10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started My Art Career

By Anna Ortiz on September 6th, 2019

The life of an artist is glamorized and idealized, while the challenges of being an artist tend to be glossed over. Many beginning artists face criticism, frustration, lack of clear direction and difficulty becoming established. Overcoming these challenges will require you to work hard, stay focused, meet the right people and find new ways to gain as much exposure as possible.

1. Constructive Criticism Is Crucial

Constructive criticism is one of the most useful forms of feedback. In the course of your career, constructive criticism will take many forms. You’ll hear it from other artists, clients and (if you’re lucky) the people who know you best. Your first impulse may be to dismiss this criticism, but that would be a mistake. Constructive criticism will give you a glimpse into the minds of others. Your perspective on your work is typically skewed. Seeing your work as others see it will help you correct problems, learn from your mistakes and make your work appealing to a wider audience.

Some of the most valuable criticisms will come from people who are connected to your industry. Entering your pieces in shows, taking your work to galleries and sending your work out to industry professionals may garner some of the most useful criticism you will ever receive. Listen carefully, and learn. Once you can see the way that others see your work, you’ll be able to grow as an artist and a professional.

2. Set Goals and Make a Plan

Every career professional needs goals and artists are no different. Goals are an important metric of success. Once you’ve reached your goals, you’ll know that you’ve succeeded as an artist. A plan will enable you to achieve your goals.

Your goals should take a variety of forms. Most artists need to create long-term as well as short-term goals. Your long-term goals will sound rather lofty, far off and vague. An example of long-term goals includes: Become a children’s book illustrator. Sell enough paintings to pay the bills. Hold a solo art show at a major gallery.

Short term goals are much smaller and are meant to help you achieve your long-term goals. Your short-term goals will have deadlines and will involve a specific plan of action. Typical short-term goals include: Finish developing a portfolio. Introduce yourself at art galleries downtown. Join the local art league. Create a website, and so on.

Look back on your goals regularly and track your progress in a journal or on the computer. Add to your goals as needed, and keep refining your plan as you go.

3. Never Stop Practicing

Your talent may seem to come naturally, but quality work and a mature technique begin with practice. Practicing regularly in addition to completing paid projects takes discipline, especially when practicing involves working on your weaknesses. It will help to set a schedule for yourself. Block out times for working on paid art projects and separate times for practice. You may think of your paid work time a type of practice, but it isn’t. Practice time is a time to take risks, make mistakes and refine your technique. Use your practice time to experiment with new mediums, work on a new style or toy with new ideas. Hone your skills during your practice time, so your paid jobs can look that much better.

4. Not All Jobs Will Be Fun

Many artists go into their jobs for the joy and the fun of making art, but the reality of an art career may be different from what is imagined. Making art for a living may involve taking jobs that are less than enjoyable. You won’t always love the subject matter you’re asked to depict, and you won’t always like working with the clients that pay you for your time.

All jobs, not just art jobs, involve doing undesirable work. It is unrealistic to expect that every gig will be a joy and every new project will be a masterpiece. If you actually want to love making every piece of art and working every job, you may need to take on a part-time job to supplement your income. This will allow you to turn down work you won’t like without worry about money.

5. Learn to Talk About Your Art

Artists must learn to sell themselves, their art and their vision of the world. To do this, they must be capable of talking about their art. It’s not enough to make a beautiful painting, illustration or design. To sell your art to others, you must be able to describe what you did and explain why you did it. You must be able to discuss, at length, your method, the choices you make as an artist, and your personal motivations.

Ideally, the language you use will be eloquent and convincing. Especially when you talk to gallery owners, art editors and others who work in your industry. If you’re not comfortable talking about your art at length, consider keeping a journal. Write down your thoughts, talk about your process and discuss the personal choices you make when you create art. If you are in the business of selling your art to strangers, cultivate a stump speech to help you communicate your most basic ideas with people quickly.

6. Network

Networking is critical for all individuals who are in business for themselves. This is no less true for artists. Networking should, and will, take up the bulk of your time. If you don’t network early on, you may find it difficult to sell your work when the time comes.

Become comfortable going to galleries and introducing yourself to strangers. Keep a mailing list of new people, and send out regular postcards or emails to keep individuals in touch with your work. Attend art events and join an art league to meet people in your field who can offer feedback and keep you in touch with your local art community. Make contacts with local business owners, and discuss your services with them when the chances arise. Take time to make friends inside and outside the art world, and establish yourself as an active member of your community.

7. Utilize Technology

Technology is an important part of almost all careers, including careers in art. Keeping your portfolio online and maintaining a presence on social media helps. Make a quality website and refine it regularly. If you’re not comfortable designing and maintaining a website on your own, you can pay to have it made by a professional.

Don’t allow old information to sit for long on your website. Out of date websites are bad marketing tools which quickly become ignored. If possible, start a blog to keep your followers up to date on your new projects. Share tidbits about your methods, your style, and way of thinking. Use technology to keep in touch with those people who find your work interesting. Establish yourself on social media, and link your social media pages to the pages of people and businesses you know in your community.

8. Budget

Budgeting is essential for ensuring that your job as an artist is sustainable. How much should you charge? Are you making money? These are important questions that all freelancers, business owners, and independent artists must ask themselves. To start a budget, track the money you spend on materials, bills, food, studio space and other expenses. Track how much money you’re making from clients. Save at every opportunity to ensure that you’ll have something put away for when the work dries up. If you are struggling to save large amounts, start with saving your change and put away a few dollars at a time. Every little bit counts.

9. Know When It’s Time to Try Something New

Making art constantly can lead you into a rut. Styles can get stale when a process is repeated over and over again. Don’t be afraid to branch out and experiment. As your methods become routine, switch up your mediums, colors or the focus of your art. Study different styles and different masters. Keeping your art fresh is important for a successful career in art.

10. Be Tenacious

Making art for a living is hard work. Before you’re able to support yourself with a career in art, you’ll spend long hours working in the studio, meeting people and trying to sell your art. In the beginning, you may not be able to live on the wages that you make as an artist. The only way to succeed under these conditions is to remain tenacious. Determination and hard work make all the difference when trying to develop a career as an artist.

There’s not one right way to establish yourself in the art world, but many of the most famous artists have shared a similar sense of drive and toughness. These critical characteristics can help an artist to get through the most difficult times. Cultivating this drive and taking an organized approach to managing your art career can help you on your journey to becoming a successful artist.