Nobody is confined to one career, one path. Sometimes a person has varying talents and will deviate from one path to explore a route far removed from anything they’ve done. Digital artist Patricia Smith did this. At first she glossed over that detour in her life, but when asked to elaborate, she began brimming over with enthusiasm for a sport that temporarily drew her away from art.
“Freelance artists work alone most of the time, and it’s very rare that we get out,” Smith began. “Any chance we get to hang out with like-minded people, we take.” Smith is a traditional-turned-digital artist. She explained that digital painting is roughly the same process as traditional painting. You start from darks to lights, rough to more detail. The benefits of digital are that it’s easier to send, there’s no dry time—making it faster—and there are no harmful chemicals. “It’s fun, too,” Smith added.
At the moment she is doing more work with role-playing games, creating art for companies like Sasquatch Game Studio, Green Ronin Publishing, and Fire Opal Media. Her goal is to do work for Seattle-based Wizards of the Coast, one of the top paying companies for artists. They produce games like Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. Smith said that Magic: The Gathering is the Holy Grail for graphic artists, and it would be amazing to do work for them. Despite her focus on digital art, she is more recently getting back into watercolors and acrylics and continues to do a lot of sketching.
“I’ve always drawn,” said Smith. “It’s safe to say that I drew before I could walk. I never drew on walls. I would find some sort of paper and a writing utensil.” That “some sort of paper” often included her parents’ checkbook, her grandfather’s bank statements, and receipt books. At school she would draw on rectangular erasers, turning them into tanks. She and two classmates drew war scenes on their desks, horrifying their second grade teacher.
At the age of nine, Smith discovered Frank Frazetta, an American fantasy and science fiction artist. His art inspired her, and he became Smith’s favorite artist of all time. “I wanted to become a comic book artist too,” she said.
In seventh grade, she was given her own art show. She had two pads of paper, which she filled all with fantasy—swords and sorcery and knights with helms. Nobody expected those drawings from a girl. Smith said, “People were like, ‘A girl drew this?’”
“I was told consistently as a kid that girls didn’t become artists. It wasn’t a thing for girls to do.” Of course she didn’t listen to that, and during high school she was the school artist. She created art for the yearbook and their mascot.
After high school, Smith got sidetracked doing sports. She became a competitive body builder, competing in strongwoman contests. “I started training with the second strongest woman in the world,” she said. Boxing also struck her interest. She became an amateur boxer and was eventually offered a pro boxing contract, but chose not to pursue that route.
Smith was the smallest in her training group at a mere 5 feet 4 inches and 120 pounds. She’s proud to say she was a lifetime drug-free athlete. “When the fitness and figure girls are getting bigger than you, it’s clear that everyone is using drugs.” The strongwoman contest involves challenges like the car-pull, Olympic-style lifting, and Smith’s favorite, tire flipping. She was definitely strong—each tire weighed 400 pounds. Nowadays, CrossFit takes the same activities as strongman competitions and throws them all together.
In 2004, Smith stopped competing and decided to work at becoming a full-time artist. She studied at the Academy of Art in the University of San Francisco through its online program. Due to her increased interest in the digital arts, she attained an associate of arts in animation and visual effects. Although it took her three years to get the degree, her advisor encouraged even more classes.“You’re paying medical school prices at a lot of these art schools, and many people don’t go on to have art careers,” she explained.
Smith has always enjoyed drawing fantasy and out-of-this world things, including horror, science fiction, and animals. Her intellectual property is drawing animals with a science fiction twist. “I would love to get into children’s book illustration. That is my primary focus.” Frequently she goes to Grass Roots Books and buys one or two children’s books. She looks at the cover, finds the art director, and uses that to network.
She didn’t start making a living from art until she was hired by Block 15 in 2008 to create labels for their beer bottles and the art for their menus. Opportunities branched out from there, when she was able to create art for Cloud & Kelly’s and Red Fox Café.
Smith advocates that one of the most important things about freelance illustration is dealing with contract terms, especially regarding payment. Artists at OSU are not taught anything about running a business, she explained. “Young artists don’t think about the business side. What can you do to keep the money flowing?” A freelance artist needs to have several streams of revenue. “It’s like anything else,” she said. “You need to have a business plan; you need to have a specific plan.”
It takes an average of five years to start making a living from doing art, according to Smith. That is, if you take all the avenues you can. She encourages setting aside time in the mornings to work on the business side of things. It also helps if you know how to socialize—in business as well as socially. “You just gotta get out there,” she said.
The Northwest is a hotbed of fantasy artists and fantasy films, said Smith. “There is a camaraderie between artists,” she emphasized. “There is no competition. We always hang out when we see each other.” In art, you learn from the ones that are doing well and also from the ones that are not doing well. “What doesn’t work for them may work in your market,” Smith said. “Always compare your work to better artists than you.” She encourages artists to stay focused and motivated. “Persistence pays in this industry.” She’s not a big fan of people who say, “Do it just for fun.” “Do it to win,” she countered. “That’s fun.”