Recently I've been e-mailing back and forth with my online friend Marija (whose wonderful dark digital artwork you can see on her website) and we came across the issue of people's taste not being aligned with our own artistic taste.
She mentioned how some of her very dear and important works went almost unnoticed, and those works that she didn't consider that good got a huge amount of feedback.
The good side of this phenomenon is people like something. At least you have fans! The bad side is, they don't like what you want them to like.
Coincidentally, Marie Forleo also had an episode about this topic the same week. Here's a quote from her video:
“Ignoring what sells doesn’t make you a better artist, it makes you a starving artist.”
Her perspective is valid, but I wouldn't take it as gospel.
So let's go back to the beginning.
You create a piece of art you absolutely love and are proud of. You think it's your best work so far. You invested so much effort, care and passion into it.
You publish the work, hold your breath... and nothing happens.
It gets very little comments, "likes" or shares, and you wonder "What is wrong with you people?"
If I had a penny for every time this happened, I wouldn't be a starving artist, that's for sure.
Some of my recent paintings, like Crucify II, are what I consider my best works so far. I'm so proud of the work I did on this particular painting because it took so much effort and the result is exactly what I had in mind (which rarely happens). I thought surely people would care about it. But not many of them did. That made me feel sad and disappointed.
On the other hand, there is — dun dun dunnnn! — the Phoenix. Observe it in all it's glory:
This is a digital painting I did back in 2007 for the cover of a tiny local sci-fi & fantasy fanzine. It took me only 4 hours to paint. I say "only" because most of my digital works take 10 hours or more, and traditional works take even more than that.
I had no idea it would be so popular.
To date this work has been:
- licensed to a US based rock band
- sold as a print in my DeviantART store and earned me over $160 profit
- a reference to land more illustration jobs that earned me more hundreds of dollars
- the first result on Google Images for the term "phoenix" (until I moved the gallery to a new domain, then it fell down) and as a result was...
- ...stolen on hundreds of websites for both commercial and non-commercial purposes (learn what to do when this happens to you)
- tattooed on the bodies of people from all over the world
Seriously, people wanted to tattoo this stuff?
The first time I got an e-mail from a random person who asked me if it would be OK for her to tattoo the Phoenix, I was in shock.
I see tattoos as the ultimate compliment for one's art (other artists may disagree with me). It's not just paying for the work and hanging it in your home (which is awesome), it's placing it on your body to carry with you for the rest of your life. That's hardcore.
Turns out, the first one wasn't the only one. E-mails kept coming over the years, and I always said "Yes of course, just please send me a photo when it's done!"
I never heard back from most of them, but a few people actually did sent me the photos.
All this from a painting I did for a local fanzine my friends were publishing. It was no big deal to me. And yet, people keep pointing out this painting as "their favorite work of mine".
Sometimes it makes me want to throw my hands up in the air and the yell at the whole Universe "What is wrong with you people?"
It's quite obvious what the matter is in these two pieces: one has a huge commercial appeal, the other one doesn't. One is based on existing lore, and the other is a personal work.
If you do a piece of fanart, it will definitely be more popular than your original stories, because with fanart you already have a die hard audience who can't get enough of the same stuff. And mythology is not much different than fanart, actually.
Sometimes the difference can be far more subtle.
Maybe it's just your approach to the work — I noticed that for some reason spontaneous works gets a disproportionate amount of attention compared to more meticulous works.
Maybe it's the color scheme.
Maybe it's the tone and voice (if you're writing).
Or maybe it's just luck: a popular blogger "pinned" your work and it spread like wildfire.
Sometimes you just don't know what combination of perfect conditions contributed to the popularity of your work.
If you don't know, or if it's down to "luck", then you probably couldn't reverse-engineer the same kind of success even if you tried.
I just want you to know that it's normal. In fact, it's so normal Marie-freakin-Forleo did a video about it. (If you never heard of her before, she's kind of a big deal in the marketing circles).
The question remains: what should you do about this?
Well, you can take Marie's approach and do what works and be a sellout.
(Just kidding! Really, I don't think you're a sellout if you do this)
Or you can take my approach and do what you love to do and barely sell any art, but feel really proud of yourself for being authentic (and you might guess I'm really big on authenticity) and stand 100% behind your work.
Or maybe you don't have to choose. I think you can, and should do both. I believe that's the key to surviving as an artist in a world of commerce.
In fact, you'll do both whether you want it or not (if it happened before, it's likely to happen again), but if this problem bothers you, you might actually want to give it some thought.
Do what you love. Give all your love and effort to the art you feel called to do. Don't give up on it just because people don't dig it as much as you do.
After all, you're creating your artwork for yourself and it's your opinion that matters the most.
But at the same time, try to deconstruct what made people tick in those few works of yours that are really popular. Examine the elements that went into creating it, and try to repeat this process.
But here's the trick: don't be attached to the result.
(I know, that's like asking you to paint a picture while standing on your head. Try it anyway.)
Treat it as an experiment.
The first time it worked, it worked because you didn't care so much. You didn't concern yourself with other people's opinions, and the reaction surprised you.
So let yourself be surprised.
You might, actually, be surprised.