Friday, October 28, 2011

Advice for Young Artists

The latest issue of Artistik Magazine features an interview I conducted with Kamal Siegel, who teaches at my school as well as teaching at Digipen and running his own business, Digital Double (see the previous post). Since the magazine only ran about half our interview, I present it here in its full form. I believe it's great advice for today's animation students and those considering entrepreneurship.

Interview with Kamal Siegel - May 5th 2011

Kamal answers questions about how he started his business, Digital Double and how he developed his musical style among many other interesting things about his personal journey as an artist and business person. For more about Kamal & Digital Double visit:

How do you keep motivated as an artist?
The biggest source of inspiration to me is my surroundings. I love people and nature. I love seeing the cars drive by and the buildings being built. I love watching the gardeners mowing outside and the sweet smell of freshly cut grass. I love looking at people at the coffee shop and trying to capture them in drawings. If you keep your eyes open you’ll find no shortage of inspiration.

On a more technical side, however, it’s very important for me to complete things that I start. If I don’t, those unfinished projects weigh on me like an anchor and keep me from moving forward. And while I derive some motivation from completed projects, the times I REALLY get pumped are when I’ve completed something I’m proud of. It’s rare, but when it happens, it’s very energizing. 

How did you come to run your own 3D graphics business?
There’s a story about a dream that inspired me to start the business that you can read up on
But in essence, I took it one step at a time. I learned about running a business, did the paperwork, opened a bank account, did my state and federal taxes, etc., and managed to survive while operating at a loss for the first three years. It wasn’t easy and it took an enormous amount of time, effort and sacrifice. And it still does. 

When I first started running the business I had a part-time job which helped financially. During that time I gradually grew the business from home until I eventually got laid off a year later. The feeling? Imagine a baby bird that’s never flown being booted out of its nest with two choices: Fly or die! I managed to flap my wings hard enough to crash land with some small injuries and survive. Soon after, thankfully, what was then a side business picked up enough to sustain me and my wife with a little one on the way followed by a second child and I’m happy to say that the business has been keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table for seven years now.

What are the pros and cons of entrepreneurship in this industry?
The biggest advantage of being independent is creative freedom. Much like the difference between being a captain of a ship and being a member of the crew is that the captain gets to pick the destination and the route. The crew is there to help meet that goal but often has very little to no say in that decision. That independence and responsibility is thrilling. 

The flip side of that is that if the ship ever sinks, so does the captain. The crew can escape on one of those little row boats, but the captain sinks at the helm. So it’s a huge risk you take when going into business for yourself. For example, Uncle Sam won’t be sending you an unemployment check when you lose your business- he’ll just ask you to pay your dues and wave goodbye as you sink. 

Another obvious “con” is that you are constantly looking for work. Projects come and go. Some weekly, some monthly and some that you’ve invested a lot of time and money in never even get off the ground with no check awaiting you on the other end or even a thank you. People think that running your own business will free you up, but the honest truth is, you will be consumed by it. Weekends become no different than any other weekday as you’ll be working through them just as hard as you do during the week. 

Is it difficult to survive as a small business owner in today’s economic climate?
Yes, very difficult but the economy has very little to do with it and I would say medium sized businesses struggle as well. The recession, if anything, has helped our business. The real difficulty is the unfair competitive landscape that the global market has created. There is nothing wrong with competition of course, but what has happened is the rules are different from one nation to another, making for an unfair playing field. 

We hear a lot about foreign competition threatening the livelihood of domestic 3d graphic artists. What is the best way to leverage yourself against such competition?
Keep learning! Outsmart the competition. Be lean and mean (keep your overhead low and invest in your people). Find creative new ways of doing things that allow you to crank out better quality work at a faster pace so you can keep the same rates you did before while shortening your turn around time. 

Clients are willing to pay more if you can make a case for the value added you bring to the table. And most important of all, uphold the highest standards for quality and professionalism. Be the best in your business. The industry has no tolerance for mediocrity and sloppy behavior.

With all the administrative duties of running a business, how do you still make time to develop your art skills?
It’s going to seem trivial but I made a conscious decision a long time ago to not have a TV in the house. My wife and I both agreed it was waste of time. You wouldn’t believe how much time that freed up and how surprisingly fast I was able to fill that time up with more important things to do. 

But that wasn’t enough. So I made another decision to always carry my sketchbook with me wherever I went depending on the occasion, some large, some small. This way I could draw from life or from my imagination any time. Later I invested in a laptop, specifically a tablet pc that allowed me to draw directly on the monitor. I still use it today. It’s an HP Pavillion tx 2500. The beauty of it is that the tablet technology it includes is by Wacom so it has pressure sensitivity and I can draw directly into Photoshop. So I could use it as a digital sketchbook and on top of that do a lot of my personal 3D work as well. 

Recently I decided to get an iPad for my digital sketching, which, while not pressure sensitive, made it easier to carry around and a lot more convenient. So I use it regularly to keep sketching and drawing from life. And I’ve realized pressure sensitivity is actually somewhat overrated. You can see some of my iPad paintings on

In essence, the more mobile you can make your creativity, the easier it will be for you to continue honing your skills. All it takes is a pocket sized sketchbook and turning off the TV

You are also a musician. Tell us how you came to develop your musical style.
I play the guitar, so I started with the first string and plucked at it with my index finger. As I plucked that first string with my index finger I discovered that there were certain note sequences that worked well together. I later found out that what I had discovered was called a “scale”. No joke. And it was that slow process of discovery that I used to learn how to play. 

So I’m self taught, but I learned a lot by listening to other musicians I admired and my close friends. It’s possible the style is partially influenced by growing up in Chile (where I was born and raised), and partly by the music I enjoyed listening to at the time (Michael Hedges & Will Ackerman).

In short, I literally did it one finger and string at a time and spent about an hour or two each day (seven days a week) practicing. I’ve been playing the guitar for fourteen years now and I keep discovering new things. Last year this happened to me: While playing the piano I discovered something new and I got all excited and told a friend about it: “hey check it out, if I start a piece of music at a different part of the scale, it sounds like a totally different piece of music even though it’s the same scale, and in a nonchalant kind of way he said “um… yeah, that’s called a mode, Kamal”.

Who are your heroes?
For me they are among my friends and family; my co-workers, clients and people I work for are amazing people. When I see generosity, leadership, happiness, optimism, creativity, collaboration, honesty, excellence in others, I’m inspired by them and I become an instant fan. 
People that take chances, people that go outside of their comfort zone to create something new, people that give the world their all and don’t ask for anything in return, people that follow through with their commitments; these are people I look up to and I’m thankful to be surrounded by every day. Look around you. You don’t need to read about someone in a book, or watch a movie about them to find a hero. They are among us every day. Seek them out, learn from them and be with them. It’ll rub off on you.

What would be one word of advice you’d like to share with all aspiring artists?
It’s taken me 24,485 drawings to get where I’m at today as an artist and I’ve produced thousands of 3D models and textures in the last 12 years of my career. So my advice to you is: make art and make a lot of it. You will only get better through practice. 

Don’t waste your time doing the bare minimum each time. Do the best possible work you can do. And scope your projects so that you can finish them. You’ll be really pumped when you see the cool stuff you can create and will pour that inspiration into something even cooler next time around. 

Carry a sketchbook around with you and use it. Draw, draw, draw! I’ve done 7,886 sketchbook pages, and counting. Try to catch up while you’re still in school. You have no idea how much more time you have now than you will later. Take advantage of it. Turn off your cell, turn off the TV, turn off the video games, no more parties, and tell your friends you’re too busy unless you’re getting together to collaborate on projects.

That said; (and this is very important) always remember to take a break and prioritize your time accordingly. Spend time with your significant other and your kids if you have them. Take time to be with family, even if they’re out of town. There is more to life than just work, and it’s in these areas where you will derive your inspiration so it’s extremely important for your own creativity that you take the time to enjoy all these other aspects of life. Maybe take on a sport, hobby, art or craft that’s really different. You’ll learn something from it, it will inform your work and you’ll be a better artist for it.

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