Illustrator Dwight Hoffman on Resiliency
This week I spoke with illustrator and fine artist Dwight Hoffman about resiliency and how artists can find ways to continue to pursue their art as a career when circumstances force them to switch tracks.
We spoke about belief in our art, being willing to try new things, and how ultimately if we don’t put ourselves out there, we’ll never know what we could have done.
Me: Hi Dwight, it’s really nice to meet you! I have a bunch of questions for you, and mostly they're about process and resiliency because you told me about how changes in the (architectural illustration) industry definitely impacted your career and your ability to earn money.
I'd really love to explore that, because you're not the only artist who has had this problem. It would be really great to hear advice from someone who's been through it and is working through that for other people that might be coming up on the same kind of challenges.
DH: I was an architectural illustrator. I did that for about 28 years.
(Starting) almost three years out of college, I worked briefly for a commercial interior designer that did department stores. And then from there, I worked for an illustrator who also did architectural rendering.
I worked for him briefly, but I just found that it was better for me to work on my own. I made more money. It was difficult in the beginning, but it was the smart choice. Over a period of time I built up my clientele and I didn't have to work for anyone.
(Transitioning to freelancing full-time) was a decision that I had to make because if I stayed at the firm that I was at, I was eventually going get fired – which I was! They found out I was freelancing, and they didn't want me to do that. And I wasn't going to deny myself. So, at that point, I made the decision to just see how far I could go. I always knew if I had to go back, I would go back. But it never happened, and I managed up until 2007 to work for myself. And I did extremely well towards the end.
Me: That's wonderful! Can you tell me about the difference between being a freelancer who found your own clients versus working for a company? How did that play out for you?
DH: Oh, working for a company it's hard to get paid what you're worth. A lot of times you end up doing things that have no relation to what it is you do or what you do best.
So you're constantly dealing with the distractions of having to work under someone following their rules, whereas when you're working for yourself you make your own rules. You make your own profit and you make as much as you're willing to work for. The harder you work, the better you do. But the problem as it stands today is, back then architectural rendering was hand-drawn and there was plenty of clientele. There were architects, and home builders, and developers.
There was a wealth of potential clients out there. All you had to do was find them and market yourself.
And that's what I did. After 2000 and after the recession… it was going down and I could see it coming, but I was doing a lot of conceptual illustration which kept me going past what other people were doing because I could come up with concept sketches and do architectural renderings based on minimal information.
But then the market (changed), and when the computer began to take over those services that were being farmed out. More and more people were doing it digitally.
Now, architectural firms can have their grad students or their first-year architectural students do their illustrations for them and you can use SketchUp, you can use Rivet, or you can use AutoCAD. All of these things are capable of doing 3D modeling.
And most architects, in spite of what they’d like you to believe, are not artists. They're bonafide engineers. Basically, what they're looking for is a rendition of what they created and if you can do that and you can get that to the client, a (computer program) basically does the same job.
They're not so much interested in the romance. Some of the larger firms still are, and they'll look for illustrators that can do that – but now there are digital illustrators that can do that, also. Some of the illustrators that I used to compete against went the digital route and they could afford to do it. I couldn't (afford that) after the recession.
My objective was to survive, and I didn't have time, unfortunately, to go back and get some of that schooling which would have helped.
I had to move on, unfortunately.
Me: So what are you doing now?
DH: Well, I did a lot of odd jobs. I worked for companies that did set and scenic design.
There (were) companies that worked for Disney and I did some small stuff for Disney. They weren't big companies, but they did a lot of stuff that was outsourced by Disney. I worked for a company that did El Dorado furniture which likes to model itself like Disney. They have little thoroughfares through their furniture store with themes for each department. One department would look like an Egyptian theme, and one department would look like a Swiss Alps theme. We would manufacture the sets for the furniture store, and I worked for them for a period of time.
Then I worked for a company that did large corporate events – you know, bar mitzvahs and weddings and all that stuff. But he did large corporate events as well, and he had a scenic department. I did a lot of it; I was his art department. I did all the stuff for him and eventually, when he semi-retired I got downsized. So, each place that I worked at, I worked for a period of time.
Unfortunately, circumstances caught up to (each of) those companies. They had to downsize, or they would lay people off for a period of time, and I just couldn't. I need steady work, and unfortunately, I wasn’t going to stay at a company that would lay me off at their whim. So, I had to move on.
I'm working for a company now that does yacht design and the guy is a really good guy. But you know, I'm not doing everything that I should that I would like to be doing. I'm kind of like a Jack of All Trades, Master of None.
So, I help him with whatever he needs, and I did illustration and rendering for him for a period of time. But he doesn't always need that.
Me: So if you had your choice about what you got to be doing all day what would that be instead of doing the Jack of All Trades thing?
DH: I would say I'd like to be an illustrator.
I’d like to go back. I attempted to do that, and I was in contact with an illustrator in New York because I thought, “OK, well, I've done architectural rendering and I was thinking of going into science-fiction and fantasy illustration for books and that sort of thing.” A rather prominent illustrator in New York that does science-fiction/fantasy was helping me develop my portfolio.
But again, time and circumstances caught up to me. I didn't have the income, but I still had the home and all the accouterments that went along with it. And I had to try and maintain it as best I could. You do what you have to do, and unfortunately, I couldn't pursue that because like I said in my letter – If you want to do this stuff you need three things to be successful: You need time. You need money. And you need support.
You need at least two. If you don't have at least two, you can't move ahead. And unfortunately, time was an issue, money was an issue, and I'm trying to support my family. My wife is doing her baking business and her business is moving along better than any illustration business down here or what I was trying to do, and so I had to switch gears and time caught up with me, I guess.
Me: I'm sorry to hear that, and I'm also happy for you that you've managed to find outlets where you're still able to do the illustration work even if it's not as frequent as you'd like.
DH: Yeah. It’s more occasional now.
Me: So, let's talk more about support networks because I think as an artist and a freelancer in general, having your support network is so, so important. Who is your support and how is that helping you out to get through these dry periods with your artwork and get back into it?
DH: Well, I'm working on that. I've found that the artistic community is kind of amorphous. They're scattered; they're disconnected. People don't know each other.Everyone lives in their own little world.
I joined the Watercolor Societies for a period of time, and I did a lot of watercolor fine art. But I found that the Watercolor Societies are basically elderly people who do it in their retirement, and they don't really market themselves as far as selling their artwork. They live in their own little communities. They go to shows. They do competitions, they do workshops.
But as far as if you're a person who's interested in doing more, there's not a lot of support there in those societies to kind of get you from that point to the next step.
Those shows aren't enough to make you a living as a working artist. The competitions are few and they're scattered. And at a certain point, if you want to do the bigger shows, they're more expensive. So, by the time you add up your winnings versus your costs, you might just come out a couple of hundred dollars ahead depending on how good your year is.
Me: Yeah, when you go to conventions and art shows you're happy if you've paid for your booth by the end of the weekend.
DH: Exactly. And I got a little frustrated with that because I could see that the successful artists in those areas probably do a lot of professional street shows in the major Watercolor Associations like the American or the National or the Transparent Water Color Society. And I guess in Watercolor Societies, the more merit badges you have, the greater prominence you have.
If you're an all watercolor artist who's in the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society and a couple of these big societies then you're more or less looked up to and you can do things like workshops and demos.
A lot of these big artists will go there like traveling salesmen. They go to various Watercolor Societies around the country and they'll do demos, they’ll show their work and they make their money off of workshops. They'll charge anywhere between two or three hundred dollars. They'll go to a Watercolor Society and do a demo for this society and at the same time they're there to judge a show and do a workshop, and generally, they advertise a couple of months before they show up.
So, by the time they get there they’ve got X amount of people to do a workshop at two or three hundred dollars a pop. I guess it's pretty good money, and it's a lot easier than doing street shows, but let's face it street show are a lot of work!
It's a lot of transportation that you have to have. You sometimes have to have a special booth if you’re going to get into the bigger shows. That’s a lot of work.
My wife does a lot of green markets so I know what it's like to set up, break down and work a booth all day. I would imagine some of these people get kind of tired of doing the street shows.
And they're at a certain level and they've got signature memberships in these prominent societies, so they can advertise themselves to these various Watercolor Societies around the country. I think some of them do rather well just doing these workshops.
But I didn't want to. I'm not a teacher. Really, I'm not a teacher and I don't really enjoy that. And so, I thought, well, there's really nothing more for the Watercolor Societies to offer me. I need to be a working artist. That's what I was. I was a working illustrator.
Now I want to become a working artist (again) but the problem is I have to switch genres because watercolor doesn't sell down here. It's difficult and the galleries don't accept representational art. It's mostly abstract and contemporary.
Me: Have you looked at Society of Illustrators?
DH: Yeah. But like I said when I was doing art with the fantasy and science-fiction guy, it's a process.
It takes time to build up a portfolio because you're not going to be able to just go into any book company or to people who need that sort of service. You’ve got to have a portfolio. You’ve got to market to them.
Most of those most of these major companies are up in New York, or they’re in Los Angeles. They're in the bigger cities. I'm in Fort Lauderdale. And I'm trying to compete with illustrators that have been in the business maybe 20, 30 years. I was an architectural illustrator, so by the time I get everything up to speed and then try to market long-distance – it could take five to seven (years)… maybe even longer because it's kind of difficult.
For me, it just didn't make sense. I'm 63. By the time I get up to speed, let's be honest, people see me in my 70's and still competing with guys who've been in the business for 20 or 30 years. So, I don't know if that's really going to work for me.
Me: It depends on how much time you're willing to give it. I think this comes back to your question about time, money and support.
DH: Yeah, time and money. That's the issue. I know at a certain point to do that portfolio it's going to take a lot of time, and to market it all the way up in New York or Los Angeles or where those places are that's going to take a lot of money.
Me: Well, can you talk to me about how much money you feel it takes? Because if you're able to scan your work or get it just in digital format and send it as an e-mail that shouldn't cost very much to be able to communicate with these directors.
DH: Yeah, I would think to point (that’s true), but then again, what I noticed when I was doing an architectural rendering – and I'm just going on experience, you know – they love the fact that you're right there. When I dealt with architects and developers I was in their offices. I was always there. And that's what got me the jobs.
A lot of times over illustrators that were in other parts of the country, I could come into the office, I could deal with them directly. So, I would get the job where maybe some guy from New York or Chicago or whatever wouldn't get the job because they want to see you. Now, it would be difficult for me if even if it were possible to go to New York. I'd have to have some overhead money, and I'd have to have that to support myself if the call came in and the guy said, “Hey can you come up here?”
That would be kind of difficult for me to do. I thought, it’s why you've got to be realistic, that (travel and money) could be a problem. And if I'm trying to compete with these big boys, and there's a lot of them up there, how am I going to impress these companies when they've got these (other) guys right next door who are willing to come into the office at any time?
Me: Well, I think maybe it can come down to being flexible in how you're willing to show up. So, maybe you can't physically be there, but it would be a work-around if are you willing to do a computer conference. Are you willing to shoot e-mails back and forth to modify your illustrations?
In speaking to illustrators, they're making their digital portfolio while many of them live all across the country. So they're in Chicago, they're in Vermont, they are wherever they are, and they're sending (their portfolio) to New York City or wherever they're selling their work.
I definitely feel like there’s hope there. I think it might be frustrating having to learn these new methods… It’s a lot easier to show up there in person.
DH: Right. You know, you're talking digital, and that takes time. That takes a certain amount of downtime before you can get up to speed and be able to create what I could do by hand on a computer. All of that takes time.
Me: I agree with you.
DH: Yeah, time is a limitation. So, I'm thinking, Dwight, I've got to be smart here.
You've got X amount of time, which I don't have a lot of. You know, you've got this distance factor that you have to deal with and that could be a problem.
What do I do best? I can paint, I can paint it. I don't know if you saw my portfolio, I can paint anything. All I need to do is put my mind to it and I think I can accomplish it.
So, my thought process was OK, I'm in Fort Lauderdale. Wynwood is a mile or so away, and they're very big on the arts down there. There's a lot of buzz going on. It's really turning into something really big here and painting is what I do best and I'm local. So, I can get down there vs. trying to go to New York or trying to go to Chicago.
So, I thought, OK I want to paint. I like to paint. That's what I do best. Let's stick to what we do best, let’s develop a portfolio. Let's try and get into the contemporary abstract scene and try and get enough of a portfolio together and then market that way. I think in the long term I would have better success doing that than trying to do illustration and having to do it digitally. There's a lot of obstacles and a lot more that I would have to overcome trying to do that, whereas this is what I do well. I’m centrally located, I'm actually very close (to Wynwood.) I think I would have better success sooner.
It's going to be the same amount of effort, the same amount of work, but I'm local – I'm here, I can see these people. I could do shows down there.
What I need to do is start getting known by doing street shows, by starting to understand the landscape of Miami and the people. The powers that be, where do they go? What are the right shows?
I know what to do. There are places where you can get exposure, and from that point, you establish contacts and you kind of start to know who you need to know and where you need to be.
And I think I could do that faster. Because again, time’s a limitation; I’m 63. I have to move and I've got to move ahead quickly and location is also important and this makes sense to me. So, this is the decision that I decided to make. And I'm glad. I would love to do illustration, but illustration down here is not enough to support yourself and it's really difficult unless you're going to go back into the digital things like we talked about. And again, there's a lot of downtime with that.
Me: OK, I'm going to pose a question for you. I don't know if it's possible or if it's something that you've already thought about. But you speak about really loving illustration and that you also want to get into this gallery scene and maybe take things a little bit more abstractly and get known down there. What if the thing that you get known for is that you're bringing illustration into your portfolio pieces, or into your gallery pieces? Where there's a little bit of a narrative in it versus what you're seeing in other people's work so that you can stand out?
DH: Yeah, I'm thinking about that. That's part of what I want to try and do. I've got try and come up with something different.
Me: Excellent. I say, find what makes your heart sing and paint that!
I think the audience tends to respond to what makes an artist’s heart move, because our passion’s in it. And they see that. And that's something that they want to bring into their lives and into their homes. Another thing – I think you're onto the right path understanding that (succeeding in an art career) it is who you know. I don't think that's talked about as often as it should be in the artist community, because everyone says you need to make it by yourself. And there’s this myth that it's through your own efforts alone that you succeed, and that's absolutely not true in my experience.
DH: Yeah. That’s true. The drawing, that's just 10 percent of everything. I mean, if you want to be or do anything that's just 10 percent. That's the easy part. The rest is just getting out there. And being seen. That's the hard part.
Me: I agree with you All right, let's go somewhere else for inspiration. What was one of your very favorite projects that you ever worked on and why was it awesome?
DH: Project? Well, I started doing the fantasy illustration for this guy up in New York, and I did a painting which I really enjoyed.
It's a science-fiction thing, fantasy (painting). It was knights and dragons, and I loved doing that! I’ve always been a fan of that (subject matter). I enjoyed doing the painting.
It took me a while to put it all together because I was trying to impress the guy. So obviously I had to do my homework and I really enjoyed that, and I really enjoyed the process of that, and I would love to do more of that. That was a project that I really enjoyed.
Me: Yes, it's stuff coming from your heart and new subject matter. It's not just about the environment, it's about having figures, too?
DH: There was. There was a lot of research that went into the painting which I enjoyed more than actually painting the painting. (laughter) I'm a big science-fiction/fantasy fan.
Me: Me too.
DH: : I don’t get to read as much science-fiction and fantasy as I used to.
But I'm a big fan of Frank Frazetta and some of the old illustrators – and some of the new illustrators like Gregory Manchess and the guy that did Dinotopia, James Gurney. I’m a big fan of those and I don’t want to mention the other illustrator’s name, but he's the guy that was helping me. He’s very big in the science-fiction/fantasy field and he’s done a lot of big projects. I'm a big fan of his as well. And I just love it. I love the work. I love looking at it. I buy Spectrum almost whenever I can get it.
Me: Yeah absolutely. It's exciting to see what's coming out, and it's exciting to know that we can also contribute and there's the chance that you get your work featured and that helps open some doors for you as well.
DH: And I love that they’re great for inspiration. I think they're the best artists out there right now along with the graffiti artists, the street artists.
I'm not really impressed with the abstract contemporary art community. I'll be honest with you, I find a lot of the work to be smoke and mirrors. I really don’t think they're the best artists out there by far, but that's where the money's at, I guess. So, I have to figure out a way to bring my skills into that and hopefully you know, see if I can get in.
Me: I think that you don't have to switch to a genre you dislike to see results. Sometimes it's all about having swagger. If you show up and step into your art as if that's what you do and that's what you always do, and you know what you're talking about – You might be surprised how much things move for you.
DH: Yeah. The only thing you can do is give it a shot and see where it goes. I like to believe that there's something to be said for your skill and technique and ability. I just don't see a lot of it when I go to these abstract and contemporary shows and I get very frustrated and confused because I'd look at some of this work and I can’t understand why they’re there, but they are. So, there must be something behind it. I just have to figure out what that is.
Me: I wish you luck in finding that out. I understand your frustration. There have certainly been some things that I've looked at on a wall and thought, I don't know why this is worth ten thousand dollars.
DH: Exactly, I see a lot of that. It's all in the abstract contemporary community.
I can't help but think that there's some other process; that there's a part of all this that has nothing to do with your ability or skill. That it has something to do with something else and that maybe one of these days I’ll figure out what that something else is.
Me: You know, this is one of the great questions that I think we all ponder because it can be very frustrating to people succeeding when you're not perceiving their skill level. You're not understanding how this has gotten so far and everyone's picking it up.
DH: I see that. Yeah, I can’t tell you the level of frustration when I look at that and I go, “Why am I here, and then this person is there?” What is the space between me and him?
I think really it's just got something to do with your social status, it's got to do with the people that you know, it's got something to do with the circles that you travel in, and the people that you can have conversations with.
I can't help but think that that's got a large part to do with it because I can't see the skill. I can't see the technique. I can't see anything in what it is that I'm looking at that overwhelms me or impresses me or gives me any reason to believe that I couldn't have done this in a matter of a couple of hours to the same degree.
Me: So, the question I will leave you with is, what is the belief you need to have to be able to sell stuff at that same level as these guys?
What would you need to believe about your artwork? In the way that (these abstract artists you mentioned) believe about their artwork, in order that those connections happen for them. So that when you're talking about your work you believe so much behind your final product and your process that nobody thinks that you're full of B.S., including yourself?
And this is not suggesting that you're going to go out to create work that you don't feel has skill or technique or anything behind it, right? But the missing piece is that that sense of belief that what you've created is worthy and that what you've created is absolutely awesome.
I can guarantee you that the people that are selling their ten-thousand-dollar painting that looks like they painted it in five minutes believe that. Ok, maybe it took them five minutes and maybe it took them five months. We don't know, right?
But what it comes down to is they absolutely believe that that was soul work for them. That it's worth the money, and that people will buy it.
And I think from that belief, they're able to find the gallery and find the people that are going to promote it. They're able to talk about it with that much passion behind it and so much belief that it gets other people on board. I think when you have a really strong belief in yourself or a belief in anything and you start to talk to other people about it (from that space), they jump on board with you because it's easy to come along with someone that's on a yacht happily sailing into the future.
So, I would offer that finding that belief is going to be the most important thing for you. You have to lose the doubt in your ability because clearly, you have it. I've looked at your portfolio, and you make beautiful work. The skill is there. You don't have to have any doubts about that.
The doubt that I hear from you is, where's anyone to buy it? Who wants it? It's so hard to find people who want traditional media. And I don't think that's necessarily true.
It may be true where you've been looking, but I would say, what if it's easy? I know it doesn't always feel easy and it might not be initially. But what if it could be? There have got to be places out there that are hungry for traditional work. And I know personally in my life, I'd rather have a real painting than a print.
I would I would say, whenever you get in front of a piece of artwork that is charging ten thousand dollars and it's a sky blue canvas with a white line or something like that which irritates you, you say, “All right, I'm not going to hate on this person, and I'm not going to get frustrated. I'm actually going to say, you know what? Bless you, guy. You're gonna make ten thousand dollars today, and I'm really happy for you and I want to make that money too!”
And I would hope that stepping into that feeling helps you bring more of that into your life.
DH: I really do believe that. I have faith in my work. And I have faith in the possibilities. I don't have a lot of faith in people and that I think probably is a problem of mine. I have got to get more. I'm not a person who goes around (spontaneously talking to people or making phone calls). I'm trying to teach myself to be a little bit more social because I'm really not. I just don't have the time. I'm basically doing everything I can to help my family. That's my number one priority.
I've worked out a plan that I think might help me get started. I'll have to start small because I'm not going to be able to do the big shows. But there are small shows to do, and I'll have to do their price point and try to put it at a level where I think I'll at least make sales, because if I can at least earn some income then I've got some options, and I can maybe do a little bit more.
There are a lot of painters in the world, but painters are painters. Artists make a living. I don't want to be a painter. I want to be an artist.
And you have to start somewhere. So I’m going to do the small shows. I have to get out there. I have to talk to people. I have to kind of figure out what people are interested in and what they really want to buy. And the only way you can do that, and it's the same thing that happened with my wife – she kept trying to do things a certain way.
I said “The only person that's really going to sell yourself is yourself. Until you get out there in public and start selling your stuff, you know you're always going to run into these problems.” And she did, and she's doing well and she's moving ahead.
Now I have to take my own advice. I have to do the same thing. So, I added some stuff together, small stuff. I'll start out with small shows. We'll see where it goes. I’ve got to get in front of people and start talking to them. Start figuring out what it is that they like. If I can sell it and bring in some income, then I'll move to the next step. And that's how we do the next step from there.
Me: Yes, starting at the bottom of the ladder. Start where you are, and do what you can with what you have. And I think you'll start climbing faster than you think.
Just keep that focus ahead. Keep it joyful! You have a lot of hope ahead of you.
DH: Yeah. I want to get back to it. I mean I enjoy painting and I've always enjoyed painting and that's what I would really prefer to do if I have my way. And I'm going to try and see what I can do to make that happen. I mean, you've got to! I don't have a problem giving things up if I gave it my best shot. If that's the way it is, that's the way it is. There are other things I can do. It’ll be hard, and it’ll be disappointing if that turns out to be the case, but I don't think it will.
Me:I don’t think it will, either. Because the more you show up the more you have the opportunity to have things come back.
DH: Exactly. Yeah. I just got to get out there and shake the bushes and see what happens. Taking charge of our direction when our career has gone off track takes a lot of determination, resiliency, and action. Without shaking some bushes, we may never find the place where we fit and can thrive.
Have you ever experienced a career setback, found yourself outmoded by technology, or simply felt the time had come to switch tracks?
What helped you cope with your situation and get you back on the road of success?
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