There are many things you should consider before you decide to become an artist.  My General advice is to get as much advice as possible from professional artists, preferably artists that are successful or makes a living via art.  Being an artist is a career choice full of fun challenges that is rewarding, but as with any career, there are a few drawbacks. I’ve been a Professional Artist since 2007 and it’s only almost 11 years later that certain structures started to fall in place and all the hard work started to bear fruit.

I’ve written this article in the hope that it will help beginner artist to start their career on the right foot and spare them some of the pitfalls along the way.

10 Things I wish I knew before I became an artist

Being an artist is the same as being an entrepreneur and like any business in the world, promoting your product/services should be a consistent part of your business plan. The best thing of all is that you don’t need to study marketing or spend thousands of rands on courses. Most of the information is freely available on the internet.

I spend between 4 – 6 hours a month listening to Youtube videos or reading articles and although many of the information might be repetitive I do pick up a few ideas or advice on my way.

See below some books that I can suggest:
Art Inc. – The Essential Guide for building your Career as an Artist

Don’t wait till you deem yourself “worthy” to feature in art galleries to start showcasing your work to the world. If I had known what I know now I would have created my Facebook Art Page even before I finished studying art.

The earlier you can start, the quicker you can learn what works for you and what doesn’t. Secondly, it takes time to build up a network of a target audience. The sooner you can start, the better.

General Tip:
Don’t worry too much about getting gallery representation.  Getting into a gallery is great, but it is more important to learn how to sell your art directly to the public and build up your own fan base.

Taking a few photography lessons or even a full course is an absolute must for every serious artist whether your create miniature Jedis or lifesize sculptures. Not only is this great for when you need great reference photos to work from, but also to take pictures of your own work. I don’t regret many things in my life, but not having good quality pictures of former work that I still love is definitely one of them.

As an extra tip – always take photos of every artwork you create. You will most probably delete some as your art style/direction progress, but that is better than having no photos of artworks especially those you already sold.

It is good when you are just starting out to try all the different subjects matter, styles and mediums you can find. But as your progress, you will notice that you are better in certain subject matters and art mediums than others. Later, you might even realize that certain themes tend to stick up its head in most (if not all) of your artworks. Out of personal experience, I know that this was something that I really struggled with. Today, the answer is obvious, but it takes a while for your heart and mind to align.

Read Finding your Artistic Voice for tips on how to find your niche.

I can’t tell how many times, I seriously considered giving up on my art career and just sticking to my main income which is Graphic Design or even going into a completely different direction. Luckily, God knows when I need a real picker upper and call it my hardheadedness, but I just can’t give up.

You will just need to stick to your guts and keep on keeping on. This will take a lot of time and sometimes the journey will be more downhill than uphill, but you need to go through this so that you can learn and grow as an artist.

What really helps is to never compare your career to anyone else’s – always compare it to your former self. If you see any growth, whether it is in your craft or expanding your network, you are on the right track.

I made the mistake of doing pencil commissions for so cheap that I had no time to get to my own artistic endeavors. This led to so much frustration, that I almost completely stopped doing commissions. Luckily, since then I have made major changes to my pricing structure. My pricing is almost 16times more than my original pricing and I am already considering increasing it so that I can add branded packaging.

Changing my pricing structure has made it possible for me to utilize my profits to not only buy new art material, set up my studio but also spending a percentage back into marketing and courses to improve my craft. Furthermore, it also makes it worth my time and effort to actually provide value to my customers and not just rushed off drawings.

Extra Tip:
Always ask for a deposit. Minimum 50% or even more.

Unfortunately, one of the negative aspects of studying art and the art world in its own capacity is that there is a lot of snobberies involved. It is easy to pick up this attitude as you go, but personally, I believe it hurts more than benefits.

I have had the privilege of talking with many well-known artists and one of the common trades that I see among most is that they are really nice. They make effort to get to know you and I don’t mean spending hours talking – just asking a little bit about your work or giving tidbits of advice. This not only makes them memorable and endearing but I believe it benefits their art career as this make it easier for people to share back ideas or even info about opportunities etc.

Being nice doesn’t mean you need to be a people pleaser, but learning how to talk to people and being as approachable as possible will make it easier to expand your network.

I know this sound counter-intuitive, but its true.  See below the key reasons why it’s important to stay true to yourself.

  1. If you can’t connect to your own work, you can’t expect buyers to do the same.
    I’ve found that in more than one incident that the art that I really wanted to create was not only among the most enjoyable but usually my best-sellers.  I think this is because the joy or the connection you felt while creating an artwork shows in the end result.
  2. Creating art with the idea to sell is a recipe for substandard art.
    Because you don’t experience joy or connection during the creative process, you will end up hating to create art and it will show in the results.   You might rush off a project to complete and not spend the correct amount of time to refine details or areas.
  3. Don’t compromise your vision or Voice
    It is better to rather have an alternative source of income than compromising your vision.  You have a unique story to tell and there is somebody out there who needs and wants to hear it.

PS: This point excludes commissions, which usually won’t necessarily be subject matters that you enjoy. Therefore, it is important your pricing structure is good so that it makes it worth your while to spend time on it.

I am a big advocate that artists should do workshops or even take lessons with private art teachers. Yes, you can teach yourself with youtube videos and even self-help books, but sometimes that extra eye or just being in a class with other artists can really benefit you. On your own, you can only push yourself to a certain extent and the growth is usually substantially slower.

Last year, I had the privilege to do a figure drawing class with Pauline Gutter and just a few things that she said I believe already made a difference and gave me a new perspective. I am lucky enough to have had the privilege to study art under amazing artists and the stories they tell and advice they gave still sticks with me. But yet, now that I know what I know I really wish I had saved up more money to take courses with as many possible teachers as possible.

This is also where it becomes extremely important to specialize in a specific direction. When you specialize it makes it much easier to find the right teachers. As well as, to master a specific set of skills because painting landscapes are different from painting portraits vice versa.

This goes hand in hand with art marketing. If you are serious about pursuing an artist career, you must learn what it means to be a professional artist.

This includes, but is not limited to:

Pitching up at time
Keeping good records of artworks
Not underselling your artworks at gallery exhibitions
Setting up professional quotes/invoices
Keeping artworks exhibition ready
Understanding how the art market works
Good Article to read: When are you ready to call yourself a professional artist?

Last Thought
As like any career, it is not a case if you will experience downtimes but more when. The key is not to get discouraged, to pick yourself up when you fall.

Staying positive will play a major role and you really need to speak life over your career especially during your low points. Life and death are in the power of your tongue.

Last but not least.
You will get criticism, sometimes it will be just downright mean and other times people will say it to help you. Unfortunately, you will get people who will react out of their own personal views, small-mindedness, and even downright jealousy.
The wisdom lies in learning what you can take to heart and what you should ignore.