The Pro Mindset for Artists: How to Think and Act Like a True Professional

By Denise Ivey Telep in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

For all artists envisioning a successful, financially secure career in art, the following article is my attempt to offer a few guidelines, observations and warnings about how to be a professional artist.

Sure, you could probably learn these lessons yourself through trial and error, but for the sincere and emotionally vulnerable artist that can be an especially painful road.

So today I’m going to discuss the pro mindset that I believe all professional (and soon-to-be professional) artists should make an effort to acquire.

The stereotypical artist’s mindset on selling art

As a student, during my younger days, a common thought among my peers was that people who got paid for their art were commercial sell-outs.

If ever asked, “What is an artist?” I’d answer with all kinds of altruistic flowery and high sounding verbiage in an attempt to divorce myself from the baseness of the world.

I, after all, was an observer of humanity. . . above the din, contemplative and creative. I had a message.

Of course, the idealism of youth, in every profession, gives way to the reality of paying rent, buying food, and otherwise surviving—and using the interests and gifts you possess in service to humanity is usually the best way to do that.

In other words, if you want to live and earn as an artist, you have to grasp that artists are in the business of making a product or selling a service—and for this they are compensated, like every other profession.

What makes an artist professional or unprofessional?

Like any profession, there are expected rules of conduct in the field of art and design—but it’s often the artist that sets the standards by which he or she is treated.

Taking yourself seriously in thought and deed must be step one.

A disheveled, late, aloof, unreliable, scattered caricature of a “real” artist is certainly a romantic notion, but it’s also completely out of touch with today’s working professionals. To be paid as a professional, you have to cross that romantic line in the sand and see yourself as any other serious professional.

Would your doctor miss a deadline? Would your lawyer give free advice? Would your child’s teacher show up in dirty unkempt clothes? Would your landscaper spend an hour drawing a layout and then leave it with you without a signed contract?

Of course not. And neither should the professional artist.

Professionalism is seen in the way you conduct yourself, and also in what you allow. If you take yourself seriously, your requirements for doing business will be clear in your mind, and you will make them known at any appointment.

Set clearly defined limits, prices, and expectations

Commissioned work (as well as gallery or online sales) require a set of parameters, understood by both buyer and seller, that minimizes dissatisfaction for either party.

This often goes against the grain since artists are notoriously bashful about bringing up price and compensation for what they do and clients often undervalue the artist’s effort, and think that the time spent drawing, redrawing, or making changes should not result in an increase in price.

Some things to consider when writing a contract or discussing payment are:

Travel expenses. Do you charge for your time driving to a meeting place, and the cost of transportation?

Design rates. Do you have a set hourly cost for the time you spend designing or sketching preliminary ideas?

Consultation fees. When you are called in to discuss a commission, do you spend hours with a potential customer, uncompensated?

Revision costs. What will you charge for additions or changes to the work?

Balancing customer satisfaction and your own worth

Of course, once you start thinking of yourself as a professional, customer satisfaction can become a huge stumbling block. How happy should your buyer or client be?

Years ago, in the name of customer satisfaction, I occasionally found myself redoing commissions (not many thankfully) at my own expense. I did so because I was first and foremost an accommodating personality, but also because I was building a business based on my reputation.

Oh, and, I’d also made no provisions in my purchasing agreement for the advent of dissatisfaction, or whim of the customer. I wanted to keep my order form light and free of encumbrances! I was an Artiste, after all!

Today, that’s changed. I explain what I will do, what I will do in the event of changes, why I charge what I do, what they can expect in terms of completion, why it is important to me that they are at least satisfied, if not thrilled, and have them sign an approval for what I am providing.

Like any other professional, it’s then up to me to deliver on my promises.

Respect is earned by you and learned by your clients

My hope is that we, as artists, will raise the bar on the way the outside world sees and respects us.

New artists starting out may feel they have to give a lot away just to get a foot in the door. . . but cheapening your services or products is really just an indicator of your own lack of self respect.

On the other hand, inflating what you are worth is also unprofessional. Let’s face it—our work is generally worth what the last person paid for it. That may be a harsh reality for some people to hear, but it’s factual none the less.

As a general rule of thumb, if you do contract or commissioned art, conducting yourself as a professional means you arrive on time, ready and prepared. You already know how much you charge, you have your hours covered, you protect your time and you expect to be treated fairly.

In return, you honor your customer by producing a quality product within the agreed-upon timeframe and for the compensation you both initially decided on.

When faced with unusual requests or work that is outside your original agreement (which WILL happen) simply ask yourself—would a doctor do this for free?

If a customer asks you to just draw something up in a meeting so they can see it, without expectation of paying for it, they are indicating their lack of understanding regarding the value of the service we visual artists provide.

At that moment, it’s up to you to educate them (gently if possible). Explain that within our beautiful world of humanly created things there are very few objects which were not first designed by a visual artist.

From the fabrics covering their furniture to the clothing that they wear, from the look of fine china, the sleekness of a new sports car, the scenery of stage and screen, the visual worlds created by artists on computers, the masterpieces adorning both museums and refrigerator doors. . . all these contributions of visual artists, in all their unique disciplines, lift humanity materially, emotionally and spiritually.

As such, those things have value—just like your sketches, your time, and your efforts.

Your professionalism will only grow when you begin to fully recognize the value in your own work, and make that value clear to your clients as well.


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