your value in art by bobby chiu

Should I Be a Specialist Artist? A Response to "Your Value in Art" by Bobby Chiu

I came across a video by Bobby Chiu entitled "Your Value in Art" and my curiosity was piqued. Being the even-keel, zen-like soul that Bobby Chiu is, he didn't place a value judgement on whether one should be a generalist or a specialist artist, but (perhaps because I'm less even-keeled) I definitively believe that a long-term career favors the specialist artist.


Watch Your Value in Art by Bobby Chiu


Watch Should I Be a Specialist Artist Response Video


First, it would be helpful to establish a definition of both generalist and specialist artists. A generalist artist dabbles in any number of genres, styles, or niches of art making. A "jobbing artist" that goes from project-to-project, competing with several other well-qualified creatives to do so, perhaps a toy design one week, storyboards the next, and then a couple of weeks illustrating a book cover. A specialist artist narrows-in on one artistic field, medium, or overall aesthetic and produces work in that vein. The specialist artist is often brought into a project because they were one of a short-list of candidates who could properly envision the project, whether that's designing characters for film or television or creating work for print media.

While artists can make a living as a generalist, a generalist artist is a commodity, like a bottle of orange juice you'd buy at the local supermarket, easily replaced (and in the times we live in, easily outsourced if communication barriers are minimized). When their skill set is in alignment with what's desirable in the creative market place, a specialist artist is actively sought-out for the specific thing they do and therefore has a much easier time standing-out among a field of generalist artists.

If two artists were competing for the same job to design environmental concepts for a video game studio, who's most likely to get the job? The artist with the portfolio of character, vehicles, weapons, and environment concepts or the artist with the same number of pieces in their portfolio, but every single piece of the portfolio shows that they want to do the job their trying to get hired for, each piece shows a game environment concept? I don't know about you, but I'd say the smart money's on the second candidate, the specialist.

There's also the level of niche-ism that surrounds us today- an artist that may not have gained support through the conventional route of publishers can now go directly to the public if they're willing to become savvy marketers of their work. Services like Kickstarter, Patreon, YouTube, Instagram, and the like give artists a multitude of platforms to try and connect with an audience. Add to this that in most countries, there's fan conventions for any kind of niche you could imagine- everything from fantasy/sci-fi, to comic books, to My Little Pony, to... furries.

But isn't there a danger of being too specialized? Frankly, there's risk in any field one could choose to invest decades in that the market could shift and the only thing one can do is shift with it or perish. Commercial airbrush artists were in demand from the 60's through the 80's, but once the art market shifted, many of them either had to pivot their artistic skills to another medium or no longer work in the creative field.

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