Author & Illustrator: Gavin Gray Valentine · Editor: Darren Di Lieto · 19th August 2020
Whether we want to admit it or not everyone wants a hit. Every time we post something on social media we hope that it’s the one that blasts off into the stratosphere and solves all our problems. Suddenly our audience is massive – we’ve made it and the days of watching the sales roll in while we sip cocktails in the sun are here! But this moment isn’t reality. The hits you see aren’t overnight successes, they are the results of sometimes decade long efforts to cultivate an audience.
Building an audience takes time, it takes dedication and discipline, but it also takes planning. We’ve committed to dedicating the majority of our time to making art, but how do we know that we’re heading in the right direction? Sometimes it can feel like we’re a adrift in the sea alone – it’s time we made ourselves a compass.
What’s Old Is New Again
When we create something unique, we filter through all of that which inspires us to produce our best work. As independent artists we have to be able to self direct, but finding what we want to say can be difficult. I think this is why the pull to do fan art is so alluring, we can immediately create a connection with our audience, because we both are responding to an established brand or ingrained nostalgia. It’s much harder to replicate this in our own work. Self reflection is our most important tool. We have to understand the feelings our influences give us and how they do it. This way we can find a way to represent it in our own work.
In my previous article I talked about choosing five words to define the feeling you want your customers to have when they see your work, but how do we arrive at that feeling? We define the feelings our influences instill in us, deconstruct them, and pass that along to our audience. In order to define the feelings we’re looking for I think it’s important to choose five major influences that we can analyze. Any less and you risk being derivative, more and you risk confusing your message. Remember these influences can change based on the project or collection of work.
Here’s a small list of my influences:
- The Legend of Zelda
- Hayao Miyazaki
- Laika Studios
- Neil Gaiman
If we look at my influences, they all relate to my list of keywords, but what else do they have in common? Let’s take a look at how we define an audience and see if we can make some connections.
Defining a Target Audience
I feel that traditional methods for defining an audience can contribute to enforcing societal norms and social bias. Things like defining age, gender, income, etc., put restrictions on your audience that may or may not be there and can work against you when you’re trying to make an authentic connection. How I prefer to think about it is with a simple saying: people like us, do things like this. It’s more about defining the things we enjoy and appreciate, rather than following narrow ideas of who we think people are. This helps us to make connections to how people think without prejudice.
People like us, do things like this.
Since we’re creating things that we are fans of, we can use our influences to think like our target audiences, because they think like us. So, what do other people who are fans of the things that influence me have in common? This is a question you will ask yourself time and time again. Here are a few examples for my influences list:
- Have a deep appreciation for nature
- Value uniqueness
- Find the unsettling alluring and sometimes humorous
- Value deep meaning in storytelling
- A sense of adventure
Notice that this list is full of things that are unique to my interpretation of my influences and the ways they affect me. Others might have the same items on their lists, but for completely different reasons. We can also use our lists to make decisions about what products we might try to see if our audience responds.
Setting the Mood
A tool I often use as a graphic designer is a mood board. This is a collection of images that fall in line with the feeling you’re trying to achieve with a design and acts as a guide when making design decisions. Here’s an example of what a mood board for my influences looks like:
Pinterest is a great tool for creating mood boards. I make a board for every illustration I do to gather my inspiration all in one place. When you’re putting one together keep in mind the cross sections of the audiences of each thing you’re putting into the board. Find the connecting factor in each and put that into the project you’re working on.
If You Build It Will They Come?
There’s always that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you begin to create. If I finish this thing will anyone even like it? When you’ve defined your target audience based on your influences, worked to build a relationship with them, and then choose a project that falls in line with what your audience wants it makes it a lot easier to have confidence in your project. You’ve removed some of the guesswork and you’ve got a solid foundation to build on. Nothing is ever a sure thing, but at least you can move forward with a game plan.
When choosing a project based on your target audience, use your influences to guide you. Look at what types of things your influences create, think about why they chose those things. Think about the materials that resonate with your audience. Most importantly, think about the feeling that your influences gave you and keep working until you can instill those feelings in your audience.
Gavin Gray Valentine is an independent artist from Portland, Oregon. His work brings the whimsical and sometimes unsettling creatures of Elsewhere to life.