I don’t remember anybody ever telling me I should become a professional artist as a kid. I never had a life-changing mentor or parents who pushed me to work hard, or had any special training.
From the moment I could hold a pencil, I just wanted to draw.
That’s not to say that I was in a complete creative vacuum. My father was an artist, and before he left the family on his own journey when I was a young boy, he would sketch and paint in the living room. I remember seeing his charcoal drawings of old cow skulls and oil paintings of landscapes with thick brush strokes hanging on the walls. That must have been where I first picked it up.
My mother wasn’t a painter, but she was (and still remains) a creative person in her own right. While she surely never pushed me to pursue art as a career, she would praise my drawing skills as a child and allowed me to follow my creative instincts (once she even let me decorate her tote bag with markers).
I can’t remember exactly why I was so fascinated with drawing, but it was certainly linked with a fascination with nature. As a kid, I spent hours outside in the lawn or the woods behind the house, or laying belly-down in the garden and staring at the various parades of insect life between grass-stalk trees.
And then I learned about dinosaurs. Giant lizards that roamed the Earth millions of years ago, of which only bones remained! I was hooked. I spent hours reading dinosaur books, and marveling at the detailed illustrations of the ancient reptiles. And then it was Star Wars! And Lord of the Rings! And so many other incredible worlds to explore.
I was overwhelmed. Every day I was attempting my own variations of the creatures, warriors, and landscapes that I saw in illustrations and movies, or read about in my books.
Ultimately, I think it was just useful as an escape. A way to fade out the noise, confusion, and discomfort of life and explore a world that was, well, better. The blank page was my refuge, an opportunity to shape my reality, to learn and discover new things.
Of course, it didn’t stay that way for long.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I was good at making art. Not only was I good—I was the best.
At least, I was the best in a class of a dozen sixth-graders. I received a lot of compliments on my drawings in school. Other kids would react with “Wow!” or “You DREW that? From your imagination?”. My friend Nick even offered to pay me $20 for a drawing once.
I guess you could say I liked the attention. Sometimes the reactions were strange, or even envious. Sometimes a peer would see my art and their faces would show pain and disappointment. Maybe they had thought themselves a pretty good artist, and now they weren’t so sure. Sometimes I would receive comments like, “I wish I could draw like you”, or even “I hate you.” The last one was particularly confusing, but fortunately rare.
Before you assume I’m bragging about my grade-school prowess, understand that this was the beginning of a very misguided mindset around art that lasted for years, and nearly made me stop completely. But for awhile, at least, I enjoyed the attention. The trend continued as I proceeded through middle and high school. I quickly recognized that there were few, if any, that possessed artistic talents that rivaled my own. I grew to expect the highest praise and wonder for all of my assignments in art class. If I didn’t get it, I worked harder the next time.
It was good being the best. But it didn’t last. It never does. There’s always going to be someone better than you, and the sooner you accept it, the better. But of course, it’s easier said than done. As I struggled with my rapidly inflating ego, the role of art in my life became quite dark.
As my artistic mind developed, I was beginning to grapple with the tornado of complex and intense emotions surrounding adolescence. I discovered charcoal and oil painting, which opened a new window into the expressive potential of art.
Sullen and sleep-deprived, I created monstrous, flowing, grotesque, and dark images in the margins of my paper while not paying attention in class. I spent lunch periods mashing charcoal into my sketchbook, with my back to a corner of the library. I began to draw from dark dreams and fantasies, sometimes quite literally pouring my blood, sweat, and tears into the page.
I began to get different reactions from my work. Sometimes fear or surprise. Sometimes discomfort. I began to hide my sketches in thick cardboard-covered notebooks, and stopped letting people look at them.
Looking back, I think I was desperately trying to maintain my personal connection with the medium. I was growing up, and I was feeling so intensely about everything, and I clung to the blank page like a wooden plank in a shipwreck. But it was not the world that threatened to drown me as I had thought—it was my own mind.
It was my first year of college, and I was angry, confused, and full of fear. So naturally, I was looking for ways to escape.
While drawing and painting had once held a special place in my repertoire of distractions, they were quickly becoming less potent and rewarding when compared to the alternatives: drugs, sex, movies, TV, and video games.
It didn’t help that I had developed an inflated sense of self-worth from my skills as an artist, which was constantly under threat by the increasing scope of my world—other students at school, or professional artists in the world at large, whose skills far outweighed my own. I found myself increasingly frustrated with the work that I produced. Sometimes it was a revelation, a pure, raw experience. But sometimes it was just terrible.
It was just so much easier to lose myself in some vice that required no skill, that required no self worth or practice or discipline, that was consistently rewarding me for minimal input. So I attended the art classes and when I completed assignments, I did them well. And therein formed the terrible mindset that arrested my creative development for years to come:
There’s no point in creating art if it’s not going to be any good.
As this insidious belief grew in my mind, the blank page transformed from an endless realm of creative possibilities to… well, just a blank page. With nothing on it. And thus, I was blocked. My creativity had failed me.
No matter who you are, or what you do, you’re probably in the business of creation. And creation is the enemy of the ego.
I was learning this quite well as I entered the beginnings of adulthood. I would sit down to draw and make a single stroke on the page, only to immediately crumple it up and throw it out. There was no point in even starting. I could see its failure before it was even conceived. Every stroke looked terrible. Every idea looked vile and jagged.
It just wasn’t good enough.
Eventually, I just stopped trying. As it was demanded by my classes, I would still create work. I would still pour myself into the process, put hours into a project. But only as much as I needed to be better than everyone else. Only enough to maintain the fragile facade of the “talented artist” that I had grown so accustomed to.
Despite this, or perhaps as a result of this (still not sure which), I managed to drag myself through a Bachelor’s Degree in Art (I was also pursuing a BA in Philosophy, since my natural curiosities had led me halfway to that degree by the end of my second year). I flopped my way through two different colleges, and found myself, several years later, plagued by a growing set of addictions and debilitating poor mental health, and preparing myself for what I thought would be my grand, glorious debut into the world of fine art.
The reality that followed was quite different.
It was the Spring of 2016 and I was struggling to keep it together.
If only to prove to myself that I had made the right choice by following a friend to a small liberal arts college in southern Vermont, where, immersed in a small community of progressive-minded students and a “well-rounded” educational framework, I could convince myself that I was still the best in my field. So for two years, I did what I could to be the best art student in the school, while consistently failing to meet my own expectations and ignoring my own declining health and mental well-being.
At this point in our story, I had learned that I was endowed with enough of a natural creative talent that I could still receive good grades with the minimum possible effort by appropriately targeting high-value tests and assignments and leaving other things like attendance, participation, and quizzes, far enough behind. I would work in bursts—immersing myself intensely in a project for a couple of days, then disengaging entirely and disappearing in an intoxicant-fueled spiral that would put me off the grid for weeks.
And by the end of my senior year, the last of these high-value opportunities was looming on the horizon: my senior exhibition. And I wanted to make an impact—to really show the world what I was capable of.
Whether I was successful or not, well, I don’t know. What I do know is that over the next six months I formed some of the worst creative habits of my life, which, if I’m being completely honest, nearly destroyed me.
For about six months, all I thought about were dragons.
Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I had finally reconnected with my creative roots, and I was fully immersed. I had just read through every Tolkien book I had, and my mind was brimming with ideas.
I had caught a glimpse of that same pure creativity that I had only known as a child, and I wanted to follow it as far as it would take me. I wanted to create a fully immersive world, complete with oil paintings, ceramic sculptures, written narrative, custom music, sound effects—all combined in a single experience. And thus, Where Dragons Roam was born.
While I worked, I began to track my hours. I set goals for the daily and weekly totals. I created spreadsheets, documents and lists of items and references. I listened to every fantasy audiobook and film or game soundtrack I knew. I came up with latin names and specific taxonomies, wrote long descriptions of native habitats and various evolutionary adaptations. I lost myself in the work.
It was easier then to ignore the other habits I had developed over the past decade. To ignore the poor relationships I had formed, my own alienating behaviors, and my debilitating cycles of self-destruction and declining health. I could just sweep them aside and return my attention to the work, and let the hours slip away.
It was almost euphoric. The work was everything.
I thought I had finally figured it out. This was surely the most important thing I would ever do! I was immersed in the process once again. But it wasn’t sustainable.
If the first mistake I made as an artist was thinking that talent alone would lead to success, my second mistake was thinking that an artist must invest himself entirely in his work and shut out any everything else. Passionate creation is often romanticized in the creative fields, but it is rarely sustainable, or even productive in the long term.
As my last semester started and the day of the big show approached, I did little else but work on my artistic vision. I slept infrequently, ate only when absolutely needed, and broke up with my girlfriend to free up some time and head space.
Finally, there were just 24 hours left until the show, and there was still so much to do. The sculptures weren’t fully painted, and I hadn’t even started the accompanying drawings or the music. I had some friends in the art department who helped me with the logistics of the show—wine, food, hanging materials, things I considered to be frivolous and unnecessary.
I had reached out to practically everyone I knew. Relatives, friends, old high school connections. Many of them were coming. And it wasn’t ready. So I stayed up through the night, continuing the work. I pushed myself to the point where I couldn’t hold the pencil anymore, then, around 4:00 AM, I allowed myself two hours of fitful sleep before I started again.
That evening, the room was set, the guests were filing in, and the other art students were manning the wine and snack bar. I was dressed up, staring in my bathroom mirror. I couldn’t face it.
I started getting texts and calls from friends and family, asking me why I wasn’t at my own show. I ignored them, and sat on the floor, and completely broke down. I felt like I had expended every last calorie of energy, and yet produced something mundane, something silly and trivial. I had done my best, used every bit of strength I had, and it still wasn’t good enough.
An hour after the show started, I was able to pull myself together and make an appearance. It was a blur. I was bombarded with cheer and praise, and seeing the faces of loved ones everywhere I looked. I was raw, uncomfortable, and utterly overwhelmed.
Two weeks later, it was time to take the show down. So I walked in the room one last time, to take things in for myself, to see my creation in its pure state. And once again, I felt a deep sadness, a terrible loss. For what, I don’t exactly know. It was beautiful, fragile, real, and disappointing all at once. It was just too much.
I had made a mistake. I had created something beautiful, but I had offered myself—my whole self as payment.
Fortunately, that’s not where my story ends.
After I graduated college, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to make art again.
I spent the summer with some friends in Providence, working in a local Café and spending the nights with them out on the town. I’d like to say I left all my vices, poor habits, and mental struggles behind me, but unfortunately that couldn’t be further from the truth.
However, among the chaos, a seed of new possibility emerged. Around June of that year, I was wrapping up what was to become part one of a novel series I was writing, and found my visual imagination firing off once again. Problem was, I had left all my paints and sketchbooks behind, and besides, I didn’t really have much room to paint in the cramped apartment.
I was seeing all this amazing artwork from contemporary concept artists that were working in the digital medium, and despite myself, I was curious. I was also skeptical—after all, how could you possibly replicate the visceral expressiveness of the traditional media on a computer?
But I bought a tiny $25 drawing tablet, and began messing around with it on my laptop. My first creations were horrible, but it was kind of fun. Like driving a car for the first time.
Months later, I had moved back to Burlington, Vermont and was living in a tiny attic of a studio apartment, working full time at a local kitchen, and making Photoshop paintings by night. I watched free videos from great digital artists like Marco Bucci, Tyler Edlin, Jordan Grimmer, Walid Feghali, and more. I began to pick up tips and tricks on how to create more realistic work, how to use the digital medium to make art more quickly and efficiently.
I think in some ways it was a relief to learn a new approach, to start from scratch. It was easier for me to fail, and to keep going, because I knew I wasn’t that good at it.
Building a career as an artist can take a long time. For me, it was gradual, until I had to make a choice for myself and, ultimately, a leap of faith.
Over the course of two years, I began to sew the seeds of what would eventually become my life as a freelance creative. I started by trying to sell some prints of my work online (with little success), and picked up a few small commissions here and there. A CEO of a small publishing company went out on a limb and hired me for some cover art (and to this day, she remains one of my biggest supporters). I wasn’t making much money (and certainly not enough to support myself), but I kept at it.
Two years later, I was still working full time in the kitchen, but my skills were improving, and I was forming connections with people all across the world. This included Walid Feghali, co-founder of Evenant, an online platform for creative education, and a great artist in his own right. He provided me with some work through the company and also some guidance on how to improve my skills and develop as an artist.
In September of 2019, I realized that in order to support my career, I needed to develop habits to support my health and my workflow. I started focusing more on sleep, nutrition, and meditation. Soon a plan was in the works to quit my day job and launch myself full time into my artwork.
And then the pandemic hit.
And it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. I lost my job at the kitchen, and was forced to make some quick decisions. I had saved up a bit of money, and ran into a few strokes of good fortune along the way.
But it wasn’t all luck. I continued my habit tracking, and set goals for my business. I had to learn, fast, things my professors in college had never even mentioned—how to market yourself, how to report taxes as a one-person business, how to efficiently manage your time when you’re not getting paid for it, how to target and develop specific skills, and, most importantly, how to support one’s work with holistic self-care. I worked long hours seven days a week without pay, just to create the the infrastructure I needed to share my art sustainably.
But somehow, I’ve survived, and even thrived. And I’m getting better every day, at art, at business—at living. I’ve turned my passion into my profession, despite the odds. I’ve done commissions for album artwork, character art, custom landscapes, and book covers, including a #1 Amazon Bestseller. I’ve expanded my own creative community and started sharing my knowledge with other artists through tutorials and other resources.
And while I still have so much to learn, I also finally feel as if I had something to share, something to pass on to others who may be in darker, more difficult places than I—places I’m all too familiar with.
Whether it’s through art education, or just through creating and sharing my work itself, I want to impart to you that there is beauty and peace in every moment of life, even when the world seems dark.
It’s not “fantasy” art—it’s right here, right now, and it’s very real.
Thank you all so much for joining me on this creative journey, and I look forward to getting to know you more. Leave a comment below and ask questions, leave feedback or insights. Or feel free to reach out to me any time at email@example.com with your own story. Can you relate to this journey?
Let me know 🙂