I’ve been an artist for a long time but I still remember what it was like to be young and enthusiastic. The world lay at my feet. The sky was the limit!
We didn’t have the internet back then and I lived in a rural area. I didn’t know where the nearest museum or gallery was, but that was okay, because I knew about horses and I knew about art and that was all I needed.
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In the years since, I’ve learned that although passion is important, it’s not the only thing an artist needs. . . and I learned my lessons the hard way, in the Academy of Trial and Error. So if you’re where I was 40 years ago, I’d like to spare you some of those hard lessons, with 5 thoughts to help you on your artistic journey.
1. Try everything or stay focused?
The rule of thumb in the art world is to try everything, just to be well-rounded. If an artist is just starting out and doesn’t know what he or she wants to do it or how he or she wants to do it, this is great advice. Try different methods and mediums until you find the right combination of subject, style, method, and material.
BUT. . .
If you know from an early age what you want to do (as I did) and if you know how you want to do it (as I did) then that “rule of thumb” is not only a distraction, it can even impede your artistic progress.
If you know exactly what you want from your artistic journey, then you’re better off focusing on the things you want to paint, the tools you want to use, and the way you want to paint them. Learn everything you can about those things and practice, practice, practice.
It’s all right to learn about other styles and other mediums, but your passion should be your focus. Become the absolute best at what you do, until you’re the expert that you’ve always wanted to be.
2. Art school: yes or no?
Most occupations require some college-level training. No one would ever suggest a brain surgeon learn how to be a brain surgeon on their own! Even fewer would trust themselves to a self-taught brain surgeon.
Artistic endeavor doesn’t always fall into that category, however. You can often learn by trial, observation, and reading, and (in today’s modern era) instructional videos.
There are advantages and disadvantages to learning on your own versus learning at an art school. A good art school with respected and accomplished instructors interested in helping students develop individual skills are good. There’s nothing like the discipline that comes with regular classroom time and having to create to meet due dates.
Artists looking for training should take the time to match schools with their interests. If your passion is classical realism, don’t go to an art school the specializes in contemporary or abstract work. A classical atelier might be better for you.
And, if your work is all about the latest and greatest trends or in digital art, the classical atelier is not for you in most cases.
In short, don’t choose an art school because it’s popular or prestigious or “in.” Rather, choose a school that will help you accomplish what you want to accomplish as an artist.
But don’t be afraid to study on your own if no formal school seems to provide the learning you’re most interested in. You might actually be better off studying something related to your favorite subjects. So you like to paint horse? Have you considered a career with horses, for example?
The bottom line is this: look for learning opportunities that enhance and improve your creativity instead of stifling it. And trust me, that won’t be the same for everyone!
3. The search for style
It’s okay to learn your craft by duplicating the works of favorite artists. Students of most classical ateliers spend time in museums drawing or painting the work hanging on the walls. There’s no better way to learn how or why an artist did something than by trying to duplicate it.
But basing your style on the style of whoever is currently popular is not the road to success. You might be able to mimic Jackson Pollock’s style so well that people can’t tell the difference, but the best you can hope for is to be the second best Jackson Pollock that ever lived. The original, of course, will always be the best.
There is only one you. And you’re the only one who can be the best at your particular combination of life experience, passion, skill, and style. If you attempt to be someone else, you’ll short change yourself and deprive a potential audience of the work that only you could ever create.
Developing your style isn’t something you can do quickly. If you paint long enough and make enough paintings, your style will emerge organically. Don’t rush it.
And. . . don’t worry too much about it. The best things take time. Let your style be one of them.
4. Following the market
Do NOT follow the market. You’ll never catch up. By the time you produce enough work to impact the market, the trend will have changed. You’ll forever be behind the market curve, and what’s worse, you’ll never develop a body of work people will look at and say “That’s a (insert your name)!”
Don’t forget the first tip I mentioned above. Identify your special artistic interests and become the best you can be at that particular thing. You say you want to paint stuffed penguins? Then be the best stuffed penguin painter living. It doesn’t matter how specialized your target audience or how narrow your niche, there is someone out there who will pay for what you create.
5. Never give up
I can’t emphasize this enough. Building a career as an artist is not an overnight success sort of thing. Style develops if you do art long enough, and that’s always going to take time.
Finding a market takes time, making sales takes time. Even something that sounds as simple as finding gallery representation takes time. You can expect roughly 1 or 2 positive responses for every 100 galleries you contact. If you give up at 98 or 99, you’ve given up too soon.
In short, never, ever give up. Giving up is the quick, easy road, but that’s because it doesn’t lead anywhere. Persist long enough, however, and you will find some measure of success.
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