|Sunlit Slope, pastel, 14x18|
A recent painting just off the easel this week.
Something a little different on my blog today. I received a request from TheLadders.com, an online career resource, to write a blog post directed toward young adults currently entering the workforce.
With my current career as a fine artist, I wasn’t sure how my advice would apply here. But I’ve held careers in both the creative and the corporate worlds. I started in a creative career (advertising art director) in the mid-80s, then switched to the corporate world (marketing communications), and then back to a creative role as a fine artist (oil painter/pastel artist and instructor) about 12 years ago. Especially in the early part of each of these careers, there are things I wished I did and didn’t do at that time in my life.
Following are two sets of advice: First, some general advice for any twenty-something starting his or her career. Then following are my suggestions for young artists wondering if it’s possible to make a livable income in the fine art world (specifically as a representational painter).
For any twenty-something making the leap into the working world, here are five things I wish I knew:
1. Look for growth opportunities more than the biggest starting salary. I started my career in advertising, working as an art director in a few different ad agencies over the years. Early in this career, I missed a chance to get my foot in the door of a major New York ad agency. I was showing my portfolio to an art director who was working with a writer on a deadline the day of my interview. They liked my work and asked if I wanted to hang around and help a little on a project they were working on. I knew they meant “for free” which didn’t appeal to me, and I politely said I couldn’t stay. Big mistake. I was living with my parents at the time, had no major expenses and didn’t have a full-time job. Yep, I blew it. Depending on how flexible your financial situation is, don’t discount short term unpaid or low pay work that can get your foot in the door to an ideal opportunity.
2. Join stuff. Whether sports, church groups, volunteer organizations, etc., the more contact you can make with active people who stay busy, the more connections you’ll have. More of an introvert? Read #3.
3. Be sociable. Okay so anyone who knows me personally knows I’m more of an introvert. It took me a long time to figure out the importance of socializing. And it still doesn’t come naturally to me. At the start of my career, I was so sure that burying my head in work and getting as much done at my job as possible would get me further in my career. But it really did the opposite. While my coworkers appreciated that I would get plenty done and meet my deadlines, I had a real hard time with the interpersonal skills needed to go further. For those of you who maybe spent a little too much time socializing during your college years, you probably don’t need this advice.
4. Don’t live beyond your means. At the start of your career, it may be tempting to finally own nice stuff or have your own place. But unless you have a bottomless trust fund, keep your living expenses low. This frees up more cash for item #2 above. Although I was never a big spender, in my 20s I was excited to finally have my own place, but would have been better off splitting expenses with a roommate. I eventually did that for a few years in my early 30s during a transition between careers, which allowed me to take some classes and get some additional work experience with unpaid internships, which lead me to my ideal job in my second career.
5. Always remember: The number one purpose of any job for which you’re hired is to make your boss’s job easier. It’s not to entertain you with interesting projects or to lay out your perfect career path. It’s so your boss can get his or her job done more efficiently. While it’s great to have confidence in your abilities and strive for an enjoyable career, don’t overestimate why you’re there.
|Evening's Final Glow, oil, 18x24|
On its way to Weiler House Fine Art Gallery in Fort Worth, TX.
So you want to make a living as an artist? There are many roads that can lead to a career in fine art. Here are ten things I’d recommend every young artist should know:
1. Give yourself more time than you think. Since art is subjective, it’s difficult to get a straight answer from most people regarding whether or not you’re “good enough.” In short, it’s best to assume you need more time to develop your skills as well as your knowledge of the fine art world in general. As with many other professions, in your early 20s, you’re usually not even aware of what you still need to learn. It’s very likely you’ll need more than four years of college to gain the momentum needed to launch an income-bearing fine art career.
2. Start with an art-related career other than fine art. Most young artists start out in an art-related field that has a more secure income. I enjoyed my early career as an advertising art director, despite the long hours (which I’ll claim as my excuse for #2 and #3 in my first list above). Although I wasn’t creating fine art drawings or paintings for a living, I was still developing my eye for composition and also working with illustrators and photographers. It also involved developing some business organizational skills. I did this back in the 80s, so of course this profession is very different these days in the age of technology, but still would have the same benefits to someone working toward a fine art career. Web design, graphic design, illustration and animation are just a few other art-related professions from which fine artists later emerge. If I were to do it over, I would have forced more painting time in my schedule during my busy years as an art director. If I had paid more attention to #s 2-4 from my list above, I could have gotten involved with an art center or studio and painted regularly on the weekends or evenings.
3. Or start with a career that gives you plenty of time to develop your painting skills. If you’d rather not dance around a fine art career, and can live pretty affordably, you might consider taking a part time job that pays the bills but gives you plenty of time and flexibility to delve into developing your skills, which leads me to #4 in this list…
4. PAINT LIKE CRAZY! Don’t even try to do anything professionally with your work until you have several hundred paintings behind you! (If you take any piece of advice from this list, make it this one!) For your first hundred or so paintings, don’t worry if anything is “archival.” Just paint. Make it as affordable as you can to paint A LOT. You’ll just get frustrated, and waste a lot of time and money, if you try to show your work to galleries, get juried into competitive shows, or sell anything on your own before you’re ready. Painting is a learnable skill, so if it’s not going well, you just need more time to learn and develop. Other than occasional classes/workshops and participating in any other learning opportunities, get as much mileage as you can at your own easel. I teach adults of all ages, and many of them ask me for advice on getting into galleries. There are the typical dos and don’ts of approaching galleries, but really the best way to get gallery representation is to get your work to such a level that the galleries find YOU! More on that further down…
5. Turn yourself into a sponge. This can apply to my first list above, too. When I was working in marketing communications (my second career) I started getting back into drawing and painting. A few years later I got caught in a company layoff just when my husband and I were getting ready to start a family. We decided that, since I planned to stay at home once a baby arrived, we would try out living on one income for a little while and see how it goes. Turned out it wasn’t for a couple of years before we had our son, but I made good use of that time. Since I’m a frugal person and viewed that free time as “gold,” in addition to lots of painting time, I went full steam ahead and turned myself into a sponge, joining several local art groups and taking advantage or any free or affordable learning opportunity. Just before I had my son, I was ready to start teaching beginner drawing classes part time, which worked out perfectly with my new “mom” schedule.
6. Exhibit your work locally, then nationally. Once you’re finally ready to start getting your work out there, if you get in the loop with your local art scene, you’ll learn about the local juried shows to enter. I’ve heard the rule thumb that once you’re consistently juried into the local shows and winning some awards, it’s time to enter the national shows. Many national shows are expensive to enter, so don’t bother until you’re ready. As you move up this ladder, the more prominent national shows will gain you good exposure. And many galleries pay attention to those national shows.
7. After your artwork has reached a marketable level, you’ll need to use both sides of your brain. Once you’re fully immersed in fine art as a profession, you’ll spend at least as much of your time in front of your computer as you will in front of your easel. Although it’s not in most artists’ nature, learn to be organized and think like a business person if you want to be able to make it profitable.
8. Use social media. These days, Facebook is huge in the art world. If you’re in your 20s, you know more about social media than I do, so no need to cover more on this one. Oh, and gallery owners hang out on social media, too.
9. Work toward getting published in an art magazine. Artists who have begun to gain national exposure are often invited to write an article or be part of an article for an art magazine, or you can submit a query to a magazine to be considered for an article. (Look at the magazine’s website, and buried somewhere on there are usually guidelines on how to do this.) Getting published is also a great way for galleries to find you.
10. Determine how you’ll earn your money. There are several directions in which you can go to generate your income as a fine artist:
a. If you enjoy talking directly to your buyers, traveling around the country to outdoor art festivals can be an option. Artists typically need to apply and be juried in just like a juried exhibition, and if accepted, will have a booth space at the festival (usually over a long weekend) in which to sell their artwork.
b. If you like to paint outdoors (“plein air”) and don’t mind chatting with onlookers, you might consider applying to plein air festivals where you would sell your work painted there at that location at the end of the week-long event. Most of the more prominent plein air festivals are either juried or by invitation.
c. Would you rather spend the time alone painting in your studio? Then letting galleries handle your artwork sales may be better. Galleries typically take 50% of the selling price, but they provide a consistent location for your work and staff it each day. Online galleries are also a great means of quick sales for small work. (Look up DailyPaintworks.com as one example.).
d. If you enjoy sharing your knowledge and love talking art with other artists, teaching may suit you well. Either weekly classes at a local art center or in your own studio, or if your work has gained enough of a fan base (via the methods mentioned above), you may be invited to teach workshops for studios and organizations around the country. Artists who have large studios also sometimes host workshops for other instructors as another means of generating income.
e. For portrait artists, you’ll want to acquire a steady demand for portrait commissions either through your gallery representation, online resources or word of mouth.
f. If you’re style lends itself to fitting in with most home décor or a particular subject matter niche, you could work with a print publisher that provides prints for large retail chains or corporations, or licenses your artwork images for use on products. Artists typically receive a very small percentage for each printed image, but in the case of very large quantities printed, it can be profitable for the artist.
Most artists earn their income from a combination of two or three of the above methods. There are other methods besides what I’ve mentioned here, but these are the more common ones. For me, a combination of teaching and gallery/online sales works well. But it’s important to stress that no matter how exceptional of a painter you are, in order to earn a livable income, you’ll need to market yourself and your work using at least some of the methods mentioned here.
With a fine art career, though, you first have to be comfortable with the responsibility of being self-employed and everything that goes along with it (i.e., covering your own health care and retirement). But if self-employment suits you, as with self-employment in any field, it can be very rewarding.
For the past year my husband has taken some time off to look into other career options, and my fine art career has been supporting us. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been fulfilling to know that it’s possible to support my family working at something I love.
Best of luck to anyone just entering the job market or to young artists reading this!