Why illustrators should learn to code


It’s a really strange time to be an illustrator. Especially in the Bay Area. In the past few years, there was a huge inflation of jobs for production artists in mobile gaming, everyone seemed to be hiring as many young illustrators as they could, and just as quickly, all the major studios let go a huge amounts of artists (I was one of them). The film industry isn’t any different. When you hear things in the news about Dreamworks planning massive layoffs, that is a really bad sign. That one hits especially hard for me, since Dreamworks was a great supporter of the animation department I came out of at SJSU, and some of our brightest graduates went to Dreamworks. We just found out that over 500 jobs are being lost, and I’m watching my friends post about their job loss on Facebook just like I have been over and over again in the past few years as each major company in turn drops their creative teams. In 2013 we had Rhythm and Hues laying off designers and effects artists, painting the dim future for art teams being an expense that can be cut.

We’re dealing with structural problems as commercial artists (production artists, illustrators, etc) like the widespread idea that artists need to be kept in their own little room and treated delicately. Yes, artists often need a quiet place to do their work, but so do most people. The theory that they should be sheltered from the decision making in a business has injured the profession, it’s created a lot of jobs for non-artists to manage art teams, and frankly, that structure has made it easier for creative work to be sent overseas. If artists aren’t thought of as an integral part of a company’s production process, but instead as add-ons, it’s easier to consider them as commodities that can be replaced.

How can you compete with a market that readily disposes of their artist? I’m of the mindset that you should learn to do EVERYTHING, learn new things constantly, and be able to take on as many elements of the job at hand as possible. Be flexible and curious and dive into the wide ocean of new disciplines. This conflicts with the idea that you should focus on what you do best and leave others to do the rest, and that if you’re an illustrator you don’t need to think about stuff you don’t specialize in. “I don’t really do technology, I’m an artist.” But you have a much greater chance of supporting yourself if you know how to do more than one thing. Be a powerhouse: do the drawing, do the technical art, do the writing, do the programming, do the development. Do as much as you can.

(As I write this, Susie Cagle is tweeting about freelancing and says in regards to freelancing in journalism: “But this is why I learned to draw as well. I have two skills/revenue streams. I’m glad to not just be selling words in this market.”)

We’re taught to have clear dreams and goals, but we’re in a time when jobs and industries are so fluid and changing so often that you really have to be open to new opportunities. You may want to draw comics or animate your own cartoon, but leap at any chance you can to learn skills that can enhance your creative life. When an opportunity to learn front-end development came my way, I went for it. As an illustrator, my opportunities for work and collaboration with people I loved were pretty minimal, but by establishing myself with a skill like web design, new doors seem to be opening. People /want/ to work with creative people when they’re commissioning work like putting together a website. They want someone who speaks their language, knows the art scene, and can bring that experience to their design. And if you can also throw in some drawings into the project, you’re golden.

The first trick is to start looking at the world around you like any piece of art, and realize that design is art that’s tailored to the user. For instance, look at the web and think about what you like and what you don’t like, and then justify those opinions. Now you’re thinking like a designer! If I’ve learned anything, it’s that if you have a well-trained eye for detail from traditional illustration, animation inbetweening, and pixel-perfect vectorizing, you can attribute that beauty obsession to designing something functional. As I work from website mockups and develop them into fully-functioning websites, having a sensitivity for detail, matching ratios, fonts and colors if a huge part of the job. The more commercial artists bleed into design and coding, the most beautiful our products and lifestyles can be, because the aesthetic of the project will be considered from the beginning.

It’s a treacherous market out there, but if companies are finding ways to cut out creative departments, illustrators have to get scrappy and be a company within ourselves. If we work small and lean, we can design the aesthetic and make creative decisions through to the finished product. The movement towards small business owners running their own enterprises online, that people are finding more and more ways to express their dreams and fund them organically, and the best new media is forming outside of the usual corporate structures, this creates a whole new fertile ground for an illustrators, designers and developers to restructure the way they create. There’s no clear answer or road to take, but blurring the lines of disciplines, and having illustrators step up to the plate is a good start.

Currently listening to:

Rachel Fannan’s two new tracks are delicious, a heavy beat and beautiful vocals quickly bring these tracks into heavy rotation.