We all know it, fear it, and maybe even laugh at it: the tired stereotype of the starving artist—failing to make a living off his or her work, sacrificing financial security for the sake of the craft.
While making it as a professional artist is no small task, it certainly doesn’t mean you’re automatically doomed to such a bleak outcome. Just ask any successful artist.
So, that’s exactly who we asked.
Here’s what you need to know to make it as an artist, from ten artists who’ve done it:
1. Don’t Rely on Luck
It sounds cliche, but it’s true: There is no such thing as luck. You just have to be prepared for opportunities when they come your way. I hated hearing that from my professor and mentor in college. I was just like, “Can he stop saying that?” Once I graduated and started facing resistance, I just kept creating. If I went to a gallery and they didn't want it, I went to a coffee shop… The opportunities came and I was ready for them. Now they keep coming and I make sure that I stay ready for them.
2. Stay Organized
One thing I hear again and again from arts professionals is that artists are often painfully disorganized, bless their hearts. Check your basics: be on time to meetings, deliver work when agreed. Past that, keep your art documents updated and accessible (resume, bio, statement, etc.). That way, when it’s time to apply for a show/grant/residency, there’s no mental hurdle to overcome.
3. Learn How to Withstand Stress
There are so many features of the art world that might depress and overwhelm you, so you need to develop an unshakable core. Most artists suffer considerably from financial stress and most also experience a lot of rejection. You must not be afraid to fail or embarrass yourself in your work. If you’re afraid to try something new, how will you develop your own voice?
4. Don’t Wait for Inspiration to Strike
As a professional artist, I haven’t been able to afford to wait for inspiration. In the most prosaic sense, my inspiration has been that I have bills to pay. I understood early on that if I was going to be an artist I had to approach art as a business, rather than wait for inspiration. I have found the best solution is simply to go into the studio and start to work whether I feel inspired or not. Typically, the very act of drawing or dipping a brush into paint is sufficient to get me started and inspiration almost inevitably follows.
5. Spend Enough Time on the Backend
I split the week up in terms of 70/30. The 70 percent is the actual making of the work and the 30 percent is the getting of supplies, communicating with galleries, updating Artwork Archive—the “backend of the artwork” stuff. It’s important to me because I know a lot of artists that say they aren't doing that well, but they think they can get away with one or five percent of the backend work.
That's where Artwork Archive comes in. When a gallery comes in, I can pop them out a PDF in seconds. It makes me look good compared to the other artists. Most artists aren't organized and this helps me to be organized.
An average day for artist Oliver Jeffers.
6. Grow and Use Your Contact List
Your contact list is really important. I’ve gathered the contact information of people from all my past walks of life. I regularly send out emails to my list with a new painting. It reminds people you're there and shows the growth you're making. I have sold many paintings through my emails.
7. Don’t Overlook the Importance of Quality Images
Label your entries precisely and consistently. Before you frame your art, have it photographed or scanned (No iPhone images). Color correct and crop your images (There is no excuse for not doing this. There are free programs on the web that you can use). Do not show backgrounds, floors, or easel stands. Display a consistent body of artwork, which shows you are serious about your art.
8. Stick to a System
It’s important to have a system in place. When I finish a work, I take photos, put the piece information into Artwork Archive, put the new piece on my website, and publicize it in my newsletter and social media. I know each step I have to do after painting, which makes the business side a lot smoother. If you don’t do that, it sucks the creativity out of you because you’re constantly thinking about it.
9. Focus on the Right Stuff and the Rest Will Come
The number one thing you should focus on is producing the best art that you can produce. Trick number two: invest in marketing. Potential clients have to see it before they can buy it. Trick number three: Treat your business like a business. I show up every day to do something related to my business. Getting into galleries, getting accepted to shows, getting invited to invitationals—these things come after you do the first three tricks.
10. Never Give Up
People told me that being a painter was not a real job. Today, I proved them wrong. I don’t regret it. I get up every day to do a real job which I like. The passion is what’s most important. Without any pretension, I knew what to expect on the difficult path of a professional painter. No matter what we are told, advice or warnings, we have no choice but to follow our calling.
Ready to make a living doing what you love? You just need to get organized. Sign up for your free 30-day trial of Artwork Archive today.