We asked 14 accomplished artists: "What do you wish you would have known at the start of your art career?"
Some of their advice is very practical (keep good records!) and some is broad, sweeping and existential, but all of it can be applied to make your journey as an artist a little smoother and a little happier.
These artists address issues that all emerging artists face at some point in their career.
From finding your confidence, discipline, and voice, to understanding entrepreneurship, money issues, and business tips, and dealing with success, rejection, and bruised egos, these artists have been through it all and are here to share what they learned along the way.
Here is what they would tell their younger selves:
Untitled Study (Fahan), Julia Ibbini, Hand and Lasercut Paper over Ink on Mylar
It's a marathon, not a sprint
The road is very, very long. It takes a lifetime to develop your craft and anyone who tells you otherwise is just lying. There will be many tears and not much appreciation (at first).
People can (and will) be cruel or unconstructive towards you and your work. Grow a very thick skin.
Middle fingers are useful when gallerists, teachers, critics, or other artists are being unnecessarily awful. Keep making the work anyway.
There are no lightbulb or grand inspiration moments (ok maybe once in awhile, but hardly ever); it's about chipping away each day. Learn to feel the joy in that.
Learn as much as you can about marketing yourself and your work as soon as possible. Don't rely on anyone else to help you with it.
Get to know the people who collect your work, and keep in touch with them. They are a part of what makes it all worthwhile.
Enjoy the ride. I get a lot of people telling me that they used to be really into art when they were children but had to give it up because of a variety of reasons (and dearly wish they could make art again). If you've got the guts to be making work and putting it out there, be proud of yourself and have fun with it.
I Think She Winked at Me by Jessica Watts, Oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas
There is no right or wrong, there is no win or lose
When I was first starting out I thought there was a “right” way to approach my art and my art business. I felt like all artists knew the way ... except for me. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself there is no right or wrong way.
Rather, it’s about doing things your way. Had I known this earlier I would have been less troubled about how my work was received and more confident in my vision for my business.
The art business can be very competitive: whose work is better (art prizes) whose work is selling more. It took me a while to detach myself from the noise.
So, I would also tell my fledgling self that competition is the enemy. It’s a much better use of time to monopolize the space in which you create value.
LGBTQ Rights by Melanie Reese, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas
Being an artist also means being a business owner
I wish I would have known how much being a working artist today requires you to be a small business professional with an understanding of art market trends.
With the rise of the internet and social media came a new wave of art world–artist interaction. Artists of all mediums, practices, genres, and talent have exposure in ways that those who came before us could only dream of, but with that exposure comes more of a responsibility for the artist.
A website is a requirement, social media presence is a necessity, keeping an inventory is crucial, and an ability to sell artwork directly is not only possible but desirable and with that comes the responsibility of understanding the intricacies of the art market.
Shangrilah, Jill Sanders, Metal photograph
Be nice. Always be nice to people even if they critique you or simply do not respond to your images.
Learn everything you can about marketing and develop organizational skills. You can have 4,000 brilliant images on your hard drive, but they slowly become insignificant without exposure.
Educate yourself. Never stop learning. Intelligence is the foundation of great art. In order to stir an emotion in others, one must be able to make a viewer question their previous ideas and challenge their established thoughts.
Network. Everyone needs a tribe for support.
Don’t give up … just try harder.
Awakening Mt. Susitna, Karen Whitworth, Oil On Panel
Minimize administrative tasks and maximize making time
Paint (or create) more.
I spent so much time doing busy work early on that my time at the easel was affected. In hindsight, I should have devised a way to delegate or outsource my busywork sooner so that my painting time could have been preserved or even increased.
For that reason, I recommend that you hire an assistant before you think it's necessary. If you wait too long, things are already hectic and the transition of delegating will be unnecessarily cumbersome. Another symptom of waiting too long is that things start to fall through the cracks as your time to accomplish them becomes more and more scarce. This can be dangerous. The expense and time to hire and train an assistant is worth it. Make plans and start budgeting for it now.
Cavity of Boundless Heartbeats, Caitlin G McCollom, Acrylic on yupo
Develop the business side of things early
When I was just getting started I really didn't understand the entrepreneurial side of being an artist. It was quite the learning process to get established as a business alongside developing my studio practice and personal vision as an artist.
I highly recommend finding a mentor who can show you the road ahead while you're getting where you're going.
Equally, I wish I would have known how important it is to have accurate archives and records.
Years later when I was established, I had to do months of data entry to get caught up. Artwork Archive was a life saver for this process, but it was still a ton of work to do all at once.
I would also tell myself to stay positive and know that it IS possible to be a professional artist. I got so many discouraging messages saying my dream was impossible, making it took much longer than I wanted to become a full-time artist. But, it's totally possible. It just takes a little ingenuity and hard work.
Echoes & Silence, Gillian Buckley, Graphite and Acrylic
Only compare yourself to former self
I began in a place of very little understanding of the art world and other artists around me. I think that had if I had known the amount of talent that was already out there, I probably wouldn't have even started!
Back then, I compared my work only to my earlier work, which is a safe place to build confidence.
Hybrid Vigor, Julie K. Anderson, Ceramic
Don't rely on money from your art ... at first
Having multiple sources of income other than just selling your artwork is very important when you are first starting off and possibly throughout your career as an artist.
A diversified stream of income has allowed me to experiment and make the work I truly want to make, rather than just making work that I know will sell. I learned that trying to please everyone with the type of art I make is a recipe for making pieces that are not so great.
It also made me hate making art; I was bored by it.
Create the work that you truly love and the right buyers will come along eventually.
This way, you can stay your own personal creative path, but in the meantime, you can feed yourself and keep a roof over your head with your alternate source of income.
Fringe V2, Beth Kamhi, Brass beads, aluminum, wood
Trust your instincts and your abilities
Your sincere commitment to your practice is the path to becoming a successful artist. That, and trusting your instincts.
Those two things plus a current approach to marketing = success.
A degree in Fine Arts is not the final answer. I know many highly talented artists who feel unqualified to call themselves artists because they don't have an MFA. I also know many MFA Artists whose work is sub-par.
You have it or you don't. Believing in yourself is paramount to artistic success and artistic happiness
Luminous Blue Variable, Sawyer Rose, silver solder, copper, ultramarine powdered pigment
Make more work
The standard logic behind this advice is that working in greater quantity loosens you up and you end up making more good work.
And this is true, but also I find that when I speed up my workflow I'm not as emotionally married to the final product. Each gallery submission or residency application doesn't feel like a personal referendum on me as an artist. When, inevitably, rejection comes my way, it's easier to carry on when I can say to myself, "Oh, but that was old work anyway."
Arctic Tumbleweed by Kathleen Elliot, Glass
Keep going in the face of rejection
After nearly two decades as an artist, there is much I am still learning, and a lot I don’t even know I don’t know yet. Perhaps the most important, though, is the ability to keep going in the face of declines or people not responding to and liking my work.
After pouring everything I am into my work, I assume others will connect with that and want it, whether that’s gallerists or collectors or curators.
Competition is fierce, the number of declines is exponentially greater, and we have to be ok and not knocked down by that. Or, at least be able to pick ourselves up from disappointments and keep going.
Bird on Grenade (3 mad Swallow attached to pin) Steven Spazuk, Soot and acrylic on panel
Commitment is everything
I would tell myself to really devote all my time to my art; to work towards my goals full-time, stay on track, and stay focused.
When I was a young teenager, I was a big Dali fan, and one of his citations was, "No masterpiece was ever created by a lazy artist." That always stuck in my mind.
Daydream Luminescence, Laura Guese, Oil On Canvas
Put in the hours and persevere
What I wish I had known as an artist just starting out is that rejection is simply part of the profession. You have to be willing to accept a lot of “no’s” to finally get a “yes.” Perseverance is key, and it’s important not to take those rejections too seriously or personally. Keep moving forward!
Your work will continue to improve if you keep practicing your art and putting in the hours. I received advice from an art professor in college that has stayed with me to this day. He encouraged me to just show up at the studio even if I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired to work.
Usually, after being in the studio for an hour or so, I would find myself getting engrossed in my art.
Moody Blues II by Annie Wildey, Oil On Linen
Don't wait to get serious about art.
Don’t be fearful. Be more willing to take risks. Be confident and believe in yourself. Nurture and explore your creativity and master your skills.
I put off seriously pursuing my art for 18 years. After art school, I was a little lost and unsure of who I was. I traveled and fell into a career in business, working for an organization in New York City. Though I gained a lot of skills and matured, the last few years of my business career I desperately wanted to make more time for my art. I didn’t know how to navigate that journey alone so I sought the help of a creative and life coach and eventually decided to pursue an MFA at 40.
I would tell my younger self to find a mentor or a creative coach whom you can learn from. And, put money aside when you have it! Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, identify your goals, and approach your art career with a business mindset.