Roadblocks to Success

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Have you ever felt stagnant in your life or your career? We all encounter roadblocks and in this episode we go over some very common roadblocks that are encountered by everyone from the most beginning student to the most seasoned pro. We talk about how to get those roadblocks out of your way and how to be great and reach your full potential.

Roadblocks to Success

We give a lot of critiques to students and also to pros. It’s interesting how many times the same things come up in a critique. That is what we want to talk about today, “Roadblocks to Success.” Lee has seen a lot of the same things happening, not necessarily in an art piece, b in different artist’s growth.

What gets in the way? Why don’t people logically improve consistently over time? If you look at an artist’s growth and career it looks like a stock chart with ups and downs. You see some of the same things happen from the most beginning student to the most seasoned pro. We want to talk about those things and how to get those roadblocks out of your way, how to be great and how to reach your potential.

Roadblock #1, No clearly defined goals or understanding of where they are going; they are trying to do everything all at once.

There are a lot of students who are working really hard but might not be as focused as they could be. They are going to life drawing, doing Inktober, and taking 3 classes in school, they are trying to do everything, or there is the early professional with everything in their portfolio.

Art schools are often patterned after the 4 year university curriculum, and they have all of these different skills and classes they require students to take and sometimes it just isn’t set up in the best way possible.

You need a target to be shooting for. Sometimes in school we have to do a character design, then a book cover, then a concept piece. You can’t do all things.

Lee would have students bring their business cards in and work on branding at the beginning of one of his classes, and students would bring cards up and they would say, “John Smith: Illustration, Concept Design, Storyboarding, Graphic Design, 3D Modeling.” you may have done each of those things but that doesn’t mean that you are able to produce at a professional level in each of those fields.

Sometimes that thinking continues after people graduate and they can flounder with their portfolio. They haven’t picked their market yet. Art is very business related.  

Lee was judging January’s SVS Monthly Art Contest just recently and got a great question. There was an honorable mention, for the topic, “Big”, and in the illustration the artist (Aleksey Nisenboym) drew these leprechauns or gnomes around this giant glass of beer and they were all knocked out from drinking so much; the illustration was done in a children’s book style and the great question came: “Is this okay for a children’s book portfolio?”

This was such a good question because this artist knew the market and target that they wanted to hit. Look at how you can fit in a field.

There are two things here: There is focus and there is goals.

We sympathize with the young 20 something year old artist who is kind of good at everything, when you are kind of good at everything you could go in any direction that you want.

So you tend to try it all out. You try everything, you try some modeling, you do some illustration,  some comics, etc.

Jake’s advice is: Have fun, try as much as you can, but see where there’s opportunity, and follow that opportunity if it aligns with your goals. If you don’t have a clear goal for where you want to see yourself at age 30 or where you want to see yourself at age 40, then you aren’t going to focus in on the right things.

Go out and experience those things and see what you are good at and see what you like, you may not be as good at that thing but if you enjoy it then that could mean a better level of success for you, in the long run. Then lean in on the thing that you like the most, the thing that you’re good at, the thing that you like and the thing that has those opportunities there for you.

Jake’s Venn Diagram: What You’re Good At, What You Like to Do, Where the Opportunities Are.

How do you figure out what you’re good at?

First, do it. Then see how people respond to it. Show it to a mentor, post it online, see how people respond to it.

Being good at something you don’t really care for. Lee did a bunch of architectural design to make money, even though he didn’t love it, but then was totally focused on children’s books and was always doing that on the side.

Short term goal: pay your rent this month. Long term goal: where do I want to be as an artist in 10 years?


Some businesses in Japan have like 100 year business plans (that’s just a ballpark number, it’s some big number like that). We need to do more of that. A lot of artists are kind of just doing their next piece and go from piece to piece not thinking about the underlying reason and how it fits with their portfolio. Sometimes we just go with the flow and draw whatever is most convenient and what we feel like rather than really being deliberate and focused on what we need to do for our portfolio.


Jake has this assistant (Tanner Garlick) and he was going to school and had classwork and part of that is making a portfolio to get a job and part of that is to get a degree. There were these different goals laid out in front of him: graduate and create a portfolio. Tanner worked with me and saw the projects I was doing and he came in one day after we had talked about the Draw 100 Somethings Project...

The Draw 100 Somethings project is great at helping younger artists discover their style, and it is a great project for really tapping into your creativity and really flexing your creative muscles. Pick an object where there is room to find variations in it. You don’t want to be too broad though, you want to be specific. You wouldn’t say draw 100 space ships, but maybe it’s 100 single seat fighter jets.

It’s not a TIE fighter one day and a star destroyer the next day, but maybe you do 100 different TIE fighters. How many variations of TIE fighters could you design if you did 100 of them?

Jake did this project with these little robots, who all had the same face, but they had different bodies and were all meant to do different jobs or tasks.

They pushed him creatively and he learned so much from this project. You do the first 20 and you really feel like you are all out of ideas, so you put it on the backburner for a month and then you’ll have another idea that will spark another 10 drawings, and by the time you reach 100 you will have really grown a lot and learned so much about creativity. (Sidenote: Jake ended up doing 200 of those guys.)

So Tanner saw this and said that he wanted to do 100 Pirate animals, Jake thought the idea was cool and gave him his stamp of approval. And then as he started working on it and was planning out his year and seeing how he could fit this in, Jake said, “hold on, let’s take a step back for a minute, you have some important goals in front of you. You need to graduate, and you need to get a portfolio that is good enough to get a job. Is this project applicable to those things? Will it help you accomplish those goals?” And his assistant realized that Jake was right, and that working on this project would actually put off him getting his portfolio ready to get a job and would put off him being able to finish assignments in order to graduate. So he took a step back and realized that this wasn’t the time for him to do this and that he could do it later when he had more time to focus on it. So now he has zeroed in on his portfolio and schoolwork, and actually had an interview and accepted a job offer to work at a cool startup studio here in Utah.

So it comes down to what is your focus?

Just because it is something that you are good at, or interested in, or is fun, doesn’t mean that is the thing you should focus on to achieve your goals.

We gravitate towards easy. Some of the things we ask you in this project are not easy. Like what is your focus or what do you need to do for your portfolio, those things are harder and take a lot more thought. While on the other hand doing a Mer May drawing is easy, it is a concrete thing, the subject matter is already spelled out for you, it’s not abstract, you don’t have to worry about it. I’m going to go and do the easy thing, it’s not necessary easy but it is a more concrete and more spelled out and you can veer off of what the path should have been. Sometimes you have to choose the harder right, instead of the easier wrong.

Lifestyle and Focus

You can get sidetracked with a different project. There are many sidetrack distractions. I.e. Video games. Downtime is good in moderation.

Will has had students who were focused and students who were not focused, and he likes to make analogies to non art people, because they are relatable but maybe not hitting too close to home.

Recently Will watched the documentary Free Solo, and in it, Alex Hammel, this incredible rock climber, has spent his whole life climbing and is living in a van (probably down by a river) and that is so he can travel and be closer to the rock faces that he climbs. His dedication to his craft, that pure dedication and what you have to sacrifice is one of the most inspiring things.

The documentary is all about his climb of El Capitan, that he climbed without ropes in Yosemite. People in that community are calling it, “the moon landing of rock climbing.”

When he started rock climbing, there was no contract saying that if he did this he would get paid. Sometimes as artists we say that we won’t do anything unless we have contracts. Although it is good to set up contracts to protect ourselves.

If you are an artist you do need to unwind sometimes. But for most successful artists, they have a period of their lives where their lives were maybe not quite balanced. There are usually a couple of years where you really have to lean into it, it’s not just a 9-5 in the beginning. You have to really sacrifice and “bleed” for your art.

This guy, Alex Hammel literally bleeds for his work. Endorsements, and the money all came secondary to the sacrifice. He had the goal and was already doing it before all of that.

Prior to doing the Solo climb, he completely removed himself from social media and decided he could not do anything that could become a distraction.

Maybe you need to zero in and finish your project and maybe for the next 6 months, it’s only once a week I am going to go out with friends, or once a week watch a movie, or play a video game. And the rest of the time it’s eat, sleep, and draw.

If you go to a skate park you see these kids doing amazing things on a skateboard. They were not born that way but they love it and they skate all the time and make plenty of mistakes in the process, and that’s where the real learning happens.

When you go into a college art class that should be our skate park. Sometimes it seems like people are avoiding it, when that is their time to experiment, have fun, and really learn.

Those kids in these skate parks, more often than not they fall, they fail. These guys pay for it, for us as artists we just throw a bad drawing away.

Lee had a critique with Anna Daviscourt, one of the Adobe resident he mentors. They were talking about getting some quicker work because the children’s book industry can be so slow moving. They decided to focus on adding some book covers to her portfolio. They wanted to choose something that art directors would recognize, and she said she wanted to do Harry Potter covers. Probably the hardest thing possible, it’s been done twice recently and both times has been done really well, so it will take a lot to stand out. She did a bunch of thumbnails and showed them to Lee and he told her that they looked like Harry Potter covers, they weren’t great yet, she was imitating the look that was already there. He told her, “Here’s the story, but who are you in relationship to Harry Potter, what are you going to do to really stand out?” They had to really fight for it, she did some pretty good ones, but they weren’t as aligned with the nuance of the story. They kept working at it and eventually she ended up with something fantastic. It was great because they knew where they were going and they knew where this thing was going to live.

It was so interesting as they talked and got into what works and what doesn’t, the work was good but it needed to be better.

In school they want to keep you in the generalist category, they don’t want you to follow a specific style or artist too much.

Will had this student he taught in a workshop, who had worked at Disney and left California because he didn’t have enough to support his family. He was totally supporting his family but they really wanted to be able to get a house with a yard and stuff. He wanted to “undisneyfy” himself. Everything he did looked like Disney. He had been there for 15 years, and he really struggled with that.

The school are afraid of creating clones of another artist or of a teacher.

That’s why in school we say to not do anime and want to help you see objects and shapes in a new way and see how to interpret them.

It’s okay, early on to have some floundering. There is a certain amount of time for finding. If you are in that mode, then enjoy it and soak it up. The problem is when you are considering quitting your job but don’t know what you are going to do yet.

Experiment, try things out, find that thing that you are good at but also where there is opportunity.

Roadblock #2, Too much downloading, not enough uploading. Over conferencing, too many tutorials, looking too much, and not doing enough actual work.

Everyone deals with this. You spend an hour on Instagram or Pinterest, you find and save things that you like. You are triggering some of the same neurons that you do when you actually create art but at the end of the day you haven't created anything. You are spinning your wheels.

Where you actually learn and improve is from doing the work; creating work and sharing it, putting it out there for people to see, that’s where the actual learning and growth happens.

Lee’s Red Light System

This is a system that Lee has developed to help him make sure he is maximizing productivity while minimizing distractions.

Green light, you are good to go, you have pen to paper.

Red light, you are reading the news, looking at Facebook, being distracted, or playing games. You shouldn't go there. If you catch yourself wasting time or being distracted, then head back to the green.

Yellow light, that is tricky. Often, you do need to find reference and gather images. The yellow light is flashing, and you don’t want to spend too much time in this zone; you need to speed up or stop and go back to what you were doing.

Avoid Over Conferencing

How do you avoid overdoing it with that stuff? Critique groups and conferences, etc.

“Terry’s Law”: The more you talk about doing work the less work you have actually done.

Will sees some groups of people who go to SCBWI who go more for the social aspect than for the work aspect. They go year after year but don’t really progress much.

Likewise, Will plays his bass for fun, but is honest with himself about it, he isn’t planning or hoping on going super pro because of it.

Lee’s wisdom for conferences:

Nothing worse than seeing the same person at conferences for 2-3 years in a row and they have the same manuscript or the same work. If you aren’t a professional tied up with lots of work, but if you are a student, you should have a new portfolio every 6 months. If you have a new portfolio every 6 months go to the conference and show that work off, you’re showing off an updated version of yourself. If you are bringing the same tired work year after year, then you need to work on creating new work, then when you are going to the conference you are really able to show off new work.

What about the person who is taking care of their family and doesn’t have the time to generate that portfolio every 6 months? Like we mentioned before if you are that family guy and don’t have as much time, just be honest with yourself, realize that it will take longer and chip away at it.

Long story short: Don’t replace real work with conferencing and tutorials.

Regardless if it’s your portfolio or if you are also professional or semi professional, don’t let a year go by without you doing some sort of actual project, whether it you paid for, or if it is a personal project or some research and development and see how people and the market like it, how did they respond to it. If it’s a year or every 6 or 3 months. A year should be enough time to finish some sort of project and put your stamp of approval on it. If gives you something that will ensure you are actually spending time working on it and making sure it gets done, you’re creating something you can point towards, you can put it on your portfolio or your resume, it shows your latest work, or it can be a calling card.


Be Student B

Please be student B, not student A. Will would have these classes where he would set up a still life and it was a class for beginners.

Student A, would get set up, and they might be painting an apple or a lime or something. Will would ask them to spend the whole 2.5 hours working on the painting. Usually student A would only paint for half an hour and spent the rest of the time talking and visiting with others. Will would have explained and showed the students things to look out for and things to focus on during the class. They were more concerned with being done. They wanted him to tell them what to do.

If you are going to play it smart, try to understand more of what is being asked of you. That is student B.Don’t just go through the motions and focus on just getting done, be willing to experiment, Be a tinkerer, be an inventor. Challenge yourself and always do your best work.

If you have teachers who don’t do demos, you need to go find another school. There is nothing worse than a teacher who isn’t willing to step up to the plate and swing.

Some teachers are either scared of their inadequacies, or they are just lazy. You should have teachers who are willing to demonstrate and show you what you need to do or possible solutions or ways of approaching a problem. Lee always did demos and all of his favorite classes included teacher demonstrations.

Shout out to Perry Stewart! Whenever Will had a class after him, Perry would still be in the room helping students and sometimes would still be helping students even after Will had started his class. He was not getting paid extra, he was dedicated.


Don’t Only Practice

Another addendum to the over conferencing roadblock: students get into the practice mindset. Practice is good. But it’s not the best when you never really put it on the line and create something of consequence or something that is meaningful to you.

If you never put something out there, you never risk failing. Sometimes you need to say, “This is the best that I could do, I hope you guys like it.”


Getting Around Cliches

Lee sees cliches all the time, even at big conferences like CTN. Stuff like, “Monster Under the Bed”. Sometimes portfolios and things are just way to generic. You see this with style too, there is this LA animation style that is a modernized version of Marie Blair.

When 100 people are doing the same thing, how can you set yourself apart?

A good example of standing out is Cory Loftis. He is in this scene but he doesn’t do that flat painted style like a lot of other artists are doing.

He’s got this classic Bugs Bunny, Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones style, mixed with the stuff that Disney does, mixed with this edgy modern style that comes from his time working on video games.

He played a big part in Wreck it Ralph and Zootopia. He is really respected and looked up to. He is putting together dots.

We all have these dots that we collect whenever you talk with someone, have an experience, or learn something new you have a new dot that you can connect to other dots.

Whenever you create anything you are connecting dots.

You can see the same pattern that someone else has created with their dots, and you take those 10 dots and add or switch out a couple of dots. But sometimes it can still feel derivative.

A way to separate yourself is to find dots that others are not using.

Anytime Loftis does personal work it is always super out there and different from what everyone else is doing.

When Lee sketches out a concept in his sketchbook or on his iPad before painting it, there always this gap and he’ll spend a couple of days doing other stuff and then come back to it. He has this little list and he runs his concepts by this list before deciding to paint something.  Lee always asks himself these questions:

What about this is interesting?

Has this been done before, and if so, am I adding any new information to this?

If I answer yes to both of those, nothing is interesting and it’s been done before. Then the only place to go is, “Am I trying some really experimental painting technique that will add something different to it?”

Monster under the bed? Yes, kids can relate to it. Has it been done before, yeah, a million times!

Jake’s friend calls this the Pixar Pass, when something has been done a hundred times but you can do it and make it cool and refreshing, then people will give you a pass for it. So, Monsters Under the Bed? They did Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University. If you really knock it out of the park and do it in a really creative and interesting way, people will give you a pass.

The Incredibles is like the Watchman meets the Fantastic 4 with a fun modern art style.

If you do it right, you can make cliches feel really fresh.

The Power of Irony

Cliche topics, look and see what is out there and then add some kind of twist to it. In one of Lee’s character design classes they looked at different portfolios and realized that all of the monsters looked angry. So Lee gave them an assignment to make the scariest monster that you can and make it embarrassed or nice.

Another was a prop assignment where they were to take some benign innocent looking object that would turn into some dangerous mechanism. Irony is really powerful to create fantastic stuff.

Sometimes people just have poor tastes. Will saw how people drew faces, but wanted to do something original, and give people more geometric faces. Some sort of cubism.

Upon sharing his idea with his professor, his professor told him, “I’ve seen people try to pull this off before (Lesson 1, You are not original) and it never works (Lesson 2, because it is not appealing).”

Will was just trying to be different. Yes, it’s unique in a way, but it also has to be appealing.

Appeal is an “X-Factor.” It’s very important but can be hard to teach.

“Don’t be basic.”

In Review,

Roadblocks to Success:

  1. You don't have focus, and you don’t have specific goals.

  2. You are spending too much time going to conferences and watching tutorials, spinning your wheels and not enough time making actual work and progress on those goals.

  3. You aren’t digging deep enough to be original. You’re taking too much of a surface level approach to your work.

Today’s episode is sponsored by SVS We’ve got a 7 day free trial, try it out and see if it’s the right thing for you and if you like the teachers and the teaching style.


Jake Parker: Instagram: @jakeparker, Youtube: JakeParker44

Will Terry: Instagram: @willterryart, Youtube: WillTerryArt

Lee White: Instagram: @leewhiteillo

Alex Sugg:

Tanner Garlick: Instagram: @tannergarlick

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