Being a Successful Freelance Artist with Kalen Chock: Episode 2
Kalen Chock is a the epitome of talented, hard-working artist. From humble beginnings developing his craft in the labs of the Art Institute of California, Orange County to being booked all over the world to teach seminars and help companies see their ideas come to life through his artwork. Kalen is nothing less than an absolute beast with a stylus and we were lucky enough to get to talk to him about how he became so successful and what things other aspiring artists can take note of if they wish to do the same and of course, how he came to start working on the smash Kickstarter success Liege with John Rhee.
When asked about his art style and finding success with fan art.
“I think if anything it’s just passion. I don’t think it even has to be good art, I just think it has to be passionate. I think there are people that do fan art, but like they’re doing it because it’s popular you know what I mean? They’re doing “this” because it’s hot right now. I don’t do a lot of fan art. I did one painting and it’s like a joke, it's like one of my favorite characters from this game, and if you know this game… But because he (John Rhee) knew I was a genuine fan of those kind of RPG games, he thought that from the art I was doing, he was like “I want to hire this guy” as opposed to someone that’s like, I’m not a fan of it but I’m going to do fan art of it anyway and try to get some likes. So I think it’s the passion, I think he could tell that I was a legit fan and didn’t just want some likes on facebook. If you’re passionate, people will find you.”
We then got some helpful insight on knowing your product and audience. Kalen definitely believes in being authentic in your work and explains the importance of your authenticity in regards to finding new work, or being the right fit.
“I don’t play League of Legends right? But if you hire someone that’s like a good artist and plays League of Legends, they’re going to know how to create characters that are gonna fit in the game, instead of just creating cool art they’re going to be like, ‘Oh this could work like this and like that.’ You get more out of it when you’re emotionally invested.”
Taking a slight detour off of art specifically, Kalen dropped some sports related analogies for us to really tie in the importance of being able to work well with different personalities, and being able to carry yourself in a way that isn’t off putting or detrimental to team chemistry.
“You really can’t teach personality. I always joke with my friend A.J. that we should offer a personality mentorship, ha, about how to teach people to not be weird. My conclusion to that is, that it’s sports. People that are socially awkward did not play sports. I think most of my contacts and opportunities came from playing basketball, or me playing soccer with people that also work in the industry and then just being cool with people. If you can be cool with someone on the basketball court, they’ll probably be like “oh you looking for work” and then they say ‘ok I’ll put your name in the system,’ it’s stuff like that.”
At this point in the podcast our conversation really started to hone in on freelancing and strategies for being a freelancer. We started with him telling us how he got his initial break into freelance and what he believes is most important to do if you’re trying to make a career in freelance for yourself.
“I think freelance is kind of an interesting thing to be fair, most of my freelance comes through being affiliated with Robot Pencil, and that in turn becomes being affiliated with Anthony Jones. A.J. is like the Kobe Bryant, Lebron James of character / creature art so everyone knows who he is. Or maybe he’s the Michael Jordan and I’m the Scottie Pippin, I’m just the right hand man who’s been a part of it. It’s easy for me to get my 20 points when I have Michael Jordan passing me the ball when he gets too busy. So in that regard he’s opened a lot of doors for me but I still have to have the skills to make those shots, you know, to make those points when he gives me the ball. Most of it has come through him, we’ve definitely worked together on a lot of things. And I think the biggest thing is being part of the community. Freelance is hard, no one ever posts about it. I don’t think I’ve ever applied for a freelance job. Almost all freelance comes to me via email, they just go “Hey, I found your work, I like it, I want to hire you”. I think if you’re an active member of the community and you’re constantly being at the forefront of what’s happening whether you’re posting on Facebook, Instagram, going to events meeting people. It’s a lot of networking and it’s a lot of keeping your work updated. I think all those things combined together helps get your name out there and then people want to give you work.”
And on how to get your name out there more
“I would say to get your name out there, a lot of that has to do with where you work originally. So for AJ, for an example, was popular already but he got very very popular when he started working at Sony Santa Monica. Now a lot of people worked at Sony Santa Monica, so why is A.J. so famous… Well I feel like A.J. leveraged his status working at such a big company on a very big video game. He then used that as a way to propel his career, to do workshops to teach to start doing stuff. He didn’t just sit on the idea of “Hey I’m working at a very big company I’m just gonna sit and do nothing”, it was like “I’m at a big company I’m going to use that as a way to propel my career and build my brand”. So it's not just Anthony Jones working at Sony… It’s he’s Anthony Jones! I try my best to do that, when I was at ILM I didn’t want to be a person that’s just like “Oh that’s Kalen, he works at ILM” it’s like “No, he’s KALEN, he does what he does.”
Once you’ve built your name, like Kalen has, you can climb out of that talk about being paid in exposure. As much as it happens, it was worth reflecting on how he felt artists should conduct business and handle the all too common “we’ll pay you in exposure” opportunity.
“I feel like I’ve worked, I have enough experience where I can say I don’t need that. Here’s my theory on doing work. If I’m not going to get paid for it, it better make me super F*ing famous like Super Bowl or my name is on TV or something. The alternative is the work that I do is super lame, super dumb but I get paid a lot of money for it. So if I’m working on Hello Kitty Island Adventure, I’m not put that in my portfolio but I better be getting a super six figure salary for it. But if I’m not going to get paid that much, aka my game that I’m working on with John, Liege right, I don't get paid anything really. He gave me income for six months, but after that we’ve been working for free, both of us. But I know that will make me very very well known, because when that games comes out and it kills it, it’s going to say Art… .Kalen. A good example is Dan Paladin from Castle Crashers, everyone knows his name. That’s what I’m trying to be. I’m trying to go to that Dan Paladin level, where I created this awesome game, by myself. Me and John Rhee, so he’s the Tom Fulp. So when I work on Liege day to day I’m not making any money off of that but I know its an investment to my career. And if the game flops, I can at least sell the assets I made. There’s like a smart business and career path behind it that I do, so that’s my thing. If no one cares about it I better get paid, and if not then it HAS to push my career forward.”
Lastly, in regards to what new artist can do about getting some work, or even taking on free work Kalen did give us some additional advice there as well.
“If you’re a beginning artist, I actually don't mind taking on free work. Because actually to me it’s kind of like a scrimmage. It’s kind of like low stakes. If you F*k up, you can't get mad at free work, you can't get mad at charity. So if you don't have a lot of experience doing that kind of stuff, then yea do some pro bono free work that you can put in your portfolio and like, you have the ability to F*k up so that if you DO get to that bigger company, (going back to sports analogies) you’ve played a few games. So now when you get to one of those big companies you’ve already played in a few games you know you’re not going to F*k it up. You would never take a guy fresh off the bench and put him at starting quarterback, he’s gonna F*k it up in a pretty big way. So why not have a few pre-season scrimmage games, it doesn’t count towards anything, it doesn’t affect your reputation if you mess up. In the art industry if you mess up, it can harm you for years! So free freelance is actually a good thing when you’re first starting out.”
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