When Your Bread and Butter Stops Bringing Home the Bacon

by Greg Paprocki

You are the go-to. Art buyers love that thing that you do! Creative directors ask for you specifically on their big campaigns! You’ve got globally-based businesses with your art stamped all over their products!

Then it all stops. Gone are the big-budget jobs with the lucrative paydays. The high-profile clientele dwindle away and suddenly you’re scraping for work and reevaluating your future as an artist. You haven’t done anything different from what you did before.

And therein lies the problem.

Trends Change, Agencies Follow Suit

The first decade of my freelance career was booming. Through a lot of hard work in the early years, I had established myself and had developed a style of art that was in high demand. The stock art world gave me a lot of exposure during this time, and I became sought after for producing stylized, fashion-based digital illustration. Things were going so well that my wife was able to leave her job in PR to focus on our growing family.

What I didn’t realize is that I was slowly painting myself into a corner. I had ridden the wave of success straight into complacency and my work wasn’t fresh anymore. The job requests became fewer, the budgets smaller. And though work didn’t evaporate overnight, it was obvious that my problem was more than just the occasional lull in my workload. I went into panic mode.

I flirted with the idea of going back to school to learn 3D or video game art, but my heart wasn’t into it. I had offers for positions at local advertising agencies, but returning to that life after having been on my own for so long was not an option. I tried shopping around a children’s book I had written and illustrated, but was met with rejection from publishers. With my confidence drained and ego bruised, I came to terms with the fact that if I wanted to continue to work as an artist, I was going to have to make some drastic changes.

Clockwise from top left: Work complete throughout Greg Paprocki's creative career, for campaigns for Healthy Choice entrees, a Pepsi mural in Las Vegas, promotional art, Secret Deodorant, GNC supplements.

Clockwise from top left: My work for campaigns for Healthy Choice entrees, a Pepsi mural in Las Vegas, promotional art, Secret Deodorant and GNC supplements.

Reinvention Intervention

I began to experiment. I’ve always been a details guy and try to inject a bit of fun and whimsy into most of my work—both qualities I wanted to keep—but it was time to loosen up my technical approach. I integrated more texture and moved away from the slick, polished look that dominated my work in the 00s. I took the feedback I’d gotten from the publishers who had passed on my book and spent nearly a year retraining myself to produce digital art that possessed the energy and charm of work drawn by hand.

I began riffing on this new style and produced a few images that I was really excited about. Those images spiraled into a 26-page Wild West-themed alphabet reader that I promptly shopped around to several publishers. I immediately received an offer from Gibbs Smith and they wanted to see more. Right now, I have completed six ABC books for their BabyLit division and am in the process of drawing two more.

My work-for-hire projects are also reaping the benefits of the time I invested retooling my craft. Every week I would do a mass postcard mailing and email blast to agencies all over the United States showcasing my newest artwork. And though it didn’t immediately yield to a deluge of projects, it did clarify my vision of where I was going and what was getting attention. Being proactive in getting my work in front of new people also helped build my confidence during a time when I was awash with self-doubt. I steadily began to rebuild my client base.

A contrast of Paprocki's older, sleeker style of work with his looser approach that took his creative career in new directions.

Above and below: contrasting my older, sleeker style of work with my looser approach.

A contrast of Paprocki's older, sleeker style of work with his looser approach that took his creative career in new directions.

Summiting the Slump

In two years time, I’ve managed to both hit my career low then surpass the early peak. It was a grueling process that included a good deal of self-reflection and investment of time into my art. A few things helped me get there:

1. Make a Plan and Put it into Action

Have an honest conversation with yourself—what goals do you want to achieve, and what is a realistic time table to get there? I may be old-fashioned, but I found that creating an action plan, dates included, helped keep me on task.

2. Field Research

Pay attention to everything: every toothpaste ad, every book you read to your child, the packaging on all of the products that come into your home. Falling down the rabbit hole that is Pinterest helped me gauge what people were excited about. Get a good grip on what is going on in advertising—I lost sight of it for a while and suffered the consequences.

3. Generate

Turn your creative ideas into actual art to shore up the newer projects in your portfolio. Even if your incredible contribution to that project you worked on eight years ago garnered a ton of awards and accolades, your clients want to see what you can do for them now.

4. Don’t Let Rejection Stifle Your Strut

When others fail to recognize your artistic genius, it can be a big punch to the gut. Take that negative feedback, digest it and use it to fuel the next endeavor. Persistence most often will breed success, but only if you can recover from getting the brush-off over those cool beer bottle labels you designed.

There’s no need to completely abandon the artistic styles that first got you noticed. There will always be a need for what you do well. Give yourself the opportunity to explore your capabilities as an artist and challenge yourself creatively to do more.

Your unique interpretation and spin of current trends will help keep clients’ interests piqued and the work flowing. After all, no artist has ever aspired to be a one-trick pony.

A page from my book that was passed over by publishers and a page from V is For Vittles, my first book in my series for Gibbs Smith.

A page from my book that was passed over by publishers and a page from V is For Vittles, my first book in my series for Gibbs Smith.

A current image that blends the slick digital style with the new textures and color palette.

A current image that blends the slick digital style with the new textures and color palette.


Greg Paprocki has been a free agent for nearly 15 years. He currently resides in Omaha, NE with his wife and three kids. His clients have included Pepsi, Taco Bell, Mattel, and he illustrates Curious George for publisher Houghton Mifflin. His new series of ABC books for Gibbs Smith’s BabyLit® division are now available in bookstores and online. He credits trusting his gut, meditation and exercise to helping maintain sanity in the chaotic, unpredictable world of freelancing.


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One thought on “When Your Bread and Butter Stops Bringing Home the Bacon

  1. studio1960

    Hi Greg, Thanks for the share of your experience. I too am experiencing a similar event. I wanted to know, in your comment: “…each week I sent a mass postcard mailing and email blast to agencies all over the United States..”.
    Where does one acquire the contacts list for the emails and names and positions and addresses for the mass mailings?

    Cheers,
    Diane

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