So you want to be an artist. Cool. Someone gave you a mighty fine new digital camera for Christmas, or that beginner set of oil paints you’ve been coveting. Exceptional. Go take photos. Paint. Play the hell out of the new guitar you got. I’m all in favor of creative expression. As Gaiman said, “Go make better art.”
What’s that? You want to be a professional artist? Oh, well that’s a different kettle of fish altogether.
First, ask yourself a couple questions.
- Why do you want to be a professional artist?
- What is your definition of professional - and does it play across the board, regardless of vocation?
- What do you know about marketing and business?
- How thick is your skin?
- How honed is your self-discipline?
Let’s take these one at a time.
1. Why do you want to be a professional artist?
If you have a romantic concept that it will mean setting you own schedule, working only when you want, and only on what you want to, and that you will be paid in shiny gold ducats for said labors of love, please don’t quit your day job. As a self-employed artist you will work harder for yourself than you will ever work for someone else. At least, you will, if you’re doing it right. You won’t take the time off that you think you’re going to take off - and even when you do, your brain will still be working. If, on the other hand, you really can’t imagine doing anything else, and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to make this work, then you’re in a decent place to start.
2. What is your definition of professional?
Technically, someone’s a pro once they get paid for whatever it is they do. That definition’s a little thin though. Think about the qualities that engender respect: treating the consumer/collector/public well; being on time and responsible; delivering a quality product/service - consistently. If you’re a musician or writer, you’re probably already somewhat prepared mentally to do “gig work” so that you can afford to do the work that’s closer to your soul. Good. (If not, again - for the love of all that’s holy, don’t quit your day job.)
If you’re a visual artist however, you’re probably less inclined to have even thought about gig work. But its there. The pieces that don’t fire you up 110%, but which sell. Do them anyway. Do them with the same amount of care and attention that you give all your work. Deliver them on time. Respond to your collectors, gallerists, and - well - everyone - in a timely and respectful manner. Regardless of their attitudes, politics, or whatever it is that might rub you the wrong way. Its a business relationship. Unless of course you’re Chik-Filet or some other biased (and huge) company. (Hint: you probably are not.)
3. What do you know about marketing and business?
Hey, guess what? You’re self-employed. Chief cook and bottle washer, accountant, publicist, janitor, stock person, mailroom, marketing executive, CEO, CFO, and everything in between. In short, if it needs doing, you’re doing and you better know how, or be able to figure it out. Or, you are going to need to be able to afford to hire someone who does. But that doesn’t happen right away.
Learn about marketing. Preferably from a job you already have, if you can. If you work in business, great. Pay attention! Those skills will translate to any other business. If you work in retail, great. Pay attention! What sales collateral (flyers/advertising/sales/special offers etc) work - and why are they working? Notice the layouts of ads. Notice the colors/fonts etc. When are sales announced? How often and how deep are the discounts? Notice these things and then apply what works and is comfortable for you to your own business. Yes, I know. You’re an artist. But if you want to do this thing full-time you are also a damn business.
Can you set up a business plan? Budget for the fiscal quarter? Keep track of your inventory and your income vs expenditures? And no, just using your personal checking account for everything is not the way to go. Please trust me on this. You will thank me later. Or, again, if you’re overwhelmed by these very broad brushtroke concepts - keep your day job!
4. How thick is your skin?
Seriously, how thick? Can you take rejection and criticism - even when its not constructive and have it roll off like its water? Can you take the constructive stuff and turn it into gold? Your work is like children. They go out into the world and make their own way - hopefully you did a good enough job during the “formative” phases that they will do well. But they might not. That’s ok. Learn from it and do better next time.
I know a number of artists who are invested in being misunderstood. They blame that fact for every show that they don’t get, or each show that fails, or their lack of sales. Its a cop out. And a sure-fire way to ensure that your skin never thickens enough to take the really big chances which may have really big payoffs. If you’re Emily Dickinson, and don’t want to share your work with the world… you know what I’m going to say here, right? Yeah, that thing about the day job.
5. How honed is your self-discipline?
Don’t feel like working today? Not feeling [ahem] inspired? Cool. When you work for someone else, you can still go into work and basically phone it in, right? Have an off-day. Spend extra time at the water cooler. Unfortunately, for the self-employed, inertia feeds more inertia. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. Do something. Anything. Doesn’t matter if its crap. Just practice. Musicians do this - every day. Its expected. Expect this of yourself, no matter your medium. Can’t do that? Don’t quit your fucking day job.
I know this all sounds like a huge diatribe against working full-time in the arts. It is not. I believe our world benefits greatly from as much art as possible. I believe that creative minds shift and shape our world in untold ways. Its like air to me - I can’t fathom a world without the arts. I read voraciously, listen to all sorts of music, and paint every day. This life as an artist is exactly right for me. It is not right for everyone - and it is not an easy or simple road. If its the right road for you, every time I said, “don’t quit your day job” you laughed. Or planned, or schemed or plotted how to prove me wrong.
Please, prove me wrong.