Breaking into the Industry - Part 3 with Walter O'Neal

I know that I normally post new stuff on Mondays, but seeing as I'm leaving for a week to go compete in the Young Sculptors Competition, I figured I'd post a few days early rather than a week late. Enjoy!!

My final guest blogger for this topic is a man I've actually had the pleasure of meeting face to face. A man with a great deal of talent in a great number of disciplines. A man whose drive and determination for success is only matched by his desire to see others, who dream to make art, also succeed. A man who has shared of great deal of advice with me and who pointed me towards the right people at DC Direct, where I quickly shoved my foot in a door. A man who I'm proud to call my friend, Mr Walter O'Neal.

Of course, before I let you get on reading this fantastic post, let me give you a little advice. Go make some pop corn, grab a drink and find a comfy chair, because Walter has really come through for you guys, and you're gonna love this read. And now... Mr. Walter O'Neal

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First off, many thanks to Alfred for asking me to chime in and contribute to this discussion about breaking into the industry. While being far from a seasoned veteran, I did manage to get my foot in the door fairly recently, and am still very much in the process of working my way up the pro sculpting ladder. Hopefully I can paint a clear picture of what it was like for me to get that first break and also give a couple of tips on what worked and how I would go about doing it again now a few years later.

Speaking of painting, that’s where I was initially headed with my big hopes for an illustration career after getting out of art school back in ’97. Though, after a series of strange events, I ended up as a production accountant doing payroll on TV shows. Not quite where I envisioned my life going but it was a decent gig that paid big money. Now while the money was great, in the back of my head I still held onto the belief that one day I was going to really make a stab at having a professional art career. So in May of 2005, two months after my 30th birthday, I quit my accounting gig and set out to develop a fresh portfolio of new work and break into the comics industry as a cover painter. I worked for about a year making new art and living off the big wad of cash I saved up from working in TV. 

So, Industry Tip #1 – The sooner you decide to break in the better. One of the major reasons I was able to quit my job and give a professional art career a try was that I had no major obligations. No car payments, No mortgage, no children to support, nothing. Even more so I had a very supportive and loving wife who had a good job so the fact that I wasn’t bringing in any money for well over a year wasn’t an issue. I could focus 100% on making art and getting better. The younger you are the less likely you are to have any permanent demands on your time and attention or a specific lifestyle that needs to be supported financially. If you’re 18 years old making $8,000 a year in your budding art career - no big deal. If you’re a 30 year old who used to make $75,000 a year who is now making $8,000 a year in your budding art career – it’s a much tougher pill to swallow.

After I made my portfolio of new art, I went to the San Diego Comic-Con and, in hugely delusional fashion, thought I would immediately get snatched up by Marvel or DC as a cover painter. Didn’t happen and still hasn’t happened. But while at the con I met Mark Brooks (super talented comic book artist) and he told me that I should join deviantArt and start posting my work there and just about any other place else I could. That way I’d start gathering a following for my work and start meeting other folks out there with the same goals both as amateurs and professionals.

So, Industry Tip #2 – Get your work out there and seen! Although I haven’t updated my page in forever, joining online forums and specifically deviantArt has been one of the biggest boosts for me in breaking into the comics and collectible industry. Over the years I’ve met a ton of pro sculptors and comic book artists and those relationships have been invaluable in not only helping me get better as an artist, but also with building a support structure of professional friends who can answer technical or business questions and also throw your name into the mix when companies are looking for new talent. In addition to that plenty of art directors for various companies browse thru deviantArt looking for new talent and I‘ve found that a few art directors I met at conventions were already familiar with my art before I ever handed them my portfolio. While having your own website is always an asset, you’ll probably never get the kind of traffic and visibility as a new artist that you’ll get by posting good work to a community site like deviantArt. It’s a slow burn in the beginning but the time and energy you invest there will pay off in spades not only in building a following and opening doors, but also meeting and building friendships with wonderfully talented people with many different skill sets.

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Initially deviantArt led me to befriending some very talented amateur sculptors which then led me to the Shiflett Brothers sculpting forum which led me to becoming friends with Brandon and Jarrod Shiflett. I was blown away by the intensity of their work and while I had sculpted one or two crude pieces on my own for fun ages ago, they encouraged me to give sculpting another go and post more stuff on their forums. So with a kick in the butt from them and a wealth of new information from their online tutorials, I started sculpting new pieces and building a sculpture portfolio. A year later I had a new sculpture portfolio with about 6 decent pieces and a some fresh castings of a pair of Batman Beyond busts I designed and sculpted  and I was off to the San Diego Comic-con again. 

Industry Tip #3 – Keep going to the same conventions every year! If you live far away from any of the major conventions this is going to be a major hit to your pocket book but it’s the repeat visits to the same art directors at the same companies that will inevitably lead to them eventually giving you a job. Art directors meet dozens upon dozens of artists looking for work each year and making yourself stand out among them is difficult, even if your work is top notch. But if you show up again next year with more great work (have small packets of sample photos to give away also), they will remember you and eventually they’ll ask themselves why they haven’t given you some work and seek to remedy that. 

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So I made the comic-con rounds again with my Batman Beyond busts in hand billing myself as a 2D painter and a sculptor. The Batman busts were a big hit and got me much more attention than my 2D portfolio ever did by itself. In fact it was the double whammy of having both a 2D portfolio and sculpture portfolio that really seamed to get people excited about my work. The people who hire 2D artists loved my sculpture work and the people who hire sculptors were really impressed with my 2D work. Go figure? ;) But this convention experience leads to my next 2 discoveries…

Industry Tip #4 – If you’re trying to get work as a sculptor always have some castings of your work on hand in addition to your portfolio. It’s one thing to see photos of sculptures but those pictures will never sell your strengths as a sculptor like seeing examples of your work first hand.

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Industry Tip #5 – Don’t be discouraged when an art director says they love your work and then doesn’t offer you a job. They aren’t just blowing smoke up your ass if they tell you that you do good work. If they don’t like your work more often then not they’ll find a nice way of telling you as much. But don’t think that when someone gushes over your work and hands you a business card that it’s a done deal either. Many times while that art director absolutely loves the work you do, they may not have a project available to hand out that suits your particular strengths. But it’s the repeat visits to conventions to meet that same art director that will remind him to continue to keep an eye out for that perfect fit project for you.

So while my trip to comic-con didn’t lead to any direct work this time, I was able to plant the seeds that would eventually lead to work with those people I met about 6-8 months later.

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Those Batman Beyond busts did get me some attention from Randy Bowen of Bowen Designs, after a good friend of mine sent some photos his way. I met Randy and he believed in me enough to give me my first 3 official assignments in the industry sculpting busts of Marvel characters, Cloak & Dagger, Firelord, and Batroc the Leaper. Working with Randy was such a great experience (I learned so much!) and I was following in the footsteps of many pro sculptors who were able to get their first assignments in the industry working for Bowen Designs, if for no other reason than Randy is the head honcho of that company and if he wants to give you a shot that all it takes. There’s not a meeting room full of people that all have to be convinced that giving you, an untested sculptor, his first assignment isn’t a big mistake.

Now I don’t mean for everyone to rush out and send tons of photos to Randy begging him for work, because that leads me to my next tip…

Industry Tip #6 - Don’t go looking for work if you’re not ready. Be brutally honest with yourself and your abilities and how the work you produce compares to the work that your target company releases. Put yourself in the shoes of Randy or anyone else that might hire you and think about whether or not giving you an assignment is going to yield work that is just as good if not better than handing that assignment to an established sculptor who has already successfully delivered countless times in the past. How does your work stack up against that of Ray Villafane? What about Andy Bergholtz? Tim Miller? Mark Newman? William Paquet? Erick Sosa? Etc. Because if your work can’t stand on it’s own right on a shelf next to the beautiful pieces that those guys produce then don’t waste Randy’s or any other potential employer’s time looking at your work until it can. Now that may sound overly harsh but everyone’s time is valuable and in an industry where people spend hundreds of hours working on a single piece, even ten minutes spent looking at and replying to sub-par work could be ten extra minutes spent playing with kids, helping with homework, conversing with spouses, catching up on much needed sleep, or anything else infinitely more productive in their eyes. So do yourself and all your potential employers a favor and don’t attempt to throw your hat in the ring until you are truly ready to put your best foot forward.

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Once I had those Bowen Designs pieces under my belt, I immediately became a much more attractive hire because just like in any other industry, someone with proven job experience is always more attractive than someone with no job experience. So while I got a few small painting jobs from various companies my next big break came when I got my first concept art gig from DC Direct. Now here‘s where some of those seeds planted at conventions start paying off. DC was looking for some concept art for an upcoming statue and the comic book artist who was initially slated to design the piece wasn’t able to do it. My name was brought up and since I had already met with art directors at DC a couple years before, they decided to give me a shot. That job then lead to me providing concept art for 3 more statues and doing some drawing and painting work for DC Licensing. Sweet!

So now, while I had started doing some 2D work for DC Direct, I hadn’t had a chance to do any sculpting for them yet. So I took some time to develop a  project on my own and put together a pitch for a line of collectibles using some of DC characters. I designed the line and made concept art for it. I sculpted, molded & casted, and painted a prototype for it, and sent all that stuff to DC in the hopes that maybe they would produce it, but more so just to impress them with my sculpting ability and to encourage them to throw some sculpting work my way.

In the meantime another one of the comic-con seeds paid off in that DC picked up the Batman head from those Batman Beyond busts I previously brought to comic-con. The head was used for a Batman Beyond figure for their 1:6 scale action figure line. Now this happened well over a year after I showed that piece to the art director who picked it up, and it illustrates the importance of making those relationships and continually showing up year after year to reintroduce yourself and say hi.

Industry Tip #7 – Take the initiative and come up with your own projects. Why wait for someone to offer you a job, when you can give them a job to offer you? Come up with your own ideas and make projects that you think could be the start of a whole new line. Maybe come up with a treatment for a line of characters that just hasn’t been sculpted yet. Or possibly come up with a new direction or reinterpretation of well known characters showing them in a different light. What would the kids from the Marvel comic “Power Pack” look like as 30 year olds? What would the A-Team be like if set in the Old West circa 1870? You have to fill out your portfolio with projects anyway, so might as well aim high and think big. Worse case scenario you end up with a solid cohesive portfolio that demonstrates your ability to think creatively and design pieces as well as sculpt them. Best case scenario, a company sees what you’ve done and wants to run with your concept. Plus, working with established characters is an immediate way for people to connect with your work and give it a basis for validation. Everyone knows what Harry Potter looks like, so it immediately shows what you added to the equation when you break out your future geriatric version of him in his eighties. This is exactly what I did with my Batman Beyond busts by taking something that only existed in animated form and making a real-world live-action versions of the main characters.

Industry Tip #8 - It takes money to make money. Be prepared to spend a fair amount of cash either molding and casting your own stuff or paying someone else to do it for you. Silicone and resin aren’t cheap (about $225 combined for a gallon of each), but working with them is a necessary evil if you want to have a career as a commercial sculptor. You need to prove to potential employers, not only that you can sculpt but also that you know how to engineer your sculptures in such a way that they can easily be broken down into separate components and reproduced. What better way to do that then showing reproductions of your actual sculptures to art directors at conventions?

Now that Batman Beyond head, combined with the product pitch I made to DC, ended up getting me plenty of work sculpting more heads for DC’s 1:6 scale action figure line. I’ve been lucky enough to work on quite a few of those figures doing heads and various accessories over the last year and I feel very fortunate to have met and worked with some really great people over at DC Direct.

Earlier this year I did another bust for Bowen Designs, and right now I’m well underway with my first project for the fine folks at Sideshow Collectibles. So while I’m far from being a fixture in the industry, I have crossed that initial threshold and I continue to get steady work. While I don’t think anyone ever breaks into the industry the same way twice, since we all have different strengths, and assets to offer, hopefully there are enough general hints here to make getting that first foot wedged into the door easier.

Also if I was hitting the convention circuit hardcore for the first time now, what I would do in addition to everything mentioned previously is make key chains. Key chains? Yes, key chains. I would sculpt a 1:6 scale head of someone, anyone, Batman, Superman, a well known actor, even your own head, render the hell out of it and mold and cast copies of them. Once I had a few dozen copies I would go to the Oriental trading company’s site and order a few dozen of their cheapest key chains of any type. Once they arrived, I’d strip the keychain hardware from whatever random crap they came with and attach them to my 1:6 scale heads. I’d print out my contact info on adhesive stickers and mount those stickers to a sheet of thin styrene. I’d cut up the styrene with my stickers on it and drill or hole-punch the corners of them. I’d loop my newly made plastic contact info sheets onto the key chains and viola!

Viola?! What the hell did I just make?! Well let me break it down…

Heads and hands are the two hardest things to get right when sculpting, so if you show that you can nail either one of those it’s definitely a feather in your cap. So you’ve proven that not only can you sculpt a killer portrait of a recognizable character (even if you sculpted yourself, the art director will see that it looks like you when you hand it to him/her), but you can also mold it and cast it. Plus you’ve made a small example of your work that you can freely give away that will require very little silicone or resin to produce and very little clean-up to get ready to hand out – all in the form of a nifty little trinket that art directors would be hard pressed to throw away (nobody throws away well done sculpture) or lose because they can attach it to their keys, convention lanyards, or belt loops if they don’t have any pockets.

A 1:6 scale head keychain with your contact info attached - It’s a perfect project that covers all the bases without breaking the bank. ;) 

Okay well I hope that helps anyone and everyone trying to break in. Good luck, work hard, and have fun!

I want to thank Walter again for being so generous with his very limited time. I owe you buddy. I hope you guys enjoyed that read as much as I did. I'm sure we'll see Walter in here again sometime talking with us about yet another topic. But before I leave you, let me just take this opportunity to put this out to you handful of readers... Is there something that you would like to see covered in this blog? Is there an interview or a series of interviews you'd like to read? Send me an e-mail with your suggestions and help make this blog "The place to be" for great interviews and discussions on the world of sculpture. Thanks, and I'll see you later.