Alexandra Farber exploring choreography in nature. Choreography and visual art tell the same stories of nature in all of Farber's mediums, and bodies of water are major themes in both. Photo by Joe Johnson.
If you want to get better as an artist, you have to go into the world with eyes wide open.
There are certain truths about life, as difficult as they may be to take in, that are essential to accept if you want to become a better artist. If we are being honest, the art world can be difficult to navigate—especially for an artist trying to establish themselves.
Ignorance may be bliss, but preparing yourself for the realities of life gives you an inner strength to deal with them. A plan to help you better navigate the rocky road ahead.
Some of these truths may resonate deeply with what you already know. Some may be an exercise in growth as you stretch yourself into an uncomfortable space. Some you may not agree with at all. But, hopefully, they spark new reflections that will propel you along your path as an artist.
Here are seven truths that you must accept in order to become the best artist you can be.
You're not going to become a master overnight
There will be a gap between your expectations and the reality of your skills when you start. And also when you are established and are simply trying something new.
You're not going to master your art in just one day or just one year, and probably not in five years either. Focus on mastering the project at hand. Then focus on the next project at hand. Then keep doing that day after day until you are finally a master at your art.
It's important not to let yourself get discouraged when your ability doesn't match your vision. There’s wisdom in accepting the difference between expectations and reality. And there's a wisdom to understanding that you will fail—but that also those failures lead to successes.
We’ll give it to you straight: you won’t last one day as an artist unless you are able to stay positive, even in the face of failure.
It’s much better to prepare yourself for a tough road ahead than hoping that it doesn’t exist, or thinking for some reason you won’t have to walk that road. Everyone does.
You can make the greatest piece you’ve ever created, but collectors still won’t show it in their gallery. You can attend the coolest art fair, and still not make any sales. Life doesn’t always pan out how we want it to, even when we work tirelessly to make it happen.
But there is a moment after we’re done feeling sorry for ourselves, that we can choose to keep going. Where we remember to be kind to ourselves instead of beating ourselves up. That nothing is impossible. To remain confident that we can handle whatever comes our way. To find the opportunity in the failure. That’s real positivity.
It doesn't get easier, but you get more resilient
Many artists make the mistake of thinking that with enough hard work and time, everything will fall into place. That with a certain level of success, suddenly all of their problems will cease to exist. What they haven’t realized yet? Success creates new and different problems. Plus, there’s always going to be more work to do to keep up with your newfound success.
Even if you had every single aspect of your art career figured out, life will find a way to test you. Problems you won’t see coming, things you can’t solve no matter how hard you work—illness, natural disaster, divorce, a death in the family, etc.
Life is tricky like that. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it.
We get so caught up in how things “should” be that we forget how things really are. But it’s an excuse—a lie we tell ourselves because deep, deep down, we know what the world really is. It’s big and scary, and often unfair. The problems won’t stay away if we hide. The world is not perfect. It never will be. And, if you wait for it to change, you’ll be waiting forever.
Accepting these truths will help you accept and face challenges head-on. There will be difficult situations as an artist, but you will tackle them because you are strong.
Remember that, however small, there’s a satisfaction to be had in not giving up. In looking back and realizing how you handled the hardships with strength and grace. In knowing that you can do it again when the time comes.
There’s never a perfect time to start
If you are like any other artist in the world, you probably have said to yourself at one time something along the lines of, “I can’t go to the studio today because I’m too busy/ too heartbroken/ too tired/ my family needs me too much/ [insert reason here.]”
We get it. By waiting to start until everything is just right, you feel like you have a better chance to succeed.
The catch? There’s always going to be some reason why you can’t start today.
Remember how eager life is to throw problems at you? How the grind never really stops? How the world is never going to be a perfect place?
The truth of the matter is, you are scared to get started because you are scared of the possibility of failing. Successful artists all face this same problem.
The difference is, they start anyway.
They don’t frame things around “not enough.” There is never enough time, not enough money, not enough confidence, not enough of whatever it is at that moment to make or do what you need to do to be a successful artist.
If they don’t know where to start, they do some digging and make a plan. They complete the tiniest of tasks because they know it’s the only way to set things in motion. And if something isn’t working, they graciously give themselves permission to change course. After all, it’s only failing if you don’t learn, right?
If you want to be a successful artist, you have to show up.
Perfection is the enemy of progress. Practice accepting where you are currently with your work. It can be difficult when you first start out (or really at any stage) to accept the gap between where you are and where you want to be. You have a vision for your work, but your skills just aren’t taking you there… yet. Talent and ambition mean nothing without consistent effort and practice.
There’s a reason they say the first step is the hardest. Don’t spend so much time dwelling on a problem that you forget to look for a solution.
Photo by Yale Cohen
True satisfaction with your work cannot be found through external validation
Money, fame, glowing reviews, Instagram followers, sales, a big gallery show—have you ever noticed how the things we chase in life come and go so easily?
Of course, these things can make our day-to-day lives a whole lot easier, and they provide us with joy at the time. (There’s nothing wrong with wanting that and working hard for it!)
But it’s funny, as soon as we don’t have these things in our lives anymore, the joy is replaced with worry about how to get our hands on these things again as soon as possible. External things like validation—things that are dependent on others—don’t last forever. That’s why happiness, true contentment, has to come from within. And, from within your own satisfaction with your work.
In a world that’s constantly challenging you, happiness comes from within—it's a confidence that things will be okay no matter what’s happening. There's a need as an artist to develop a deep-rooted resilience and a humble satisfaction with yourself and your work.
When you come to trust your vision and in the work that you do, there’s a magic that happens. This creates a feeling that reminds you that it’s just a bad day, not a bad career and that you’ll be able to handle whatever comes your way.
There’s no "right" way to be an artist
You need to officially break up with the stereotypical portrait of an artist’s life. And no backsliding.
There are hundreds if not thousands of novels, shows, and movies that romanticize the artist’s life. With the right balance of struggle and fame, artists lives are often idealized, and it can be tempting to want to embody the whole package.
But, how many people set out to actually make the work at hand? If all the attention, awards, and esteem were stripped away, how many people would still be there, making work day in and day out —just because they needed to do it?
You are going to need this drive to create if you want to create meaningful work. Because the days are long and obstacles are plenty, and you need to be motivated by the process itself and not all of the peripheral benefits to have long-term success.
While you are at it, break up with the stereotype of the scattered, genius artist as well. You need to be organized to execute your vision.
Real, meaningful work, the kind people care about, comes from thought-out intention.
The blame game will only get you so far
It’s so tempting to shift the blame for the troubles we face. If only society placed more value on art. If only that customer understood original art prices. If only that juror looked at my art a second time. If only that gallery had advertised me more. If only art school didn’t cost so much. If only I had more time, more money for supplies, my own studio etc. etc.
We grasp for any circumstances that let us justify our current position. When the truth is, you can always find a way to be making. It might not be exactly what you want to be making now, but it is something.
Do you have a right to be upset by these hardships? Maybe. Life is really, really hard and often unfair. But should you sit back and fold your hands because of it? It’s much easier than admitting to yourself that you could be working harder or taking more opportunities. It’s a difficult pill to swallow that you’re often really the only one standing in the way of your success.
Justification isn’t going to change your circumstances, and neither is anyone else. Successful artists don’t let their current circumstances dictate where they go in life. It’s a hard truth to accept, but life-changing once you do.
As an artist, you are the boss. The only way things will get done is if you do them. And, if you want to get ahead as an artist, you are going to have to take chances. Sometimes it’s the only way to find the success or happiness you crave. At some point, you have to learn how to not only accept risk as a part of life but embrace it.
Factor in the risk of doing nothing. Are you happy with where you are in your career or does that scare you to death?
Investing in yourself isn’t selfish
In fact, investing in yourself—your happiness, passions, education, skills, business—is the most worthwhile thing you can do.
You only get one shot to do this thing called life.
It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to make other people happy, at work or at home. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all—until you start believing that their happiness is more important than your own.
Everyone deserves to be happy, and it’s never too late to start chasing your own dreams. That’s what you would tell a friend or family member if they asked you, isn’t it? It’s time to start listening to your own advice.
Start simply by investing in time for yourself.
Time to create more and to practice self-care. To learn more about the business side of art. To take a class, read a book, apply for a grant, or attend that workshop you’ve secretly been dying to try. Then finally, time to get your art business organized and profitable, so you can actually make a living doing what you love.
Focusing on yourself doesn’t mean you’re being selfish.
Your biggest supporters will be proud that you are taking the reins and working towards your own happiness, just like you would be for them.
In the end…
Nothing should stop you from living the life you want.
Like the old saying goes: nobody said it would be easy, they only said it would be worth it—and art careers are at the top of that list. Yes, many of these truths will be challenging to put into practice. Even as we write this article, it’s hard to fully accept some of these points ourselves.
But we know how important it is to think about because these truths will ultimately help us to better navigate the road ahead.
When we ditch the excuses, the fear of failing, the blame, we are left with eyes wide open.
Let the passion you feel when you are creating be your north star, and don’t get so caught up in reaching the final destination that you forget to enjoy the ride.