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7 things Ive learned as a comic book creator | The Art of Will Terrell


7 things Ive learned as a comic book creator

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The other day I wrote about this being my 15th anniversary as a comic book artist and posted THESE pages from my very first comic book for San Diego Comic Con in 1997. I wanted to follow that up by taking the opportunity to talk about a few things I’ve learned over the years as a comic book artist.  Hopefully what I’ve learned can be of value to you. Here is a list of 7 things I’ve learned in my time as an artist…

1. Mistakes are what Experience looks like

I don’t know where I heard it first, but I knew from the very beginning that you have to do a lot of bad work in order to get to the good stuff. So I made the decision early on to make my mistakes as fast as possible in order to get to the other side of experience. What I didn’t know at the time, was that you can make all sorts of mistakes that you don’t even know are possible. Trusting the wrong people, jumping before you look, focusing on the wrong goals, etc… The challenge is to focus on the opportunities in those mistakes, instead of the frustrations. In every adversity is the seed of opportunity, if you choose to look for it.

2. What you want, isn’t always what you want

Figuring out what you really want is the hardest thing for most of us. Sometimes we want a goal ‘because we want it’. But that’s not a good enough reason. Knowing WHY you want something is the fuel that keeps you going when everything gets to be hard. Its not all that difficult to get paid to be an artist. Once you get to a certain level, its not even all that hard to do art for a living. But what kind of art do you really want to get paid to do? Why do you want to do it? Can you get that satisfaction from doing something else? I’ve walked through many doors in my career that I only dreamed about before, only to realize it wasn’t what I had a passion to do. Drilling down deep into what you’re excited to do for a living is the key to having a long and successful career. Knowing what you really want also allows you to let go of the ‘good’ opportunities that won’t necessarily lead you to where you want to go.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future´s sakes.
—Robert Frost,

3. Passion matters more than talent

Talent goes a very long way, don’t get me wrong, but in the long run, talent will go to rot if you don’t have the passion to do something with it. I’ve known many talented artists over the years that allowed themselves to be drowned in excuses, distractions and insecurities; rather than use their talent to its fullest potential. Its not that they didn’t want to use their talent, just that the fire inside wasn’t there for it. While at the same time I’ve seen creators with very little talent, grow and surpass others just by doing the thing that they love, day after day. Then there are those rare magical creatures, that possess both the passion to follow their dreams, and the talent to make it look awesome. If you want something badly enough, you’ll do it no matter what. Eventually the talent will catch up.

4. If you’re not afraid, you’re not trying

Fear is good. It lets you know that something is happening. I’ve had to learn that if I’m not at least a little afraid about a decision, then I’m probably not invested in it. The only times I’m really knocked on my butt by a situation, is when I think I have it all figured out. Fear keeps you on your toes, and keeps you thinking. The challenge is to not let fear make your decisions for you. Fear should not keep you from taking chances. Fear is supposed to be an alarm, to snap us out of comfort, and heighten our awareness to survive. But when we allow fear to decide for us, thats when we lose control of our lives.

5. Find mentors

I wish it were easier to find people to give us the answers we need. We often don’t realize how blessed we are by certain people and we take them for granted until its too late. But when we do find mentors, they have the power to change our lives. I’ve been fortunate to find a few amazing mentors in my career – Artists, Teachers, Businessmen – who were generous with their time. They gave attention, answers and hope to a young artist desperate to learn. Most people can tell you when you’re doing something wrong. But very few can tell you why. Even fewer can tell you how to get better. Then there are those rare ones that can seemingly reach into your mind and remove the roadblocks that you didn’t even know were there. If you find these teachers – do everything you can to learn from them. Be respectful of their time, be grateful for those moments, and for God’s sake don’t take them for granted. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll be working along side them.

6. Fall in love with the Process, not the Results

One thing I wish I’d learned sooner is to make comics to entertain myself. I fell into making comics after high school, and from the very beginning I had the goal that someday I’d make a living doing it. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually LOVE making comics. I loved the idea of it. I loved inventing worlds, I loved sharing my worlds with other people. But I didn’t actually know how to draw, or how to tell a story. By the time I finally developed the skills to do comics professionally, I’d lost my reason for doing it, and it took me a long time to get that back. The truth is, the best way to learn is by having fun doing it. If you can fall in love with doing the thing you want to do (instead of the idea of doing it) your skills and opportunity will grow exponentially. Let go of your expectations. Enjoy the moment of creation. The results will work themselves out eventually.

7. There is no finish line

Following your dreams is serious business. The more we risk to follow them, the more conveniences we leave behind. There is an easier way to live, but it is not as satisfying. For those that follow the path of dreams, there are many disappointments and heart breaks, but also incredible highs and great adventures. Along the way you might lose sight of why you do this, or perhaps lose the youthful enthusiasm you had when you started out. But just remember to have fun. There is no finish line to doing what you love. Its not a race – its a way of living. When things get hard – when you’re stressed about whether something will work or not – when the challenges are daunting – just remember… these are the good old days. Someday these struggles will be your fondest memories. Back when you were figuring it all out. Back when you were overcoming your biggest hurdles. Back when nobody thought you could do it. Right now you are living the life you’ve always wanted to live. So live it well.

Are any of these lessons you’ve had to learn? Are they things you’re dealing with now? Leave me a comment!

8 Responses to 7 things Ive learned as a comic book creator

  1. Sarazann says:

    I’m still learning to fall in love with the process. The computer work gets me every time. I’ve got at least 20 books ready to be put into photoshop and organized into a book and posted online and printed out. They never seem to make it that far. I love to draw the pages, outline the panels and write the stories, but as far as putting the actual book together, I loath the process. Maybe it’s because I don’t have all the fancy gadgets most real comic artists do, but that seems like a cop out to me. I have everything I need to create the book, I just really am not interested in moving pixels around and signing into websites and posting, making sure of all the little details, like size and bandwidth. Managing websites is just so very tedious to me. I can’t even manage a well updated Facebook let alone a web comic. Crap thing is for my level of drawing (which is by far amateur) the web is a place I could really thrive and grow as an artist, seemingly the place that makes most sense for me to be involved in. Especially because I don’t do mainstream comics, you will never see a super hero in spandex gracing one of my covers. I’ve even tried to pay people to do the computer composition for me and can’t find anyone that can stick with it. But, in spite of all the stick in the mud feelings I have about working on my computer, I’m still cranking out stories and pages. They mostly just sit in a folder, but one of these days I’ll get my head together and get them into book form. I read a quote the other day “No matter how slow you are walking toward your dreams you are still moving faster than those on the couch.” Reading that alleviated some of the guilt I have for not completing all these books I have.

    I have to say knowing why you are following your dream is essential. I knew why I loved making comics the day I finished my first one five years ago at the 24 Hour Comic Jam. It didn’t matter to me that it was pages filled with crazy stories about a lime with teeth, or that all of the characters were plain black stick figures, and I had no idea how to put a panel together(and still don’t). All that mattered right then and holds fascinatingly true today is that this little comic was the only way in this vast world that I could put all of my ideas and creativity out there. Comics are the only thing I have ever found that can contain every single idea I have, and I have A LOT. I’ve tried ceramics, poetry, novels, Live Action gaming, ruining myself trying to find one medium that can contain all these thoughts I have. The wonderful thing is I can write a comic about absolutely anything. I can put anything I’ve ever wanted to see or hear or say to anyone in my comics. For me, this is the best therapy and catalyst I’ve come across. Comics are a like some holy grail of creativity and story. I just love them deeply, like a pet or a big bank account. It would break my heart if for some crazy reason I couldn’t do my comics. I’ve even made contingency plans in case I get into an accident and lose my hands or ability to see. Still working on a plan for if I lose my mind or get Alzheimer, but that one’s more complicated.I learned something so fundamental about myself 5 years ago that it amazes me I was 28 years into being me and hadn’t realized it and no one had told me. I am an artist, and I love to draw comics – Why? Because they let me be me in every single facet of myself I can possibly imagine. Simple sweet and wonderful. Maybe someday I can add – and I love to photoshop to that sentence, but not right now, I guess.

    I had more to say about that than I thought. Nice to have a place to say it. Thanks Will, I’ll never forget that 2008 24 Hour Comic Jam. Never.

  2. Rachael says:

    I wish I could have learned and really understood numbers 2 and 7 a year or two ago. I’m finally starting to enjoy the process again and I feel like I’ve found my reasons to draw once again. 🙂 Thanks for all of the advice, Will! It always helps to read what others have learned in this business.

    Hope you’re doing well, Buddy!


  3. Isis Marques says:

    Hi, Will!
    I found your work thanks to a video on youtube and I couln’t be more pleased with the artist you are! The way you talk about your sketches, so in love,as if you was talking about people you have been knowing for years…How much life in that pages…Thanks so much for sharing them!

    Then I came to your blog and how happy i am to see that you can also translate your feelings with the same sensbility writtiing! I read a couple of posts and hope I’ll have time tomorrow to read everything.

    I’m in that moment that you need to put together a portfolio, you know? Last time I did it was 2008 and I didn’t have anything good, but I was so happy with what I could do and with the idea of making a living with it. Now I’m so afraid of what the other people will think, so afraid to don’t be good enough…I just changed country, and I had a very humble basic education in Brazil (I was just starting a formal education in design), is scarying to me to be now disputing the same job posts as young french people that studyied in the best schools of Paris…I really feel very, very, veeery small!

    But your works gave me a bit of light, an inspiration to carry on…Let’s see what will happen…=)

    Many thanks and hope to see more of your sketchbooks soon!

  4. admin says:

    It sounds like you are on a most wonderful adventure! I am jealous! I would much rather be surrounded by amazing artists that I can learn from and hope to aspire to, than to be the best artist, and not feeling challenged by my own opportunities. Don’t be afraid of what others will think. Be inspired by everything you will learn each day from them. People love to help others. They love it even more when they can see the inspiration in your eyes and in your enthusiasm. Be excited! Keep smiling!

    Thank you for your message!

  5. gaes1k says:

    I’m from Belarus. Please, sorry for my dread english…
    I very strucked Yours sketching. My shaffelling on the waves of internet in searching of good lessons drawwing good style was stoped to some weeks in Yours videos. Thank You. Yours good words is warm the feeling about this. I’m drawwing only 2 years… I very like it. My job 8 hours day (i don’t like it). And drawwing 5 hours. I hope to be present artist.
    workhard is good).
    It’s some hard to translate).
    Be happy).
    Сome to visit, If it is possible!

  6. J'Von Cox says:

    I am greatly inspired by your work and your words. Your work has obviously matured with you.
    I have always wanted to be an artist and comic books and animation drew me in. I have some natural skill and some drive but I let stuff and circumstances distract me from art for a long time. Your words here ring true for so much of my experiences. I decided recently to dive back in to my art. My children have encouraged me. I seem to be finding inspiration for life in general. I may never make a living as an artist but I do feel it can unlock my perspective for true potential. Be blessed and keep smiling. Your work has certainly helped me.

  7. admin says:

    Thank you, friend for your comment. It makes me so happy to hear that. I hope you do unlock your true potential. In all areas of your life. I’m glad your kids have gotten you back into it. Keep smiling!

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