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This week we’ve got Melbourne-based Grange Wallis, who discovered that his dream of working in comics wasn’t all it was hyped up to be, and changed tracks to create his own opportunities.
Draw Your Niche. Then, Illustrate a Career…
The voyage of the retired comic book artist that never was…
By Grange Wallis
It was three days before New York Comic Con 2012, I’d arrived at 10:45pm, after 28 hours of straight travel without sleeping a wink.
Getting out of a cab to an AirBnB booking that apparently didn’t exist. I was tired, anxious and alone. Not one to panic after being told by a newly post-pubescent Doorman that there he didn’t have the envelope with the keys to my accommodation I was advised would be there for me. I sort refuge in the Starbucks two doors down. Logging in and emailing everyone from AirBnB, the landlord as well as messaging anyone I knew in NYC… I went back to the doorman, because to be honest, he seemed really green and inexperienced. As I marched back into the doors of 330 West 58th Street. Greeted by the young, now panicked looking, Doorman rushing up to me with an envelope with a massive GRANGE WALLIS scribbled all over it and with my keys to apartment inside of it. Sweet relief washing over me in an awesome wave, I began my first moments in my first adventure in New York.
In the days leading up to my premier foray into promoting myself as the next ‘up and coming comic artist super star’, I was met by a new challenge. Exhausting jet-lag. As comic-con rolled around I was there early every morning and would be completely gassed by midday. I’d have to rush home before my body powered me down on the curb of 32nd street. I was literally fighting a light-switch. I couldn’t physically stay awake after 12pm. It was so weird. But on the very last day after struggling to make it through the Con, I did end up having the one perfect day. I met every one of my idols, spoke to editors and everyone I wanted to meet. Had some great conversations with some of my favourite artists and creators. It was a whirlwind… But as I sat down with a bottle of water and some crap American coffee in the Aircraft hanger of a room called Hall H.
I looked out at Artist Alley, and I came to the realisation that… the comic industry is simply not for me.
As I looked at all of the amazing talent in this massive room, it wasn’t a fear to compete with them, it was that what they were competing for, that wasn’t inspiring my career ambitions. I saw some of my favourite comic artists sitting at their tables either twiddling their thumbs or hustling for their bread and butter, not their jam, but their bread and butter! I realised that drawing comics wasn’t the way I wanted to make a living. Its a hard gig drawing comics. Its underpaid and you have to work really hard for pennies on the dollar. Only so that you can work even harder at conventions to make your real money there. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But I knew it wasn’t for me.
I love comics, but I love my craft more… and with that in mind I set out on creating my own careering doing what I love, which is drawing. But what does a illustrator with a skillset in drawing muscle men and women in dynamic poses do? Where was I going to find a market of people where they would like kind of artwork? And lastly how was I going to get their attention? Do I just do fan-art in a sea of fan-artists??? (I did and still do a little fan art here and there) Who? How? Where was I going to find these people and what is their main interest?
Then it hit me… SPORT! People love their sport, they’re mad, competition addicted & passionate diehards. I dare say, that you’d struggle to find a diehard Batman fan with a level of passion that could compete with the enthusiasm of the most dedicated Football fan’s love for their team. I’ve read somewhere that the results a game can effect a teams supporter’s sense of self-worth. This means that their mental health is impacted, their attachment to their team is that strong. I love Superman, but a badly written issue, tv show or movie only ever registers as a ‘Oh well, that was a missed opportunity’ moment in my mind.
This idea hit me after year of practising my skillset and trying to figure how how I’d become a professional artist. Now locked into a idea. I needed to set myself an art challenge and it needed a muse. At this time, it was September 2013. Melbourne was swept up in AFL Finals excitement and then it hit me… Do the team mascots! I have always loved the classic 1980-90’s representation of the VFL/AFL mascots by Ned Culic. I have a distinct memory of them as a boy. I was about 8 or 10 years old and was begrudgingly cleaning my ever untidy wardrobe at the behest of my parents. My wardrobe was basically a fallout shelter for everything in my formative years, not just clothing. So there I was sat on top of a pile of clothing, toys and junk. Procrastinating by looking at all of the stickers I’d accumulated on the inside door of my wardrobe. One sticker there was from a Triple M showbag and it had all the AFL mascots on it. I studied this particular sticker for ages. Looking at all the teams, The different poses and wondering about why which team selected their mascot, why does colours, or why that name and for what reason etc. etc. But there I was, just sat there transfixed by them all. I just loved them. So, due to my younger self’s procrastination, I have this seared in memory of these mascots. This moment, believe it or not, I firmly feel is what initially triggered any interest in footy and sport in general as a kid. I should note that I’m a sports tragic and have no natural affinity for it. But like anything, if I practiced, I’m sure I could improve, but drawing is and has always been my first passion.
Remembering these mascot designs and being excited about the 2013 finals, I set out to do what Michael Bay (either rightly or wrongly) did for the Transformers at the cinema, but do it to the mascots of the AFL teams. The goal was to take a classic 80’s Intellectual Property, modernised and make it appealing for a new generation. My first attempt was just simply ‘okay’. It was of my team’s mascot Captain Carlton from the Carlton Football Club. He was already a pretty generic Captain America rip-off, seen with and without a shield. It was as I said ‘Okay’ and definitely not anything ground breaking.
Which is what I wanted to find within myself. I knew it was in there, but I wanted to create something that impress me first and then everyone else second.
It was a matter of my skills not being at the level they needed to be. So how do you grow? For me; the first thing I did was to look at who and what were my art inspirations. What’s my ‘diet’ like? It was the classic comic pencillers & line art guys art diet. Everybody’s favourites; industry elites like Jim Lee, Scott J Campbell, José Garcia Lopez, Ed McGuinness and so on and so forth. All of whom I met at NYCC actually. Great guys and super inspiring… But they all already have their copycats… in numbers of the hundreds of thousands and I was one. That’s when I started looking at concept artists and character designers for inspiration. Two guys in particular left me thunderstruck… Dave Rapoza and Danny Lu Visi. Their work hit me right between the eyes! It was masterful, yet raw, dynamic, all wonderfully vivid in neon and popping colours and moody in the coolest of fashions. I had found my new benchmark. Set out to reclaim my semi perished “realistic” rendering skills and got to work. I researched workflows and practised. Then one day I just started with the villain of the piece… The infamous Collingwood Magpie. What I figured at the time was; if I could make the mascot of a team that I hated most and turn it into something I loved, then I’d really be onto something.
I took all my new references and all of my new learnings to my Cintiq and just went for it in photoshop. As an artist you can get onto a great flow moment after a solid block of good research, practice and finding some great inspiration. It was only after about two weeks of committed practice, my skill skyrocketed. The artwork poured out of me. I was having fun, experimenting and then all of a sudden I had landed into a new art style. One that was fresh and instantly became my signature look. It was a real moment for me and I’ll never forget that day.
I also no longer hate the Magpies.
Armed with what I thought was home-run for my art, I posted it to all of my social media pages and profiles. It got a little bit of traction, but didn’t exactly set the world on fire. This result meant that I needed to work on the business side of things. Namely the networking and social media stuff. I started the tweeting and posting and commenting etc. and it wasn’t enough to get noticed. Knowing that I was onto something that I could leverage myself into a career of my own creation led me to the question… How do you get your work in front of the right people, get them to share or purchase it?
For me it was a mix of good old fashion communication skills, that I built in my customer service days and some a very non-conventional methods. I started ‘Googling’ Footy Club names and the job title of whom I figure I’d needed to speak with at that said club. Google provided a LinkedIn results of the names of the person/s at each club I needed to speak to. Then to add to the sleuth nature of my enterprising, I would call the front of house of the club and ask for their email address and say to the receptionist “I was just on the phone to ‘John Smith’ and I think I’ve taken their email down incorrectly. Is it John.Smith or JohnSmith one word?”. I had a 100% success rating with the receptionist giving me the email addresses of the people I need to speak to… And ended up with about 15-16 of the AFL clubs to share my artworks on their social media channels by doing this.
When I made this choice to be a freelancing commercial artist instead of comic artist, I made the choice, whether I knew it at the time or not, to seek out my own opportunities and create my own connections into the industries I wanted to work in. I didn’t know anyone before this, I’ve have had to fight for every meeting, contact and introduction. By using my google search/Linkedin target identification and unsolicited email approach I’ve landed every single job and client I have. That’s the main trick, working on your skillsets, all of them. Interpersonal, Professionalism, self-education, self-motivation skills and your craft as an artist of course.
All in all, what I’ve learnt over the past 5 years is this; you’ve got to juggle them all at once and keep them sharp at the same time, all of the time. Because when complacency attaches it to one of them, they all start to fall out of the air and you have to start all over and rebuild you rhythm. This happens to me more than I care to admit and it’s easier said than done. But when its humming it the most rewarding career I could have created for myself.
The basic way in which I work, or more accurately, get work is not how most people think. I basically hunt and target businesses that have either dated or poorly executed illustrate branding or advertising components that I think I could either improve or recreate. I draft an email advising who and I am, what I can do and why I’m contacting them. I used all aim for things that need several elements or a good month or two’s worth of work. For this example; I’ll use how I landed a betting agency’s social media department. I noticed that online book William Hill had started using these, shall I say, ‘Sad’ looking mascot illustrations to promote their odds for NRL & AFL games. I even noticed that their Captain Carlton’s mascot had a head that looked auspiciously a lot like my Carlton Blues artwork.
Basically, I found the email address of the Social Media manager and emailed them a proposal saying that, whilst what they were doing with the mascots was great. That I’d love to collaborate with them and make them better. Or something to that effect. I ended up getting a called back a few months later whilst I was waiting for a haircut and asked to do some E-Sports characters for them. Which was a surprise to say the least. But as it started getting closer to the new footy seasons, they asked me to redraw two NRL team mascots, the Rabbitohs and the Broncos and to provide a quote for just the two. I sent them a quote for all 16 NRL teams and 18 AFL teams. They emailed back and just said they wanted the two of them. I said ‘ok’ and delivered the artwork below.
Later that afternoon I was called up by the Social Media team at William Hill asking how quickly I could do the 34 team mascots. I promised 6 weeks and did them all in a month. I often use the Scotty from Star Trek trick, always say something with take longer than you think it’ll take, so when you deliver it in a quicker than unexpected fashion you look like a lifesaver! But It also allows you to save yourself if you have any unexpected delays along the way, sickness or equipment failure etc. This is fundamentally how I get all of my work and clients. I profile them and then I approach them with some ideas on how they could improve something within their art and design departments and try to develop a strong professional relationship with them. Thats the general gist of how I operate as a freelancer. Mind you, it doesn’t work 100% of the time, but generally those failed attempts are always great learning experiences.
Having said all of that. I do still have the urge to do a comic series and I’d never say no to the opportunity to work on a Superman comic. It’s something that I’d still love to do one day. Comics are still a medium that I love and have a great community surrounding it. I would love to do some work in that particular industry, but in terms of all the opportunities that are out there for artists these days. Its just one of the many gigs out there for an illustrator. And for me it’d just be one of the things I’d like to do with my art and within my career, but not the be all or end all. So I suppose, if I’m saying anything at all, it’s this… Work on your craft, master it and then worry about it’s application. Because once you’ve developed a good level of skill you can apply it into many arenas, not just the one venture.