Hobbyist, Amateur, or Professional Artist – Which are You?

By Aletta de Wal in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

You finally made it! You have a solo show at a prominent gallery that only represents top-earning artists. The room is full of excitement and the spotlights showcase your art spectacularly. The gallery staff did an outstanding job of displaying your work, and it looks absolutely stunning. Friends, collectors, and art world glitterati surround you.

It’s been such an exciting evening as you watched the “red dots” going up to indicate that most of the works in the room are already sold. These pieces sell for five and six figure prices, so this is quite a triumphant night for your art career. On top of that, you’ve had a couple of requests for interviews to feature you and your career in internationally celebrated art magazines.

The best part is the beaming faces about you—all your loving and supportive friends toasting your success with such delight. You made this happen. You created this art career for yourself through your hard work, talent and business acumen. “Great job!” you think to yourself. “Great job!”

Does this scene sound anything like your own dream? Can you see yourself there, or does it seem more like an impossibility?

It may be a long way out from where you are right now, but it can happen and it is a reality for many artists. As you might expect, though, there is a logical progression and a fair bit of work to becoming a successful artist.

Hobbyist, Amateur, or Professional

The first thing to understand is the difference between being a hobby artist, an amateur artist, and a professional artist.

As you read through the descriptions below, be honest with yourself. Once you recognize where you are starting from, it becomes obvious what to do next.

Are You A Hobbyist?

Hobby artists may spend years, decades, or even an entire lifetime making art strictly for personal pleasure. They want no responsibility for a business. They don’t desire to develop a following, sell their artwork, or try to support themselves with their artwork.

Hobbyists want to make art that they enjoy, whenever they feel like it. They may take art lessons, but they have no commitment to professionally developing their skills. They simply want to create, without turning it into work.

Are You an Amateur Artist?

At some point, the hobbyist might realize that this is an awfully expensive hobby and maybe they ought to think a bit about putting together some sort of business—at least so they could deduct the costs on their taxes.

Over the years, they’ve become quite skillful at art. Family and friends rave about how wonderful their work is and frequently say, “You should try to sell this.”

Or maybe their spouse is bugging them about the cost of their hobby and suggesting that they should consider doing art as a business. Whatever the case, they set up a business, sell a few pieces of art, and deduct their expenses. This is so exciting that they want to do more, and decide to become even more serious about their art.

Amateurs are willing to sacrifice their personal time in the pursuit of making art and selling it, but they’re usually not sure how to really make it pay.

Do You Want to Be a Professional Artist?

As their confidence and skills grow, amateur artists may start to seriously consider art as a profession. They like the money they make from selling their art and it’s great to deduct the costs at tax time. After expenses, they’re actually making profit!

With this may come a driving need to make a living solely from their art. Some artists start to do all sorts of random art marketing and jump at every “opportunity” that comes their way, whether or not it makes financial sense.

They may spend most or all of their art income taking art classes, yet never come up with a clear idea about what is required to make a living making art. All they know is that it is time to find out how to succeed in the art world.

Unfortunately, many artists eventually give up because they cannot detect a path to succeed. Since they don’t have a road map, they can’t follow through on doing what is necessary. These artists spend their time in unproductive activities. You don’t have to be one of them.

If you decide to go ahead and move from being a hobbyist to an amateur, you don’t have much to lose if it doesn’t work out. You can always go back to being a hobbyist. If you want to move from being an amateur to a professional artist, you are making a much bigger commitment.

I work with many artists who work part-time or full-time and who also make a substantial portion of their living from their art. Because they aren’t worried about their finances, many of them feel less pressured and are able to be more creative in the time they set aside for their art career. Having health benefits from employment is also a major factor, especially for artists with families.

What It Takes to Move From Hobbyist to Amateur

When you decide to move from being a hobbyist to an amateur, you must choose to give up some of your other pursuits, or the time you used to spend simply “doing nothing.” You need disposable time, energy and money to become a better artist. You give up free time to work on learning and practicing your art without expectation of being reimbursed.

If you are an amateur, you may well be just as talented as professional artists. But by staying an amateur, you have the luxury of working at your art when it suits you. You can take workshops to guide your exploration of making art, and have mentors to critique your work. When you improve, you can simply enjoy it, because your livelihood doesn’t depend on always improving.

On the other hand, if you are an amateur and you choose to stay an amateur, you will probably give up many chances to show your work and you will miss out on feedback from a wider audience. You will probably also never be well-known, or get paid what your artwork is truly worth.

What It Takes To Move From Amateur to Professional

If you decide to move from being an amateur to a professional artist, you must love doing what you do so much that you are willing to do it almost all of the time.

In fact, you must be prepared to use most of your time, energy and money to make a living from your art. You’ll also need to develop a unique style and constantly develop your body of work.

Perhaps you will need to teach others what you know as part of your strategy to become more visible and to make money. Without a doubt, to be financially successful you must be an entrepreneur with art as the core of your business.

To remain competitive in the art world, you should also invest in ongoing professional development, whether in mastering your medium, navigating the art world, or just doing business. You will also need to be willing to promote your work every chance you get.

These days, I often tell people who are considering the move into a professional art career not to quit his or her day job just yet. It’s a big decision and not one to be taken lightly. You don’t want to have regrets when you do, and you certainly don’t need more debts.

Put together an “exit strategy” first while you build a solid foundation for your successful art business. Plan out how you’re going to get where you’re going.

And when you have that solo show, make sure to invite me!


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