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Last year, as I was touring the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, I was introduced to another artist by a mutual friend. As we shook hands, my friend introduced this other person as an established artist. The statement was not surprising as her work was amazing, but the insinuation was that, in comparison, neither himself nor I, were in fact established.

I’m not a famous artist – I’ll give you that – but I would argue that after 20 years of being paid to do illustration, I am in fact somewhat established. It doesn’t mean I don’t have to keep hustling, because that’s a part of life. Nobody just stops and if you want proof of that just look at all your rock idols. Madonna reinvented herself for every album. It’s all part of the show.

However, there are some phrases that I consider career inhibitors. “Successful artist”, “established artist”, and “big name artist” are just a few. I don’t care for any of these terms because they’re based on perspective.

If you are measuring success by the number of likes, or twitter followers you have, then you’re probably doing a lot better than many of us who don’t pursue that sort of fame. But if your measurement is the ability to sustain a career for 20 years, being able feed your family, and continually earning your clients respect, then by rights, I would guess, you’re an established artist.

It’s difficult to start an article like this, when I know that what I’m saying is not popular with up and comers, but I thinks it’s important for all artists to evaluate their definition of success before moving too far into their career.

I have been lucky because the first influence I had about art came from somebody who almost made it as a real rock star. This person was an amazing singer, guitarist, and performer. He was self taught, honed his craft, and put together a band that was becoming a bit of a big deal in Ontario in the 60’s. He hung with other rockstars, even denying ‘The Who’ his band’s drum set, because they wanted to destroy it.

He was proud of where he was but when he finally got into serious discussions for a record deal, the rest of the band jumped ship. They had been in it for fun and now that it was getting serious they had life choices to make. He was left alone, with his guitar in his hand.

That was it. No more opportunities like that ever appeared and he slugged away for 10 more years before finally giving in and taking a sales job. This person was my dad and from the age of 3 until I was 18 I heard about the dangers of being an artist.

It didn’t stop me. I made the choice to become an illustrator and I have been successfully getting paid to make art for over 20 years. My dad was extremely talented but he made one mistake as he worked on his career. He focused on being a ‘Rock Star’ instead of being a musician.

This is an important distinction, because he was so focused on what he wanted to become, he forgot why he did it. I have asked him why he didn’t go learn music at the university or become a classical musician and the answer was, “because I wanted to be a Rock Star!” So what does that have to do with illustration and painting?

I compare concept art and fantasy art to being a Rock Star. It’s considered by many the height of the field. You get to go into the depths of your imagination and do high exposure work for major brands. If you do well, the fans will know you and talk about you, and it will be a great high. Personally, I think that if that is why you are doing it, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

Let’s compare the Rock Star to the Artist.

  • A Rockstar wants to be on the cover of D&D.
  • An Artist wants to draw dragons because they are awesome.
  • A Rockstar wants to be on the cover of Time.
  • An artist takes a commission from a small company and nails it.
  • A Rockstar wants 1000’s of adoring fans at the convention.
  • An artist is surprised by every new success.
  • A Rockstar draws like everybody else, because that will sell.
  • An artist draws the way they feel like, because deep down she knows its right. Even if nobody else realizes it yet.
  • A rockstar wants recognition from his peers.
  • An artist is both a fan of, and despises the work of his peers.


We live in a time of internet fame. We are being taught by famous people to seek fame as a form of validation. This is being used against us over and over and over again. Draw a dragon, an elf, a spaceship, a kids book, a portrait or even your favourite rock star. Make it the best damn image you can and don’t worry about your adoring fans. Don’t seek validation. Define your own success and then seek gratification.


About Michael

Michael Grills Illustration is located in Calgary Alberta Canada. The business was established in 2005 and since then I have been collaborating with design agencies, editorial, publishers, video directors, and game makers from all over the world. As well as doing art for illustration fans.