How I Became an Artist
Published on April 7, 2022 by Noah Bradley
The 19 year journey of my art thus far.
I am extraordinarily blessed to do what I love for a living. Somehow in the last couple decades I’ve turned a hobby into a profession and then into a lifestyle. I thought that some aspiring artists out there might be encouraged to see the road that someone else has taken.
It’s been a hell of a journey to get where I am today and there have been some brutal bumps along the way, but I love the life I’ve been given. I hope you get a kick out of seeing how it’s gone so far.
Note: this article was originally published 7 years ago on Medium and this is an updated version. It turns out that a lot can happen in 7 more years, some very good and some very bad. Maybe I’ll update this in another 7 years.
2003–2006 (14–17~ years old)
I didn’t want to be an artist.
I wanted to make video games. I was a nerd. I took programming classes at the local community college when I was 14. I made art (and always had), but only as a hobby.
Most of my artistic interests at the time were in making pixel art — primarily because I could use it in the games I was making.
I also found the ConceptArt.org forums (they have, notably, since taken a nosedive — but that’s a story for internet-drama history). This was in the forum’s heyday when a slew of amazing concept artists and illustrators were active on there. I constantly browsed and sometimes posted. It was a goldmine of information, inspiration, and sharing. It was where I discovered that there were people out there who got to paint beautiful, amazing things and made a living from it.
I took some drawing classes at the local community college, alongside a few programming, graphic design, and general ed courses. I also had my introduction to painting there.
2006–2011 (18–23~ years old)
In 2006, shortly before my 18th birthday, I had a pivotal week. With typical teenage audacity, I decided to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
Within a week.
I spent the week writing lists. Pros/cons. Writing about what I wanted in life. Sitting around thinking. Taking walks in the woods.
And eventually came down to a few distinct choices:
- Programmer. I could make games for a living. I wasn’t a prodigy, but I was a fairly adept programmer for my age. I had made some games and I had a lot of fun doing it.
- Graphic designer. I took design classes at the community college as well and had picked it up extremely quickly. I had even freelanced a little, though I always hated working for clients and taking feedback from them.
- Carpenter. My dad builds houses for a living, and it was always an option (and, I suppose, still is if this art thing doesn’t work out for me) for me to take over the company.
I decided to become an artist not because that’s what would make me the most money, or what I was most “talented” at, or even what I necessarily always enjoyed the most. It was simply something that, in my gut, I just knew was the right choice. Without anything better to go on, that’s what I relied on. In hindsight, I think I could have been happy with any of these choices. I think they were all good paths and each could have brought me a lot of fulfillment. Sometimes I wish I had the opportunity to replay life with these other options. But art’s the one I picked.
From this moment, the fear began. I spent every day of the next decade or so, with some variance, utterly terrified of failing. Of not being good enough. Not making enough money to support myself. Being a horrible, embarrassing failure. And while I would have a healthy dose of failure later in my career, at the time I saw any failure as the worst possible fate I could meet.
So it was this fear that propelled me to improve. I don’t think fear is necessarily the best motivator, but it’s the one I had.
My first decision was where to go to art school. Incidentally, no one had told me not to go to art school, so I started researching schools. I figured if I was going to do this whole art thing, I wanted to do it right. So I looked up rankings and decided the Rhode Island School of Design was where I wanted to go. It seemed mighty prestigious and like I could learn to make some damn good art there.
I got in. Barely.
I was wait-listed. But eventually got the call that I had been accepted. Unfortunately, it included no scholarships at all. The entirety of the approximate $35k tuition would rest on my shoulders (not to mention living expenses). This was a financially tough time for my family, so every dime would come entirely from loans.
I wrestled with the choice as long as I possibly could.
And decided not to go. I would, instead, reapply the next year after working on my craft and improving my portfolio in hopes of receiving a scholarship.
The first thing I did was sign up for a class at nearby University of Virginia to take figure drawing. I had never done any figure drawing and felt that lacking in my application.
I also began taking private lessons with a local portrait painter I was luckily introduced to, Henry Wingate. He was trained classically and taught me some of these methods of slow observational drawing.
A year passed and it was time to reapply to RISD. I did a fresh set of their required application drawings and sent in a portfolio of new work.
I still remember the day I got the letter from RISD. It was a big envelope. I think I confused the mailman with how enthusiastic I was.
I had gotten in with a $20k/year scholarship.
The following months I would scramble to secure the student loans in order to pay the remainder of the costs. My parent’s financial situation, thanks to the housing crisis, was still bleak. So as much as they would have loved to have helped, it was on me (and the good people at JPMorgan Chase).
I made it to RISD. And then I worked. I mean worked. To RISD’s credit, they are effective at making their students work hard. My classmates and I put in insane hours working on our craft. If it takes ten thousand hours, then I was getting there as quickly as I could. Art consumed nearly every hour of every day. When I wasn’t in class, I was probably working on homework, drawing in my sketchbook, or strolling through their art museum.
The academic year came to a close. I had made friends and did more art than I should fit in this post. But the financial realities of staying for another two years until graduation were coming to the forefront. Tuition was rising and my scholarship was not. To stay would mean ending up with over $100k in debt. I really wanted to be an artist but I was terrified of being saddled with such a daunting load of debt.
So I left.
I transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University. I had grown up in VA and still lived with my parents there, so I was able to get in-state tuition. The school accepted me before I even officially applied. VCU didn’t have the prestige that RISD had, but I would be able to get a degree and continue my study of art.
During this summer before I went to VCU, something extraordinary happened. I had spent the entirety of my artistic life avoiding landscape art of any kind. I found it painfully boring. I would even go to a museum and walk straight past all of the Hudson River School painters. I wanted to see the epic narrative paintings or the incredible portrait paintings. Not dumb ol’ landscapes.
But this summer I actually walked outside with my paints. I did the first plein air work of my life. And I loved it. Every minute of it. The heat, the glare of light, the wind blowing my paper around and bugs flying into my paint. Everything about it just felt… right. I had grown up in the woods of Virginia and it felt like a dream come true to get to create art and experience nature at the same time.
So with this fresh outlook on what sort of art I thought I should make, I went to Richmond to attend VCU. I made a new group of friends. We were all assigned to fill sketchbooks. While I had always had sketchbooks and filled them up from time to time, VCU seemed obsessed with them. Our professors made sure we were constantly working in them, often grading us largely based on the number of pages filled.
Let me take this opportunity to admit: I am not a very good draftsman. I’ve always felt more comfortable painting than drawing. And despite filling a sketchbook or two mostly with line drawings, that didn’t improve all that much. So I started painting in them. I knew I could fill a page a lot faster with a brush than a pencil.
Besides drawing my friends, sometimes family, and often strangers, I filled up my sketchbooks with studies of landscapes (from life, the masters, and photos). I knew if I wanted to make good landscapes, I needed to study them a lot.
But still, as any good art student does, I continued to work on my figurative skills. But during this time I noticed an odd sort of trend. People said much nicer things about my landscapes than my figures. Particularly odd considering less than a year prior I had been adamantly opposed to doing landscapes at all.
But the work I was putting in wasn’t enough. I knew that even though I was learning and improving, I needed to work on stuff that my classes weren’t covering. I needed to pursue the work I wanted to be paid to do. So in my evenings, after I was done with classes and homework — VCU, thankfully, had a considerably lighter homework load than RISD — I would do imaginative sketches of landscapes. Ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours, you might have even called them “speed paintings” back in the day. They were tools for me to learn how to develop an entire scene, color palette, and mood in a very short amount of time.
This was one of the most important exercises I have ever done. This is where I took the years of study and began really applying them. The skills I began to develop in these have been immensely helpful for my work in the years since.
People responded positively to them. I was finding something that worked for me. I even had fun doing it. But I knew that I had to do more if I was going to get paid to do this. Everything I did was unfinished and that’s not usually what people are hired to do. I had to finish some of these.
I am an obnoxiously impatient person and I had a hard time working on a piece to completion. I would get sick of something and just want to move on to the next piece. Which is often what I did. So I was sitting on a pile of unfinished work and my junior year was coming to a close.
I buckled down and forced myself to finish just one piece.
I had done it. And I was proud. I had produced a piece that, despite all of the flaws I now see in it (and they are many), was at a fairly professional level. The lighting is pretty good, the composition is solid, the space and atmosphere is believable, and I had forced myself to take enough time that most things are decently rendered, at least for my standards at the time. If you don’t look too closely, the piece stands up pretty well.
During the remainder of the spring semester and into the summer, I worked on finishing my first portfolio of work in hopes of perhaps landing some client work.
This is the point when everything tipped.
I had spent all of these years working to acquire a base of skills in art and at this point, I had done just that. I was far from being perfect, but I knew I had attained a professional level. And all before my senior year in school.
It felt amazing.
2010–2015 (22-27~ years old)
During September of my senior year I took a day or two off of classes to drive up to middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania for Illuxcon, a fairly new convention for fantasy & science fiction illustrators. I had gone the year before and walked around, talked to a few people, and come away profoundly inspired by the amazing work I had seen there. I even showed my work to a few artists and got some much-needed feedback. It had been my goal to come back, get a table at their showcase event, and impress everyone. That was my mission.
And to some degree, I think I succeeded.
I came back with the portfolio you saw above and I did make a splash (giving away hundreds of free prints didn’t hurt). I went from entirely unknown to someone worth noticing. And the art directors noticed too. It was wonderful and exhilarating and I’ll never forget the pure joy of that night, showing off my work and chatting with some of my artistic heroes.
All of this work and networking led to my first jobs. There’s a little overlapping of timelines here, because the work started rolling in during the summer before my senior year and kept up all through graduation. So I was somewhere between student and professional for about a year there.
Working professionally felt incredible. I was working hard to do both class work and professional work. The constant need to churn out finished work was a lesson in efficiency and productivity. I didn’t want to drop the ball as soon as I had “made it.” Despite all of this, I didn’t want to stay working at this level. Most of the jobs paid terribly and I knew I couldn’t live on those rates. I had my sights set higher, on more prestigious and well paying jobs.
I wanted Dungeons & Dragons.
I had met with the art director, Jon Schindehette, at Illuxcon and received a very positive review. So I was hoping and waiting for the call. And one night, on the way out to dinner with some friends, I got the email. Jon wanted to give me some work.
Three commissions, in fact. The biggest one being a cover piece for their online magazine. Wow. The brief was still titled, “Sam Burley.pdf”, after the name of a fellow illustrator who I suppose was originally intended to do this piece. I did not mind in the slightest being the second tier artist.
The success with that piece and others led me on to being a consistent artist for D&D for the years to follow.
And still, during this time, I forced myself to continue producing personal pieces. Just for myself, my portfolio, and my own satisfaction. Professional work is always limited by the constraints of the project and the deadlines that come with it. But personal work? Complete freedom! Freedom to explore whatever subjects & themes I liked and to spend as much time as I needed to make them as good as I could.
This last piece is very important for me. Hope of Glory is the piece I used as the cover of a postcard mailer I made for one of my classes during my senior year (I did, reluctantly, still do my homework). Among the many art directors I sent it to was the art director of Magic: The Gathering, Jeremy Jarvis, with a quick “Would love to work with you sometime!” scrawled on the back. Magic was and remains one of the most coveted jobs for fantasy artists everywhere. They pay well, have a huge fan base, and only hire very good artists. Plus it’s pretty fun.
And a month after graduation I got an email from him. I was sitting at a stoplight when it came in and I’m not ashamed to admit that I lost it a bit.
It was an amazing road working with Wizards. They were with me for most of my professional career and constantly challenged me while giving me room to grow. I worked for them for nearly 10 years before being fired. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Soon after graduation, I moved back in with my parents. I was doing well enough with freelance work that I could have made it on my own. But I had $40k in student loans that were weighing me down. So I humbled myself and moved back home. I know how fortunate I was to have a comfortable home to live in while getting my career off the ground. The early days of any career are often pretty hard and I’ll always be thankful for my parents for all of the support they gave me.
I spent the following year working. A lot. Harder than I had ever worked before. Taking on as much work as I possibly could and pushing my skills to be the best they could be. Somehow, some way, by some miracle, I paid off my loans in precisely one year, one month, and one day after graduation. Just past my (insane) goal of paying them off within a year.
Some of the most ground-breaking improvements in my art at the time are in these two personal pieces:
Around that time I started getting annoyed. I got annoyed with how students are taught and with how art schools take advantage of eager young art students. I saw too many of my peers taken advantage of. They charge tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and give too little in return.
So for one thing, I wrote that angry rant that a few of you might have read. It pissed off a few people but it has helped a lot of artists over the years find alternate routes to pursue their dreams. I’m pretty proud of that.
In 2013, I started Art Camp. It was designed to be a summer program that ran for 12 weeks and would teach students the very basic, fundamental exercises they should use to improve their work. They’re all of the exercises I had spent the last several years doing. I had seen so many students who were motivated but utterly confused as to how to improve. So I put together a little program to guide people through the process. And it blew up.
Like, a lot. I set out to get just 25 students to sign up. I ended up with hundreds.
Art Camp has grown and evolved in the years since and I’m honored to have helped thousands of artists pursue their own journey in art.
At the heart of my work has always been my personal work. And so in 2013 I finally told everyone that these pieces were part of a cohesive world that I call The Sin of Man. It’s a primal, fantastical world full of strange magic, weird creatures, and mysterious gods. I don’t know where this road will lead me, but I love making the work. There’s still no end in sight and sometimes I feel guilty about that. But I’m in no rush to stop creating this work. It’s a world that I love spending time in.
I was traveling the world, creating art for a world of my own design, and helping aspiring artists make better work. I can barely begin to express just how lucky I felt to have the life I did. I may have worked at it, but it’s hard to feel deserving of so much.
This is the point in my story where this article ended before. But as with all good stories, things had to get worse for a while before they got better.
2015–2020 (27–32~ years old)
This was an odd time in my life. I had some of the best moments of my life and some of the worst. I created some of the best art I had ever made but also felt stagnant and burned out. I suppose this was my coming of age moment. I had a lot of lessons to learn and life conspired to make sure I did.
Behind the facade of social media bliss, I was increasingly unhappy. I was the most stressed, anxious, and generally unhappy that I had ever been. I struggled to address the issues causing it and instead tried to cover over the problems by throwing myself more into my work. It helped, but it didn’t solve the underlying issues.
I continued my pursuit of teaching and put together Art Camp 3: Landscapes where I taught everything I had learned about landscape painting. I’ve never been satisfied with the approach that other instructors take with landscape painting and wanted to take a swing at it myself. I’m proud of the result. I think it’s the best course I’ve ever put together.
Soon after that course finished, I went into hiding.
My rosy picture on social media did not fully nor accurately portray what was going on behind the scenes. I had reached a slump. You might call it burnout, even. I lost a lot of the joy in my art. I contemplated a career change. I wanted to get away from things and find a new direction. I left social media.
Right at the brink, when I considered giving up my career and going into hiding, there she was.
I met a girl when I was passing through London. We had a single date and I wondered if I’d ever see her again. Life was kind to me and I did see her again a couple months later in Costa Rica. We fell hopelessly in love. We were engaged less than a year later.
I had never been happier.
I had the best years of my life with the best woman in the world. I made the best work of my career and felt hopeful about the future again. Things were really damn good.
We started 2018 by traveling. I proposed to Rachel on a beach in Bali and we came back to America, married, and continued building the life we both always wanted.
I managed to dig myself out of the mental pit I had occupied for a while. I had found my love of art again, thanks to her. I even got back on social media, which was probably a mistake. But things were looking up and our presence was growing online. It was fun to give people a little glimpse into our blissful marriage & partnership which we called Team Bradley. We even made hats.
As 2019 began, we started a business together: Reference.Pictures. What began as a little side project became our primary focus and income by the time 2020 rolled around. We had a blast dressing up and shooting pictures together and building a successful online business.
2020 was a hard year for a lot of people. But 2020 hit me personally in a way I had never expected. 2020 was the year that my life and career irreversibly changed.
I was cancelled on June 21, 2020 and nearly everything I had spent the past 17 years working towards evaporated. All freelance work dried up, my income from my online businesses was decimated, and I was shunned from nearly every social circle I was in. I’m not proud of the things I did which led to this. It’s embarrassing as hell and I’m sure plenty of people will think I got exactly what I deserved. I absolutely understand why people feel that way and I’m not here to convince you otherwise. I’m just here to tell my story.
2020–20XX (32+ years old)
I had to find a life after my catastrophe. Everything that I had staked my income and self-worth on was gone. Any respect I had earned was gone. I had to rebuild. I didn’t lose everything and for that I am still grateful. I see the blessings I still had. People still supported me and wanted to see me heal. The mob was huge and angry and scary, but I couldn’t let them dictate my future.
Amidst the death threats, the loss of work, and the harassment of my wife, it felt like carrying on was impossible. Like something I was not entitled to. Like it would only make things worse. But this all happened because I’d wanted to be better, because I believed in taking accountability and doing the hard work to create positive change. I wouldn’t let fear stop me from using what I still had to help and inspire others.
But first I had to heal. So for a while, I didn’t do any art. It was the longest I had gone without drawing in probably 20 years. When I finally did return, I fought back tears as I drew those first lines. Art was tied to a lot of pain now. But art was how I had dealt with strong emotions in my past and I thought that I could find healing in making art again.
I had spent the last ten years focused heavily on painting landscapes. They had some figures in them from time to time, but everyone had known me as a landscape painter. I wouldn’t say I resented that label, but I did feel bad that I couldn’t paint figures as well as I wanted to. So I set about fixing that. What better time?
So I became a student again. I’ve always loved learning and it was incredibly gratifying to return to that. I drew and painted every day. In many ways, 2021 became one of the most productive years of my life. I only completed a handful of “finished” paintings but I did hundreds upon hundreds of studies. I learned more about figure drawing and painting than I had in the previous ten years combined.
My wife, Rachel, is also an incredible artist. But before we got together she hadn’t had the opportunity to pursue art full time. So getting to witness and participate in her education and growth over the past 5 years was inspiring. Seeing her studying always makes me want to study. She has also been the most perfect source of encouragement and critique. She’s always applied the correct shove to get me and my work headed in a better direction.
I was afraid for a long time that I could never have a successful online business again after my scandal. I feared that without the backing of those who had turned against me, anything I did would be squashed, ignored, or attacked. So in an effort to face these fears and to heal, I challenged myself to release a new reference pack on Reference.Pictures every single week in 2021. This is far more than we had been doing before but I wanted to see if I could do it.
Now I’m getting back to finishing paintings, using some of the new skills I’ve developed. It’s helped me make more of the work that I want to make without feeling embarrassed by the quality of the figure painting. I still have more that I need to learn, though, so I’m still studying when I can. The road of learning never ends.
I’m not sure where things will go from here. At the time of this writing, I’m nearly two years away from the cancellation and things are good for me. I love making art and I love the life I have. I have become, in a strange sort of way, grateful for everything that’s happened. I’ve lost a lot but I value what I have even more.
I don’t know the best way to end this article. And maybe that’s as it should be. Too many people try to impart wisdom and forget about their own survivorship bias. Aside from some obvious suggestions (e.g., try not to blow up your career), I feel like the original ending to this article still works, so I’ll leave you with that:
I hope that, in some small way, this post serves to encourage fellow artists on their journey. It can take a long time and seem hopeless. It can be exhausting, discouraging, even depressing. But if you stay at it, someday you will make it past those obstacles.
Because if you just keep going, eventually you’ll find yourself somewhere.