I get asked a lot what advice I have for artists just starting out. It's a hard career to navigate, since there's not clear cut path that looks the same for all artists. We take so many roads to get to where we are and there are so many paths to choose from for the future. I have lots of friends who are professional artists and none of our careers look exactly the same. Hooray for so many ways to succeed in this business, right?
I've narrowed down my advice to three points that I think really helped me when I started out.
1. UNDERSTAND THE FIELD
If you're going to be a professional artist and try to make a living selling your work, you have to understand that success is slow. The fine art industry is not like other industries. If I were to set up a table of delicious smelling, homemade donuts for $1 each, there's a good chance they'd fly off the shelves. They're a small commitment. An impulse buy. Instant gratification. You have to understand that, for the most part, fine art is rarely these things. Most sales happen as the result of a longtime fan who has had contact with you/your work over and over until one day they make a commitment and buy a piece. If you take a bunch of work to a market to sell, you'll probably go home with most of that work. Art moves slowly. Lucky for us, it's a much bigger payoff than the $1 donut. But that's the other side of it too. Original artwork is worth a lot of money, and priced accordingly. As an artist, you must understand this, accept it and educate the rest of the world about it. There will be buyers who experience sticker shock at the price of an original piece of art. That doesn't mean the price is wrong. It means it's not the right time or the right buyer. Plenty of other industries charge hundreds per hour for their services (lawyers and plumbers and mechanics alike) and most people aren't shocked by their prices. For some reason, a large portion of society doesn't understand our industry and the time and value of the work we're doing. But, fortunately, there are several buyers who do value what we do and are willing to invest in it. Focus on them and getting your work in front of them as often as possible. Every painting only needs one wall. As your career grows, you'll attract the right attention from the right people. But it will take lots of time and lots of work. Success is slow. Keep working and you'll get there. The more you paint, the better you'll get. Do research on the professional artists around you and where they're priced, where they sell, what they offer, etc. The point isn't to duplicate all of them (more on that below), but to understand the field you're working in and how your art can fit into that.
2. BE PROFESSIONAL
I've always been somewhat frugal, and for years this carried into my work as an artist. I would skimp on how much paint I used in college because I felt like each tube was so expensive. I wanted it to last longer, so I'd use really thin coats (to the detriments of the paintings). I bought cheap paints, canvases, brushes, easels and in the end my paintings looked exactly that.... cheap. When I graduated from college, I had a degree saying I was a real artist, but I didn't feel like one. I continued to do bad paintings with bad supplies for years. One day, my husband (who I credit for giving me the push I needed to pursue my dreams) said, "Steph, if you want to paint like a professional, you need to buy professional paints." He was right. The thing is, no one comes and knocks on your door and says, "Guess what, you're not an amateur artist anymore, you've made it!" The decision to be professional is up to you. It sounds silly, but deciding to be a professional was one of the things that changed my work. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, it made me a professional. I swallowed my frugality and invested in really good art supplies across the board. I paid attention to what other professionals were using and got the things that fit with what I was doing. More than that, I became official. I got a business license, got a website, got business cards, put my work in juried shows alongside other professional artists--I did everything I could to look the part. There's a saying "fake it till you make it." In my experience, it felt like faking it WAS making it. I took myself seriously, and suddenly everyone around me did too.
I still remember filling out an application to put a painting in one of my early shows and checking the box "professional" instead of "student" or "amateur." The attendant questioned me on it and said, "You know if you're a professional it means you actually sell your work." I had sold several paintings at this point and felt like I was being honest. She pressed one more time and I handed her my business card. She said, "Oh, you have a WEBSITE! Of course then!" Ha ha. She was much older than me and went on to say that it was rare to see someone so young that was a professional. But that's exactly my point. You can have a degree and have painted for years and still be checking the "amateur" box. Or you can declare yourself a professional and make yourself just that.
Here's a big part of this point--being professional means being confident about your work. As an artist, we're always going to look at our pieces and see the flaws and what we could still change and tweak to make it better. That's fine to keep that inner critic in your studio--they help you create better work. But when you're speaking to others about your work, always, ALWAYS speak professionally. No apologizing about what you should've fixed or why it isn't better. When people compliment it, answer with a simple, "thank you." Pay attention to how other professional artists talk about their work. In private, with your closest circle you can talk about what you really think of your art and confess your fears. Everywhere else, stand by your work. I was at a critique recently with other artist friends and we were talking about one of our peers' paintings. Someone commented on a part of the painting that made them feel uncomfortable because it looked wrong. The artist answered, "Good, that's exactly how I wanted you to feel." We all laughed. In truth, that part of the painting was wrong and he did, in fact, end up fixing it, but I loved his response. Because art can be whatever we say it is, and there's a great deal of freedom to be confident in that. Own your work. Sure, you'll get better in the future the more you perfect your craft, but own where you're at today.
3. BE YOURSELF
Back when I was single and dating, I had some roommates who went on multiple dates (with different guys) every weekend. It was natural to feel competitive and intimidated by the sheer numbers of their stats compared to my own. I started feeling an urgency to watch them closely and mimic their behaviors so I could duplicate (what I perceived was) their success. After a while I, thankfully, came to an important realization: I didn't want to date as much as they did. That wasn't me. One of my roommates had a wonderful personality that was so open to soaking up any personality around her. She was sincerly happy getting to know any person she could, whether or not they had marriage potential. This was one of the reasons lots of dates worked for her. I, on the other hand, was much more selective. I would rather spend a weekend solo than go out with people I felt no connection to. I felt a stronger desire to feel at peace and happy with myself than to try and win a perceived social competition that no one was keeping track of anyway. I started writing several post-it notes that said "Be Steph" and left them in places I spent a lot of time-- my room, my car, my desk, etc. I realized that someday someone would fall in love with me because I was me, not because I was a clone of anyone around me.
Thankfully, marriage isn't based on the quantity of dates you've been on, and I eventually met and married a man that fits me more perfectly than I ever could've dreamed up. I still remember when he came to pick me up for one of our first dates and I heard one of my most stunning roommates answering the door. Oh great, I thought to myself, he'll probably fall in love with her just like every other guy does and that'll be the end of this. I'll never forget what I saw as I came around the corner and down the stairs. He was politely making small talk with her, but his face LIT UP with a big smile when he saw me. He didn't want her at all, he wanted ME. (I'm still floored.) Isn't love grand?
So, back to art. There are going to be lots of artists all around you with all kinds of levels of success. It's very tempting to start mimicking their every move and trying to piggyback off their popularity and whatever magic is making them have the kind of success you (perceive) you want. Some of that piggybacking is natural and good. But be careful. The world doesn't need hundreds of the exact same artist. What YOU have going and what YOU want to create is different and interesing and wonderful in its' very own way. Celebrate that. Steal the best tips and tricks and supplies and things that will help your art, but don't forget to keep making YOUR art, not theirs. It may take time for people to notice what you have going on, but that moment will come. Someone's face will light up with joy at the thing YOU created, not anyone else's. Be yourself. Keep painting your very best work, and the rest will work out.