How to Survive as an Artist
This all started when I was asked one simple question-- "How do I survive as an artist?" I instantly realized that I had been challenged to put together all the major aspects of what being an artist in this day and age is about, and to combine them into one unified approach. In other words, my task was to figure out what has to be in place in your or any artist's creative life in order for you to not only survive, but also to thrive as an artist.
Now of course your art comes first, we all know that, but this is not about what to make or how to make it; that's your business and yours alone. And your creative process aka the magic that happens in the studio, that's all you as well, and no one else. As I'm fond of saying, "What happens in the studio stays in the studio." This is about what to do after you make your art, once it's completed, ready to leave the studio, and be presented to the public, to that vast and fabulous art world and all those who populate it.
Over the years, I've come to realize more and more that succeeding as an artist is all about keeping people in the game, about making sure they understand what you're up to at every step along the way, from first contact with your art right on through to final purchase. The key is to make yourself accessible, available, and welcoming to everyone who may show interest in your art no matter what the circumstances. You want to make sure people can appreciate what you're doing, what your purpose is, and what your art is all about. Doing that job well will definitely increase your chances of success.
You can't simply put your art out there, and then with little or no effort on your part, hope for the best. You can't expect people to somehow get up to speed on what they're looking at, figure out how to buy it (or whether it's even for sale), contact you with any questions they might have, and basically advance all the way to purchase without your assistance. That's way too much to ask. You have to be available and prepared to get actively involved in guiding them from start to finish, to make sure they don't get lost or confused or worse yet, give up.
You have to get people comfortable around your art and slow them down long enough to take that all-important longer look, whether online or in person. You are the one responsible for giving them reasons not only to spend time looking at your art and understanding your purpose in creating it, but also for convincing them to hopefully add it to their collections, or give you shows or exposure, represent your work, or whatever else you may be looking for. And you do this by presenting yourself in ways that reach out, welcome, deepen, and enrich their experience of both you and your art.
Making sure people understand, appreciate, and see meaning in your work is your responsibility, not theirs. I come across way too many artists who, when talking or writing about their art, talk only about themselves-- why they do it, the pleasure they take in making it, how wonderful it makes them feel, how it enriches their lives, what it does for them. That's all great of course, and exactly how the creation of art should be, but talking only about yourself and leaving out the viewer is a major mistake. I'm always delighted to hear when artists love what they do; really I am. But at the same time, I feel kind of out in the cold, wondering what's in their art for me or why I should even care.
You know what's in it for you; now you have to figure out what's in it for us. If you leave us hanging there, out of the equation, we really have nowhere to go in terms of why we should welcome your art into our lives, continue to look at and learn about it, and most importantly, understand the value of owning it. In other words, you have to figure out how to convey all those marvelous, fabulous, and fantastic benefits that you get from creating your art so that we can enjoy them too. We want that.
Here are some big questions you really have to think about anytime you present your art to the public-- online, in person, at galleries or anywhere else. What's it going to do for us? What makes it worth owning? Why should we hang it in our homes or offices and look at it everyday? How is it going to make our lives better? People don't come right out and ask questions like this, but rather look for the answers when reading or communicating with you about your work. Realizing what's in it for them really matters. The more effectively you present your art, the more it resonates with them, the longer they hang around, the more attention they pay, and the greater the chances that you're going to gain followers, fans, get shows, make sales, and accomplish all kinds of other good things.
Plenty of people will like your art at first glance, but along the pathway to ownership, liking it visually is only the beginning. When someone likes your art enough to actually slow down and approach or talk to you, email or DM or call you about it, then comes the dialogue. People want to know all kinds of things. They want to know about you as an artist, they want to know about your history, what your art means, how you make it, what the little blue circle is over there in the upper right corner, why there's only one tree, why that person's face is all scrunched up, and on and on and on. People will ask you absolutely anything and everything.
Think about this question/answer/conversation period almost like a job interview, like someone's thinking about "hiring" your art to improve their quality of life. Pretty much anyone who takes the time to talk or otherwise engage with you about your art has to be seen as a potential buyer. So here you are answering questions, dialoguing about your work, and hoping that whomever you're talking to likes what they're hearing, continues to nod their head in approval, and acknowledge that what you tell them is somewhere in the vicinity of what they're looking to get out of owning it.
A couple of questions you want to answer during the course of any art conversation, either explicitly or implicitly, are why you have chosen to become an artist, why art is such a significant part of your life, and especially why you want the public to see it. What you have to say about your art including its narrative, intangible qualities, its mystery or romance, etc. are really important for people to know. This information is often as meaningful as the art itself, especially with contemporary art and contemporary artists. People buy art not only because they like the way it looks but also because of the stories behind it.
If you believe that your art is worthy of our attention by putting it out there in front of us, then it's your responsibility to make sure we know why. You believe that you're making a contribution with your art, and it is up to you to define and present that contribution so that we can understand and appreciate the benefits of ownership as well. That is how you bring viewers into the picture-- by demonstrating the potential for your art to positively impact and enrich the quality of their day-to-day lives.
Now at this point, some of you may be thinking, "I have no idea what the contribution of my art is." But I will tell you straight out that I have never met an artist who, when they take the time to reflect on what they're creating and why they're creating it, can't come up with something-- and not only something, but something really good. Artists occasionally need a little prompting here, a little encouragement, but the fact is that many artists have simply never thought about their art in that way, about what it adds to the ongoing conversation.
Your art's contribution may have to do with physical aspects of the work itself like size, shape, color or the significance of the subject matters. It may be something about your process-- the way that you go about conceiving and creating your art from start to finish, your methods, your order, your ritual. It might be about how your ideas come to you, about how your compositions evolve. It may be autobiographical, a sharing of various aspects of your life, and tying them into universal experiences that we all have. It may be what your art signifies or represents-- an idea, a concept, a commentary, an inspiration, an emotion or emotions, a belief, a philosophy, or a particular perspective or outlook on life.
Whatever it may be, I guarantee you that if you sit down and think about it, and about all those intangible benefits that you enjoy each and every time you create a new work of art, that you'll come up with something we can appreciate as well, and we'll be mighty glad that you did because now your art means more. And the more your art means to someone, the more they'll want it to become a part of their lives.
Another important aspect of presenting your art is being able to distinguish it from all the other art out there. Why should people pay attention to your art as opposed to that of other artists? I'm not talking about this like it's some sort of competition, like what makes your art better or more worth owning than someone else's art, but rather that every artist's art is special in its own ways.
So what makes yours noteworthy? What makes it stand out? What qualities or characteristics make it unique? What extras come with your art that don't necessarily come with the art from the studio next door or the gallery down the street? You really have to separate your art out so people can see that it's not just another still life or abstract or figure painting or landscape or sculpture. Even though it may seem that way at first glance, it's not. It's more. You do this because people have choices when it comes to buying art, and you want to give them plenty of good reasons to choose yours.
So once you come up with all this stuff, where do you put it? How do you get the word out? This is your next responsibility. A great place to start is online. More and more art and artist news and information is posted and conveyed online. There's no better way to get your work out to the maximum number of people, like everyone on the face of the planet with access. And the best places to do it are on your website and social media pages. So let's talk a little about that.
Of course, all other forms of contact are essential as well-- no matter how or where they happen-- but every encounter you have, no matter what the circumstances, should always include access or point back to your website and social media. Your website is your home base, where you control the show, where no one but you decides how to organize, present and contextualize your work. As for social media, that's where the interactions happen-- dialogues, conversations, messages, and more-- where people can reach out to you personally, and where they can watch your artistic life and work unfold in real time.
In this age of instant gratification, people who visit your website or social media typically have two basic questions: "Where am I and why am I here?" And they want to know now-- like within about 30 seconds or a minute of landing on your pages. People have exceptionally short online attention spans these days, and if they can't figure where they are fast, they're usually gone in a flash.
But there's another even more important reason why these questions have to be answered. One of the greatest advantages of the online world, and one that artists consistently overlook, is that complete strangers can land on your website, social media pages, or discover you and your art entirely by chance or accident. We're not only talking about art people here, but about anyone. The truth is that the more people who are able to land on your website or social media, quickly get a grip on where they are, and get interested enough to decide to take a look at your art-- no matter who they are or how they get there-- the greater your chances of ultimately broadening your fan base, advancing in your career, receiving invitations to participate in shows, getting gallery representation, making sales, getting commissions, being featured on art blogs or art websites, and more.
So here come the potential fans and followers. They somehow land on one or more of your pages. Now what? Well, they need to see your art immediately, maybe even an image of you in your studio surrounded by your art, along with brief introductory information or captions written in language that anyone can understand. Your objective here is to provide a quick easy welcome to your artistic world. This fast access format is essential because the more people who can understand and identify or connect in some way with your art FAST, the greater the potential for positive outcomes.
Please oh please resist the urge to use elitist art jargon that only 2% of people can understand; that makes no sense whatsoever. There's no need to try and impress people or lord yourself over them with your superior art knowledge. You want your website to be welcoming and accessible to everyone, and never exclusionary. The object of an opening presentation like this is to keep as large a percentage of both new and returning visitors on your site for as long as possible.
Think of any introduction or brief description of your art like a movie trailer, the introduction to a good book, or a sampling of a song on iTunes. Think of them like teasers, enticements, like giving people just enough information to make them curious, to make them want to see more, like a fascinating tale is about to unfold. Keep the length brief, the shorter and more concise, the better so they can get up to speed and on to your gallery or social media pages as quickly and effortlessly as possible. And learn to use accurate hashtags on Instagram etc. Well-chosen hashtags greatly increase the chances that people who like your kind of art but who don't yet know you will have opportunities to see it.
You can have more detailed information on your website, like on your "about the artist" or "about the art" pages, but put any longer or more elaborate writings on pages that people might visit after they get familiar with the basics and want to take a more in depth look around, not on pages where they might go first. As for social media, keep things brief and to the point. Whatever you do, whatever the circumstances-- online, in person or anywhere else-- don't drown people in words. Always keep it brief, straightforward, easy to understand, and give just enough to make want to know more and see more, and not the other way around where they either can't wait to leave.
Now lets talk a little about about presenting your art to the world, to all those people who like what they've read enough to head wanting to see art. The following directives go as much for your website and social media as they do for anywhere else you have occasion to show your work-- at galleries, open studios, art fairs, art walks, or at any other art-related venues or events anywhere. The rules of presentation are always the same.
Your most important task by far is to present your art in unified, organized, understandable groups or collections or series as opposed to piece-by-piece, randomly, or all together in no identifiable order on the same web page or in your studio or at a gallery show or anywhere else. On social media, tag similar images, groups, series or bodies of work with special custom hashtags that you make up, so clicking those hashtags will take viewers to pages or "galleries" to see those specific groups. Showing all your art in confusing or disorganized ways or giving-- something that many artists unfortunately do-- is almost like throwing everything you have into a great big heap in the middle of the floor and saying to viewers, "Here, you figure it out."
I see way too much of this-- artists who never take the time to sort and organize their work in meaningful ways so that other people besides themselves can understand it. You understand it perfectly because you made it, but we don't know you that well and many of us don't know you at all. We don't know your art that well either, if at all, and we need help. So help us. Wherever and whenever you show your work, make sure that it's presented in an orderly organized manner that anyone can understand.
A couple of quick pointers here-- show mainly current work, work that you're actively producing. Don't show everything you've ever created, don't show too large a selection; keep thing relatively recent, like say within the past two or three years at the most. Don't show too many different styles, subject matters or techniques. Overwhelming viewers with too much variety or kinds of art only leads to confusion, and nobody buys anything they don't understand. As for early work, show it mainly when it has something to do with you're doing now.
While we're on the subject of presenting and organizing your art, this should also be how you go about creating your art in the first place-- with a sense of purpose, direction, with a plan-- and not randomly or piece-by-piece or whatever you feel like making whenever you feel like making it. Think of yourself like a novelist or playwright. A novelist doesn't simply write one chapter and say, "Here's my new novel." A playwright doesn't write a couple of scenes and call that a play. They complete each novel or play and then move on to the next. That's how you should approach your art-- as complete, self-contained, multi-episode, multi-chapter adventures in creativity, each series or body of work with a beginning, middle, an end, a point, a purpose, a message, a reason for being, or a reason for existing.
If you go to any established gallery that's showing current work by any established artist, in the overwhelming majority of cases it's like, "We have one product in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, and here's how they all go together." Then they hand you the single-page show statement or press release that quickly and conveniently explains it all. You will rarely if ever see a gallery exhibit a random or unrelated mishmash of art; everything always works together in some way.
When a gallery or artist does a good job of presenting a unified body of work, people may buy single pieces, but they're really buying the whole show, the totality, the complete experience. That's why in the art world so many gallery shows look the way they do. Art that's created and displayed in meaningful groups or series is not only more visually compelling, but it's also easier for people to understand, appreciate, get involved with, and ultimately buy.
With a good solid unified group of related works, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts; there's strength in numbers and a combined impact that simply does not exist with art that's created or presented in a disorganized, unrelated or random manners. A cohesive coherent body of work allows viewers to more easily understand what's going on and to have an experience that's far greater than what any individual work in the grouping is capable of providing on its own. You have to think of your mission as an artist in this way because that's the absolutely best way to get your point across to your audience, whatever your point may be-- from multiple perspectives as opposed to only one or two.
Now some artists think that if they produce a wide range and variety of work, then they'll be sure and have something for everybody. But what they often end up with is nothing for anybody because nobody can figure out what they're up to. Other artists say they don't want to get pigeon-holed into making the same type of work over and over and over again. But it's not that way. Working in purposeful groups or series, with a specific direction or focus or goal, is kind of like looking at something under a microscope. The closer you look, the more you see, the more deeply you get involved, the more you realize how many different ways you can riff on a single idea, composition, topic, or theme. By really focusing in on particular subject matters or styles or concepts or ideas, you become more and more skilled at nuancing each and every subsequent piece; you learn to master subtle details, techniques and effects, and in a sense, you become the expert in your chosen domain.
Think about the work of any famous artist; you can spot their art a mile away. Why? They know where they're going, are consistent in what they produce, and never stray very far outside of whatever guidelines or parameters they've set for themselves. You have to think about your art in much the same way.
OK. We're coming to the end of the line here, so let's talk about the larger purpose not only in being an artist and surviving as one, but also in using your special creative gifts to somehow benefit others and to increase the greater good. That's what it's really all about. Artists possess unique talents and abilities to express emotions, arouse feelings, explore sensitive issues, show us new ways of looking at things, and make powerful statements with their art.
Through your art, you have the ability not only to beautify and enhance people's lives and surroundings and environments, but also to bring them together, to incite dialogue, to produce work that acts as a bridge between individuals, that paves the way for us to communicate with one another, to open up and share our experiences. Sure, your art is about you; it represents who you are; it affirms your existence. But at the same time, it's also about cultivating relationships and about promoting some sense of unity and understanding among us all.
Think of your art as a discussion starter, as a means of reaching out to other people and affecting their lives, of offering your own unique perspective, of helping others to see things in new and different ways. Art breaks down barriers. It brings people together. It gives us permission to reach out to one another and it makes reaching out easier. Art sometimes even allows us to confront or broach difficult or sensitive subjects with total strangers because it's there to break the ice. That's what surviving as an artist is really all about-- about making a difference, a contribution that works to everyone's benefit.
Being a successful artist is not only about showing and selling and getting well-known; it's about understanding your purpose, your calling, and about presenting yourself and your art with unwavering confidence and conviction about who you are and what it stands for. Having a firm grasp of why you're in this profession and what compels you to make your work is key. Combined with a genuine willingness to experiment and explore new styles, subject matters and techniques, to continually evolve and advance in your practice, and to reach out to others in ever more creative ways-- that is what it means to not only survive, but also to thrive and prosper as an artist. Impact someone else's life with your art in a meaningful way and not only might you make yourself a sale, but you will also endow the world with just a little tiny bit more good.
(art by Yoshitomo Saito)
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