Am I an Artist?

Or Just A Software Engineer?

Posted by Vance Feld on May 15, 2015

I never ask myself routinely if I am a real artist. Of course I am, right? But, just the other night somebody asked me, “so do you make a living from your art?” It was not the first time I’ve heard this type of question. Usually it’s phrased, “Do you do art full time?” To me, those are two sides of the same coin: the premise is, you’re not a real artist unless that’s the only thing you do. Otherwise, it’s a hobby, right? Normally, this question does not bother me, I brush it off. But this time it was from a fellow artist, someone who professionally creates artwork for video games. He creates 3D and 2D artwork in a full time, paid position with an animation/media company. It irked me. Is he more of an artist than me? Does it even matter?

I was not lucky enough to find a "Patron," somebody to fund my every artistic whim so that I could do it full time, like Van Gogh did, with his brother financing his living and painting expenses. In my opinion, he was quite a whiney artist (as I think most are). There he was living off a weekly stipend from his brother, and he could not even manage his own finances to last a full month![1] Maybe I should have gone to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago or SFIA. I got quite good scholarships based on my portfolio. I chose a small liberal arts college instead, citing my desire to "know about more than just art." I think if I had chosen the art school path, I would have become one of those whiney artists expecting a career in art, much like Van Gogh expected success through sheer persistance and desire to find nature.

Van Gogh: True Artist or Sissy Whiner?

Jules Dupré had found some art lover who was paying him. If only I could find that, and not be such a burden on you. After the crisis I went through when I came here, I can no longer make plans or anything else; I’m definitely better now, but hope, the desire to achieve, is broken and I work from necessity, so as not to suffer so much mentally, to distract myself.
Look, a canvas that I cover is worth more than a blank canvas. There - my right to paint, my reason for painting, I do have it! It’s only cost me my broken-down carcass - my mind pretty well cracked as far as living as I could and should goes - living like a philanthropist. It’s only cost you, let’s say, around fifteen thousand francs that you’ve advanced me.
—Vincent Van Gogh, Letter 645, Arles, circa 22 July 1888 - [2]

The mystique of the starving artist is one that I myself believed in at some point. I was convinced I must bend every bone in my body to create visual art. I thought that if I didn’t spend every waking moment exploring technique, developing style and vision that I would be an inferior artist. I played the character of this mythical artist quite well-- I’d draw and paint incessantly. Part of this was an escapist passion on by my father’s early death, part of it was a pre-existing obsession with capturing form on paper. They say you need about 10,000 hours to master something, a reference to the supposed hours you need behind the flight stick to fly a commercial airliner. I likely put in my 10,000 hours behind the paint stick before ever reaching university. Maybe it was this art fatigue that enabled my decision to not go to art school, even though that was my career choice. Was it my career choice to be a starving artist? I do know other artists from my rigorous high school art program that are living the real artist life— they are dirt poor, oscillating between having their own studio and living at home with their parents. Some I know are making in academics, teaching as adjunct professors who earn just above the poverty line. Most never had the passion, or became graphic designers, or gave up. I guess I read enough about artists to realize it was a big crapshoot, so I side-stepped the problem and took it into my own hands.

Down in the Dumps, Found a Way Out

While I studied digital animation in the Studio Art program at Reed College, I was dabbling in coding software; flexing that skill secretely in the context of animation. After graduation, I worked some shit jobs, like Noah's Bagels cream cheese jockey and glorified garbage man. The cream cheese job was the absolute worst job I've had in my entire life. I was the only male on the crew with a man-hating pregnant lesbian manager who (used to) smoke cigarettes and drink--With a bun in the oven, she was quite irratable. I was fired for being 7 minutes late. When I was unemployed, had a ton of issues and probably addictions, eating ramen and contemplating suicide. Suddenly, a former classmate, Antonia, literally knocked on my door with opportunity. The title was 3-D assistant. Perfect for somebody with a little CAD experience and no money. Before I knew it, I was doing programmatic, sound-reactive animation for the Beastie Boys. After that, I joined the dark side. Programming: the digital evil twin of making art. We all struggle with "making it" as an artist, Van Gogh, in his many letters to his brother, had gotten the self-pitty bug. It seemed to be his pattern and ultimate downfall, or maybe the pain was the source of his inspiration?

My dear brother, if I wasn’t all washed up, and driven crazy by this bloody painting, what a dealer I’d still make, with the Impressionists, I mean. But there we are, I’m all washed up. London’s good, London’s just what we need — but alas, I feel I can no longer do what I could have done. But broken as I am, I myself see no misfortune if you were to go to London; if there’s fog, well, it seems to be increasing in Paris, too. [2]
—Vincent Van Gogh

I can't claim to have avoided pain, of that I have had much. I guess if I could give anyone practical advice when trying to be an artist, is that you should channel that pain wisely and not let it destroy yourself. Plus, writing software day-in-and-day-out is not free from costs. It causes eye problems (my mother is nearly blind from computers) and back and wrist trauma that can't be undone. Pick your poison, I guess. Van Gogh tortured his body by supposedly living on crackers, coffee and wine.

Lessons From Software Engineering

Maybe it was my pride, or my stubbornness or the aversion to risk hammered into my head by my worrisome mother, but I've chosen not to be a full time artist. Not yet at least. However, some might call front-end user interface engineering an artform. What UI engineering really boils down to is problem solving, logic and a knack for organizing thoughts and visual layout. It's like drafting, but requires much more attention on organization and long-term vision. It requires picking up a new technology every few months. Perhaps this is akin to how I like to change styles every few months, too. I got bored of ballpoint pen after three hundred sheets and couple years. Now it seems after a hundred I'm tempted to switch media.

In today's world of Agile software management, the individual developer is reduced to a replaceable part, responsible for small features, or, "stories" as they're called. See "Why Agile is Terrible" by Michael O. Church. We rush in a sprint to make the next deadline of storypoints due, and constantly fret about micro variences in our productivity with daily standup meetings. This type of anxiety can be kind of relaxing. It's something to keep pace by. A clock to which we can measure our own progress. My clock for drawing pages is set at about .5 pages a day. If sense that I havent advanced at least 15 pages the last month, I get the terrible sensation of losing a race. I bury myself in the studio for a "War Room" drawing session (under agile, War Rooms are reserved for the toughest of tough problem solving to get the story points done in time). Am I just a cog in the machine, replacing myself every once and a while?

Show me the code. Developers also subject themselves to code review. Every bit of code we write, we write knowing that somebody else will eventually have to understand it. Martin Fowler has an old addage, "Any fool can write code that a computer can understand. Good programmers write code that humans can understand". I think this may be one instance where past art critiques became useful to me: I can be humble and grow a thick skin to criticism, since afterall, art is to be seen by anyone. Good developers spend more time collaborating than trying to prove themselves. While I work solo, I try to see myself as a collaborator with my audience, I'm trying to get them to understand, not bash them over the head with superiority or arrogance. I also don't like to hide my process, if I could, I'd be Bob Rossin' it up. Amazingly, Bob Ross filmed 403 episodes.

View From My Desk

One common phase of design in UI/UX creation is called wireframing. Its kind of a cross between draft layout and flowchart. Each "view" in an application is not designed, but considered for what buttons should appear, what subviews should be included and what information should be made available. In this way its like a storyboard. Juggling storyboards was something I was familiar with in my early animation work. UX design simply takes it to a new extreme. This multi-layering, multi narrative is easily found in the interwoven stories throughout the ForeverScape. In an application there are any number of ways a user might get to a certain state within the app. Similarly, there are many ways to come to a genisis or a conclusion of a story in the 'scape.

I'm Officially not an Artist: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

If you look at my official resume right now, the one I send employers, there's not one bit about my art. I might mention the fact that I'm still tinkering with video game, but I don't mention it's related to my art, and it's only one bullet point. My sheet reads like a software engineer. I cut my teeth at some companies where I worked 60-70 hour weeks routinely, writing software at all hours of day and night. I didn't draw anything for 5 years. This was a healthy gap though, maybe the void created a vacuum, now filling with unending passion. When I tell coworkers about my massive, thousand page, five year project they are completely astonished, apparently it is rare that a softwaere engineer can draw.

I probably could have pulled off being a "full time" artist, living on crackers, paying a pittance from family members to my slumlord. Instead, I am my own patron. I do not sell my artwork, only its derivatives. So far the art business is in the red by huge margins. Performing my art, building the exhibition contraptions, publishing it, buying T-Shirts in bulk is quite expensive and risky. Just the sheer amount of time required to setup a show can be daunting. So I use the day work of Dr. Jekyll to feed Mr. Hyde, locked in the basement. The art industry has already branded my age group as an "Early Career Artist" so I don't expect to be selling reproductions or booking a university tour quite yet... My uncle who has owned his own business for 30 years tells me, "Well, that sounds like their way of sticking it to you as long as possible." Maybe one day I can quit my job and call myself a real artist, in the meantime, I'm going to lose some sleep keeping up with both worlds.

Ultimately, I highly value not having to be a graphic designer. I like not answering to anyone; I can draw whatever I want and set my own pace. I"m not going to grow preoccupied with a catchy visual gimic I use to sell something. I like to keep the art pure. As my uncle recalled once,

I really liked cars, so I thought I'd become a mechanic. I started working as a DEQ mechanic and realized that working on other peoples cars all day made me hate working on my own cars at night. So I quit and became a plumber so I could keep cars as my hobby.

So it's almost 12:40 am. I promised I'd stop painting and get myself out of the studio. Not sure why I logged back in right now, I guess I just wanted to record the fact that if I had not set the alarm clock, I'd forget and paint until the sun rises. It is this losing track of time that makes me not wonder if I'm an artist.


1. Liesbeth Heenk, 2014. Van Gogh and Money: The Myth of the Poor Artist. Editor Malin Lönnberg. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. p. 618

2. Van Gogh Letters, No. 645.