going until you…

5. Find your fit

Some artists find that working in a corporate environment provides good stability and collaboration. Marc advises, “The creative process is highly collaborative, but it’s not always easy to find an environment where there’s a good fit. There are egos in every industry, and you have to find people who are on the same level as you.” Marc prefers the potentially less stable freelance life, where he can work with many different clients and be as much his own boss as possible.

6. Learn to say No

As a freelancer, one of the most important things to learn is how to say no to the wrong projects. Marc recounts: “In the 90’s, I had an advertising client that was very difficult to work with. I finally said to them, ‘Please don’t call me again.’ Most people say don’t burn your bridges and I agree. Blow the bridges up, so they don’t come back again! You need strong yes’s and strong no’s to survive as a freelancer.” Even if it’s not possible to pick your clients, and even if you’re working in a corporate setting, it’s still essential to know which projects are right for you and which are not.

7. Carve out creative free time

No matter how busy the work schedule, Marc stresses that an artist should never lose touch with his or her personal inspiration: “Doing commercial work is output. In order to regenerate my creative energies, I do my own paintings, where there’s no art director telling me what to do. It’s really important to have that balance of work and what you love.”

Marc Gabbana free form concept art

Marc has big plans for the future: he is currently working on a graphic novel featuring a world that’s all his own. It will include exotic characters, architecture, vehicles, and other “weird stuff.” Says Marc, “I’m really trying to push myself to do stuff that nobody has seen before. I would like to see this get turned into a movie, but for now I’m only trying to please one person: myself.”

Ultimately, it seems that making it as an artist is about understanding who you are, successfully mapping out your career trajectory, and putting in the hard work. If you’re lucky, you just might find a niche that gives you creative freedom and personal happiness.

If you’re trying to make it as an artist – or if you’ve already made it – we want to hear your reaction to Marc’s advice!

To view more of Marc’s work please visit his website



3 responses to “7 Secrets to Becoming a Professional Artist”

  1. Roland says:

    Good Post. I want to add what an old sculptor told me: even as sculptor you must be a good graphic. Only if you can sketch your idea, you can sculpt it.

    Good sculptors always have good graphic-skills

  2. Excellent post; From my own experience I will mention that having a cross-disciplinary approach, background and education has helped me professionally; by that I mean for example that I took college courses in vehicle design and product design and that has helped my illustration work; illustration courses have helped my product design rendering narrative illustrations; graphic design has helped me apply more immersive narrative graphics on vehicles for concept art; and Entertainment Design courses have influenced all my fields of endeavor–even my motorcycle design work and graphics for H-D had a somewhat unusual perspective influence from that. So, ‘cross the streams,’ cross-pollinate and integrate your own vision throughout.

  3. Sasha says:

    Thanks for contributing this advice Chris!

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