Starting an Art Business? Here’s What it REALLY Takes. . .

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

Many people have a romanticized view of the life of the full-time creative person.

That writer? She spends the day in her pajamas, writing and drinking hot tea (or chocolate or coffee or whatever). And that artist? He wears sandals, paint-spattered jeans, and a Hawaiian shirt. He wanders around scenic locations with a collapsible easel, looking for the perfect spot to paint.

There are similar romantic views of poets, musicians, and actors.

As widespread as those notions are, nothing could be further from the truth. Idling on the patio, the beach, or anywhere else just doesn’t fit into the lifestyle of the truly successful owner of an art business.

3 qualities you’ll need to start your art business

What inner qualities do you need to start an art business? Ask 10 different business owners and you might get a list of 50 qualities needed for success. But let’s start with the three most important ones:

1. Starting an art business takes discipline

All successful business owners share one primary quality, no matter what their business is—in a word: discipline.

And you’ll need discipline, too.

The reason discipline is so important is because most of us will be on our own when we start our business. It will be up to us to get ourselves to the studio to create. We’ll also be personally responsible for ordering and stocking art supplies, filling customer orders, and managing customer service.

If you really want your new art business to succeed, you’ll not only need to do those things, but do them in a timely fashion. Even the things that aren’t fun.

Achieving business success is a long, often winding road. Part of that road includes days when you can’t wait to get busy on your business. It also includes days when the last thing you want to do is go to the studio, contact a client, or order supplies.

A road leading to the horizon, symbolizing the art business journey

That’s why I list discipline first. You need the discipline to keep moving forward even if you don’t have much time, energy, or motivation.

That applies to creating too. When you decide to start an art business, you no longer have the luxury of waiting for the muse to strike before you start creating. Give into that mentality, and you will not last very long as a business otherwise.

2. Starting an art business takes professionalism

Professionalism is another important quality of the successful art business person. It’s how you conduct yourself when working with clients, the public, your suppliers, and anyone else who you have to deal with while running your business.

(Yes, even online. You shouldn’t post anything online that you wouldn’t say to someone in a face-to-face conversation. Or that you wouldn’t want your next potential client to read.)

One of the greatest advantages of social media is it’s ability to get your message to millions of people quickly. That’s also one its greatest disadvantages. Be assured that the post that’s most likely to go viral is the one you most wish you could take back!

A megaphone held up against the sky

So be as professional online as you would at a gallery reception crowded with people who have an interest in your work and a lot of money to spend.

3. Starting an art business takes integrity

There used to be an old saying, “my word is my bond.” What that means is, “If I say I’ll do it, consider it done.”

These days, you’ll probably have a contract as well, especially if you do portrait work or any other work for hire, but the desired result is the same: each party is responsible to do what they promised to do.

So what does that look like for an artist?

Two drawing manikins shaking hands

Treat every potential client like your best client. You never know which one will actually become your best client.

Know your working methods and your schedule well enough to give realistic quotes when it comes to estimating the cost of a project and the amount of time it will take to complete.

Honor your return policies. If you say you give 100% satisfaction or a refund, be prepared to work with the client until they are happy with your work or refund their money. If you have a different guarantee, honor that one.

And it’s always good to be upfront about any nonrefundable deposits that you require to start work (portrait artists often do this; there’s no reason other artists can’t too).

When you find you can’t meet a deadline, don’t run away and hide from that client. Instead, make immediate contact. Explain the situation as much as necessary, let them know how much of a delay you expect, and be willing to re-negotiate if necessary.

Personal experience has shown me that most clients understand that life happens, but they also want to be notified as soon as possible.

You get the idea.

If you’re thinking about starting a business, you know what keeping your word looks like. Set your guidelines, then be consistent in applying them.

Do you have what it takes?

It’s important to know your strengths and to maximize them. But you also need to know the areas in which you’re most likely to fall short and either find ways to compensation for them, or work around them.

How do you determine your areas of strength and those areas you’ll need to work on? I suggest asking yourself a few questions:

Do you work best independently or do you prefer to have someone else tell you what to do?

If you work best by yourself, that’s good. You’ll still need to be careful to stay on track, but you’re already well-equipped to give your own business a try.

Do you prefer to have someone else tell you what to do? Don’t worry! You can still make a good business owner. I’m living proof! I really prefer not to have make decide what to do first or when to do it. Prioritizing is not my strength.

(I always feel like I should be painting when I’m writing, or marketing when I’m painting. Sound familiar?)

The trick is to find someone who can hold you accountable, like I did. Someone to bounce ideas off of who can help you set priorities and help you meet your commitments. That person doesn’t need to be a business partner, or even an artist (although that can help!) but they do need to be trustworthy and able to tell you the difficult truth when that’s what you need to hear.

Do you push yourself every time you create, or are you more likely to take shortcuts and consider a piece finished when it’s “good enough?”

If you always push your work as far as possible in making it the best it can be, excellent!

But if not, then you will need to have someone on your team who knows enough about your medium, your working methods, your goals for your work, and your capabilities to be able to tell you when you need to put a little more time and effort into a piece.

Then, be willing to put in the additional time and effort.

Do you typically follow-through with your obligations? Or do you tend to break them?

As important as the other two questions are, it’s vital that you answer this one honestly because no matter how disciplined or professional you are, if you fail to meet obligations on a regular basis, you will not succeed.

Failing to meet obligations doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t keep your word. It may be a matter of not fully understanding how long it takes you to complete a project start to finish. Lots of people have difficulties estimating time like that. I know I do. I always think I can get things more quickly than I actually can.

How do you deal with this? For me, I learned to double the amount of time I thought it would take to finish a painting. That’s a perfectly acceptable way to quoting deadlines, and it never hurts to add a little padding, even if you’re good at estimating deadlines.

You can also seek the assistance of someone who is good at estimating time and letting them help you figure out how much time you should allow for each project. As with the 2nd question, this person should be familiar enough with your medium and working methods to help you come up with realistic deadlines.

Does all that sound daunting? You bet it does! And it should.

Nothing about being a business owner is easy. Not even the creating part (as you’re certain to discover if you do start your own art business.)

A collection of artist tools: brushes, pencils, paint

But no one should enter into a business endeavor without being informed of the risks, as well as the benefits. That includes an honest personal assessment to see if you’re the type of person who is naturally-inclined towards business ownership, or if there are areas you’ll need to work on.

I do believe that anyone can start a business and be successful at it—it may be more work for some than others, but anyone can do it. If I can, so can you!


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