Do Tools Make an Artist?

At the end of September, I moved to the village of Coupeville on Whidbey Island. If you use Google Maps to search for Whidbey Island, it will take you to the Northwest corner of Washington State. It’s situated in Puget Sound, about 45-minutes north of Seattle and the destination of thousands of vacationers from early spring to late fall. The sights are incredible. Surrounded by water, mountains, pristine beaches and several historical landmarks, Whidbey Island seems almost magical.

 

The island is also home to many artists with talents that range from glass blowing, photography and jewelry making to penning novels, writing music and acting. You can’t go out without running into an artist of some type. I know a number of them personally and find that they know their craft and are willing to share their experiences. The wannabes are rare and the yet to be discovered are hardworking individuals who radiate constant energy and passion. It’s a great climate to be included in, and I’m very happy with the move.

 

During a conversation with my friend Gwen, a retired political events coordinator from Washington, DC, we talked about what I did for a living. “I’m a voice-over artist,” I replied with pride and enthusiasm. I have a great time telling people what I do.

 

Gwen replied, “Just about anybody with a computer and microphone can call themselves a voice-over artist. I’ve even thought about doing it myself.”

 

That got me thinking. Was she under the impression that no talent is necessary to be a voice-over artist? Was she indicating that with relatively little money anybody could buy the basic hardware and software to start a voice-over business? Hmm… I have a toolbox in my garage full of screwdrivers, wrenches and hammers. I know how to use each of them to do basic things around the house and never once have I fooled myself into believing that I was a carpenter or mechanic. I think it’s important for people to understand their limits. I clearly understand mine!

 

I agreed with Gwen and suggested it was similar to what people thought when digital cameras were no longer cost prohibitive. Everybody can be a photographer and take great pictures. Well, maybe. Give the camera to a novice or hobbyist with all the settings on automatic before they point and click. Presto, they captured a good shot with little to no effort. Give the same camera to a professional and they’ll take it off autopilot. They’ll adjust aperture setting and shutter speed then shoot the same shot with not just good but fabulous results.

 

The difference between the two is the level of expertise that the professional has over the novice. The professional is well grounded in photography and shoots intuitively to get amazing results. The pro understands their craft and has the artistic ability to look beyond what’s in front of the lens on their camera. They can break down a scene and instantly know best how to compose the shot and manipulate the settings before releasing the shutter. The novice doesn’t have a clue.

 

The same can be said about voice-over artists. I get a script and break it down because I know how to best read it for effect and believability. I understand how to work the mic for broadness or intimacy and I’m confident that I can edit the raw audio to deliver what my clients need. Can anybody do this? Yes, they can. Can everybody do it well enough to attract gigs and make a living? No, they can’t.

 

Another friend of mine, Mary Rose, who was part of the conversation, is a program host at the local public radio station here on Whidbey Island. She is also an instructor who teaches Journalism and Broadcast Communications several times a year at Ramkhamheun University’s Institute of International Studies in Bangkok. I’ve talked with her students by way of Skype about my experience of being a voice-over artist and she’s permanently added me to her curriculum as a guest speaker for both classes. Her students were intrigued about the voice-over artist business and thought it might be easy money and anybody could do it. It seems this perception is global.

 

During our chat about what makes an artist, Mary Rose suggested that I’d be an interesting guest on an upcoming episode of her show, Isle of the Arts. She agreed that not everybody with the right tools could be an artist and wanted to get me on the air to talk about it some more.

 

I agreed to be interviewed and will publish the audio to this blog once it becomes available.

 

A paint brush does not make a painter. A piano does not make a songwriter. A word processor does not make an author. A microphone does not make a voice-over artist. I believe that being an artist is not just about knowing how to use a tool. It includes understanding the process of manipulation and refinement to create a final product that’s polished and stands on its own without explanation.

 

Do you have some explaining to do?

12 thoughts on “Do Tools Make an Artist?

  1. Jim Rogers November 1, 2011 / 11:04 am

    Hello J. Christopher…..

    Sure, everyone’s a VO Artist, VO Actor, etc….. Anyone with a buck can buy a computer and a microphone and label himself/herself a VO professional…..

    My fiancee’s an artist [oils/watercolors/acrylics], prolific, highly talented, commercially successful….. She competes in an artsy, Santa Fe-wannabe community where EVERYONE labels himself/herself an artist! It’s the American way…..

    But sayin’ ain’t doin’……

    She is, you are, I am….. It’s isn’t what we say ~~ it’s what we do!!!

    Like

    • JCDunn November 2, 2011 / 6:29 pm

      Hey Jim-

      There are a number of artists I’ve watched here on Whidbey who make what they do look easy. Maybe that’s what people do with voice work. It’s just talkin’, right?

      Thanks for stopping by!
      -JCD

      Like

  2. Taag Hage November 1, 2011 / 2:35 pm

    Most people who don’t know what goes into the creating of something believe it to be easy, simply because of their own ignorance to the process. I would say that one other talent that distinguishes a “Voice Over Artist” from a novice is a well-trained ear. Upon reading a piece, I can generally hear when an accent should be used, and can also hear the accent well enough in my head to replicate it for the text I’m reading. It is similar to what makes a musician different from one who plays music (or Guitar Hero nowadays). A attuned sense of hearing relating to inflection and tone is one that I consider part of my “toolbox”. Just sayin’.

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    • JCDunn November 2, 2011 / 6:46 pm

      Taag-

      I’ve watched artists here on Whidbey Island who make their creation process look easy. Perhaps people believe that voice work is easy because all it involves is reading a script and the amazing examples they’ve heard have been those from pros.

      -JCD

      Like

  3. Kym Dakin November 1, 2011 / 6:30 pm

    I ask myself why it is that people assume anyone can be a voice artist…. In some ways the sheer magnitude of technological options in all aspects of life can lead us to believe we can be credible in any field as long as we have the right gadgets. It’s a cultural devaluation of experience, talent and ability, and if I focus too much on it, I lose energy, drive and time. I agree with Jim – the only antidote is to keep doing, working, refining and improving…. as if our lives depended on it!

    Like

    • JCDunn November 2, 2011 / 6:33 pm

      Kym-

      You’ve hit on something. There is so much more to our business than stepping up to the mic and reading. I mentioned in a reply to another reader elsewhere, that it would be cool if all we had to do was sit in the booth and record incoming gigs one after the other, nonstop.

      Great comments!
      -JCD

      Like

  4. Nethervoice November 2, 2011 / 6:15 am

    Tghanks fior the great analogy, Chris. Owning a piano does not make a person a pianist. Being able to play a few tunes doesn’t mean we’re ready for Carnegie Hall.

    Like

    • JCDunn November 2, 2011 / 6:52 pm

      Hey Paul-

      You are so right!

      And remember, you can tune a piano but you can’t tune a fish. 🙂 Old, I know, but I couldn’t resist.

      -JCD

      Like

  5. steve hammill November 2, 2011 / 11:26 am

    Yup! A computer & a mic is all that it takes to make a VO guy or gal. Your point about attracting the jobs and making a living the money card. However, if we’re speaking about artists, some of the very greatest received neither money nor recognition in there own time.

    I can tell you for certain that, in magic, the greatest magicians are usually unknown and not working as magicians. I’ve met true wizards, who couldn’t weave their magic into a performance, but to another magician, WOW! Those unknown wizards are far beyond 99% of working magicians like me…ahhhhh…I’m not working professionally any longer…but in my brain, I’m still a magician.

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  6. CatherineHunterGould (@CateHunter) November 2, 2011 / 5:49 pm

    Great article and I too have had people assume that they could be a VO artist just because someone once told them at a cocktail party they had a nice voice or they heard people can make lots of money doing VO work. Well…yes, its possible, but like you pointed out there’s a lot more to this business and ability of reading scripts then many give us credit for. I’ve learned to simply smile and nod along with their “theory” knowing full well they’ll never make it because while they may have a nice little toolbox, they don’t know the first thing about using half of what’s in there.

    Like

  7. Jen Gosnell (@jengosnell) November 2, 2011 / 11:12 pm

    Hi Jim! Well said. I like that you’re doing the Skype, classes and radio gigs. Particularly for students I think it’s valuable to get a reality check on what potential career paths may have in store – including the ups and downs – from someone who is living it.

    Glad to hear you’re enjoying Whidbey. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little bit jealous, although we really do love Portland now that we’re down here. 🙂

    Cheers!!
    Jen

    Like

    • JCDunn November 3, 2011 / 11:47 am

      Hi Jen-

      Thanks for the kind words about my blog. Skype is really handy for Mary Rose’s guest speakers. Getting the time differential worked out might have been the most complicated part of it.

      Glad to hear you’re doing well in Portland. It is a beautiful city.

      -JCD

      Like

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