9 Things I Wish I’d Known as a Brand New Artist

By Carrie Lewis in Misc > Art Opinion

Time for a little bit of light-heartedness and a list. (I love these kinds of list articles. Once I get started, they just seem to go on and on.)

And this list article is about just that. Getting started, that is. . . nine things I wish I’d known when I was getting started as an artist. Keep in mind, of course, that I was getting started when I was still a teenager. I’ve learned a lot of unexpected lessons since then.

1.Not everyone considers art to be a “real job”

The fact of the matter is that a lot of people simply don’t understand the idea of someone making a living by being creative. That’s not a job; it’s a hobby and hobbies don’t pay.

This doesn’t apply only to visual artists. Musicians, writers, and other creatives are also likely to hear “Why don’t you get a real job?” from time to time. Often from well-meaning (or not) family members or friends.

Empty office building

The best thing to do is smile and go back to painting. People who don’t live with creative passions will probably never completely understand that creating isn’t like going to work. At least not all the time.

2. Just making art isn’t enough (to make a living)

Way back in the beginning, I had this notion that if I painted a picture, people would buy it. Learning the truth as something of a shock. You can create the most comprehensive body of work in the world, but if no one knows about it, you’ll never sell it. After all, who will buy something that they don’t know exists?

Creating is good. You have to create in order to have something to sell. But you also need to market it.

3. Art as a business isn’t all a bowl of cherries

Nor is it anywhere close to that. Sometimes it’s just the pits!

Full bowl of red cherries

Running an artist business is hard work, and most of it isn’t studio work. Until you start making enough to pay someone to do the basic, everyday tasks, you have to do them. Things like bookkeeping, order fulfillment, customer service, marketing, and the list goes on. Most of those things are not at all fun, but if you don’t do them, your business will falter.

(By the way, these kinds of tasks are what makes your creative business almost like a “real job.” I consider my administrative duties to be my day job. It certainly takes up enough time!)

4. Being creative can be. . . exhausting!

One of the first things I learned when I became a full-time artist the first time in 2002 was that I could paint for about four hours. Five hours on a good day. After that, mental energy and often physical energy ran out. I could keep working past that point if I wanted to, but it usually didn’t turn out well.

Don’t expect to be filled with creative energy 24/7. Know your limits. Take time to rest and recharge. You won’t be sorry. What’s more, you’ll probably be more productive in the long-term.

Lioness sleeping on a branch

5. It takes a long time to be “discovered”

Have you ever thought that if you painted the right piece or got your work in front of the right person, you’d have it made? I confess to looking for that perfect painting or client in my early years. A nice thought.

But not entirely realistic. . .

Most successful artists are discovered only after they’ve put in significant amounts of time creating art (yes, even bad art,) to have learned what works for them and what doesn’t. They’ve met clients. They’ve approached galleries. They’ve marketed.

Sideways hourglass

Sooner or later, all that work pays off and they begin succeeding. But what looks like overnight success to an outsider may have taken ten or more years to happen.

6. It takes more than passion to succeed

Passion is good. You have to have passion on some level in order to stick with your chosen art long enough to create it, and to create enough of it to develop a style. But there are times when passion fails, runs dry, or just isn’t enough.

That’s when you need something more than passion—you need dedication to your long-term goal. A dedication so deep and strong that it makes you go to the studio when you don’t want to, and that prompts you to create when the passion is lacking.

7. It takes more than talent to succeed

Talent, like passion, is good. But it, too, isn’t enough.

A person with only mediocre natural talent but the discipline to learn and practice and create will succeed more quickly than a prodigy brimming over with natural talent who never creates, or creates in a haphazard manner.

The best combination, of course, is talent and discipline. But even if you feel like you have zero natural talent, you can still learn, work hard, and succeed.

8. Your work isn’t as bad (or as good) as you think

I tend to look at all my work as unsatisfactory. That’s because I begin every project with an ideal vision of what it will look like when finished, and nothing—and I do mean nothing—has ever lived up to that ideal. The plain fact is that nothing ever will. Such is the nature of my ideals!

But another plain fact is that my work has improved over the years and I can prove it. So I try to temper the dissatisfaction that comes so naturally by looking at the good points in each piece and evaluating each piece on its own merits, instead of by comparing it to an unattainable ideal.

The reverse is also true. Some artists think everything they create is a masterpiece. Even the Old Masters were incapable of that! If you tend to think this way, you need to curb the tendency. If you don’t, you risk no longer trying new things or learning new methods. A surer way to stagnation there never was!

9, I don’t know it all (and never will)

LOL, I don’t know about you, but this is a lesson I have to learn over and over, decades after getting started as an artist. But it is an important lesson even so. Why? Because the moment you think you know it all, you stop learning. The moment you stop learning, you stop advancing. That spells stagnation. And none of us want that!

So that’s my list of things I wish I’d known when I started on my art journey. Would I have done things differently had I known them when I was getting started? I’d like to think I would, but who can say?

Even if another artist had told me these things, I don’t know if I would have believed them. Sometimes you have to live a little, to understand something. . . and I guess I really have learned a lot since then. Not all of it about art!


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