How to Make Art That People Really Care About

Katie Carey | July 24, 2017 (Updated July 7, 2023)

There is a little critic that lives inside every artist’s mind

This critic watches over the painter’s shoulder as they prime their canvas. It’s there when the sculptor breaks out those first, fresh blocks of clay. It questions the photographer as they look through their negatives. And it shouts at them all,  “Is anyone even going to like this?!”

If we are lucky, those inner-voices are quieted the further we get into the process. When we find our flow, those internal critics are banished, one by one.

But, there’s no doubt that every artist wants to make work that people care about—that hits them in that gut-punching, turn-their-world-upside-down way.

There isn’t a quick-fix or life hack to making people care about what you are making. Here's the truth: it’s all in your mindset, and that can be a much more obtuse, intangible thing to pin down.

If you really want to make people stop and pay attention to what you are doing, go into the studio with the following  “inner rules” in mind.

If You Don’t Care About Your Work, Don’t Expect Anyone Else To Care

No one is going to care about what you are making if you don’t care about it. It’s that simple.

Don’t try and make work that you think you “should” be making—focus on making work that you care about.

You’ve probably heard dating advice at some point in your life that you “have to love yourself first.” Apply that to your work. Love what you are making. Be so consumed with what you are making that your friends get annoyed with how much you talk about it. Then you will know you are on track.

The thing about this, though, is that making things you care about is extremely difficult, both physically and emotionally. You risk putting the things you care most deeply about out there to get rejected. 

But, if you don’t make work that you truly, deeply, care about, you run the risk of burning out.

We are fueled by topics, materials, processes, investigations, questions, and observances that keep us going. You need to show up to the studio day in and day out. If you don’t care about what you are making, this is going to be a whole lot tougher.

Create Work With Someone Specific in Mind

Who are you making work for? If you have probably been asked about your target audience at some point and maybe even done some audience building where you created a list of characteristics where your potential buyer is an affluent female between the ages of 30 and 65, owns a home in the city, etc., etc., etc ...

Ditch the imaginary audience.

Think of one specific person that you are creating this work for. What are they struggling with right now? What keeps them up at night? What do they find side-splittingly, absurdly funny? What have they gone through recently that they might need some comforting about? 

Ask yourself these questions and then pick one to address in your work. 

The beautiful thing about being human is that we all share certain commonalities. It might not resonate deeply with everyone, but if someone feels it strongly, chances are, there is a whole group out there who is also going to feel it strongly.

Don’t Follow Trends

Have you been on Pinterest lately? Every curated wedding and baby shower start to look the same after a while. The same goes for art trends.

Stop crowd-sourcing your inspiration. Stop making work that fits neatly and seamlessly on a Pinterest board.

Real, genuine inspiration takes place outside of a computer screen. Go outside and spend some time silently in a park observing your surroundings. Take a sketchbook with you on a hike and take down notes of things that stir you. Grab a window seat at a coffee shop and watch how people interact with each other—look for subtle, unspoken nuances.

Know Your Medium Inside and Out

In order to get people to care about your artwork, we mean really care, you need to be extremely proficient in your craft. Making work is a way to communicate with your audience. To try and make an impact in your chosen medium without first knowing that material inside and out is like trying to write a book for an English speaker in French.

When you have a deep understanding of your craft, you can more effortlessly communicate your point of view. Less time is spent thinking about the “hows” of the process and you can move more into the “whys.”

That’s not to say don’t stop questioning your process and challenging your material—always be pushing yourself and your craft along the way if you hope to get to new territory.

Drop the Idea That Creating Art Will Foster External Validation

To some extent, everyone wants the praise and admiration of others. It may be fair to say that artists desire this acceptance even more.

When you put your work out there in the world, there is an inherent vulnerability, and so you crave validation.

If you create work that satisfies you and validates your inner-self, you be more satisfied with the outcome and make work that speaks more strongly to others.

When you go into a new concept thinking about how to gain the acceptance and praise of others, you soften the meaningful edges.

Check Your Ego At The Studio Door

This one’s easy.

Ego and creativity are two separate mind frames and come from two different places. Leave the first one at the door.

Learn to Be OK With Long Periods of Solitude

While you can’t create work within a vacuum, you do need long stretches of uninterrupted alone time to make work that really gets somewhere.

Find a place that you feel comfortable and trust that you will need to be there for a while. Set up your studio so that you get excited to spend time in it. From the lighting to the decorations, to stocking it with water, snacks, and music that you enjoy, your studio should be a place you look forward to going to.

If you are a full-time artist, block out at least three 5-hour blocks of uninterrupted time in the studio per week. If you are part-time, aim to have one a week to start where you turn off your phone, ignore your notifications and get into the work at hand for a few, solid hours.

Of course, you can’t keep intense focus for all the time, but limiting your outside distractions helps you get into your work and make more meaningful connections for yourself.

Say it Simply

"Keep it simple, stupid." The now ubiquitous design principle was coined by the United States Navy in 1960 as a reminder for their engineers that systems are the most effective if they are simple and not overly complicated.

For artists, especially early career artists, there is a tendency to want to include everything. But by trying to do too much with one piece, you risk obscuring your message. Keeping it simple requires not only skill but a certain degree of humility and confidence in your artwork.

By restraining your artwork, you aren’t trying to prove anything about your skills, you are trying to communicate in the most effective way. “Genius is the ability to reduce the complicated to the simple,” as C. W. Ceran puts it. 

Accept Change Within Yourself and Your Work and Know When to Move On

There can be a lot of pressure for artists out there to stick with a certain theme or material. And, to some extent, this is useful for creating a brand and developing a cohesive body of work.

On the other hand, sticking strictly to one avenue of work can potentially be preventing you from growing and exploring new questions that you are interested in—the questions that spark and reawaken your curiosity with making artwork.

Keeping short “field notes” about your work will help you better relate to your process and know when it might be time to move on from a certain theme, image, idea or material. It can be sad to spend so much time working on a body of work and to move on from it. But it opens new doors for discovery and your renewed excitement will translate into your new work —whatever it may be.

Break Up With the Stereotypical Portrait of an Artist’s Life

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 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. Real, meaningful work, the kind people care about comes from thought-out intention.

You need to be organized to execute your vision.

Cut the chaos out of your studio life and spend more time making meaningful artwork by using the top career management tool.

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