How did I get here?! My journey to becoming a Professional Artist

At the time of writing this I’m 32.

I’ve been working as a professional artist/animator now for 11 years. When I was 21 I made the choice to fully commit myself to advance my artistic skills, develop a portfolio and get a full time job in the art/animation industry. Though that’s not to say I didn’t naively try to take the art, animation and film world by storm long before I was 21.

My name is Cale Atkinson and I thought it might be interesting to share my story of how I became a professional artist, animator and author. I think my story is kind of unique, hopefully inspiring, and if nothing else maybe entertaining.

Today I’ve had work published and shown in most mediums, from games, to comics, television, magazines and books. Working with clients including Disney, Marvel, Penguin Random House, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, IDW and more. 

 My main goal in writing this is to show how there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to become a professional artist. There is no set path you have to take. I really love that part of this industry, how you can make your own path. If you are willing to work for it and willing to put yourself out there who knows where it will lead! I personally have had no formal education and in many ways still have no idea what I'm doing, but that hasn't stopped me from trying everything and making my own path.

For myself, I never really set my eyes on one specific area. I never was like “Animation is all I want!” or “Comics is the place for me!”, Instead I loved it all and sort of attacked it all. Usually I went at it completely inexperienced and unprepared, but blinded by ambition and excitement.

I apologize for any long winded rambles or incoherent gibberish along the way. There is sure to be at least a little.

I grew up around Vancouver Canada and have always had an interest in drawing. Both my parents are highly creative and would never waste an opportunity to share and nurture that in my brother and I. Professionally they were not ‘artists’ but no doubt, along with brother, were my first big artistic influences and inspirations. One of my earliest memories of drawing is sitting around our dining room table, making up stories together. I’m sure my stories at that time were incoherent scribbles and chicken scratches, but those times definitely planted the seed of storytelling deep in my squishy brain.

Ever since I was really young, I believed not that I could be an artist, but that I WAS an artist. I can’t explain where that came from. Possibly encouragement from my parents or just young naivety, but no matter where it came from, it stayed with me. Let me just toss in, that’s not to say I ever thought I was great or better than everyone else. I just believed I was an artist, plain and simple.

Ok actually when I look back, it does appear I had a bit of a young art ego in my early years…

As you can see in this only elementary school journal entry I found, I believed I could be (or apparently already was) a professional artist/cartoonist from the get go.

In elementary school my first taste of being a professional artist was making copies of my original comic series “The Black Knight” and selling them in class for $3 a piece.

I still remember one classmate was forced to come back for a refund being that the comic was too violent for his parents. There was A LOT of goblin beheadings, monster beheading, and people beheadings... It was definitely influenced by Sergio Aragones ‘Groo’ comics that I adored.

I was also a big fan of “The Tick” comics and even mailed the company/creator Ben Edlund copies of my Black Knight comics in hopes of getting a signed drawing back from him. (Of course I made sure to let them know I signed the comics incase I became famous). I’m still waiting for that reply and drawing...

Later on towards the end of elementary school/beginning of middle school, I had my first taste of picture books. I illustrated a story my father wrote years earlier titled “Saving Doug”, as well as wrote and illustrated my own story titled “Philip the Fish”. Somewhere around this time is also probably when I first started learning/using Photoshop. I was completely set on getting both those books published. In my mind I was like “Well these are great, how do I get them in a bookstore now?” Of course I knew nothing about how that process actually worked and soon moved on to other art endeavors (only to return to picture books many years later).

What took my attention next and lasted a good number of years was comic strips. I LOVED comic strips! From Garfield and the Far side to Sergio Aragones Mad Magazine strips, I could never get enough. I started making my own seriously hoping/planning to get them in newspapers and magazines. Every night I would try and brainstorm new ideas or ink new strips. My big goal was to create 365 strips, that way if I got picked up for a newspaper I would already be ahead by a year. Sadly I didn’t make it to 365 but did get approx 170 done.

It was around this time that I learned my first big lesson in the industry.

The worst thing that will happen from sending out your art is someone will say “no”. “No”. That’s it!! I could handle a “No”, I mean I heard no all the time. Once I realized I could send my comic strips anywhere in the world and that would be the ‘worst’ outcome, I sent them everywhere. I mean everywhere! I sent them to every big newspaper including the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times… I sent them to every magazine including National Enquirer, New Yorker and even Playboy. Once I learned about comic syndication, you guessed it, I sent them to every big comic syndicate too.

Now I got a lot of “No’s”. In fact, I didn’t get one “Yes” from any of those mail outs. Generally I received no response at all (And let’s be honest for a sec, they were not great comic strips at all, I can easily understand now why the New Yorker did not reply :P ...Though at the time I thought they were the bee's knees).

The strange thing is, even though all I got were no’s, every single rejection letter got me more jazzed and stoked to try harder. Knowing that some of these places actually saw my comics and replied, got me SO excited, and in a way each rejection felt like “Yes” was one step closer. I still have the binder of saved rejection letters (plus more that I’ll get to later).

In the end I did get my comic strips in some free local city papers in Vancouver, as well as my wee high school paper but alas no New York Times or Playboy.

While in the first half of highschool I was pretty set in my mind that I would attend an animation school post secondary, probably 3D animation, as it was the exciting new thing. That all changed when I took a film class in highschool and instantly fell in love with filmmaking. For the next couple years, art sort of took a backseat. My goals of becoming a comic strip legend were slowing down, so I thought why not replace it with academy award winning director! Easy enough right?...

I taught myself how to edit, read all sorts of filmmaking books and began writing various film ideas. It didn’t take long before I wanted to make a feature length film… I was just out of highschool when I applied for my first film grant $$ to make a feature… having no experience, no expertise and really no good script, I did not get the grant.

Around here is when I made my decision on post secondary education. Being madly into film at the time, I had dropped the notion of animation school in exchange for film school. I figured it was probably the thing to do and applied to a couple local film schools, with the hopes of one in particular that had a really good reputation (though apparently also had a reputation of being hard to get into). I was thrilled to get accepted for an interview to the latter school but everything changed once I had the interview. Something about the professors who interviewed me, something about their cynicism, their bitter/blunt attitude, their personalities completely turned me off from school. It sounds weird to say that one interview caused me to lose interest in school, and in truth I had talked to local professionals who suggested using tution to buy a nice camera or computer and just start doing it. So really that interview just sealed the deal to go the other direction. I did get accepted into both those film schools but without question, turned them down and bought myself a nice new fancy camera instead.

I had a bit of a knack and love for editing projects and actually started to get some paid client work through that route. Editing a couple films to promote a Paintball field/team, a historical documentary, as well as some other odd jobs.

At the same time I set out to make my first real short film (with the hope I could use it to show experience in applying for future big film grants). I talked my older brother into writing the script for what would be a silly 20-30 minute black comedy entitled “Date with a Saint”. The premise being you receive this film once you die, and it walks you through the 10 crucial steps to ensure you pass the test and make it through them pearly gates.

I put out a casting call in the local newspaper for actors in Vancouver and even had auditions. It’s hilarious to think back to all these people coming in (most in their 40’s or 50’s) and auditioning for this little scrawny kid.

I took a job for two weeks doing interior house painting to earn the $400 I needed to make the movie (then swiftly quit the job). That would become my only experience in legitimate ‘work’ outside the creative fields.

I finished the film and even premiered it at a local small film festival.

Obviously the next step from there is to do a feature length film… right? Well I thought so. I wrote up my next  ‘grand’ film/proposal and applied once again for a $$ film grant. Once again I did not get the grant. I blamed it on all sorts of things, but of course not on the fact that I still really had no experience, no expertise and a reealllly not so good script.

I took a job as a Videographer for a little while in there. Filming many high end weddings around Vancouver as well as various corporate shoots. Definitely some stories including almost falling off a church balcony with my camera, accidently hitting pause on my camera during the walk down the aisle and getting my car punched by a businessman as I tried not to lose the limo on route to a photo shoot. I think I’ve had my fill of weddings after that… O_O

I’m afraid we’re nearing the end of my grand film career… I know, I know it seemed like I was so close to my academy award... but rather let’s take another strange inexperienced turn.

Let me just take this moment to also throw in that I did a couple random website designs for small clients around that time too. I mean who didn’t back then, am I right?! Though, honestly I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Thank god for photoshop and dreamweaver.

Ok so to keep in line with going after grand visions that were far beyond my realistic means I started planning to curate and create my own film festival. I know… I know… Luckily something else unexpected came upon me and pulled me away from that…

My two step brothers created a Men’s fashion type of tie clip called a “Tie Lock”. Didn’t see that coming did you?(I totally didn’t either). I agreed to work with them in doing the package and web design for the product. This led to me and one of my brothers working into the wee hours almost every night.

*Fun fact! The Tie Lock was actually included in the celebrity gift bags at the American Music Awards one year! Tie Lock - Secure your Style!

*Unfun fact! The Tie Lock had a problem of ripping off the loop on the back of your tie! -_- 

Now in those late delusional nights working on the Tie Lock, something happened that sparked my interest to get back into art. Let me explain in what I like to call “Cale decides to go after another insane goal he has no experience or expertise in”.

This is going to sound really weird… but as my brother and I worked late, like really late, we started making up random character voices and slowly developed the characters more and more. Again we were generally delusional from being up so late and just having giggle fests talking as these characters. Soon we decided the next logical step was to create a full blown interactive DVD prime time cartoon pitch of the characters/world we developed and send it to every big LA agency as well as numerous celebrities (including Steven Spielberg, Conan O’Brien, Matt Groening and Jay Leno).  I self taught myself Adobe Flash at that time to make the art and some really primitive animations for the pitch.


*Fun Fact! We even directly handed one of my idols Mike Judge our pitch dvd when he was coming through Vancouver with the Animation Show festival… It was a pretty funny terribly awkward meeting of us handing him the DVD.

Now as you may have guessed our show did not get picked up. It could’ve been because I still wasn’t really a good artist at all,  it could’ve been because we had no knowledge, backing, experience or understanding of the industry. Who’s to say!?

We took the feedback as “We probably should make more pitches so they have options”.

So… we made another 6-7 cartoon pitches to be able to send with our initial idea.

Again we sprawled our pitches out to the world, but once again received a minimal reaction. We were finally realizing maybe getting a animated series picked up wasn’t as easy or realistic as we first thought. So we agreed it was best to move on and place our episodic gems on the shelf.

Now came the time 11 years ago, where I had to decide as a job/career, did I want work in film or art/animation. At that point I realized I wasn’t going to be Quentin Tarantino the next week and if working in film, it was probably going to be editing corporate jobs or going back to filming weddings/events. I decided to use what money I had saved up and spend the following 3-4 months to fully devote my time to develop my art skills and create a portfolio worthy of getting a job at a studio. Insert 80’s montage backed by ‘Push it to the limit’.

I discovered the presence of other Artists on the internet through artist blogs, sites, forums… And from that I discovered just how much I needed to grow as an Artist. It was like being a Turkey and thinking you’re a beautiful majestic bird and then suddenly having any other bird land beside you forcing you to realize you are a hideous beast. I realized I was really NOT a good artist.

So from there I drew. I drew and I drew and I drew. I read and I practiced and I didn’t stop.

I did find it invigorating and inspiring to see what these other artists could do. Finding the online world of artists really blew my world wide open and for the first time I saw there were lots of people out there I could connect with, people who were like me. Hallelujah!

I started asking questions. With all these amazing artists in reach, I tried to use them as a resource and messaged many that inspired me. Amazingly many of them answered me, and quickly too!

One of the first artists I found online that totally rocked my socks and made me realize how much I needed to grow was Dan Schoening (now artist of the successful Ghostbusters comics).

Dan moderated a forum at that time and was very welcoming, always answering or replying to people’s posts. Right away I got on that forum, posting my sketches and looking for advice. Not long after I started to message Dan. He was gracious and always answered my constant questions swiftly, more than happy to lend his eye for critiques and feedback as I worked on my portfolio. We started developing a friendship over time, and just by chance he lived not too far from me. Once I finished my portfolio and was sending it out to studios he generously offered to drop a copy to his bosses at the studio he worked. Shortly afterwards I was offered a job from that studio and was moving out to start my first studio job. Huzzah!

This was my portfolio at the time:

It’s amazing what can come from putting yourself out there and literally just sending off one polite email in hopes of a response. I owe Dan so much for his generosity in time, advice and inspiration.

Ok let’s pick up the pace from here as this post is becoming an Everest. People will need sherpas just to make it this far…

So I moved out to the city where this game studio was running. I worked there for about 1 year. During that time I did a bit of everything, including animation, character design, background design, props, concepts, and development. The studio itself mostly did learning educational style games for kids, some were big licensed brands and some were new.

Overall I was just thrilled to be working in an actual studio as an actual full time artist. Getting to work side by side with Dan was also pretty awesome, and we have become great friends since then. As time went on sadly the rose tinted glasses slowly faded and the true sight of the studio began to show. It did not feel like place to grow nor was I creating anything portfolio worthy. After a year it was time to move on.

*Aside from Dan, I did meet one more stand out person working at the game studio making it all worthwhile, my future wife Jessika.

Before leaving the studio I began madly googling and searching the internets for freelance or other job opportunities. I’ve always had a love and longing to be able to do picture books one day so decided to also try and get an illustration agent. I began researching any and all agencies I could find, sending out emails or letters/portfolios to those that seemed to be a fit. After much silence and adding to my ever growing rejection letter binder, I did get interest from my current agency Tugeau 2.

Jess and I both quit the game studio, deciding to go rogue and attempt the elusive freelance life.

A peek at some of my artwork around that time which would have been in my portfolio.

I never had a long or steady contract in this first year of freelance. It was stressful, but I also did learn a lot. Every morning I would scour any site or forum that listed artist opportunities hoping to find something that sounded like it could be remotely worked on. This included Craigslist, clicking on every major cities postings looking for anything that seemed reasonable (rummaging through the 90% of garbage/scam opportunities). I love the ads that wanted disney quality animations done within a week for under a hundred dollars, or just good ol’ fashioned ‘exposure’...

I also did sign on with my children's illustration agency, but contrary to what I hoped, work doesn't just come rushing toward you like a dam breaking when you sign on with an agency. It took me a long time before I got any steady work through my agency, building up a body of work, clients and a reputation.

A collection of random things I did when freelancing include:

  • T-shirt designs
  • Game Assets for a downloadable Kellogg's game in europe
  • An intro animation to a Hot Tub company website, where I worked with the weirdest person I have ever met o_o
  • Doing a little bit of animation for an animated cartoon
  • Magazine Covers

Then I got my big freelance break that allowed me to not stress quite as much for work and moneys. It was creating and animating segments for a kids television show called 'Tiga Talk'.

I got the contract for this television show (which lasted 4 years/seasons) as a result of someone that I’ve never met nor ever talked to, emailing me out of the blue saying they ran across my website and recommended me for the job since they couldn’t do it anymore. Madness! It turned out to be my best contract, and all stemmed from someone randomly seeing my work. This would be the point in the program where I would stress having an internet presence, or at the very least, having your work up on a website. You never know who may run into it!

Alright so from there I did more odd jobs here and there, as well as slowly started getting more children’s illustration gigs/projects through my agent. I was still doing my morning ritual of searching and emailing potential ads or postings. One of these vague postings I emailed, called me and turned out to be a headhunter looking for artists and animators for a Disney studio not too far from us in Canada. And how do you say no to Disney!? I soon got Jess in on the talks too and before we knew it, we both were moving down to work as animators. Just like my first studio job, this one also stemmed from a random email, putting myself out there.

I worked at the Disney studio for just shy of 3 years. It was an online studio dedicated to the kids virtual world ‘Club Penguin’. Jess and I mostly animated and created assets for games in the world, but also worked on character animations too. Once again after a certain amount of time it felt time to move on and continue growing. You can only draw penguins for so long...

I joined a new studio headed up by one of the creators of the ‘Club Penguin’ studio working as essentially the art director and head artist (technically the only artist for a fair amount of time in the beginning). This studio creates games on various formats from Web to Mobile. I worked at Hyper Hippo Games for just over 3 years as a full time employee, doing pretty much anything and everything at some point.

During any of the times that I worked fulltime for a studio I never stopped doing freelance work on the side and pursuing work with my agent (lots of late nights). I also never stopped creating personal artwork, always making time to work on my skills, portfolio and art just for myself. I really think that it’s super important to always make time to create just for you, whether a personal project or just to have fun. My portfolio has always been 90% my own personal work vs client work, as it’s generally what I’m most proud to show, and has my heart in it.

 

While working at Hyper Hippo I started to write more and ended up pitching my first picture book ‘To the Sea’ to Disney Hyperion through my agent. After working together and refining the book for a year, they finally bit and put in an offer. Woooo!

After the 3 years I decided to leave Hyper Hippo and go back to the mysterious freelance world. My children’s book work began picking up more and it just made sense to leave the full time position in order to better manage my time and projects better. I still do contract work with the game studio.

Since then I’ve worked on a bunch of projects I’m really proud of including 3 picture books published which I’ve written (To the Sea, Explorers of the Wild, Maxwell the Monkey Barber) and others which I worked as illustrator (If I had a Gryphon, The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold).

I can’t express how happy I am to finally hear ‘yes’ for some things I’m pitching and how lucky I feel to be able to tell my stories for a living. Even though I believed I was an artist early on, I can’t say it’s been an easy journey and nor is it now, but I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.

If there are 5 things I could say to summarize how I got to be a professional artist, they would be:

  1. Draw Draw Draw.

  2. A willingness to learn and grow.

  3. Not being afraid to put yourself out there.

  4. The persistence, stubbornness and determination to keep at it no matter how many rejections come your way.

  5. You have to be doing it because you love it.

If you made it this far in the post let me extend my big congratulations on your determination and moxie! Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed hearing about my strange journey to becoming a professional artist. I have no idea where my path will lead next, and can’t wait to hear all about yours! Happy travels!